The Pope, the Holocaust, and the Truth: An interview with Michael Hesemann

“Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the liberals. Those who try to discredit Pius XII want to discredit the Catholic Church and everything it stands for. And of course it is a cheap way to create a bestseller.”

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

Pope Pius XII is a towering figure in the history of the Church, as well as global politics, in the twentieth century. His papacy lasted from 1939 to 1958, so he was pope during the Second World War, its aftermath, and in the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council. And before his papacy, then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli served in the Secretariat of State, and was a prominent player in the tumultuous events in the first decades of the century.

Michael Hesemann is the author of forty-four books, which have been published in sixteen languages. His most recent from Ignatius Press is The Pope and the Holocaust: Pius XII and the Vatican Secret Archives (Ignatius Press, 2022). The culmination of many years of research, this book is a tremendously significant contribution to the scholarly debate over the role that Pope Pius XII played during the calamitous events preceding, during, and after the Second World War.

Is Pius XII’s reputation as “Hitler’s Pope” an accurate representation? If not, where did this misconception originate, and how did it propagate so widely? What did he do to help Jews during  the war? How did he become vilified?

Hesemann recently spoke with Catholic World Report about his new book, the myths about Pope Pius XII, and the truth of the pope’s efforts to fight Nazism wherever possible.

Catholic World Report: How did the book come about?

Michael Hesemann: In 2003, my publisher commissioned me to write a book on “Hitler’s Religion”. During my research it became obvious that Hitler, who followed a neo-gnostic blood-mysticism, was nearly as fanatic against the Catholic Church as he was anti-semitic. His plan was to exterminate the Church after his “final victory”, the end of the War; until then, he still needed the German Catholics to fight for the Reich.

More and more I realized that his antipode was Pius XII, the man who, providentially, was in Munich as nuncio right when Hitler’s rise to power began and became Pope just on the eve of World War II. I wrote a biography of Pius XII, which was translated into six languages, and I got permission to do research in the Vatican Secret Archives in 2008. From this moment on I was able to go through his files, tens of thousands of documents, to learn more about his attitude towards the Jews, towards Hitler, and his activities to counter the Nazis and help the Jews during the persecution and the holocaust.

The result of a dozen years of research is my book The Pope and the Holocaust, the first book that tells the whole story, based on newly-released Vatican documents.

CWR: Where did the myth of “Hitler’s Pope” get started?

Hesemann: When Pius XII died in 1958, everybody knew and recognized what he did for the Jews during the years of the persecution and the holocaust. Representatives of the State of Israel including Golda Meir and Jewish organizations from all over the world hailed him with words of gratitude and appreciation.

Only five years later, the public opinion turned 180 degrees. The reason was the play “The Deputy” by Rolf Hochhuth, a former Hitler Youth and long-term friend of the British holocaust denier David Irving, about the alleged “silence” of Pius XII in the face of the holocaust. Only a few years ago, through the testimony of the former Chief of Romanian Intelligence, General Mihai Pacepa, we know that this was the result of a disinformation campaign of the Soviet KGB to discredit the Catholic Church and prevent the election of Pius XII’s former “right hand”, Cardinal Montini, as Pope; this was without success – Montini was elected and became Pope Paul VI. One of his first deeds was to open the beatification process for Pius XII and order the release of all relevant documents on Pius XII, the War and the Holocaust in an 11-volume scientific edition.

But still, the “black legend” was out and parroted by the usual anticlerical suspects ad nauseam and so you still find people who believe in it or promote it, just because anti-Catholicism sells well on the book market.

CWR: Did Cardinal Pacelli have much experience of Judaism and the Jewish people prior to the Second World War?

Hesemann: More than most Churchmen at his time! Already in school, his best friend, Guido Mendes, was a Jew. When he started to work in the Secretariat of State of the Holy See, he supported Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow and arranged a Papal audience for him. As Nuncio in Germany, he not only helped the local Jewish community but even intervened with the Government of the Reich to stop a massacre of Jewish settlers in Palestine by the Turks, Germany’s allies in World War 1. He supported Zionist organizations and was known to be a friend of the Jews when he was Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI, his immediate predecessor, as several Jewish newspapers and magazines of that time reported.

For the Jewish community, his election as Pope was the best news of the year, since they knew they had a friend in the Petrine office.

CWR: In the book, you identify many examples where newspapers and others publicly acknowledged the efforts of Cardinal Pacelli to fight against the insane racial theories proposed by National Socialism. What were some ways he fought against the insanity of National Socialism before he was pope?

Hesemann: Already in 1933, after the first atrocities against Jews in Hitler’s Reich, he proposed countermeasures, when both the nuncio in Germany and the head of the German bishops’ conference warned him that the Nazis would react with severe retaliations. In 1937, he coordinated the draft of the Papal Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“With burning concern”), the condemnation of the Nazi ideology by Pius XI.

In late 1938 and early 1939, just after the pogrom night in Germany (Nov 9, 1938), he planned to evacuate all 200,000+ Jews who still lived in Germany and wrote to all governments of the free world, requesting Visas for Jewish immigrants. Unfortunately, he received only about 20,000, but at least for 20,000 Jews he financed and organized their emigration to the new world. This all happened before he was elected Pope on March 2, 1939.

CWR: Many critics say that Pius XII should have spoken out, should have loudly condemned Hitler and his genocide. Others refer to Pius’ “prudent silence”, claiming he could accomplish more good if he laid low and did not draw the ire of the Nazis. What is your assessment of this question?

Hesemann: First of all, he did speak out on three occasions, which is three times more than the Allies who told the world what was going on only once in vague terms, since nothing was certain or confirmed yet; until mid-1944, only rumors were known.

So the critics can only say that he should have spoken out in more details, calling the victims and their killers by name. But this was risky, very risky. Doing this, he would have earned the applause of the free world but, at the same time, ended all possibilities to help and save the victims of the holocaust. When Pius XII learned that the Nazis only reacted with gruesome retaliations on any public condemnation of their crimes, he decided that it must have priority to save human lives, as many human lives as possible. He did so by both using his Church to smuggle tens of thousands of Jews out of the danger zone, giving them false documents or hiding them in monasteries and other Church institutions and, at the same time, using Vatican diplomacy to stop or at least delay deportations from Hitler’s vassal countries like Vichy France, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. With success: Bulgaria refused to hand over its Jews to the Nazis, Romania kept them in Transnistria, Hungary stopped the deportations mid-way after a Papal protest.

Altogether, he managed to save the lives of about 970,000 Jews by those means, nearly a million! We justly celebrate Oskar Schindler for saving 1,200 Jews – but at the same time we question or discredit Pius XII who saved so many more.

CWR: Why do you think it is that the calumny against Pius XII persists, in spite of all the evidence in support of him?

Hesemann: Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the liberals. Those who try to discredit Pius XII want to discredit the Catholic Church and everything it stands for. And of course it is a cheap way to create a bestseller. Whatever is directed against the Church, even the trash novels by Dan Brown, sells millions.

The latest example is David Kertzer’s The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler [Random House, 2022]. I was sitting just a few yards away from him in the very same room of the very same Archive in the Vatican, so I know what documents he deliberately censored, covered up, or ignored just to sell the dear old lie of a Pope who did not care. And in his opinion, he might be right: His book became a national bestseller, not mine!

CWR: What do you hope readers will get from this book?

Hesemann: Just the plain truth. All the facts others, like Kertzer, withheld. The other side of the holocaust. Yes, there were those powers of evil trying everything to exterminate God’s chosen people. But on the other side, there was a power of good, of love and care and charity, which did not rest to bring light into the darkest hours of human history and to save as many as possible from Hitler’s bloodhounds.

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About Paul Senz 121 Articles
Paul Senz has an undergraduate degree from the University of Portland in music and theology and earned a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry from the same university. He has contributed to Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, The Priest Magazine, National Catholic Register, Catholic Herald, and other outlets. Paul lives in Elk City, OK, with his wife and their four children.


  1. Any possibility of a movie or play about Pius XII and his work to help Jews and stop Hitler? Nowadays, most people don’t read books, but many people watch movies or attend theater. There seem to be plenty of devout Catholic actors and other theater professionals who would probably love to be involved with this project. I’m looking forward to ordering and reading this book. I’ve read two others–one that presented Pius XII as an ally of Hitler, and the other that refuted this book.

  2. I believe I did see a very good movie on EWTN some time back. May not have had the benefit of the most recent research, not sure of this, but was a very positive assessment of the Pope and well worth seeing.

    • The movie you mentioned was called, Under The Roman Sky, and it can be found on other streaming devices. I agree it was an excellent movie showing what Pope Prius XII did during the war. He was a heroic Pope who stayed with his people in Rome despit the threat of being kidnapped by the Nazis. I will definitely buy this book and hope many more do too.

    • Exactly. What people do not realize is that this type of disinformation campaign by the Soviets WORKED and worked very well. A lot of the “controversies” in the West were fake – they were ginned up by the Soviets. The “nuclear freeze” movement of the 80’s is a good example. Totally Soviet supported.
      And people do not realize that both the CCP and the Russians today are doing exactly the same thing today. They realize this is a low cost way to destabilize the West, and they are constantly funding environmental activist groups, far left things like BLM and Antifa, etc. The sad fact is they realize that these disinformation programs are highly successful, and they are driving a lot of the problems we have today.

      • One of the Soviets` biggest cover ups is the Holodomor that occurred in 1932-33. 12 million Ukrainians were starved by Stalin. No one knows of it, but the Holocaust is memorialized daily.

    • We are told to not join Freemasons but hardly anyone knows why.

      The disinformation goes a lot deeper than we normally imagine. Most still argue inside the red and blue pill masonic matrix where depending on the pill you are in the matrix as a subject or a controller with the machine being Satan. That every church in the world closed and masked for a pure fabrication amplified through super mass media shows a horrible lack of faith across all peoples calling themselves Christian.

      “The Fuhrer is deeply religious, though completely anti-Christian. He views Christianity as a symptom of decay. Rightly so. It is a branch of the Jewish race. This can be seen in the similarity of religious rites. Both (Judaism and Christianity) have no point of contact to the animal element, and thus, in the end, they will be destroyed.” -Joseph Goebbels Diaries

      “Afterwards, long discussions about the Vatican and Christianity. The Fuhrer is a fierce opponent of all that humbug, but he forbids me to leave the church. For tactical reasons. And so for a decade now I have paid my church taxes to support such rubbish. That is what hurts most.” -Joseph Goebbels diaries

  3. In the Second Secret of Fatima (1917), God makes it clear that it is God Who Grants Peace on Earth, not man. In the Second Secret, God offers the Catholic Church peace instead of WWII. God tells the Catholic Church to get mankind to repent of their massive sinfulness and Consecrate Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and there will be no WWII.

    In 1982, Sister Lucia (the main Fatima Seer), tells us that because the Catholic Church rejected God’s offer for peace rather than WWII, that this is why we are plagued with our present Russian menace to the world, and that their is now an even far worse than WWII chastisement from God, described in the Third Secret of Fatima, on its way.

    Are we to say, Oh! Thank you Pope Pius XII!, what a hero you are!? Had the Catholic Church accepted God’s offer for peace in the first place, there would have been no WWII, or Jewish Holocaust, or present day Russian menace, or present day impending Great Chastisement.

    The Second Secret of Fatima
    You have seen hell where the souls of poor sinners go. To save them, God wishes to establish in the world devotion to my Immaculate Heart. If what I say to you is done, many souls will be saved and there will be peace. The war is going to end: but if people do not cease offending God, a worse one will break out during the Pontificate of Pius XI. When you see a night illumined by an unknown light, know that this is the great sign given you by God that he is about to punish the world for its crimes, by means of war, famine, and persecutions of the Church and of the Holy Father. To prevent this, I shall come to ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, and the Communion of reparation on the First Saturdays. If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated. In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she shall be converted, and a period of peace will be granted to the world.

    Str. Lucia in 1982
    “Sister Lucia had already given an indication for interpreting the third part of the “secret” in a letter to the Holy Father, dated 12 May 1982:

    “The third part of the secret refers to Our Lady’s words: ‘If not [Russia] will spread her errors throughout the world, causing wars and persecutions of the Church. The good will be martyred; the Holy Father will have much to suffer; various nations will be annihilated’ (13-VII-1917).

    The third part of the secret is a symbolic revelation, referring to this part of the Message, conditioned by whether we accept or not what the Message itself asks of us: ‘If my requests are heeded, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace; if not, she will spread her errors throughout the world, etc.’.

    Since we did not heed this appeal of the Message, we see that it has been fulfilled, Russia has invaded the world with her errors. And if we have not yet seen the complete fulfilment of the final part of this prophecy, we are going towards it little by little with great strides. If we do not reject the path of sin, hatred, revenge, injustice, violations of the rights of the human person, immorality and violence, etc.

    And let us not say that it is God who is punishing us in this way; on the contrary it is people themselves who are preparing their own punishment. In his kindness God warns us and calls us to the right path, while respecting the freedom he has given us; hence people are responsible.”

    • “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph.”, “and a period of peace will be granted to the world” All our wars and atrocities upon mankind are God’s punishment upon Israel. Israel primarily being the House of Ephraim/Israel, who are the Descendants of Ephraim white race of today, and the House of Judah who are the Jewish race of today.

      Please read the, “Blessings for Obedience” “Curses for Disobedience”, Covenant (contract) God made with Israel, Deuteronomy 28. The House of Ephraim/Israel fell in 722 B.C. and The House of Judah fell in 587 B.C.. From that time to the present, we have been receiving the “Curses for Disobedience” from God’s Covenant with Israel.

      Deuteronomy 28

      King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who ruled over Israel upon their exile, was just as ruthless as Adolph Hitler. Please read how the Great Prophet Daniel dealt with King Nebuchadnezzar’s atrocities inflicted upon Israel in Daniel 9.

      Daniel 9

      The great Prophet Daniel never saw God’s Deliverance of Israel from their exile. Now all we have to do to see God’s Deliverance of Israel from her exile, is to, Divine Mercy in My Soul, 429, I heard these words spoken distinctly and forcefully within my soul, You will prepare the world for My final coming.

      In the vision the Blessed Mother gives to St. Catherine Laboure, the Blessed Mother is gifting the world with a globe cross. The Blessed Mother’s globecross is Messianic Reign. In the second vision the Blessed Mother is standing on the crushed head of Satan. The Blessed Mother is now Coronated with twelve stars over her head. The twelve stars over her head are Catholic Apostolic Successors, who are now ruling the world using Jesus’ ‘Keys to the Kingdom’. The Immaculate Heart of Mary had Triumphed! There will be peace on earth! Jesus will Rule on earth, with and through our Queen, the Blessed Mother, who will Rule on earth with and through her Catholic Church.

      Please visit the visions of St. Catherine Laboure

      Obadiah 21
      And saviours shall ascend Mount Zion to rule the mount of Esau, and the kingship shall be the Lord’s.

      Matthew 6:9 The Lord’s Prayer
      …your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven …//… Subject us not to trial but deliver us from the evil one.’

      Acts of the Apostles 26:17
      I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me.

  4. A difficult subject to discern! The heart of the matter is that antiSemitism is satanic in origin. Jesus is King of the Jews.
    The Christian, is grafted into the true vine which is Israel.

    Jesus fulfilled the law of Moses (not the law according to which was man made) thus introducing the promised Covenant of Grace which was assured in the Tanakh.

    Further, God tells the reader of the Tanakh (Old Testament) that most Jews will not respond to their Messiah. Though it appears nonsensical to Jews in the past and today, what God has said is true.

    The Good news is that the Apostles, first disciples and writers of the New Testament were Jews. The New Testament is a Jewish collection of books, yet Jews tend to eschew the Covenant of Grace.

    God will never give the Jews up (those who worship Him in spirit in and truth). Some of the finest expositors of Christianity are Jewish converts. Intelligence and a love for God is an unbeatable combination. The Lord has blessed the Jews and continues to do so. Prophecy is fulfilled in our time with the rebirth and prospering of Israel.

    Could Pius have done more? Better to ask ourselves, what more can we do to honour the Jews and proclaim Christ crucified to them.

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