Pius XII: Hated or Revered by the Third Reich?

An interview with historian Pier Luigi Guiducci about his new book on the war-time pope.

Pope Pius XII is pictured at the Vatican in a file photo dated March 15, 1949. (CNS file photo)

The unprecedented abdication of Benedict XVI and the election of his successor, Pope Francis, has rekindled worldwide interest in the popes and the papacy. This interest has extended not only to Benedict and Francis, but also to other pontiffs, including the always-controversial Pius XII.

Pius XII is currently in the spotlight mostly because of the bumpy road to his beatification, which is opposed by those who accuse him of having been too lenient towards Hitler’s Third Reich or even of having been in cahoots with the Nazi regime. Recent years have seen the publication of a vast amount of scholarly works refuting these accusations, including books by Sister Margherita Marchione, who is an American nun and member of the Religious Teachers Order Maestre Pie Filippini, and Rabbi David Dalin.

The latest example of this is Il Terzo Reich Contro Pio XII: Papa Pacelli Nei Documenti Nazisti (The Third Reich Against Pius XII: Pope Pacelli in Nazi Documents), by Italian historian Pier Luigi Guiducci, with a preface by Father Peter Gumpel, SJ, the postulator of Pius XII’s beatification cause. Editions in English, Spanish, and French are already in preparation.

Professor Guiducci, who teaches Church history at three universities, including the Pontifical Lateran University’s Ecclesia Mater Institute and the Pontifical Salesian University, has authored nearly 100 books, most with a historical-religious focus, and was so kind as to accede our request for an interview.

Professor Guiducci, could you describe the motives underlying your decision to address such a controversial topic as Pius XII and the Nazis?

Guiducci: Since the Sixties a certain literature has insisted on presenting the figure of Pope Pacelli in a negative connotation, hinting at an alleged passivity on his part during the years of World War II, bordering on some sort of sympathy for a Germany that in those years was dominated by the swastika. What appeared somewhat unclear from the viewpoint of a historical analysis was why so much fuss was being made over Pius XII while…many other, no less dramatic, and even more tragic situations were hardly exposed, scantily reported, and even thoroughly silenced. But by now, dreadful realities, which were neglected and/or sidelined, are increasingly cropping up, thanks to historical studies, investigative reporting, and new in-depth researches. 

Can you give us some examples of these wilfully hidden or neglected tragic realities of that era?

Guiducci: Yes; for example, the trade agreements between American companies and the government of the Third Reich. Perhaps few know that the calculators used at the Auschwitz concentration camp were IBM. Let alone the many shadows over Switzerland: the gold confiscated from the Jews was cast into ingots, these were transferred to Swiss banks and the Nazi government, with the cash received, could purchase what was needed to continue the war (different trials were held in this regard).

Then the silence of the Allies who, while aware of the impending raid on the Jews in Rome (and elsewhere) did not inform the people involved for fear of [exposing] their intelligence network, or the inaction of resistance movements with regard to the roundup and deportation of Roman Jews, or the silence of the International Red Cross after some of its members visited the concentration camps.

Another [reality] was the role of the Allies and other countries in supporting the escape of Nazi war criminals (also called ratline or Rattenlinien)…. Their employment was highly valued in missile research, in military and health studies, and in strictly economic sectors (the Nazis did not need the support of the Vatican simply because they brought with them a lot of money and assets).

Then we have eugenics experimentations conducted in non-Nazi countries, the war crimes of the Allies, including their violence on civilian populations, the non-solidarity of various countries toward the Jews when Hitler’s tragedy erupted in all its virulence, Stalin’s “death sentence” against Christians (in the millions), and I could go on and on.

Thus, for the sake of historical truth and clarity, I came to the conclusion that it was of absolute [necessity] to get to know what the Third Reich’s top echelons were actually saying among themselves, and this could be done only by sifting their secret archives.

This sounds to me like a mammoth and extremely ambitious project. How did you proceed?

Guiducci: Yes, indeed, my project took seven years to complete and my book is but the first fruit of this effort. Initially, I needed to create a network of contacts in Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, United Kingdom, United States, Russia, Israel. In fact, Jewish communities have also been involved in this network.

Then there was the staff problem, since a number of highly professional translators from German to Italian was needed. Subsequently, the individual texts have been thrashed out with the comparative method (which requires longer times but it is the most reliable one). For example, a very secret Nazi dispatch would be compared with the translation made by the secret services and (whenever possible) with the testimonies of the protagonists themselves (as contained also in their diaries, reports, and memoirs).

But most of all, as you aptly say, it was a mammoth job due to the fact the enormous amount of documents to be examined had not been properly filed and archived.

Are you kidding? That sounds a somewhat un-German attitude—not keeping files orderly…

Guiducci:  Yes, you’re right, but let me give the full picture, since it’s a rather complex story. Everything is related to the fact that in 1945 the Soviets were the first get to Berlin. They took all they could from the archives there and everything was thrown in bulk into large containers which, by rail, were moved to Moscow, where they were stored in secret warehouses. For a long time historians struggled to convince the Soviets to open these archives, but to no avail. Denials were the usual responses.

The deadlock, however, started to came to an end after the East German secret service asked their Russian colleagues for a dossier with the copied files of everything the Nazis had said about Pius XII in their secret documents. Moscow complied with the request and the dossier was delivered to East Berlin. With the subsequent collapse of the Wall, the archives of East Berlin were incorporated into those of the Bundesrepublik (German Federal Republic) and thus, finally, scholars and researchers had the chance to access them and read what was there on Pius XII.

And your book reflects the results of such research. Could you give us a round-up of its essential points?

Guiducci: What we can briefly say it is that the work, first of all, shows that Pius XII was not passive. On the contrary, the spies refer of his vehement reactions against the Nazis when they blocked his initiatives to relieve the plight of civil populations, as with the aid he had sent to Poland. Therefore it’s not true he was unable to react. Since he was Secretary of State, Pacelli did not hesitate to face up to and always stand his ground in the face of the arrogance and haughtiness of the Third Reich’s hierarchs.

Likewise, he showed no uncertainties in the hours of grave decisions, since he did give instructions and directives to resist Nazi violence and never had a surrendering attitude, as evidenced also in the published documents concerning Msgr. Cesare Orsenigo, the nuncio in Berlin from 1930 to 1946. And most of all, his arms did not remain folded in the face of anti-Jewish raids in Rome on October 16, 1943. He intervened five times and on a particular occasion was even able to stop house-to-house searches, [making it possible] for part of the arrestees to be released, while on another occasion the Pope managed to stop the combing operation, [allowing] the Jews still at large to gain enough time and seek newer and safer hiding places, thus saving their lives.

From the documents you were able to read, is it possible to infer the attitude of the Nazi top brass toward Pius XII and the Church in general?

Guiducci: Yes, certainly. What I could surely say is that the Nazi dispatches reflect the profound hatred of the Third Reich leadership for Pius XII and the Church. Their hateful sentiments have to be seen in connection with the attitude of the Pope. He did not break any channel of communication with Germany, in order to preserve the good that was still possible to achieve, but at the same time he did [oppose] Nazi doctrine, Hitler’s methods, and, in general, the warring and killing decisions that normally went with them, with all the means and strengths to which he could morally resort. The Nazis were all too aware of this, and hence their frustration. That’s why they decided to set up a tight spy network around the Pope, which, however, never proved thoroughly effective and ultimately failed to fully penetrate and thwart the decision-making system put in place by Pope Pacelli.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Alberto Carosa 42 Articles
Alberto Carosa is a Catholic journalist who writes from Rome, especially for US Catholic newspapers and periodicals.