The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler 
by David I. Kertzer.
Oxford, 621 pp., £25, November 2022, 978 0 19 289073 3
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On​ 24 September 1943, following Italy’s surrender to the Allies and the subsequent occupation of Rome by German forces, Heinrich Himmler sent an order to Herbert Kappler, head of the SS in the capital city: ‘All Jews,’ it said, ‘without regard to nationality, age, sex or condition, must be transferred to Germany and liquidated there.’ On 16 October, SS officers, armed with addresses for Rome’s long-established Jewish community, fanned out across the city, knocking at doors and breaking them down if there was no answer. They marched 1259 people to a military college outside the walls of the Vatican, which had been a neutral, sovereign state since the Lateran Accords, negotiated with Mussolini in 1929.

Almost immediately, protests and pleas for help were lodged at the Vatican by friends, colleagues, relatives and neighbours of those arrested. Pope Pius XII asked his secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, to summon the German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsäcker (whose son would become president of the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1980s). ‘It is painful for the Holy Father, painful beyond all measure,’ Maglione told Weizsäcker, ‘that in Rome itself, under the eyes of the Common Father, so many people are made to suffer simply because they belong to a particular race.’ The next day, Weizsäcker reported to Berlin that the Vatican was ‘particularly shocked that the action took place, so to speak, under the pope’s windows’.

In practice, the Vatican was mainly concerned that some of those arrested were Catholic converts or Jews married to non-Jewish Catholics. Anxious not to offend the pope, the SS quickly let such people go. On 18 October, the remaining 1007 Jews were pushed onto cattle trucks and sent on the long journey to Auschwitz. Arriving five days later, the famished and filthy prisoners were inspected by the camp doctor, Josef Mengele, who sent the women and children, the old and the sick, straight to the gas chamber. Among them was a baby born in Rome’s military college a few days before. Of the two hundred or so taken away as slave labourers, only sixteen survived the war; the rest died from exhaustion, maltreatment, malnutrition or disease. The SS called it ‘annihilation through work’.

Pius XII now maintained a discreet silence. A gratified Weizsäcker reported to Berlin that the pope had ‘refrained from making any ostentatious remarks on the deportation of the Jews from Rome’. Even the German priest acting as chaplain to the SS in Rome expressed surprise at the Church leadership’s ‘indifference’ to the obvious fate of the deported Jews. Behind the scenes, Vatican officials were quietly active, but still only on behalf of Catholics who had converted or were married to Jews, and who had somehow been overlooked. No wider protest was made from the Vatican, even as German forces, aided by Italian Fascists working for Mussolini’s puppet Social Republic in northern Italy, hunted down thousands more Jews in the surrounding provinces and sent them to Auschwitz too.

This was far from the only occasion on which Pius XII failed to speak out against injustice, racism, discrimination or violations of international law. He refused to condemn the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, though during an audience with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, he did complain about the persecution of Polish Catholics. Under pressure from Mussolini, who could have occupied the Vatican at any time, he backed Italy’s war effort from the moment the Italians entered the conflict in June 1940, reasserting the Vatican media’s obligation not to publish any reports the government might find inconvenient. ‘The pontiff,’ Mussolini’s ambassador to the Vatican noted, ‘had personally desired to suppress any centre of possible anti-Italian and defeatist propaganda that might take root in the Vatican.’

In June 1941 the pope refused to say anything publicly when the Germans, with allies including Italy, launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, followed by the murder of millions of Jews and Red Army prisoners of war. He refrained from intervening when the Nazi puppet regime in Slovakia began arresting tens of thousands of Jews and deporting them to Auschwitz, even though the head of the Slovak government, Jozef Tiso, was a Catholic priest. He remained silent when Mussolini was overthrown in July 1943, and in March 1944 when German troops massacred 335 Italian civilians and political prisoners in the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of Rome. When the Germans occupied Italy, Pius XII didn’t tell people to hide or otherwise protect Jews, and when a number of nuns and priests did so, it was entirely on their own initiative. He did, however, issue a public denunciation of Allied bombing raids on Rome during the final stages of the war; and, as Allied troops moved in, he asked for reassurances that no ‘coloured’ troops would be deployed as part of the occupying forces.

Pius XII was well informed about the Holocaust and the atrocities committed by the Germans in Eastern Europe. In October 1941, just as he was conferring his blessing on eighty visiting German soldiers (the first of many such occasions), he was starting to receive credible eyewitness accounts from military chaplains describing the mass murder of Eastern European Jews by SS taskforces, assisted by units of the German army. The following month, an Italian priest, Pirro Scavizzi, told him that Jews had been ‘piled, like animals, into old train cars, and beaten down in every way, and then, after several days of this martyrdom, they were murdered’. He also told the pope of a ‘massacre of hundreds of Jews, forced first to dig a ditch, then machine-gunned and thrown inside’. ‘I saw him cry like a child and pray like a saint,’ Scavizzi reported later. He also presented the pope with a letter from a Polish priest, who said that Poles could not understand the Vatican’s ‘crime of silence’.

Pius XII’s silence incurred a good deal of criticism. Particularly vocal was the British envoy to the Holy See, Francis d’Arcy Godolphin Osborne. Despite sharing some of the antisemitic prejudices of the British aristocracy, Osborne, a Protestant, was outraged by the Germans’ treatment of Jews. Appointed to his role in 1936, he became closely involved – under the codename ‘Mount’ – with a clandestine group that organised the escape of stranded Allied troops and Jews in hiding. Osborne observed that the previous pope, Pius XI, had denounced the Nazi worship of the state, but that ‘the exigencies of an anxious neutrality’ prevented his successor from imitating him. Pius XII, Osborne said, was ‘sensitive and impressionable by temperament and naturally inclined to caution and compromise’. He convicted him of an ‘abnegation of moral leadership in the interests of a strict neutrality’, a policy that was having a disastrous effect on ‘the moral prestige of the papacy’.

As news of Nazi atrocities flooded in, Osborne’s criticisms became more vehement. ‘Why does He not speak out, with names attached,’ he asked in the summer of 1942, ‘about the really appalling fate of Poles, Jews, Czechs, etc under the Germans?’ In December 1942 Osborne presented Domenico Tardini, a papal official, with a dossier containing details of ‘the unspeakable cruelty involved in Hitler’s war of annihilation against the Jews of Europe’, with facts, figures and statistics and descriptions of many ‘heart-rending scenes’. The case was put even more strongly by the Polish ambassador, representing the Polish exile government in London, who laid further details before the pope and asked him to ‘strongly and clearly condemn these as well as other German crimes’. No wonder, as Osborne reported, Tardini was ‘uncomfortable and on the defensive’. Yet these protestations had no effect.

The condemnation has continued ever since. Perhaps the most serious accusations were levelled by the British journalist John Cornwell, whose book Hitler’s Pope, published in 1999, in effect painted Pius XII as a Nazi sympathiser. Decades before his election as pope on 2 March 1939, Eugenio Pacelli had served as papal nuncio to Bavaria, and in this capacity had witnessed the revolutionary events of 1918-19 in Munich, which gave him a lifelong hatred of communism. In 1920 he became papal nuncio to Germany, and developed close ties with the country. He spoke excellent German and had fond memories of his years in Berlin. In 1930 he was appointed cardinal secretary of state – the Vatican’s foreign minister – and served for the best part of a decade. His most important act was the negotiation of the Reich Concordat with Hitler’s new government in July 1933. The Catholic Church agreed to require priests in Germany to swear an oath of allegiance to the president and to refrain from political activity; its most important means of political representation, the Centre Party, one of the mainstays of democracy under the Weimar Republic, dissolved itself on 5 July under the threat of Nazi violence and pressure from the Vatican. In return, the rights of the Church were guaranteed; Hitler promised to respect the integrity and independence of the vast and elaborate network of Catholic lay organisations in Germany.

This promise was worthless, as all Hitler’s promises were. Attacks on Catholic lay activities soon began to multiply, prompting the then pope, Pius XI, to issue a strongly worded denunciation in a 1937 encyclical, written in German rather than Latin – Mit brennender Sorge, ‘with burning concern’ – and distributed to churches across the land. Yet the Nazis continued to unleash a huge propaganda campaign against Catholic priests, bringing hundreds to trial for alleged paedophilia. Some of these accusations may well have been based in fact, but many were not; the regime exploited them to secularise Catholic schools and close down many other lay institutions. Relations continued to deteriorate, and hundreds of German Catholic priests were imprisoned in concentration camps during the war.

The fact that Pacelli liked Germany and negotiated the concordat did not mean, however, that he was a crypto-Nazi. As David Kertzer concludes in his new book, ‘Pope Pius XII was certainly not “Hitler’s Pope” … In many ways, the Nazi regime was anathema to the pope and to virtually all those around him in the Vatican. They were alarmed by the Reich’s efforts to weaken the Church’s influence, diminish its hold on youth and discredit key aspects of its theology.’ As secretary of state, Pacelli was surely alarmed and upset by Hitler’s brazen violations of the concordat, to the considerable detriment of Germany’s large Catholic population.

If Pius XII was not an agent or a supporter of the Nazi regime, neither was he a heroic resistance figure, as his partisans have claimed. Since his death, in 1958, there has been a determined campaign by his supporters to have him declared a saint. They point among other things to the fact that a number of Jews were hidden in Rome and that some Jews found refuge in monasteries, nunneries and other Catholic institutions in the peninsula. But as Kertzer reaffirms, these actions were carried out on the initiative of the institutions themselves. Pius XII’s supporters argue that in his wartime addresses he did publicly condemn the persecution and murder of the Jews, especially in his Christmas broadcast of 1942; but Kertzer argues persuasively that these speeches were couched in such abstract and convoluted language that they could be interpreted as sympathising with both sides in the war, as was doubtless the intention. In none of them was the word ‘Jew’ ever used.

Pius​ XII’s canonisation has repeatedly stalled because for a long time the relevant documents in the Vatican archives weren’t open to historians. Who knew what secrets they held? But in 2020 the vast collection covering his pontificate was opened on the orders of Pope Francis. Kertzer, the author of The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (2014), is the first to make full use of them. He is a careful scholar, and this is an engrossing, often exciting and sometimes moving book. Much of the story is well known, at least in outline, and Kertzer’s narrative doesn’t alter the basic details, let alone settle the debate. But on a number of issues, the new evidence provides some illuminating and surprising detail. We can now follow closely the secret negotiations in 1939 between Prince Philipp von Hessen, a great-grandson of Queen Victoria acting for Hitler, and Raffaele Travaglini, acting for the Vatican. Besides being the lover of Siegfried Sassoon, Hessen was also the king of Italy’s son-in-law and fluent in Italian. He had lived in Italy for some years and was exceptionally well connected. As soon as Pacelli was elected pope, Hitler, wishing to avoid any repetition of Pius XI’s criticisms, asked Hessen to see if he could improve relations.

Hessen and the new pope had a secret meeting in the Vatican on 11 May. Speaking in German, Pius XII told Hessen that the closures of Catholic schools and seminaries had to stop, and books attacking the papacy had to be banned. Previous accounts of this meeting, notably in Jonathan Petropoulos’s excellent study of Hessen and his brother, Royals and the Reich (2006), have been hampered by the unavailability of the Vatican records. Among the newly released material, however, is a verbatim account of the 11 May conversations, which Kertzer presents at length. It makes interesting reading. ‘We love Germany,’ the pope told Hessen. ‘We are pleased if Germany is great and powerful. And we do not oppose any particular form of government, if only the Catholics can live in accordance with their religion.’ When Hessen raised the Nazi propaganda campaign against alleged paedophile priests, the pope said such cases were deplorable, ‘and when they happen the Church acts immediately.’ As secretary of state a year earlier, he had indeed acted, as a folder discovered by Kertzer reveals. ‘Vienna’, it is labelled: ‘Order to burn all archival material concerning cases of immorality of monks and priests.’

These secret meetings, concealed even from the pope’s closest advisers, continued into the war, culminating with the visit from Ribbentrop in 1940. The encounter was necessarily well publicised, but the new evidence gives insights into the pope’s concerns, which focused again on the Nazi closure of Catholic educational institutions, the arrest and imprisonment of clergy, especially in occupied Poland, and similar hostile actions. Nazi anti-Catholic policy, the pope insisted, was based on mistaken premises, since the Church in Germany remained loyal to the regime. After more than a year of private discussions, not much had changed. While professing their willingness to conclude a revised concordat covering annexed areas such as Austria, the Nazis failed to take any serious steps, though the propaganda offensive against the Church was scaled down to avoid weakening the loyalty of German Catholics during the war. The expressions of goodwill repeatedly offered by both sides didn’t mean much in practice. As Kertzer points out, none of the material covering the discussions with Hessen appears in the official, twelve-volume collection of documents on the war published by the Vatican.

Why did the pope refuse to condemn what he knew to be acts of mass murder? Why did he fail to offer any support to the Catholic bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen, who was courageous in his repeated condemnation of the killing, on Hitler’s orders, of up to two hundred thousand mentally ill Germans by poison gas, lethal injection and deliberate starvation in mental hospitals? Galen barely gets a mention in Kertzer’s book, but his actions show the effect open denunciations of Nazi crimes could have: the gassing programme was abandoned following his intervention, though the murders continued in secret, carried out by other means.

Kertzer​ restricts himself for the most part to a sober, factual narrative, avoiding facile expressions of moral outrage. For a full discussion of what might have happened had the pope, like Galen, spoken out, we have to turn to Susan Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, published in 2000. As Zuccotti points out, tributes paid by Jews such as Golda Meir to Pius XII’s wartime actions both before and after his death reflected ‘benevolent ignorance’. The pope’s repeated claim that a public denunciation of the Holocaust would have worsened the situation for Europe’s Jews hardly convinces, since it is difficult to see how the situation could possibly have got worse. A public protest, however, would have encouraged more Catholics to take Jews into hiding, or help them stay alive in other ways. And it is difficult to have any sympathy with the pope when he chose to continue his silence and inaction even after the Allied occupation of Rome in June 1944. In the early years of the war, it seemed to Pius XII, as to most people in Europe, that Hitler was going to win, and so caution made pragmatic sense. But by 1944 that logic no longer pertained.

Kertzer points to other reasons for the silence. For one, the pope seems to have hoped that his neutrality might allow him to call a peace conference that could bring the war to an end. This was a wholly unrealistic idea in the face of Hitler’s fanaticism and belief in ultimate victory. Even more naive was his determination to avoid offending Mussolini, on the grounds that Mussolini might moderate Hitler’s extremism. More reasonably, the pope was painfully aware of the vulnerability of the Church, especially after the Nazi occupation of Italy. But long before that, bearing in mind that the papal curia was an almost wholly Italian institution, Pius XII, as Eugenio Pacelli, had been a patriotic supporter of Mussolini’s regime, accepting even the racial laws introduced under Hitler’s influence in 1938 and avoiding any criticism of its genocidal conquest of Ethiopia, an ancient Christian country.

Underlying Pius XII’s support for Fascism was his fear of communism. Authoritarian regimes that warded off the irreligious communist threat were offered strong support by the papacy – as in the case of Dollfuss’s Austria, Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal – no matter how violent and murderous their treatment of opponents. Only when a dictatorship actually attacked the Church and distanced itself from Christianity did it alienate the papacy, but even the actions of Hitler’s Germany in this direction were insufficient to bestir Pius XII. The pope’s main concern was always to preserve the interests of the Church as an institution: its property, its assets, its prerogatives. In this, he largely succeeded, but at the cost of undermining the moral authority of the papacy across the world.

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Vol. 45 No. 22 · 16 November 2023

Richard J. Evans says David Kertzer argues ‘persuasively’ that Pope Pius XII’s 1942 Christmas broadcast and other addresses given by him were ‘couched in such abstract and convoluted language that they could be interpreted as sympathising with both sides in the war’ (LRB, 19 October).

Owen Chadwick, in Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War (1986), records that German intelligence sources described the 1942 broadcast as ‘one long attack on everything we stand for’ and accused the pope of making himself ‘the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals’. One of Pius XII’s biographers, Robert Ventresca, claims that the address ‘was interpreted by commentators around the world as an implicit criticism of the Third Reich’.

The section of the address that mentioned those who ‘sometimes only because of their nationality or race have been consigned to death or a slow decline’ may have been an elliptical rather than a direct reference to Jews, but in so speaking Pius XII went further than the Moscow Declaration of the Allies on Atrocities issued on 1 November 1943. That document referred to the murder of Italian officers, of French, Dutch, Belgian and Norwegian hostages, and of Cretan peasants, but said nothing of Hitler’s Jewish victims.

Evans also refers to criticisms of Pius XII made by Francis d’Arcy Osborne, British envoy to the Holy See throughout the Second World War. He doesn’t cite the verdict Osborne passed on the pope in a letter of 1947 to Oliver Harvey at the Foreign Office in London. Pius XII’s neutrality was ‘seemingly pusillanimous’, he wrote, but the pope had ‘specifically condemned all Nazi war crimes in his public speeches during the war’.

C.D.C. Armstrong

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