A Noble Pope


An interesting and important historical controversy now coming to a boil after stoking up for decades is the role of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War.

Pope Pius XII

These allegations — that he should have been more vocal and active in condemning the atrocities — came only after Pius XII died in 1958. They really began with Rolf Hochhuth's scurrilous but diverting play, The Deputy. Criticism of the pope has gradually escalated to extreme charges that he was a partisan or even an outright stooge of Hitler.

With its customary stately pace of deliberation, the Vatican has been researching his status since he died. It has released many of the archives from the period when he was nuncio in Germany and then secretary of state, 1922-1939, and opposing views of unofficial supportive commentators have also gradually radicalized to the point where he is being touted by them as a saint, a hero of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and, in Jewish parlance, a "righteous Christian."

All of his successors have regarded him as, in the words of Benedict XVI, "a noble pope." But it is one of the ironies of this controversy that his most outspoken supporters have been Jews, including the American, Gary Krupp, whose Pave the Way Foundation is dedicated to removing barriers between religious faiths and is now leading the campaign to emancipate Pius XII from anti-Semitic slurs. After very extensive research, Mr. Krupp now contends that Pius XII and the Roman Catholic Church saved the lives of 850,000 Jews and other Nazi persecutees during the Second World War.

When he was the nuncio in Munich, Pius XII, then Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli, witnessed the attempted putsch of Hitler and Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff in 1923, following which Hitler was sent to Landsberg Prison, where he dictated Mein Kampf to his acolyte, Rudolf Hess. Pacelli strongly disapproved of the Nazis and as Pius XI's secretary of state, he was referred to in high Nazi circles as a "Jew-lover." He and the pope ostentatiously left Rome during Hitler's state visit in 1936, and he wrote the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge ( "With Burning Sorrow", titled in German to aim it directly at the Third Reich), which strenuously criticized German violations of the Concordat with the Holy See that Pacelli had negotiated, and of human and religious rights generally.

His elevation at the conclave of 1939 was widely seen as hostile to Nazi and fascist tendencies in Europe, and to Germany's pretense to being a bulwark against communism (a few months before the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact). Pius XI and Pius XII both publicly condemned Mussolini's imitative antiSemitic laws. Pius XII decried all racial oppressions and super-military barbarities, most famously in his New Year's message at the end of 1942, and strenuously urged the German government not to round up and deport Italian (and other) Jews. When this request was rejected by Wilhelmstrasse, on Oct. 16, 1943, Pius immediately ordered the religious institutions of Rome to take in and shelter all Jews. The entire population of 7,000 Jews was hidden from the Germans until they were driven from Rome.

This conformed with the policy he was already pursuing, in which all fugitives from Nazism were to be assisted. His eventual successor as Pope John XXIII, Msgr. Angelo Roncalli, then pro-nuncio in Istanbul, issued visas to all who asked for them, numbering many thousands.

In 1940, Albert Einstein defended the Roman Catholic Church as the only institution in Nazi Germany that "stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth." Rome's chief rabbi, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism at the end of the war. Pius received delegations of death camp survivors who came to thank him for saving lives. The founders of Israel, including Chaim Weizmann, praised him repeatedly, and when he died, Israel's foreign minister, Golda Meir, saluted him for having spoken out when "fearful martyrdom came to our people." Among those who have described Pius XII as a "righteous Christian" is distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert, probably the world's greatest authority on the Holocaust and the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill.

In 1940, Albert Einstein defended the Roman Catholic Church as the only institution in Nazi Germany that "stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth."

It has recently come to light that Pius thought Hitler might seize the Vatican and imprison him, as Napoleon detained Pius VII. In that event, Pius XII would have resigned and his successor would have been chosen in a conclave of those cardinals able to attend in a non-combatant, largely Catholic country, probably in Iberia or Latin America. It has taken a long time to sort out mistaken conventional wisdoms about the Second World War, such as the consistent canard of the Yalta Myth, that Roosevelt gave Eastern Europe to Stalin at that conference.

Not all the evidence is in on Pius XII. What can be said is that the extreme assailants are mistaken; he detested the Nazis, and called them "Pagans." He did not, however, subscribe to Roosevelt's view, expressed in their published correspondence, that Nazism and Soviet communism were equivalent evils. He thought communism more dangerous because it was more intellectually respectable and more antagonistic to Christianity than Nazism. He preferred Roosevelt and Churchill and de Gaulle, (but not Stalin), to Hitler and Mussolini, and did not share any of the Western leaders' hopefulness that any post-war accommodation with the Kremlin would succeed. (He was correct, but Roosevelt and Churchill were required by their electorates and by circumstances to give it a try.)

The presence of the U.S.S.R. among the Allies, and the fact that at least half of the populations of the European Axis countries was Roman Catholic, caused the pope to avoid outright partisanship in the war. But there was privately no ambiguity about his preferences, nor about his unwavering hostility to all atrocities and persecutions. He should have said more, but the same can be said of the Allied secular leaders, and it appears to be the fact that he and his Church did save the lives of more innocents than anyone else, not excluding the Allied armies that liberated the death camps. This is an issue that, for tactical as well as equitable reasons, the international Jewish community would do well to de-escalate. The Holocaust, which took the lives of six million Jews and six million non-Jews, was perhaps the most monstrous crime in all history, but Pius XII was on the right side, if over-cautiously in public, in that terrible time.




Conrad Black, "A Noble Pope." National Post, (Canada) May 30, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post. Visit the National Post here.


Conrad Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, PC, OC, KCSG is a Canadian-born British historian, columnist and publisher who was for a time the third biggest newspaper magnate in the world. Among his books are: Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and The Fight of My Life.

Copyright © 2009 National Post

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