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New books present sharply opposed conclusions about Pius XII, the Holocaust

David Kertzer’s The Pope at War is getting media attention, but Michael Hesemann’s The Pope and the Holocaust makes the better arguments.

(Images: Ignatius Press, Random House)

Two substantial new historical studies of Pope Pius XII’s response to the Jewish Holocaust reach sharply opposed conclusions. Not surprisingly, it’s the negative criticism of Pius rather than the documented defense that’s getting attention, including puff-piece interviews by the New York Times and the Associated Press.

Brown University historian David Kertzer in The Pope at War (Random House) maintains that concern for the Church in German-occupied territories led the Pope to pursue what the AP calls “a paralyzingly cautious course” on Hitler. Kertzer’s negativity toward Pius won’t surprise readers of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 volume The Pope and Mussolini, with its open dislike of Cardinal Pacelli, Pius XI’s Secretary of State and successor.

Cautious the Pope unquestionably was, but hardly inactive. German historian Michael Hesemann in The Pope and the Holocaust: Pius XII and the Vatican Secret Archives (Ignatius Press) concludes that while Pius XII couldn’t have prevented the Holocaust, without his efforts the number of Jews killed would have been far higher—a judgment evidently shared by the many prominent Jewish individuals and groups heaping praise on him after the war.

That Pope Pius was too timid to take risks is belied by the fact that early in the war he served as a communication channel between German military officers plotting to overthrow Hitler and the British government. And the failure of the plot was in no way the Pope’s fault. Hesemann tells this story in fascinating detail.

It’s true, of course, that except for a passage in his 1942 Christmas message (which in fact infuriated Hitler), Pius XII didn’t publicly protest Hitler’s murderous racial policies. There was, however, good reason for that.

In July 1942, with the deportation of Dutch Jews to Auschwitz underway, the Nazi chief in the Netherlands agreed to spare Jewish converts to Christianity if the Catholic bishops and leaders of the Reformed Church kept silent about a joint protest they’d sent him. The Reformed leaders agreed, but the Archbishop of Utrecht had the protest read at Masses throughout his diocese. Five days later the Nazi boss ordered all Catholic Jews arrested and sent to Auschwitz. That included Carmelite Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), who was canonized in 1998.

Pius XII took the Dutch lesson to heart. More important than words—for which others would have suffered—he set Vatican diplomats to work protecting Jews all over Europe, in some cases securing visas for them to escape to safe countries, elsewhere winning postponement or cancellation of orders for their seizure and deportation. These efforts, too, are covered in detail by Hesemann.

Both historians focus on events in October 1943 when the German occupiers of Rome began rounding up local Jews for the same deadly purpose.

Kertzer makes much of the fact that the Vatican concentrated on securing the release of the Christian converts among the 1,259 seized in the first sweep. But why not? Those were the ones the Germans had expressed willingness to release. Meanwhile, at the Pope’s order, Rome’s convents, religious houses, and the Vatican itself, along with the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo, sheltered Jews by the hundreds. Hesemann puts the number saved this way at well over 6,000.

But still—why didn’t the Pope speak out publicly against Hitler? Kertzer blames it on fear. Hesemann says Pius believed “that speaking is silver, but helping is gold—and that the highest axiom must always be to save human lives.” Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. Hesemann calculates that without Pius XII’s efforts, it would have more like seven million.


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About Russell Shaw 294 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).

18 Comments

  1. Selling a book & the New York Crimes… What more need one say: setup and attack vs the Church… Just like the Bolshevick’s

  2. When completing my BA in Theology, I wrote my senior paper on this Church history topic. I chose not to sugarcoat what I discovered and prepared myself in case I learned he behaved immorally. I concluded that Pius saved many Jews. He made the right choices and did his best. The Nazis weren’t happy when he was elected pope, since he publicly criticized them numerous times. I’m interested in Hesemann’s book.

  3. Michael Hesemann is not a “historian.” He does not have a PhD or publish peer-reviewed research. He’s a popular writer about UFOs, aliens, and fantastic claims about medieval relics.

    • The “standards” that you are recommending might have meant something meaningful 70 years ago.

      On the other hand, peer reviews by radical leftist PhDs don’t lend credibility to work written by anyone.

      As to Pius XII, the people of Israel, led by Golda Meir, awarded him the title “Righteous Among the Gentiles,” and planted a forest of trees for the thousands of Jewish men women and children secretly harbored in convents and rectories all over Rome and Italy.

      PS – please alert us as soon as you get the Princeton faculty newsletter explaining how they decided for decades to reward themselves with federal funds for declaring they were in compliance with equal opportunity standards, even though they “admitted” a couple of years ago that they were simultaneously operating a systematically racist program to suppress the same students and faculty they claimed rewards for defending. It will probably require a standing committee of leftist PhDs to confect that narrative.

      • Pius XII was never awarded the title “Righteous Among the Gentiles” or any such thing by any Israeli institution, though it’s easy to see where you might get that impression readying non-scholarly Catholic pious piffle.

        The point about Hesemann not being a historian is not that his claims are therefore incorrect, but that this essay is simply wrong when it describes him as such, and that one needs to have in mind when one reads popular writers that his claims, because they are not subject to peer-review, might well be giving a one-sided presentation of the evidence, or else might be citing dubious or outdated sources. This is very common in pop-Catholic literature written to titillate believers.

        • Thanks for your attempt at objectivity. Don’t know why being a “faithful” Catholic trying to defend the clearly culpable conduct of Pius XII. And, that label upsets you, then at least admit that he was the wrong person, for the wrong job at the wrong time.

    • Well, most journalists aren’t historians but that doesn’t stop them from writing about this subject. At least Michael Hesemann appears to have studied History at a university level. The real issue should be whether his claims are true. Not what advanced degree he might lack.

    • Read Kertzer’s work on Mussolini and the Pope and by the end of that book you realize a narrative as self-fulfilling with no new evidence helping the author’s argument.

      For a Pulitzer Prize winner, it was a disappointment to say the least. And an advanced degree doesn’t necessarily mean thorough research.

  4. “While Pius XII couldn’t have prevented the holocaust, without his efforts the number of Jews killed would have been far higher – a judgment shared by the MANY PROMINENT JEWISH INDIVIDUALS AND GROUPS HEAPING PRAISE ON HIM AFTER THE WAR.”

    Really – what more need be said?

  5. What if the “Holocaust” never happened? (Yes, many thousands of Jews were murdered, but why call that a “holocaust”?) How could the Pope condemn that?

    • An appalling statement on your part sir.

      But perhaps you can explain to the readers how you came to your conclusion that the Nazis ran a system of some 20 or so large concentration camps (with hundreds of smaller satellite camps) for 12 years and yet only managed to murder thousands of Jewish people?

      Now that doesn’t really seem like a very efficient operation by our otherwise energetic Nazi killing machine, does it?

      Let’s see, you said thousands, so you must mean not more than what 100,000, or you wouldn’t have written “thousands” would you, because…a few hundred thousand here snd there starts to add up to millions (which would step on your message).

      So 100,000 in 20 camps in 12 years is that it?

      Let’s do the math, shall we?

      That’s what…only 1+ person murdered per day per camp for 12 years. Where’s the efficiency in that sir?

      Why are you selling the Nazi killing machine so short, when it has otherwise produced death tolls at 1000 times that rate on the battlefield, against armed resistance?

      So besides being appalling, your comment doesn’t indicate significant grasp of industrial arithmetic, or the history of the Second World War.

  6. We expect a pope to to what is good and God honouring. Any praise is given to God.

    If that papa did wrong in respect to the Jews, it is to our (the church’s) collective shame.

    Our Lord and saviour is King of the Jews. the Jews are the true vine and the gentile has been grafted in through God’s mercy. God is not finished with the Jews, He has plans for them and they are good plans.

    John 15:5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

    John 15:4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.

    John 15:8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.

    Psalm 80:8-9 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

    Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    Love the Jews, treat them well for it God honouring.

  7. I know of one Bishop of Rome (is he Pope?) whose response to a modern holocaust of innocents is nothing but talk and ambiguous talk at that.

    Talk about being on the wrong side of history.

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