When Pope Pius XII died in 1958, he was honored across the world, with the New Yorker leading the praise, calling him a “great pope.”
That perception rapidly changed, however, in the 1960s. The pope who had been universally acclaimed for speaking out against the political evils of his age was now assailed by the establishment for his “silence” and passivity during the Holocaust. The Vicar of Christ who had been hailed for fiercely resisting fascism and Nazism was now said to have facilitated both. And the Pontiff who had been honored for upholding truth, justice, and the rights of man was now accused of abetting Nazi war criminals.
Those closest to Pius XII knew these charges to be false—and said so at the time—but their voices were drowned out by an aggressive new campaign against Pius.
Many blamed the radical change of opinion on a play, The Deputy (1963), which caricatured Pius XII as an aloof, venal, and timid prelate, obsessed about the Vatican’s financial interests in Germany while remaining indifferent to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. However, as the highest-ranking defector from the Soviet bloc, Ion Mihai Pacepa, revealed, The Deputy was but the centerpiece of a massive campaign designed to discredit not only a deceased pope, but the papacy, the Catholic Church, Christianity, and even religion itself.
With Nazism defeated, the direct struggle between Christianity and Communism resumed, with a vengeance. “In this case, legends grew,” wrote Church historian Owen Chadwick, and “propaganda fostered them—propaganda in the first instance by Stalin’s men in the Cold War, when the Vatican appeared to be part of the American anti-Communist alliance and Stalin wished to shatter the Pope’s reputation….Stalin had a political need to make this Pope contemptible.”
Slowly but surely, however, Pius XII’s supporters fought back.
In 1964, L’Osservatore Romano published a special 80-page issue documenting Pius XII’s opposition to racism and tyranny, and his rescue of persecuted Jews. From 1965-81, the Vatican released 12 massive volumes of wartime primary documents, which “decisively established the falsehood” of The Deputy’s allegations, as historian Eamon Duffy wrote, and proved that Pius XII was anything but “silent” and inactive during the Second World War. No less than four of the 12 volumes were devoted to papal-directed humanitarian efforts, and provide ample evidence of Vatican activity on behalf of endangered Jews. Pius XII’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (October 1939) not only mentioned Jews, but did so in the context of quoting St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, emphasizing the unity of the human race. It was Pius XII who authorized Vatican Radio to broadcast and condemn Nazi atrocities in Poland in the first months of the War, and Pius XII who personally confronted German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop in 1940 about Hitler’s crimes against Jews. The Pope’s wartime Christmas speeches and allocutions excoriated dictators, warmongers, and race-based genocide—infuriating the Nazis. In response to Pius XII’s famous 1942 Christmas address, which condemned the Final Solution and was published on the front page of L’Osservatore Romano, the Nazi press erupted. As the Palestine Post reported on December 29, 1942, just days after the address appeared:
“‘The Red Paper in Latin Characters’ is the description given by the Berlin Voelkischer Beobachter to the Vatican organ Osservatore Romano because it published an article condemning the murder and extermination of Jews in Europe.” For good measure, the Reich’s Main Security Office issued a long, indignant attack on the Christmas Message, branding Pius XII a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”
From 2003-2006, the Vatican released the entire archives of Pope Pius XI’s pontificate (1922-1939), when Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, was Pius XI’s Secretary of State. These documents proved two things: far from undermining the Catholic opposition in Germany—as his detractors claimed—Cardinal Pacelli worked hard to preserve it; and both Pius XI and the future Pius XII actively resisted anti-Semitism. As a result, Nazi ringleader Julius Streicher railed: “The Jews have found open protection in the Catholic Church.”
When Pius XI died in February 1939, Germany was the only country that refused to send a representative to his successor’s coronation. “The election of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli on March 2, 1939,” wrote the editors of Current Biography in 1941, “meant a continuance of his predecessor’s policy, which, as papal Secretary of State, he had helped to effect: a policy of opposition to race prejudice, religious persecution, wars of aggression. Canons roared, the bells of Rome rang out, congratulations poured in. But there was little rejoicing in Germany, for the Reich had made clear that of all the candidates the ‘pro-Ally’ Pacelli would be least acceptable.”
That Pius XII was a great friend of the Allies has been demonstrated by historian Patricia McGoldrick and intelligence expert Mark Riebling. In her groundbreaking study on the Vatican’s wartime financial dealings, McGoldrick revealed that “at the onset of the Second World War the Vatican rapidly moved its securities and gold reserves from areas under threat of Nazi occupation to the United States from where it used its financial means to assist the persecuted Church in Europe and help the Allies combat Nazism” (thus refuting The Deputy’s charge that Pius wanted the Church’s investments to bolster Germany). In his acclaimed book, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, Riebling documented how Pius XII contacted the anti-Nazi German resistance early on in the war, and was directly involved in several daring plots to overthrow Hitler.
As for the oft-heard claim that Pius XII (as distinct from a handful of renegade clerics) assisted Nazi war criminals—that charge has been decisively debunked by investigative reporter Guy Walters, papal expert Ronald Rychlak, and most recently, Italian scholar Pier Luigi Guiducci. Pius XII did not intentionally assist “Nazis on the run,” as anti-papal polemicists allege; instead, he helped prosecute them at Nuremburg by providing the Tribunal extensive documentation establishing their guilt.
Lest there be any doubt about Pius XII’s wartime conduct, one need only quote Robert M.W. Kempner, deputy chief US prosecutor at Nuremberg. In response to the charge that Pius XII “never made an energetic protest” against the Holocaust, Kempner replied that, in fact, “the archives of the Vatican, of the diocesan authorities, and of Ribbentrop’s Foreign Ministry contain a whole series of protests—direct and indirect, diplomatic and public, secret and open.”
The cumulative weight of this evidence has had a major impact on Pius XII studies. In 2012, Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, substantially moderated its previous criticisms of Pius XII. Last May, Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Director of Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem, delivered an even more appreciative assessment of Pius XII, sponsored by the Echoes and Reflections education network, favorably citing an extraordinary story about Holocaust survivor Heinz Wisla. In his personal testimony, published in the Palestine Post, on April 28, 1944, Wisla recounted how he had met Pius XII at the Vatican in the fall of 1941, and appealed to him to rescue a group of 500 Jewish refugees who had been shipwrecked and trapped in a fascist internment camp on the island of Rhodes. Not only did Pius XII help relocate Wisla’s fellow Jews to safety, the Pope strongly affirmed Wisla’s human dignity and Jewish heritage. When Wisla told the Pope that he was Jewish, Pius XII replied, movingly, “You are a young Jew. I know what that means…but believe me, you are at least as worthy as every other human being that lives on our earth! And now, my Jewish friend, go with the protection of the Lord, and never forget, you must always be proud to be a Jew!”
On January 27, the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United Nations hosted an unprecedented event titled, “Remembering the Holocaust: The Documented Efforts of the Catholic Church to Save Lives.” Co-sponsored by the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the UN and the Pave the Way Foundation, it brought together leading experts from Europe and the United States to discuss the Church’s record during the Holocaust, with a special focus on Pius XII.
In addition to Rychlak and Riebling, the speakers included Limore Yagil, Associate Professor of History at the Sorbonne, and adviser to both Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; Edouard Husson, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Cergy-Pontoise; Michael Hesemann, Professor of History at Gustav-Siewerth Akademie; Matteo Luigi Napolitano, Professor of History of International Relations and Diplomacy, Universita del Molise; and Professor Johan Ickx, archivist for the Vatican Secretary of State.
For three riveting hours, these speakers addressed all the main charges leveled against Pius XII, and masterfully answered them. The results, now available on the UN’s Web TV to watch, were remarkable. Even outlets which have been critical of Pius XII, found their scholarly presentation, “compelling.”
Over and above the impressive evidence already amassed in favor of the wartime pontiff, Dr. Ickx spoke about the March 2nd opening of the last remaining archives from Pius XII’s pontificate, and the important discoveries which are sure to follow. Like Bishop Sergio Pagano, Prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives, Ickx believes that while it will take time to fully evaluate the newly available archives, the final result—based upon what we already know from other primary sources and first-hand testimonies—will likely enhance Pius XII’s reputation, as the earliest revelations from the new archives are already indicating.
What was so commendable about the UN speakers is that none of them adopted a defensive or apologetical tone; nor did any try to downplay the gravely sinful anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism found in certain parts of the Catholic Church. They simply laid out a mountain of evidence on Pius XII and his Good Samaritan rescue network, in a careful and dispassionate way, allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.
After so many years of gross abuse and misrepresentation of Pius XII’s life and legacy, and given the stature of the United Nations forum, it marked a new stage in the ongoing reassessment of Pius XII.
When John Cornwell tried to repackage and revive the Deputy Myth in his notorious book, Hitler’s Pope (1999), John Lukacs, one of the most respected historians of our time, reviewed the book for National Review and called it, “scandalous,” lamenting that “Hitler’s Pope, alas, is also a selection of the History Book Club. History clubbed, indeed.”
Now, however, thanks to the patient and meticulous research of a new generation of conscientious scholars, the history of Pius XII is no longer being shamelessly “clubbed,” but rather, truly redeemed.
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!