History Redeemed: Justice for Pope Pius XII

The March 2nd opening of the last remaining archives from Pius XII’s pontificate will likely reinforce what historians already know about the war-time pontiff’s actions on behalf of endangered Jews.

Handwritten corrections by Pope Pius XII are pictured on his text for a Dec. 3, 1944, audience with employees of Italian broadcaster RAI. The text was among materials from his pontificate on display for journalists in the Vatican Apostolic Archives at the Vatican Feb. 27, 2020. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.


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About William Doino, Jr. 4 Articles
William Doino, Jr. has written about religion, history, and culture for many publications, including First Things, the Times of London, The Catholic Herald, National Review, Inside the Vatican, and America.

15 Comments

  1. I do not expect to see published any apologies by the “scholars” who baselessly attacked Pope Pius XII, either for the attacks themselves, or for the amount of time serious scholars had to spend refuting the attacks.

    I recall the reporting of the debut of the play “The Deputy” (1963). My sources at the time were limited to the local newspaper, TV news, and the magazines “Life”, “Look” and “The Saturday Evening Post”. I had never encountered anything like it, and noted at the time, when I was thirteen years old, that I did not know what to call such a thing. Now we know; fake playwriting is a relative of fake news.

  2. Thank you so much for this very informative article. I share your confidence that these newly opened archives will demonstrate Pius XII’s deep love and heroic efforts on behalf of the Jews during World War II. Venerable Pius XII was a great pope. We hope and pray that a miracle will be confirmed so he can be recognized as Blessed Pius XII in the not so distant future. You and other Pius XII scholars deserve our deepest gratitude and our prayers.

  3. In 2002, while visiting the University of Notre Dame book store, I found Ralph McInerny’s excellent book, ‘The Defamation of Pius XII.’ It completely changed my view of a very holy man who has been slandered. The above article is excellent. Thank you.

  4. At the same time Pope Pius xii was sad to be AWOL against the tyranny of Nazi Germany.Herr Dr Goebbels was trumpeting “The Big Lie” of the great German 6th Army Victory at Stalingrad!Somebody had to be placed in the maelstrom center,and Pope Pius xii became not only a target for the Nazi’s,but he filled the bill for “Uncle Joe”.As they say today: A Win,Win!

  5. Thank you for the wonderful news and for your work in defending Pope Pius XII – a truly heroic man, and one whose courageous example inspired thousands of unknown heroes during World War II. As well as Rychlak and Reibling’s excellent work on this subject, there is also a passionate defence of Pope Pius XII by Pinchas Lapide, entitled “Three Popes and the Jews”, which was written at the debut of “The Deputy” in 1963. Lapide was the Israeli Ambassador to Venice and engaged in research on the actions of the Catholic Church and Pius XII in particular in their rescue of Jews. He claimed that between 700,000 to 860,000 Jews were rescued by the Catholic Church and stated that those rescued exceeded the amount of any rescued by all the western powers and charitable organisations combined. He was also scathing about the silence of the western powers as to the plight of the Jews, while the Pope was the only leader in the western world who spoke out. Lapide personally interviewed holocaust survivors, having been alerted to the actions of the Church when he encountered Jewish refugees who claimed that they owed their lives to the Pope. Another contemporaneous account of the fate of the Hungarian Jewry was that of Jeno Levai, “Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy”, who observed the irony that the only person who actually spoke out against the persecution of the Jews was the one wrongfully accused of silence.

    As William Doino has stated, the campaign against Pius XII was a considered one of disinformation, started initially by Stalin and continued by Kruschev with the publication and performance of “The Deputy” and ensuing publications of damaging “fake news” – (anybody else suspicious about the Da Vinci Code?). Further to the scholarly books on the papacy of Pius XII, there is beautiful autobiographical account of that period, which may be of interest to readers here, by Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome during the War, entitled “Before the Dawn”, who converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name of “Eugenio” in honour of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII. Another contemporaneous account is Carroll Abbing’s book, “But for the Grace of God.”
    The other group who deserve praise are Pave the Way, a group of courageous and forthright people, headed by a wonderful Jewish gentleman who believes in the Jewish religious obligation of gratitude and who has refused to be silenced in his defence of Pope Pius XII. He has placed original documents on the Pave the Way web-site so that anybody can read the contemporaneous reports by disinterested third parties and newspapers. It makes the job of those who work so hard to slander this wonderful Pope very difficult as we can now check up on the supercilious allegations made against him and read the original documents for ourselves. No need, as John Cornwell claims, to travel to Rome to access the “Vatican SECRET Archives”.

  6. Good to see this article. The memory of Ven. Pope Pius XII has been unjustly smeared by scurrious accusations.

    IF the Pope was “indifferent” to the plight of the Jews, was he any less so with regards to the plight of Catholics in Poland who were imprisoned and murdered at the hands of the Nazis? Thousands of Catholic priests and bishops ended up in concentration camps. Can anyone find public statements of condemnation from the Pope.

    Of course he wasn’t indifferent to either suffering Jews or suffering Catholics. He spoke with circumspection and chose his words carefully so as to minimize the possibility of what he saw as even greater persecution.

  7. In the latest (March) issue of the NEW CRITERION, a superb, sensible and conservative periodical, there is a leading article by the venerated novelist, writer of more than 50 books and articles, Fredric Raphael. It is called “Reflections on Anti-Semitism.” It seems that Raphael has been buried under old Hochuth manuscripts or wallowed in so much self pity that it has seeped into his very soul. Rarely has there been more vitriol poured on Pius XII and the Church. Name a cliche (Christians hate Jews because of the crucifixion etc) he misses, though he must have forgotten Luther. That would have allowed him at least a paragraph. However, he made it quite clear that he hasn’t looked at a single bit of scholarship since the 9th or 10th century. Editor, Roger Kimball obviously printed this dreck just for response since he’s a first class writer and editor. Surely there is some way to protest directly to Raphael wherever he is institutionalized.

  8. Thank you for this work. We need more of this information to counter the untruths given to indoctrinate us against the value of our beliefs. It is all too easy to bewilder the vulnerable.

  9. Like the Papacy today, inaction is anathema. Matt. 16: 21-24. Why not just admit that Satan tricked a lot of people during WW2 including Pius XII. If it can happen to St. Peter it can happen to anyone; the key is that Peter was repentant and forgiven and didn’t need a shiny medal to convince others of his holiness.

    • What do you think Pope Pius XII should have done? The clergy of the Netherlands spoke out and what happened was that the persecution got worse, not better. You seem to think that Hitler and his myrmidons were reasonable, rational, basically decent folks who would have listened to the Pope. They weren’t.

    • Satan didn’t trick Pope Pius XII. Pope Pius was canny, not someone who was duped. Being canny means knowing how to hold your cards. Showing your hand to the enemy’s never a good move.

    • where on earth do you get the view that Pius was duped by Satan? I would advise you to read the article and the works referred to therein, together with the first-hand contemporaneous accounts, including original documents from the Pave the Way web-site. You will find newspaper accounts of statements made by Pope Pius XII, the majority of them Jewish newspapers, which set out his forthright statements against the Nazis and against the racism advocated by them, from many years before they attained power. This was at a time when King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were extremely sympathetic to Hitler, visiting him in Germany, and when Neville Chamberlain was of the view that Hitler was ‘a gentleman.’ So, if you rely upon the popular histories put out by purported ‘scholars’ who manufacture an image to advance an agenda, then simply read the newspaper accounts which were published with no such purpose at the time the statements and actions were undertaken. Pope Pius XII was one of the most courageous and heroic people of World War II and it is outrageous that this lie has been disseminated about him. He oversaw the rescue of thousands, it was recognised and known by the Jewish leaders at the time, and yet people choose to accede to a dishonest representation rather than reading accounts that are freely available to all.

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