Book Review: Pius XII: Saint or Sinner?

Eugenio Pacelli (1876-1958), better known as Pope Pius XII (elected 1939), was on the fast track to canonization, but now may have been derailed, at least temporarily, by a new book, which goes further than any before in accusing the Pope of failing to speak out or take actions that might have ameliorated the plight of European Jewry in World War II.

The Jewish community and the Catholic church have a longstanding dispute over the Pope’s wartime record, which Jews hold was, at best, one of benign neglect, and Catholics maintain was morally exemplary. Now Cornwell has exacerbated tensions by supporting the Jewish view of the Pope’s failures and attributing them for the first time to anti-Semitism.

Had this book been written by a Jewish scholar, it probably would have gotten a fraction of the attention this one has received. Cornwell, however, is not Jewish. He is an award-winning journalist and author, and Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College at Cambridge, who set out to write a book sympathetic to the Pope, but was shocked by what he discovered in secret Vatican archives.

Alas, the discoveries he documents in the book do not justify the book’s sensational title. Much of the book hardly deals with the Jews or the Holocaust at all. It is rather an eye-opening account of the foreign policy machinations of Pacelli and other Vatican officials. Cornwell devotes so much attention to Vatican intrigue because he believes many of the episodes involving Pacelli before he became Pope reveal his motivations for the actions he took — and didn’t take — during the war. Pacelli, Cornwell concludes, was primarily interested in advancing Catholicism in general, and enhancing papal power in particular.

The most damning example is Pacelli’s role in negotiating a treaty with Hitler known as the Reich Concordat. The agreement essentially said that Hitler would allow the Vatican to maintain a measure of religious control over the churches in Germany in exchange for German Catholics staying out of politics. The result of the agreement was that German Catholics (and later Catholics in occupied countries), who might have protested Hitler’s policies remained silent at the Vatican’s instructions. Hitler saw the agreement as “particularly significant in the developing struggle against international Jewry.”

The Pope was silent during the war. As early as March 1942, he was informed about the “catastrophic situation of the Jews in a number of Catholic countries, or countries with large Catholic populations.” Allied leaders repeatedly asked the Pope to speak out because they believed his words could make a difference, but he refused to do so. Even when deportations of Italian Jews began in the Pope’s backyard, he remained silent. According to a document recently unearthed in the U.S. National Archives, Pius XII told the United States in 1942 that he believed reports of German atrocities against Jews were exaggerated. The document also indicated the Pope felt he could not denounce the Nazis without also criticizing the Soviet Union.

The Pope’s defenders usually say that Pius XII was not indifferent to the Jews’ plight, that he didn’t speak out because he was convinced it would make matters worse, and that, quietly, he did take heroic measures to save Jews. Responding to Cornwell, Father Pierre Blet, a Catholic scholar who spent 15 years examining documents relating to the period, maintained that “the public silence was the cover for a secret activity through Vatican embassies and bishoprics to try to stop the deportations.” Blet admitted Pius “liked Germans,” but objected to the suggestion he was a Nazi sympathizer.

The Pope did act behind the scenes on occasion. During the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, he, along with the papal nuncio in Budapest, advised the Hungarian government to be moderate in its plans concerning the treatment of the Jews. Pius XII privately protested against the deportation of Jews and, combined with similar protests from the King of Sweden, the International Red Cross, Britain and the United States, contributed to the decision by the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy, to cease deportations on July 8, 1944.

In the later stages of the war, Pius XII also appealed to several Latin American governments to accept "emergency passports" that several thousand Jews had succeeded in obtaining. Due to the efforts of the Pope and the U.S. State Department, 13 Latin American countries decided to honor these documents, despite threats from the Germans to deport the passport holders. The Church also answered a request to save 6,000 Jewish children in Bulgaria by helping to transfer them to Palestine.

Such examples only enhance the feeling the Pope could have saved many more lives. Moreover, any support the Pope did give the Jews came after 1942, once U.S. officials told him that the allies wanted total victory, and it became likely that they would get it. Furthering the notion that any intervention by Pius XII was based on practical advantage rather than moral inclination is the fact that in late 1942, Pius XII began to advise the German and Hungarian bishops that it would be to their advantage to go on record as speaking out against the massacre of the Jews. This is consistent with Cornwell’s thesis that Pacelli was motivated by political calculations.

Cornwell found no documents to support the claim the Pope was silent to protect a secret operation. In addition, while saying the Pope was purposely silent, defenders also point to his one public statement as evidence of his concern for the Jews. This is a reference to his 1942 Christmas message, which said, “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.” The statement conspicuously fails to mention the word “Nazi” or “Jew.”

But what of the most sensational accusation, that the Pope’s behavior was in part motivated by his antipathy toward the Jews? Cornwell only offers a few specific examples, none of which is convincing. In one case, Pacelli is involved in denying a Jewish request for palm fronds for the Feast of Tabernacles. This, Cornwell says, shows Pacelli did not have the great love for the Jews his defenders ascribe to him. He also mentions instances where Pacelli refers to the Munich chapter of the German Communist Party as chaotic, filthy and full of Jews and, in another instance, describes Communist leader Max Levien as a Jew, “pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive....” These few examples in which Pacelli used intemperate, stereotypical language do not seem sufficient to back the serious charge that he was an anti-Semite.

Other researchers, including ones he quotes, do not see the Pope as anti-Semitic. Walter Laqueur, for example, said that “if the Vatican did not dare to come to the help of hundreds of Polish priests who also died in Auschwitz, it was unrealistic to expect that it would show more courage and initiative on behalf of the Jews.” This impresses me as the more reasonable interpretation of the facts.

Cornwell’s book has stimulated one positive development, the decision by the Vatican to finally open its archives. If anything, new revelations could only be damning, since Vatican researchers have had access to these materials all along and have already published information sympathetic to the Pope. Even if more such evidence exists, it would not change the record of the Pope’s public silence.

Of course, no one can know for certain what difference a public stand by the Pope would have made, but here is the view of Guenter Lewy, quoted by Cornwell:

A public denunciation of the mass murders by Pius XII, broadcast widely over the Vatican radio and read from the pulpits by the bishops, would have revealed to Jews and Christians alike what deportation to the East entailed. The Pope would have been believed, whereas the broadcasts of the Allies were often shrugged off as war propaganda.

In the end, this book supports the conclusion of other studies, which have found that Pope Pius XII was not a saint. He was not Hitler’s Pope, but neither was he Hitler’s adversary. Had he been, history might have been different.