Did Pope Pius XII and the Vatican really do nothing during the Holocaust to help Jews?
This review appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of The American Spectator.
The Myth of Hitler’s Pope:
How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews From the Nazis
by David G. Dalin
(Regnery, 209 pages, $27.95)
AS A HISTORIAN OF THE HOLOCAUST, I frequently receive requests from Jewish educators, seeking support for grant applications for their Holocaust programs. Almost all these applications include a sentence about how the new program will inform students that the Pope, and the Vatican, “did nothing” during the Holocaust to help Jews.
The most recent such portrayal reached me while I was writing this review. It is part of a proposal to a major Jewish philanthropic organization, and contains the sentence: “Also discusses the role of the Vatican and the rabidly anti-Semitic Pope Pius XII, who were privy to information regarding the heinous crimes being committed against the Jews, and their indifferent response.”
That the Pope and the Vatican were either silent bystanders, or even active collaborators in Hitler’s diabolical plan — and “rabidly anti-Semitic,” as stated above — has become something of a truism in Jewish educational circles, and a powerful, emotional assertion made by American-Jewish writers, lecturers, and educators.
David G. Dalin, professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University, Naples, Florida — and an ordained rabbi — demonstrates in his recent book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, that this is a false and distorted portrayal. He also shows its long pedigree, starting more than 40 years ago, in 1963, with Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy. Although that play was fiction, it was widely regarded as based on fact in its strident assertion of the moral cowardice and silence of Eugenio Pacelli, who in 1939 became Pope as Pius XII.
Since Hochhuth’s play, this theme has become commonplace. John Cornwell, a Roman Catholic, in his book Hitler’s Pope (1999) blamed Pius XII not only for silence, but for active collaboration with the Nazi regime. Jewish writers have understandably been shocked by the reiterated assertion of papal refusal to help Jews at their time of greatest need. Daniel Goldhagen’s book A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair (2002) portrays Pius XII as part of a wider Roman Catholic anti-Semitic tradition that permeated the Church’s teachings and was integral — in Goldhagen’s words — to the very “genesis of the Holocaust.”
Dalin takes issue with these critics of Pius XII. Building on earlier documented defenses of Pius XII, including Ronald J. Rychlak’s detailed study Hitler, the War, and the Pope (2000), he builds a powerful case for Pius XII, suggesting that the desire of Pope John Paul II to canonize Pius need not have been offensive — or insensitive — to Jews, as it was widely portrayed.
THE HISTORICAL RECORD is clear. There can be no minimizing the horrors of those manifestations of Christian anti-Semitism that were a curse in the story of Nazi-dominated Europe. The Polish villagers who murdered their neighbors in Jedwabne had been churchgoers all their lives. The Roman Catholic priests who, on many documented occasions, turned their flocks against the Jews throughout Eastern Europe were ordained in the rites of Rome. The Slovak leader, Father Jozef Tiso, who asked the Germans to deport his Jews to German-occupied Poland and to slave labor — and death — was an ordained priest.
But, as I myself pointed out in my book The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (2003), there was another side to this coin. In France, leaders of the Roman Catholic clergy were outspoken in their condemnation of the deportations. In Italy, churchmen across the whole spectrum of Roman Catholicism, including leading Jesuits, saved Jews from deportation.
Many hundreds of Polish priests and nuns are among more than 5,000 Catholic Poles who have been recognized by the state of Israel for their courage in saving Jews.
Where does this leave Pope Pius XII, the object of so much published hostility, and the main figure in Dalin’s short but powerful book? Can Pius really merit the words of Israel’s then Foreign Minister, Golda Meir (later Prime Minister of Israel), when she telegraphed to the Vatican on Pius’s death in 1958: “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.”
Those who were in charge of that Nazi terror during the war years held this same view during the war itself. After Pius XII delivered his Christmas message in December 1942, the Reich Security Main Office, the German government department in Berlin responsible for the deportation of the Jews, informed its representatives, who were in charge of encouraging local leaders to permit their Jews to be deported: “In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order…. Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice to the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”
This was stern condemnation by the Nazis of a man who is now condemned for the opposite failing. Yet nine months later, Pius XII was to upset the Nazis even more. After the German occupation of Rome and the northern part of Italy, when the SS determined to introduce the Final Solution in all areas of Italy under German military control, Pius and the Vatican took the lead in seeking to frustrate the deportation plan.
A MAIN OBJECT OF SS POLICY in Italy after the German occupation in 1943 was the deportation to Auschwitz of all Jews living in Rome. Margherita Marchione has told this story in Consensus and Controversy: Defending Pope Pius XII (2002). The roundup began without warning at eleven in the evening on October 15, 1943. Between then and one in the afternoon on October 16, one thousand of Rome’s 6,000 Jews were arrested and taken to a deportation holding center, the Collegio Militare: their destination (although unknown at the time) was Auschwitz.
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