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Geoffrey Grider | NTEB – A veteran envoy to Germany, Eugenio Pacelli helped the Vatican reach the concordat agreement with Berlin in 1933 that helped Hitler destroy the resistance of many German bishops and the Catholic Center Party. Throughout World War II, the Vatican refrained from condemning Nazi persecution of the Jews, even though Pius xii at times tried to help the anti-Nazi underground and supplied the Allies with intelligence. But when the Nazis rounded up the Jews of Rome in 1943, and again when they deported Hungary’s Jews in 1944, the Vatican remained silent.
Long-buried Vatican files reveal a new and shocking indictment of World War II’s Pope Pius XII: that in pursuit of absolute power he helped Adolf Hitler destroy German Catholic political opposition, betrayed the Jews of Europe, and sealed a deeply cynical pact with a 20th-century devil.
Pope Pius XII, real name Eugenio Pacelli, was the pope of the Roman Catholic Church from March 2, 1939, until his death in October of 1958. He ruled from the Vatican with complete autonomy. When cardinals would need to reach him via telephone, Pacelli demanded that they speak to him on their knees, over the phone. That’s the type of pope that he was.
Excerpted from Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell
FROM VANITY FAIR: I had always been convinced of Pius XII’s innocence, so I decided to write a new defense of his reputation for a younger generation. I believed that Pacelli’s evident holiness was proof of his good faith. How could such a saintly pope have betrayed the Jews? But was it possible to find a new and conclusive approach to the issue? The arguments had so far focused mainly on his wartime conduct; however, Pacelli’s Vatican career had started 40 years earlier. It seemed to me that a proper investigation into Pacelli’s record would require a more extensive chronicle than any attempted in the past.So I applied for access to archival material in the Vatican, reassuring those who had charge of crucial documents that I was on the side of my subject. Six years earlier, in a book entitled A Thief in the Night, I had defended the Vatican against charges that Pope John Paul I had been murdered by his own aides.Two key Vatican officials granted me access to secret material: depositions under oath gathered 30 years ago to support the process for Pacelli’s canonization, and the archive of the Vatican Secretariat of State, the foreign office of the Holy See. I also drew on German sources relating to Pacelli’s activities in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, including his dealings with Adolf Hitler in 1933. For months on end I ransacked Pacelli’s files, which dated back to 1912, in a windowless dungeon beneath the Borgia Tower in Vatican City. Later I sat for several weeks in a dusty office in the Jesuit headquarters, close to St. Peter’s Square in Rome, mulling over a thousand pages of transcribed testimony given under oath by those who had known Pacelli well during his lifetime, including his critics.
By the middle of 1997, I was in a state of moral shock.
The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment more scandalous than Hochhuth’s. The evidence was explosive. It showed for the first time that Pacelli was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. It revealed that he had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. It showed that he had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent. And, worse, that he was a hypocrite, for after the war he had retrospectively taken undue credit for speaking out boldly against the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.Hitler, who had enjoyed his first great success in the elections of September 1930, was determined to seek a treaty with the Vatican similar to that struck by Mussolini, which would lead to the disbanding of the German Center Party. In his political testament, Mein Kampf, he had recollected that his fear of Catholicism went back to his vagabond days in Vienna. The fact that German Catholics, politically united by the Center Party, had defeated Bismarck’s Kulturkampf—the “culture struggle” against the Catholic Church in the 1870s—constantly worried him. He was convinced that his movement could succeed only if political Catholicism and its democratic networks were eliminated.Hitler’s fear of the Catholic Church was well grounded. Into the early 1930s the German Center Party, the German Catholic bishops, and the Catholic media had been mainly solid in their rejection of National Socialism. They denied Nazis the sacraments and church burials, and Catholic journalists excoriated National Socialism daily in Germany’s 400 Catholic newspapers. The hierarchy instructed priests to combat National Socialism at a local level whenever it attacked Christianity. The Munich-based weekly Der Gerade Weg (The Straight Path) told its readers, “Adolf Hitler preaches the law of lies. You who have fallen victim to the deceptions of one obsessed with despotism, wake up!”
The vehement front of the Catholic Church in Germany against Hitler, however, was not at one with the view from inside the Vatican—a view that was now being shaped and promoted by Eugenio Pacelli.
After Hitler came to power in January 1933, he made the concordat negotiations with Pacelli a priority. The negotiations proceeded over six months with constant shuttle diplomacy between the Vatican and Berlin. Hitler spent more time on this treaty than on any other item of foreign diplomacy during his dictatorship.
After the Reich Concordat was signed, Pacelli declared it an unparalleled triumph for the Holy See. In an article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican-controlled newspaper, he announced that the treaty indicated the total recognition and acceptance of the church’s law by the German state.
The great German Catholic Church, at the insistence of Rome, fell silent.
In the future all complaints against the Nazis would be channeled through Pacelli. There were some notable exceptions, for example the sermons preached in 1933 by Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber, the Archbishop of Munich, in which he denounced the Nazis for their rejection of the Old Testament as a Jewish text.
The concordat immediately drew the German church into complicity with the Nazis. Even as Pacelli was granted special advantages in the concordat for German Catholic education, Hitler was trampling on the education rights of Jews throughout the country. At the same time, Catholic priests were being drawn into Nazi collaboration with the attestation bureaucracy, which established Jewish ancestry. Pacelli, despite the immense centralized power he now wielded through the Code of Canon Law, said and did nothing. The attestation machinery would lead inexorably to the selection of millions destined for the death camps.As Nazi anti-Semitism mounted in Germany during the 1930s, Pacelli failed to complain, even on behalf of Jews who had become Catholics, acknowledging that the issue was a matter of German internal policy. Eventually, in January 1937, three German cardinals and two influential bishops arrived at the Vatican to plead for a vigorous protest over Nazi persecution of the Catholic Church, which had been deprived of all forms of activity beyond church services. Pius XI at last decided to issue an encyclical, a letter addressed to all the Catholic faithful of the world. Written under Pacelli’s direction, it was called Mit Brennender Sorge (With Deep Anxiety), and it was a forthright statement of the plight of the church in Germany.
But there was no explicit condemnation of anti-Semitism, even in relation to Jews who had converted to Catholicism. Worse still, the subtext against Nazism (National Socialism and Hitler were not mentioned by name) was blunted by the publication five days later of an even more condemnatory encyclical by Pius XI against Communism.
On February 10, 1939, Pius XI died, at the age of 81. Pacelli, then 63, was elected Pope by the College of Cardinals in just three ballots, on March 2. He was crowned on March 12, on the eve of Hitler’s march into Prague. Between his election and his coronation he held a crucial meeting with the German cardinals. Keen to affirm Hitler publicly, he showed them a letter of good wishes which began, “To the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler.” Should he, he asked them, style the Führer “Most Illustrious”? He decided that that might be going too far. He told the cardinals that Pius XI had said that keeping a papal nuncio in Berlin “conflicts with our honor.” But his predecessor, he said, had been mistaken. He was going to maintain normal diplomatic relations with Hitler. The following month, at Pacelli’s express wish, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, the Berlin nuncio, hosted a gala reception in honor of Hitler’s 50th birthday. A birthday greeting to the Führer from the bishops of Germany would become an annual tradition until the war’s end.
Pacelli’s coronation was the most triumphalist in a hundred years. His style of papacy, for all his personal humility, was unprecedentedly pompous. He always ate alone. Vatican bureaucrats were obliged to take phone calls from him on their knees. When he took his afternoon walk, the gardeners had to hide in the bushes. Senior officials were not allowed to ask him questions or present a point of view.
As Europe plunged toward war, Pacelli cast himself in the role of judge of judges. But he continued to seek to appease Hitler by attempting to persuade the Poles to make concessions over Germany’s territorial claims. After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, on September 1, 1939, he declined to condemn Germany, to the bafflement of the Allies. His first public statement, the encyclical known in the English-speaking world as Darkness over the Earth, was full of papal rhetoric and equivocations.Pacelli came to learn of the Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe shortly after they were laid in January 1942. The deportations to the death camps had begun in December 1941 and would continue through 1944. All during 1942, Pacelli received reliable information on the details of the Final Solution, much of it supplied by the British, French, and American representatives resident in the Vatican. On March 17, 1942, representatives of Jewish organizations assembled in Switzerland sent a memorandum to Pacelli via the papal nuncio in Bern, cataloguing violent anti-Semitic measures in Germany and in its allied and conquered territories. Their plea focused attention on Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, and unoccupied France, where, they believed, the Pope’s intervention might yet be effective. Apart from an intervention in the case of Slovakia, where the president was Monsignor Josef Tiso, a Catholic priest, no papal initiatives resulted. During the same month, a stream of dispatches describing the fate of some 90,000 Jews reached the Vatican from various sources in Eastern Europe. The Jewish organizations’ long memorandum would be excluded from the wartime documents published by the Vatican between 1965 and 1981.
On June 16, 1942, Harold Tittmann, the U.S. representative to the Vatican, told Washington that Pacelli was diverting himself, ostrich like, into purely religious concerns and that the moral authority won for the papacy by Pius XI was being eroded. At the end of that month, the London Daily Telegraph announced that more than a million Jews had been killed in Europe and that it was the aim of the Nazis “to wipe the race from the European continent.” The article was reprinted in The New York Times. On July 21 there was a protest rally on behalf of Europe’s Jews in New York’s Madison Square Garden. In the following weeks the British, American, and Brazilian representatives to the Vatican tried to persuade Pacelli to speak out against the Nazi atrocities. But still he said nothing.
Pope Pius XII and Nazi Germany
On December 24, 1942, having made draft after draft, Pacelli at last said something. In his Christmas Eve broadcast to the world on Vatican Radio, he said that men of goodwill owed a vow to bring society “back to its immovable center of gravity in divine law.” He went on: “Humanity owes this vow to those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.” That was the strongest public denunciation of the Final Solution that Pacelli would make in the whole course of the war.It was not merely a paltry statement. The chasm between the enormity of the liquidation of the Jewish people and this form of evasive language was profoundly scandalous. He might have been referring to many categories of victims at the hands of various belligerents in the conflict. Clearly the choice of ambiguous wording was intended to placate those who urged him to protest, while avoiding offense to the Nazi regime. But these considerations are overshadowed by the implicit denial and trivialization. He had scaled down the doomed millions to “hundreds of thousands” without uttering the word “Jews,” while making the pointed qualification “sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race.” Nowhere was the term “Nazi” mentioned. Hitler himself could not have wished for a more convoluted and innocuous reaction from the Vicar of Christ to the greatest crime in history.
The documents show that:
- He had nourished a striking antipathy toward the Jews as early as 1917 in Germany, which contradicts later claims that his omissions were performed in good faith and that he “loved” the Jews and respected their religion.
- From the end of the First World War to the lost encyclical of 1938, Pacelli betrayed a fear and contempt of Judaism based on his belief that the Jews were behind the Bolshevik plot to destroy Christendom.
- Pacelli acknowledged to representatives of the Third Reich that the regime’s anti-Semitic policies were a matter of Germany’s internal politics. The Reich Concordat between Hitler and the Vatican, as Hitler was quick to grasp, created an ideal climate for Jewish persecution.
- Pacelli failed to sanction protest by German Catholic bishops against anti-Semitism, and he did not attempt to intervene in the process by which Catholic clergy collaborated in racial certification to identify Jews.
- After Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge, denouncing the Nazi regime (although not by name), Pacelli attempted to mitigate the effect of the encyclical by giving private diplomatic reassurances to Berlin despite his awareness of widespread Nazi persecution of Jews.
- Pacelli was convinced that the Jews had brought misfortune on their own heads: intervention on their behalf could only draw the church into alliances with forces inimical to Catholicism.
Pacelli’s failure to utter a candid word on the Final Solution proclaimed to the world that the Vicar of Christ was not roused to pity or anger. From this point of view, he was the ideal Pope for Hitler’s unspeakable plan. His denial and minimization of the Holocaust were all the more scandalous in that they were uttered from a seemingly impartial moral high ground.
There was another, more immediate indication of Pacelli’s moral dislocation. It occurred before the liberation of Rome, when he was the sole Italian authority in the city. On October 16, 1943, SS troops entered the Roman ghetto area and rounded up more than 1,000 Jews, imprisoning them in the very shadow of the Vatican. How did Pacelli acquit himself?
On the morning of the roundup, which had been prompted by Adolf Eichmann, who was in charge of the organization of the Final Solution from his headquarters in Berlin, the German ambassador in Rome pleaded with the Vatican to issue a public protest. By this stage of the war, Mussolini had been deposed and rescued by Adolf Hitler to run the puppet Salò regime in the North of Italy. The German authorities in Rome, both diplomats and military commanders, fearing a backlash of the Italian populace, hoped that an immediate and vigorous papal denunciation might stop the SS in their tracks and prevent further arrests. Pacelli refused. In the end, the German diplomats drafted a letter of protest on the Pope’s behalf and prevailed on a resident German bishop to sign it for Berlin’s benefit. Meanwhile, the deportation of the imprisoned Jews went ahead on October 18. READ THE FULL EXCERPT OF THIS ARTICLE HEREExcerpted from Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell, published by Viking; © 1999 by the author.
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