The World War II Pope and Nazi Genocide


John Cornwell, “Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.” Viking, 1999. 430 pp. $29.95.

John Cornwell’s “Hitler’s Pope” rises out of a controversy that has been going on for more than 35 years concerning the reasons for Pius XII’s failure to condemn Nazi genocide during World War II.

The Pope’s defenders have claimed that such a declaration would only have caused the Nazis to retaliate heavily against both the Church and the Jews, and that by remaining silent he enabled a Church underground to save tens or hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives.

His critics have stated that his speaking out would have had a great impact on Catholics in Germany and occupied Eastern Europe, deterring the Nazis’ extermination of Jews and other victims.

There have been Jews and Catholics on both sides of the controversy, which has not been merely scholarly: political interests have been at play. At least some of the Jews who praised Pius XII for the saving of Jews by Catholics-the number saved and how far Pius XII should be credited for the rescue are in dispute-were Zionists who hoped to gain Vatican recognition of the state of Israel, which finally occurred in 1993.

On the other hand, Pius’s critics have included Catholics, some of whom were desirous of diminishing papal authority in favor of more power for their national church and more freedom for individual Catholics.

With the controversy growing in intensity as a result of John Paul II having instituted proceedings expected to lead to the declaration that Pius was a saint, Cornwell’s “Hitler’s Pope” was published first in England and then in the United States with a great deal of publicity. A British Catholic, he, like some other Catholics, had had access to the Vatican archives.

His book is concerned not just with Pius’s silence but with his entire career, a study of which helps to understand that silence. It sees him as neither a “monster” nor a “saintly exemplar” but a “deeply flawed human being” whose “bid for unprecedented papal power” drew him into “complicity with the darkest forces of the era.”

The book’s title is somewhat misleading. “Hitler’s Pope” suggests that Pius was a mere puppet of Hitler, but Cornwell makes clear that Pius had his own agenda, which, however, Hitler was able to appeal to for his own purposes.

The subtitle, “The Secret History of Pius XII,” is even more misleading, for little in the book, except for one important document from the Vatican archives, is really new. However, what Cornwell has done, bringing together a vast amount of information from many scholarly works and presenting it to a broad audience, is a valuable service.

The thesis of his book is that the Pope’s silence was a consequence of two factors that were interrelated: his hatred and fear of communism and his concern with maintaining and extending the power of the papacy. At the same time that he would not condemn the genocide of Nazi Germany, which was warring against the Soviet Union, he was ready to give aid for reasons of charity even though he, like Hitler, identified the Jews with international communism. Cornwell himself, although strongly anti-communist, is not so fanatical in his anti-communism as to justify Pius’s policy.

Pius’s policy was adumbrated in a meeting that he-when he was Eugenio Pacelli, a 41-year-old archbishop and diplomatic representative of the then Pope-had in 1917 with the German Kaiser, who wanted the Pope to call for peace on the Kaiser’s terms.

The Kaiser wrote in his memoirs that he told Pacelli: “If the Pope did nothing, … there was danger of peace being forced upon the world by the socialists,” that is, a peace that would upset the status quo, “which would mean the end of the power of the Pope and the Roman Church.”

The Kaiser added that Pacelli replied, “You are absolutely right!” Indeed, the preservation of the existing social order and with it the power of the papacy was to be the basis of his policy in World War II.

After Hitler had attacked the Soviet Union, Pius, speaking to Prince Lobkowics, a papal chamberlain, told him that he was “disappointed that, in spite of everything, no one wants to acknowledge the one, real, and principal enemy of Europe; no true, communal military crusade against Bolshevism has been initiated.” What he was deploring was that Britain and France were fighting Germany instead of being allied with it against the Soviet Union.

Earlier he had passed on to the British government the message he had received from a group of German anti-Hitler plotters led by General Ludwick Beck, a former chief of staff, that they were preparing a coup to establish a “democratic, conservative, moderate” government. Before carrying out the coup, however, the group wanted assurance from the Allies that, if they were successful, the Allies would not attack Germany and would abide by the Munich agreement that was designed to free Germany to attack in the East.

The plot fell through, but in conveying the message Pius was taking an enormous risk, for if the Nazis had discovered what he was doing they undoubtedly would have taken furious revenge against German Catholics.

This would seem to be an indication that neither personal timidity nor concern for the risk of Nazi retaliation was the reason for his silence on Nazi genocide: he was ready to undergo such a risk where the objective was to effect an agreement between the Allies and Germany, obviously at the expense of the Soviet Union.

Pius had cordial relations with the fascist Croat regime of Ante Pavelic, an ally of Hitler and Mussolini, despite his knowledge that it had massacred Orthodox Serbs, Gypsies, and Jews by the hundreds of thousands. His informed complicity was documented by Carlo Falconi, an Italian journalist and former priest who had had access to the Vatican archives.

Pius saw Croatia as a bridgehead to Eastern Europe. In his encyclical “Rome and the Eastern Churches,” he looked forward to the day “when there shall be one flock in one fold, all obedient to Jesus Christ and his Vicar on earth [the Pope]” so that “they may present a common … front to the daily growing attacks of the enemies of religion.”

The “enemies of religion” clearly refers to the Soviet regime, even though Stalin during the war reversed himself to effect a rapprochement with the Russian Orthodox Church. Previously, Stalin had violated the laws passed immediately after the October Revolution providing for freedom of religion; now he violated the laws providing for the separation of church and state, giving the Russian Orthodox Church special privileges-in return for which it hailed him as “the wise Leader, whom the will of God chose.”

Pius’s attitude toward Jews, whom he identified with communism, was related to his enmity to communism. As the papal nuncio to Germany in 1918, he had witnessed the establishment of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet, which he called in a report to the Vatican authorities a “Jewish-Russian revolutionary tyranny.”

Pacelli needed to deal with the leaders of the Bavarian Soviet to ensure the extraterritoriality of diplomatic residencies, but he felt that it would be “totally undignified” for him to meet with these plebeian usurpers of power and sent his assistant, Monsignor Schioppa, instead.

In his report, recovered from the Vatican archives by Cornwell, he gave an account of the meeting that, though second-hand, is full of colorful detail and expressive of his own sentiments. Unwittingly comical in his shocked horror at his familiar, comfortably secure world being turned upside down, he made use of the cliches of current anti-Semitic literature.

The headquarters of the soviet, a palace that had been taken over by the revolutionists, “once the home of a king,” was profaned by a constant stream of “soldiers and armed workers coming and going” and was “resounding with screams, vile language, profanities. Absolute hell.”

“An army of employees,” instead of decorously carrying out commands, was “dashing to and fro, giving out orders,” and “in the midst of all this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them,” was “hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles.”

In the fevered imagination of the two Church dignitaries, young women mingling with the men could only be there for immoral purposes. How the dignitaries knew that the soldiers, workers, office people, and young women were all Jews was left unexplained.

The leader at the headquarters, Max Levien, a man in his early thirties, alleged by Pacelli to be a Russian as well as a Jew, he described as “pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, vulgar, repulsive, … sly,” speaking in a “whining” voice.

Pacelli’s account uses the language of contemporary anti-Semitic propaganda, in which Jews were regularly portrayed as dirty, unhealthy-looking, physically repellent, tricky, grovelling, and lecherous (although, to be sure, the last characteristic was attributed not to Jewish young women but to bearded Jews intent on defiling pure Christian maidens).

This stereotype, derived from the Jews’ medieval status as a class of foreign traders and usurers, was perpetuated, especially in Eastern Europe and Germany, and made them frequent objects of hate, as other foreign merchants like the Armenians in Turkey, the overseas Chinese in Indonesia and Thailand, and the Indians in Africa have been objects of hate.

As partial outsiders in their society and as an oppressed ethnic minority, Jews could look at it critically, just as, it has been observed, South Italians who have been to foreign countries as exploited “guest workers” bring back to their peasant villages a radicalism that their neighbors who stayed behind have not acquired.

The fact that the hated Jews participated in the Bolshevik party in numbers disproportionate to their numbers in the population was the basis for the myth of Bolshevism as a Jewish conspiracy accepted by both Hitler and Pacelli, even though most Bolsheviks were not Jewish and most Jews were not Bolsheviks.

There was, however, a significant difference between the anti-Semitism of Hitler and Pacelli. Hitler’s anti-Semitism took the form of the pseudo-science of racism, which ultimately led to a campaign of extermination. Pacelli’s anti-Semitism took the form of religious doctrine, which declared that the Jews could be saved if they would give up their stubborn resistance to the one true faith.

In what has come to be called the “lost” or “hidden” encyclical, a draft of an encyclical commissioned by the mortally ill Pius XI that was found in the Vatican archives by the Belgian monk Georges Passelecq, racist anti-Semitism is condemned but religious anti-Semitism and the identification of Jews with revolution are reiterated. Since Pacelli was at this time Pius XI’s Cardinal Secretary of State, adviser on German affairs, and favored successor, it must be assumed that it reflects his views.

The draft speaks of the “spiritual dangers” consequent upon “exposure to the Jews, so long as their unbelief and enmity to Christianity continue.” The Church must, therefore, “warn and help” those who might succumb to the “spiritual dangers” stemming from the “revolutionary movements which those unfortunate and misguided Jews have joined with a view to overthrowing the social order.”

The Church, the draft encyclical goes on, must not allow its “defense of Christian principles” to be “compromised” by its being “drawn into purely man-made politics.” “The purely worldly problems, in which the Jewish people,” who have brought “worldly and spiritual ruin” on themselves, “may see themselves involved, are of no interest to her [the Church].” Translating the cryptically oracular encyclical into plain language, it would seem to be saying that the Church must not jeopardize its crusade against communism by acting in behalf of the “unfortunate and misguided Jews.”

Pius XII, however, did not publish the encyclical. Presumably, he feared that its condemnation of racism would disturb Vatican relations with the Nazis and interfere with the fight against “the one, real, and principal enemy of Europe.”

After the defeat of the German army, Pius entered into a working alliance with the U.S. government in its struggle against communism, so much so that he was sometimes facetiously called “the Chaplain of the North Atlantic Alliance.” While the CIA secretly backed the Italian Christian Democratic Party with vast funds, the Pope decreed that no Catholic in Italy or Eastern Europe could on pain of excommunication be a member of the Communist Party or write in advocacy of communism.

The U.S. Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps used the Croatian fascist leader Father Dragonovic, who provided escape routes for Croatian and other fascists while living in a Vatican extraterritorial house in Rome, to effect the escape to Bolivia of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie.

It may be added to what Cornwell tells us that John Loftus, who had been high in the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations dealing with war criminals, in his “The Belarus Secret” (1982) revealed that U.S. intelligence had recruited, as World War II was drawing to a close, thousands of Nazis, Nazi collaborators, and top war criminals as spies and prospective guerrilla troops against the Soviet Union. Some were parachuted into the USSR in the early 1950s; the rest were sent to the United States and South America.

In an interview on the occasion of the extradition of Barbie, Loftus told The New York Times (Feb. 23, 1984) that “according to documents he had seen, American intelligence had gone to the Vatican for help in arranging the escape of Nazis working for the Americans.” Nazis, Pius XII’s Vatican, and the American government were united in the communal crusade of the Cold War.

The present Pope, John Paul II, has repudiated the anti-Semitism Pius XII inherited and has begged forgiveness for the Catholic Church. He has also emphasized the moral shortcomings of capitalism, as Pius failed to do. However, he has at the same time acted to suppress the theology of liberation in Latin America, a movement largely of the lower clergy subject to the pressure of the masses that sought to fight capitalist oppression.

Exhortation of the rulers, not opposition to the social system, is to be the Church response to social injustice. Communism is still the chief foe.

Within the Church John Paul has upheld the authority of the Pope against those who would lessen it. His initiation of canonization proceedings for Pius XII is a validation of the papal autocracy Pius XII championed. 

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