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Cornwell's Cheap Shot at Pius XII


It is impossible within a short space to take issue with all the mistakes made by John Cornwell in his new book, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.


As Kenneth L. Woodward rightly stated in his review of the book in the September 27, 1999, issue of Newsweek: "Errors of fact and ignorance of context appear on almost every page."

The trouble begins on the cover: On the dust jacket of the English edition of the book is a picture of the then-Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, apostolic nuncio at Berlin, leaving a German government building saluted by two soldiers. The photograph is quite tendentious, but what is worse is the caption: "Cover photograph shows Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, leaving the presidential palace in Berlin, March 1939." This caption is not only totally wrong but seriously misleading. Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, and thus the caption suggests that Pacelli paid a visit in 1939 to a high-ranking Nazi official and was saluted by two Nazi soldiers. However, Pacelli left Germany in 1929 and never returned. He was elected pope on March 2, 1939, and therefore could not be in Berlin during that period.

Before publication of the book, an article appeared in the Sunday Times, in which Cornwell (who has no academic degrees in history, law, or theology) said he was the first and only person ever to be granted permission to visit the archive of the Vatican secretariat of state, had worked there for months on end, and discovered an unknown and highly compromising letter written by Pacelli on April 18, 1917, which, according to him, had lain there hidden as a time bomb. All these statements are false and were declared as such in an official and authoritative statement issued by the Vatican in l'Osservatore Romano on October 13.

The substance of Cornwell's book itself is marred by shoddy scholarship. The list of abbreviations and archival sources Cornwell provides is extremely meager, containing entries that are not archival sources at all. Scores of archives and scholarly works that should have been consulted are omitted. Most of those quoted are from secondary sources, and even these are extremely selective. The classic work of Professor Heinz Hftrten, Deutsche Katholiken 1918-1945 (German Catholics 1918-1945), is quoted only once, and then wrongly. Of the more than 40 highly documented volumes published by the Kommission fur Zeitgeschichte, Cornwell refers to only one or two.

In most cases, Cornwell refers to archival or other sources as "Quoted by Scholder," a noted German Church historian and professor at the university in Tuebingen, Germany. When it was pointed out to him that other publications, such as those by Professor Ludwig Volk, are far more reliable, Cornwell stated that "Scholder's reputation as a Church historian is unchallenged in German Scholarship." Such a statement reveals that Cornwell is unaware of the high-level discussion in which Scholder's work has been severely criticized.

Among the many scholarly works that Cornwell should have consulted is that of the Hungarian Jewish author Jeno Levai's Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy. [1] Levai used the Significant subtitle "Pope Pius XII did not remain silent" and asked Dr. Robert M.W. Kempner, formerly deputy chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, to write a prologue and an epilogue to his book. Kempner was Jewish and a famous lawyer in Berlin who, when the Nazis came into power, went to the United States. He personally interrogated the top Nazi criminals judged at the Nuremberg Trials and acquainted himself with all the documents regarding the Hitler regime. Kempner defended Pius XII against attacks that had already been made, declared that any public protest would have been useless, and not only dismissed curtly Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy, but also the books of Guenter Lewy and Saul Friedldnder, who had "not provided any reason for changing his standpoint."

Cornwell relies substantially on Lewy and Friedldnder, both of whose books were severely criticized by many specialists, including the theologian Henri de Lubac. De Lubac said Friedldnder's "book falls rather under the province of pamphleteer literature, about which one critic has said that the method followed is nothing but a 'falsification of historical truth as superficial as it is irresponsible.'"

Cornwell presents Pacelli as Hitler's pope; however, the following is what Pacelli said to Sr. Pascalina about Hitler in 1929 — four years before Hitler came to power:

On one occasion I asked the Nuncio if he did not think that this man could have some good in him, and that just as Mussolini had benefited Italy, so also he [Hitler] could perhaps help the German people. The Nuncio shook his head and said: "I would be very, very much mistaken in thinking that all this could end well. This man is completely obsessed; all that is not of use to him, he destroys; all that he says and writes carries the mark of his egocentricity; this man is capable of trampling on corpses and eliminating all that obstructs him. I cannot understand how many in Germany, even among the best people, do not understand and are not able to draw the lesson from what he writes and says....

When later on, one of the Hitlerites of that time came to Rome, he said to me: "How much moral misery, how much humiliation and how much shame we and the world would have been spared if at that time we had paid attention to Nuncio Pacelli!'" [2]

Pius XII never changed this judgment of Hitler.

The Concordats

Cornwell presents the concordats of Pius XI and Pius XII in a totally false light. He states repeatedly that they were sought to strengthen the centralization of the Roman Catholic Church by enhancing the position of the pope to the detriment of the local hierarchies. Their primary end has always been to safeguard and defend the freedom of worship of the faithful (especially in countries where Catholics are a minority and under attack) and the essential elements of Catholic life, such as the sanctity of marriage, Catholic education of children, and the free expansion of Catholic associations.

Pacelli, as nuncio in Germany and later as secretary of state, was interested in concluding a concordat with Germany. Pacelli undertook this when Germany still had a democratic government. When Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, Pacelli was not in favor of concluding such a treaty with Hitler in the immediate future. Hitler made several reassuring statements that he would protect the two major Christian denominations in Germany, the Protestant and Catholic churches, but Pacelli and many others did not trust such statements and wanted to see if Hitler would indeed put an end to the persecution of Catholics that in many places was already in full swing.

In a surprise move, Hitler spontaneously offered an extremely favorable concordat to the Catholic Church. Could Pius XI and Secretary of State Pacelli have refused this offer? If the Church had rejected the Concordat, all Hitler needed to do was publish the concessions he had offered the Church and then add, "I have extended a hand of peace, but this was brutally rejected. Well, if they do not want peace, they can have war." The brief negotiations presented serious problems for both sides. Finally, Hitler, insisting on a quick end to negotiations, made considerable concessions; after all, he would not observe the agreement anyway.

Cornwell falsely states that Pacelli wanted the Concordat, concluded on July 20, 1933, with Hitler. He also erroneously maintains that it was stipulated in the Concordat that Catholics should abstain from political and social activities, despite the fact that there is nothing of the sort in the Concordat, neither was there any secret agreement to this effect. Article 32 of the Concordat only stipulates that clerics and religious should not be members of political parties or engage in party politics. Nothing of this sort was stipulated with regard to lay Catholics. Article 31 assured full freedom to religious, cultural, and social Catholic associations, even trade unions. Cornwell also affirms that the Center Party dissolved itself under pressure from Pacelli. In addition to other trustworthy sources, an article by Professor Robert Leiber, the closest collaborator of Pacelli for decades, demonstrates that Pacelli never exercised any influence on the Center Party and was seriously annoyed that it had dissolved itself.

Another question is whether Pius XI and Pacelli ever believed that Hitler would keep his promises. A few weeks after the signing of the Concordat, the British charge d'affaires at the Holy See, Ivone Kirkpatrick, discussed this with Cardinal Pacelli. Kirkpatrick asked if Hitler, after coming to power, might be more moderate. Pacelli replied that he saw no reason for such facile optimism. He added that he was sure Hitler would not observe the Concordat but hoped that he would not violate all the articles at one and the same time.

Contrary to Cornwell's charges, the German bishops were in good time and fully consulted about the project Concordat. In fact, the plenary assembly of the German bishops held at the end of May and the beginning of June 1933 dealt extensively with this project and was subsequently always consulted. The same applies to all kinds of other leaders of the Catholic Church in Germany. They all hoped the Concordat would at least give German Catholics some respite and provide the Holy See with a legal document, valid in international law, to protest against treaty violations.

In l'Osservatore Romano, on Vatican Radio, and from the German episcopacy, statements were issued that the Concordat in no way implied an approbation of Nazi ideology, which the Church did not and could not approve. Thus, numerous facts contradict statements made by Cornwell that German Catholics were induced to believe that the Church had approved Nazi ideology or even forbade them to defend their Catholic faith against the attacks by the Nazis.

The first effects of the Concordat seemed positive. Hitler issued several decrees by which previous violations of Catholic rights were revoked, but it did not take long before the first violations of the Concordat began. The Holy See protested each time, nearly always without success or even without receiving an answer. In 1937, the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ("With burning preoccupation" — not, as Cornwell wrongly translates, "With deep concern") was published. This letter, addressed to the bishops of the world, is the only document of this kind ever originally published in German. This was to make clear what situation and which country the document concerned. It is a scathing accusation of the many breaches of an international treaty by the Nazis and, at the same time, a very outspoken condemnation of Nazi theories of a totalitarian state and its theories of blood and race. The Nazis reacted furiously, confiscating the twelve printing shops in which this document (after having been smuggled into Germany) had been printed and sending many people to prison and concentration camps. It is indeed tragic that this public denunciation of the untrustworthiness of Hitler obviously did not sufficiently impress politicians of the free world.

Pius XII - Hitler's Pope XII

The sensational title of the book has been criticized even by those who are less critical of Cornwell's thesis. He does not claim that Pius XII was a personal friend of Hitler but that Hitler could not have wished for a pope more pliable, weak, and intent on appeasement with him and his regime.

In this context, Cornwell refers to the message Pius XII sent to Hitler immediately after his election to the papacy. Protocol requires a newly elected pope to send a brief personal message to all heads of state with whom the Vatican has diplomatic relations. The message sent to Hitler was discussed in detail with the German cardinals who had taken part in the conclave. Not a single word could be construed as approbation of what Hitler stood for. This was well understood by the German government, which was deeply disappointed by Pacelli's election. The Nazi controlled press published negative comments about Pius XII, mentioning that as secretary of state he had given ample proof of hostility to the Nazi party and what it stood for. At the coronation of Pius XII, the German government, in sharp contrast with other governments, was represented only by the ambassador of Germany to the Holy See. The international press said this clearly indicated that the relationship between the Holy See and Hitler's government was on the lowest possible level.

In his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (1939), Pius XII condemned the aggression against small countries by stronger nations, which, as everybody understood, could refer only to the aggression of Russia against Finland and that of Nazi Germany against Poland. The Nazis forbade publication of this encyclical in German. Cornwell considers the encyclical to be wishy-washy and insignificant. If so, why did the Allies drop by plane 88,000 copies of it over Germany? Cornwell did not mention these facts at first, and when it was quoted against him, he tried to belittle the events, since they do not fit his thesis that Pius XII was "Hitler's pope."

After the conquest of Poland, a group of high-ranking German generals totally opposed to Hitler approached Pius XII requesting that he transmit a message to the British government. The message asked that if the generals succeeded in removing Hitler from power, would the British government then be disposed to conclude an honorable peace treaty? Though the transmission of such a message on the part of an impartial head of state was not only unusual but also highly dangerous, Pius XII, on two distinct occasions, transmitted this message to London through the British minister to the Holy See, Francis D'Arcy Osborne. Cornwell mentions this briefly without appreciating all its implications. He also errs by saying that, from the German side, this proposal came from Colonel Hans Oster, whereas in fact it came from Generaloberst (four-star general) Ludwig Beck. When apostolic nuncio in Berlin, Pacelli personally knew Beck and had come to admire his honesty and integrity.

In June 1941, Hitler suddenly invaded Russia. In view of the extremely precarious situation of the Russian armies at that time, the United States gave military aid to Russia in the form of supplies. This caused considerable problems for Catholics in the United States. In his encyclical, Divini Redemptoris (1937), Pope Pius XI had strictly forbidden Catholics to collaborate with the atheistic communist regime in Russia, which was hostile to the Catholic Church. To collaborate in the war industry by giving military aid to Stalin seemed to many something they should not do. Pope Pius XII intervened and instructed the apostolic delegate in Washington, Archbishop Amleto Cicognani (who later became cardinal secretary of state), to contact with one or more respected American bishops and direct them to make the following public statement:

The attitude of the Holy See with regard to the Communist doctrine is and remains what it has always been. However, the Holy See has nothing whatsoever against the Russian people. It is now the Russian people which has been unjustly attacked and is suffering greatly as a consequence of this unjust war. This being so, Catholics should not have any objections to collaborating with the United States government to help the Russian people by giving the latter such help as they need.

Cornwell is absolutely silent on this highly important intervention by Pius XII. If indeed Pius had been "Hitler's pope." would he not have taken a completely opposite stand or even proclaimed a crusade against Stalinist Russia?

During the war Pope Pius XII spoke frequently about the duties of those who governed the occupied countries, which at that time referred exclusively to countries occupied by the Nazis. The Nazis ferociously attacked such speeches of Pius XII; other media, such as the New York Times, gave them ample coverage. The journalists who wrote these articles understood perfectly where Pius XII stood and praised him lavishly.

Pius and the Jews

Cornwell accuses Pius XII of a deeply rooted anti-Semitism. Subsequent popes, from John XXIII to John Paul II, and many others have defended Pius XII against this slander. On March 8, 1999, the present cardinal secretary of state, Angelo Sodano spoke out in a public speech against "the Calumnies launched after the war against the Servant of God Pius XII of venerable memory, ignoring the data of history, nay even perverting them in order to make them coincide with the preconceived ideas. This is `subdola persecuzione' (A deceitful, treacherous persecution)."

On December 23, 1940, Albert Einstein published the following in Time:

Being a lover of freedom, when the revolution came in Germany I looked to the universities to defend it, knowing that they had always boasted of their devotion to the case of truth; but no, the universities immediately were silenced. Then I looked to the great editors of the newspapers whose flaming editorials in days gone by had proclaimed their love of freedom. But they, like the universities, were silenced in a few short weeks. Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess, that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly.

After World War II, Israel's first foreign minister and second prime minister, Moshe Sharett, paid a visit to Pope Pius XII and told him "that my first duty was to thank him, and through him the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public, for all they had done in various countries to rescue Jews."

On learning of the death of Pope Pius XII (October 9, 1958), Golda Meir, later prime minister of Israel, sent a telegram to the Vatican in which she said:

We share in the grief of humanity at the passing away of His Holiness Pope Pius XII. In a generation affected by wars and discords, he upheld the highest ideals of peace and compassion. When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.

What contemporary Jews stated so abundantly regarding what Pius XII had done for the Jews directly and indirectly through his diplomatic representatives and the bishops at large, is substantiated with absolute clarity in the twelve volumes of the Actes et Documents du Saint Siege Relatifs a la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Acts and Documents of the Holy See relating to the Second World War), which were published between 1965 and 1981.

Cornwell also never asked himself why the projected roundup of 8,000 Roman Jews was suddenly stopped after about 1,000 were rounded up by Hitler's troops in October 1943. He misrepresents the interview that occurred immediately afterwards between Secretary of State Maglione and the German Ambassador von Weizsacker, who was called to the Vatican upon Pius XII's urgent request. Weizsacker, afraid that a formal protest made by the Holy See would enrage Hitler, gave an overly bland impression of the attitude of the Holy See. This became patently clear in the Nuremberg trials, which Cornwell ignores completely.

On the order of Pius XII, Brigadier General Rainer Stabel, the German military commander of Rome and an Austrian officer of the old school, was approached. This humane man sent a telegram directly to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Gestapo, that said violent action against the Italian Jews disturbed his military plans to reinforce the German divisions still fighting far south of Rome and could also create serious problems in Rome. This was true but no less important than his indignation about the criminal acts of the Gestapo and his compassion for the Jews.

His intervention was successful — Himmler immediately stopped further deportations. Thousands of Jews were hidden, at the order of Pius XII, in the Vatican and in more than 150 ecclesiastical institutions in Rome. All of this, of course, Cornwell either omitted entirely or belittled.

Did Pius XII know the extent of the massacre of the Jews? He received several worrisome messages about the deportation of Jews and the crimes perpetrated against them. But for a long time it was simply impossible to check the objective truth of numerous statements. He certainly did not know until after the end of World War II about the horrible crime against millions of Jews.

In times of war, rumors are numerous and not infrequently either devoid of any foundation or at least greatly exaggerated. In many instances it is simply impossible to check the veracity of such rumors. A typical example of this can be found in what Lord Selborne, minister for economic warfare and special operations executive, told a Polish resistance hero in 1943: "During the First World War rumors were spread all over Europe that German soldiers took delight in taking hold of the feet of small children and, as a joke, bashed in their heads. Naturally we knew that these rumors did not correspond to the truth, but we did nothing to contradict them. Such rumors were good for the morale of our people." [3]

Cornwell claims that Pius XII was allegedly silent about the Holocaust. However, Pius repeatedly condemned those who unjustly persecuted and killed people for the sole reason that they belong to a given nation or race. What race could Pius XII have meant except the Jews? This was understood in the free world where numerous articles praised the pope for what he had said in favor of the Jews and also on the part of the Nazis. The Nazis ferociously attacked Pius XII for what he said during his famous speech on Christmas 1942. They went on record stating: "Here he [the pope] condemns everything we stand for and he has made himself a mouth-piece of the Jewish warmongers." When Pius XII spoke in his allocution about "hundreds of thousands" of victims, there was no evidence at that time that the number of victims ran, or was going to run, into the millions. Cornwell accuses the pope of downgrading the Holocaust; however, he does not take into account what was known at that time.

The pope did not mention the Jews by name for very good reasons. After Mit brennender Sorge, in which racism was again condemned (as had already been done in a Decree of the Holy Office in 1928: "The Church condemns in the sharpest possible way what nowadays is commonly called anti-Semitism"), the persecution of the Jews was not stopped but stepped up. When the Dutch bishops publicly protested in July 1942 against the deportation of their fellow Jewish citizens, deportations were accelerated and extended also to those Jews who had been baptized in the Catholic Church. When Clemens August Von Galen, bishop of Munster, wanted to speak against the persecution of the Jews in Germany, the Jewish elders of his diocese begged him not to because it would only damage them. Various episcopal conferences, first of all in Poland, urgently requested Pius XII not to condemn the persecution of the Poles and Jews because it would not save lives but increase the persecution.

A saint or Hitler's Pope?

These circumstances must be taken into account to make an honest judgment on the behavior of Pope Pius XII. He held the same position as the International Red Cross: Loud protests achieve nothing and only cause damage. The nascent Ecumenical Council of Churches, also situated in Switzerland, reached the same conclusion. The only means to save the Jews was, therefore, secret but efficient ways to shelter them, provide them food and clothing, and move them into neutral countries. Pius XII did this in a manner unequaled by any state or organization, as was attested by many Jewish authorities and individuals.

From the point of view of the scientific study of history, it is a serious mistake not to acquaint oneself with the concrete situation in which people lived at a given time and to pass judgment on them as if they had been living in totally different circumstances. Cornwell has never understood what it meant to live and to have to deal with a highly organized police state governed by a criminal who increasingly showed signs of madness.

The Acts of the Cause of Beatification and Canonization of Pope Pius XII are not at all secret. Cornwell is not telling the truth in claiming that he was the first and only one ever to have had access to these facts. The opposite is true. Many have seen them, and there is absolutely nothing in them that is "explosively critical" regarding this cause. Cornwell makes errors of fact, for example, when he speaks of 76 witnesses, whereas in reality there are 98, or when he states in a highly offensive manner that these acts "contained much material that was adulatory of Pacelli." The witnesses were honest and knowledgable and made their dispositions under oath. The fact that their judgments are without any exception positive with regard to the life, activity, and virtues of Pius XII simply does not fit with his preconceived ideas.

Cornwell's book is a vicious attempt at a moral lynching and a real character assassination. The real Pius XII was not at all "Hitler's pope." Cornwell's portrayal of Pius XII is a nasty caricature of a noble and saintly man.


  1. English translation published by Sands and Co., London, 1968. Back to text.
  2. Sr. M. Pascalina Lehnert, Ich durfte ihm dienen: Erinnerungen an Papst Pius XII: Wurzburg: lst ed. (1982), 4th ed. (1983), p. 42-43. This book has been translated from the original German edition into several languages. Back to text.
  3. E. Thomas-Stanislaw M. Jankowski, Jan Karski. Einer gegen den Holocaust. Als Kurier in geheimer Mission, 2nd ed., Bleicher Verlag, Gerlingen, 1997, p. 227. Back to text.

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Gumpel, Peter R. "Cornwell's Cheap Shot at Pius XII." Crisis 17, no. 11 (December 1999): 19- 25.

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

The Author

Dr. Peter R Gumpel, S.J., is the Vatican judge charged with the supervision of the Positio to be presented to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for Pope Pius XII.

Copyright © 1999 Crisis

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