Blaming the Wartime Pope

KENNETH L. WOODWARD

During the second world war, Pope Pius XII was lauded for his singular efforts to halt the carnage, writes Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward. And for years after, he was praised for the church's efforts in saving an estimated 700,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps—mainly by issuing false baptismal certificates to Jews, disguising some in cassocks and hiding others in cloistered monasteries and convents.

The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas....
He is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.

- Editorial, The New York Times, Dec. 25, 1941

A full exploration of Pope Pius's conduct is needed....
It now falls to John Paul and his successors to take the next step toward full acceptance of the Vatican's failure
to stand squarely against the evil that swept across Europe.

- Editorial, The New York Times, March 18, 1998

Pope Pius XII

How the times — and the Times — do change. During the second world war, Pope Pius XII was lauded for his singular efforts to halt the carnage. And for years after, he was praised for the church's efforts in saving an estimated 700,000 Jews from the Nazi death camps — mainly by issuing false baptismal certificates to Jews, disguising some in cassocks and hiding others in cloistered monasteries and convents. But last week, after the Vatican issued its long-awaited mea culpa for failing to do more, critics of the church greeted the Vatican's statement with the sound of one hand clapping. As the Times's editorial suggests, they are demanding nothing less than a moral outing by the Vatican of Pius XII.

Something shameful is going on. That Pius XII was silent in the face of the Holocaust; that he did little to help the Jews; that he was in fact pro-German if not pro-Nazi; that underneath it all he was anti-Semitic — all are monstrous calumnies that now seem to pass for accepted wisdom. Most of these accusations can be traced to a single originating source: “The Deputy,” Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play that created an image of Pius as moral coward. That Golda Meir, later a prime minister of Israel, and leaders of Jewish communities in Hungary, Turkey, Italy, Romania and the United States thanked the pope for saving hundreds of thousands of Jews is now considered irrelevant. That he never specifically condemned the Shoah is all that seems to matter.

In fact, Pius XII was neither silent nor inactive. As the Vatican's secretary of State in 1937, he drafted an encyclical for Pope Pius XI condemning Nazism as un-Christian. The document was then smuggled into Germany, secretly printed there in German and read from Roman Catholic pulpits. The Nazis responded by confiscating the presses and imprisoning many Catholics. In his 1942 Christmas message, which The New York Times among others extolled, the pope became the first figure of international stature to condemn what was turning into the Holocaust. Among other sins of the Nazis' New Order, he denounced the persecution “of hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction.”

The Nazis understood the pope only too well. “His speech is one long attack on everything we stand for,” declared the Gestapo. “Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews. He is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”

In February 1942, Protestant and Catholic leaders of Nazi-occupied Holland prepared a letter condemning the deportation of Jews to death camps in “the East.” But only the Catholic bishops, "following the path indicated by our Holy Father,” read the letter aloud from the pulpit despite threats from the Nazis. As a result, occupation forces swept Holland's Catholic convents, monasteries and schools, deporting all Jews who had converted to Christianity — something they had not done before. When word of this reached Rome, the pope withdrew a four-page protest he had written for the Vatican newspaper and burned it. As the 11 volumes on the war years published by the Vatican archives make clear, Jewish as well as Christian groups pleaded with the pope not to make a public protest because it would only intensify the Nazi persecution.

The pope's crime — if that is what it is — is that he chose the role of diplomatic peacemaker rather than martyr for the cause. Both the Allies and the Axis powers pressured him to take their side. It was clear, as the Times reported and the Nazis complained, that Pius XII stood for Western freedoms. But the pope refused to sign an Allied condemnation of Nazi atrocities against the Jews (and Christians) if he could not also condemn the slaughter of Jews and other religious believers by Stalin, then an ally of the United States. As it happened, about 5 million of the 6 million Jews who died came from Russia and Poland, where the pope had no power to command anyone. Historian Christopher Browning is right in concluding that “the Holocaust is a story with many victims and not too many heroes. I think we are naive if we think one more hero could have stopped it.”

It is also naive to complain — as The New York Times did last week — that Pius XII “did not encourage Catholics to defy Nazi orders." He could hardly direct others to court certain death and remain politically neutral himself. Moreover, in the Roman Catholic Church that kind of pastoral leadership rests with the local bishops. Rightly, the hierarchies of Germany and France have recently confessed the failure of wartime Catholics to oppose the Holocaust. That is where resistance was called for but sorely wanting. Those “righteous Gentiles” who did risk their lives to save Jews are rightly honored: they put themselves to the test, an ordeal the pope could not demand from Rome.

No one person, Hitler excepted, was responsible for the Holocaust. And no one person, Pius XII included, could have prevented it. In choosing diplomacy over protest Pius XII had his priorities straight. It's time to lay off this pope.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Woodward, Kenneth L. “Blaming the Wartime Pope.” Newsweek (March 30, 1998): 35.

Reprinted by permission of Newsweek.

THE AUTHOR

Kenneth L. Woodward writes for Newsweek

Copyright © 1998 NEWSWEEK


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