Pope Pius XII: “His tiara turned into a crown of thorns,” says historian

German historian and author Michael Hesemann argues that Pope Pius XII deserves beatification, and even canonization, for what he did to save as many Jews as possible during the Holocaust.

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

Pius XII was never “Hitler’s Pope,” as some have argued, but was instead Hitler’s strongest enemy, says historian Michael Hesemann after 10 years of research in the Vatican Secret Archives. Hesemann laments that the pope, born Eugenio Pacelli, “is not even beatified.” The results of Dr. Hesemann’s studies have been published in German in the book The Papst und der Holocaust; an English edition is expected soon. Hesemann says his intention with the book is “to kill the black legend of the Hitler’s Pope” and to further the cause for Pius XII’s beatification.

Catholic World Report recently spoke with Hesemann about his book and its subject.

CWR: Why you are so interested in Pius XII, and why did you decide to write a book about him?

Michael Hesemann: This book is overdue, and so is the beatification of Pius XII. Most of his successors are already canonized; his “right hand,” Msgr. Montini, who later became Pope Paul VI, has his canonization next Sunday [Editor’s note: Since this interview took place, Pope Paul VI was canonized by Pope Francis on October 14]. I don’t question its legitimacy, not at all, but someone was missed; Pius XII, whose “heroic virtues” were promulgated by Benedict XVI in 2009, one of the greatest popes in Church history, is not even beatified yet.

CWR: Why is that, in your opinion?

Hesemann: His case is on ice, if you will, for political reasons, out of fear that Jewish groups might be upset and protest. This is absurd, since no pope in history did what Pius XII did, to save as many Jews as possible during the darkest hours of human history, the Holocaust. And this is what I prove in my book The Pope and the Holocaust.

CWR: What were your sources for The Pope and the Holocaust?

Hesemann: It is based on 10 years of research in the Vatican Secret Archives. Already, three weeks after the “Kristallnacht”—the pogrom night of November 9, 1938—[Pius XII] initiated what, if successful, would have been the biggest rescue operation in history. He tried to get visas for 200,000 Jews when 230,000 were still living in Hitler’s Germany. Unfortunately, he did not succeed, due to a lack of cooperation of the Catholic nations, but over the next years at least 40,000 Jews were smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Central Europe with visas obtained by the Vatican, [with] tickets paid for by the Pope and, often enough, false papers including forged baptism certificates. Pius XII did everything he could to save as many Jews as possible.

CWR: What distinguishes your book on Pius XII from others on the same subject?

Hesemann: It is not a biography of Pius XII but a study on how the Pope and the Vatican reacted [to] the Holocaust. It includes an overview [of] all the documents I discovered myself in the Vatican Archives, dealing with the pontificate of his predecessor Pius XI, when Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pius XII, was his Secretary of State, and an evaluation of the nearly 8,000 pages of documents already released and published by the Vatican on order of Paul VI in an 11-volume-edition which was completed in 1981—and was, unfortunately, widely ignored by historians.

Besides, I show the important role Pius XII played in a conspiracy of German generals to overthrow Hitler, which eventually produced the “Valkyrie” coup d’etat of July 20, 1944, when Colonel von Stauffenberg tried to kill Hitler with a bomb placed underneath his desk.

CWR: What was the involvement of Pius XII in that operation?

Hesemann: The Pope blessed this plan and the conspirators, since it was the fastest way to end the slaughter of six million innocent men, women, and children and the most brutal war in history.

CWR: How does your new book help clear up incorrect perceptions of Pius XII?

Hesemann: It kills the “black legend” of “Hitler’s Pope,” of the Pope who was silent when six million Jews were slaughtered. Pius XII was not silent at all. Before the Germans occupied Rome in September 1943, he protested three times against the deportations and killings of Jews, namely in August 1941, at Christmas 1942, and in June 1943. When he realized that public protest would not help anybody but only caused more brutal counter-reactions by the Nazis, he used diplomacy; we know of more than 40 diplomatic interventions trying to stop the deportations of the Jews not only in Germany, where his nuncio met with no success at all facing Hitler’s fanatic hate, but also in the vassal states of Nazi Germany, in Vichy-France, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, where the representatives of the Pope had several successes, delaying or ending the transports of Jews to the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek.

CWR: Do we know how many Jews survived the Holocaust thanks to an intervention of Pope Pius XII?

Hesemann: Indeed; [in my book] I show how 443,000 Jews were saved by delays or halts of deportations, and that an additional 463,000 Jews were saved because Romania, Bulgaria, and Italy (until 1943) refused to hand over “their” Jews to the Nazis after a diplomatic intervention of the Holy See and its diplomats. Then, exactly 75 years ago, Hitler ordered the deportation of all 8,000 Roman Jews, and on October 16, 1943 the first roundup and arrest, of 1,259 persons, begun. When he learned about it in the early morning of that day, Pius XII immediately ordered the German Ambassador Von Weizsäcker to the Vatican, where his Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione, threatened [Von Weizsäcker] with an open papal protest. But the ambassador refused to report this to Berlin.

CWR: Then what happened?

Hesemann: Knowing about Hitler’s order to occupy the Vatican and arrest the pope, Pius XII had a “plan B.” He sent his nephew, Carlo Pacelli, to an Austrian bishop residing in Rome, Msgr. Hudal, who had contacts [with] the German occupiers of Rome. Hudal wrote to the Nazi Commander of Rome, Major General Stahel, pointed to the consequences of a papal protest, and convinced him to call Heinrich Himmler, requesting to stop the arrests. The “Reichsfuehrer” of the SS gave this order [to cease the arrests of Roman Jews], and 252 persons were released; “only” 1,007, instead of the 8,000 ordered by Hitler, were sent to Auschwitz. For the survivors, the Pope opened more than 200 Roman monasteries, convents, and the Vatican State, hiding more than 4,300 people during the next seven months. Since nobody in the Vatican knew that the 1,007 Roman Jews were sent to a death camp—the original order said they were to be sent as “hostages to Mauthausen,” a labor camp in Austria—for the next several months, the Vatican tried to learn more about their whereabouts and to send food and warm clothes to them; [however] most of them were killed in the gas chambers the day they arrived in Auschwitz.

CWR: What else does your book demonstrate?

Hesemann:  It proves that Pius XII was never “Hitler’s Pope,” but [was] indeed Hitler’s strongest antagonist, his most efficient enemy; that [Pius XII] was not silent at all, and just did not wish to give reasons for even more severe measures and repercussions by the Nazis. He realized that efficient help was more useful than public condemnations. His priority was to save as many Jews as possible. Behind the scenes, he collaborated with conspiracies against the Nazis as…with the Allies to end the war as soon as possible. He even encouraged American Catholic soldiers to fight side by side with Stalin’s troops, saying that the war was not about their atheist communist ideology, but in defense of their Russian homeland occupied by the Nazis, and [was] therefore legitimate. His “nihil obstat” broke all American resistance against an alliance with Stalin to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

CWR: What does your book show that hasn’t been published before?

Hesemann: A great part of the documents I quote in my book were either never before published—like the ones I discovered myself in the Vatican Archives—or come from the abovementioned collection of nearly 8,000 pages of documents, published by the Vatican on order of Pope Paul VI. This is a rather absurd fact: although everybody blames the Vatican for “not opening the Archives,” it is widely ignored that the most important documents were already published. Well, the Vatican made a little mistake. Paul VI was a Francophile and had ordered Father Blet, a French Jesuit, to edit and [include commentary for] this collection, the Actes et documents du Saint Siege relatifs a la Seconde Guerre mondiale, in French. Unfortunately, the most eminent Holocaust historians are mostly English, American, or Israeli. For sure, they know some German, but certainly many of them don’t read French. The result was that a true treasure of historical documents was widely ignored.

I myself waited for 10 years to get access to the “closed section” of the archives. I work with an American Jewish organization, the Pave the Way Foundation, specializing in interreligious dialogue, which greatly supported me during my research. For several times we met with the Secretaries of State of the Holy See, first Cardinal Bertone, then Cardinal Parolin, and were always assured that it was only a question of months until the archives would open. I waited and waited, but nothing happened. At the same time, those who know assured me that 90 percent of all relevant documents were already published in those eleven volumes.

I started to read and evaluate them and found out that they indeed deliver a coherent picture of what happened: we might not have all stones of the mosaic, but 90 percent are enough to create a clear picture. This is what I tried in my book. When one day the archives open [to the general public], I might add some details here and there—but the overall reconstruction of the events will still be valid. Those documents show us a completely different Pius XII than the black legend which, as we know today, was created and promoted by the Soviet KGB to interfere into the papal elections, the conclave of 1963. Thank God, it did not influence the cardinals, but it darkened the image of Pius XII. Now we have all the facts together to clear his memory and to show the Pacelli-pope how he really was: a man who scrupulously tried everything to save as many human lives as possible during the greatest humanitarian crisis in history…

That’s why I say clearly that the Church has nothing to fear. The lies about Pius XII disturb the reconciliation of Catholics and Jews. The truth about him can only bring them together.

CWR: Could this help with leading toward his canonization? Opening the archives?

Hesemann: I hope so. I had a long discussion with the Pope’s Jewish friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a wonderful man, but on one point we did not agree. He thinks that Pius XII should have protested more loudly, should have openly condemned Hitler—this, Skorka said, “was his prophetic duty.” “Even if that would have costed tens of thousands of human—of Jewish—lives?”,I objected. “Yes, it was his duty,” the rabbi insisted.

I can’t agree. The Jewish Talmud teaches us that he who saves one human live, saves an entire world. Pius XII saved nearly a million Jewish lives. A public gesture would have destroyed all possibilities to help them. To say it frankly: Pius XII did not want to buy the applause of the free world or future generations with the blood of innocent Jews or Catholics. For him, saving lives was his priority and highest moral duty.

CWR: Do you hope to see Pius XII beatified?

Hesemann: He deserves beatification and even canonization more than any pope of the 20th Century, since his tiara had indeed turned into a crown of thorns. I hope that my book, that the facts I document, convince all skeptics to change their opinion. Regarding the archives, the earlier they open, the better. It is already documented what Pope Pius XII did to save nearly a million Jews. And I am sure, not too many additional historians would even come and do research themselves, after they would find out that 90 percent of all-important documents are already published, even on the Internet. But it is important as a symbolic act: To convince the world, including the Jewish community, that the Vatican indeed has nothing to hide.

About Deborah Castellano Lubov 12 Articles
Deborah Castellano Lubov is a Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT, author of 'The Other Francis' (L'Altro Francesco) featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and featuring preface of Cardinal Parolin (currently out in four languages). She is a contributor to National Catholic Register, UK Catholic Herald, Our Sunday Visitor, Inside the Vatican, and other Catholic news outlets, and collaborator with Salt & Light, EWTN, and NBC Universal.

5 Comments

  1. In his book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System”, Prof. Paul Fussell points out that one of the great social divides is between those who read to be surprised, and those who read to have their notions confirmed.

    I hope that readers, regardless of their social class, real or assumed, will consider all of the evidence regarding Pope Pius XII without preconceptions. After all this time, the man deserves nothing less than the best assessment that serious scholarship can provide.

  2. Until the publication of THE DEPUTY the whole world acknowledged the heroism of Pius XII. The intellectual failings and moral cowardice of those who eagerly embraced Rolf Hochuth’s lies are appalling.

  3. Shoah (catastrophe, calamity, destruction) not holocaust which signifies a burnt sacrificial offering to a god or God. The latter term is inappropriate for an act of systematic mass murder and genocide as there was certainly nothing ‘sacrificial’ about it.
    John Cornwell the dissident English ‘Catholic’ muddied and distorted the facts in his book Hitler’s Pope.
    Pius XII has been much maligned, an early victim of ‘fake/faked news’. He certainly was more pro-active than Winston Churchill

  4. For many of the faithful we already reguard Pius XII as a Saint, eventually the Church will catch up to the sense of the faithful. Pio XII pray for us

  5. The status of Pope Pius XII’s cause did not affect him during his earthly life and causes him no discomfort in the afterlife. This is no crown of thorns; it is not even a kind of Purgatory.

    Frankly, the rush to canonize 20th century Popes is more troubling than the delay in canonizing Pius XII, however worthy he may be.

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