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Hitler’s Pope?

Did Pope Pius XII and the Vatican really do nothing during the Holocaust to help Jews?

By 8.18.06

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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.

News of the start of the round-ups was brought personally to the Pope early on the morning of October 16 by an Italian Catholic princess, Enza Pignatelli Aragona Cortes, who had been alerted by a Jewish friend. Having received the princess early that morning, the Pope immediately instructed the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione, to protest to the German ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsacker (a former German Deputy Foreign Minister).

Maglione did so that morning, making it clear to the ambassador that the deportation of Jews was offensive to the Pope. In urging Weizsacker "to try to save these innocent people," Maglione added: "It is sad for the Holy Father, sad beyond imagination, that here in Rome, under the very eyes of the Common Father, that so many people should suffer only because they belong to a specific race."

Following Maglione's appeal, Weizsacker gave orders for a halt to the arrests. To protect those who were thus still in their homes from a possible German reversal of the halt to the deportations, the Pope gave instructions for the Vatican to be opened to Rome's Jews, and for the convents and monasteries of Rome to provide hiding places, or provide false identification papers.

As a result of this papal initiative, in Rome a larger percentage of the Jews were saved than in any other city then under German occupation. Of the 5,715 Roman Jews listed by the Germans for deportation, 4,715 were given shelter in more than 150 Catholic institutions in the city; of these, 477 were given sanctuary within the confines of the Vatican itself.

In reporting on the Maglione-Weizsacker meeting to London two weeks later, the British ambassador noted: "Vatican intervention thus seems to have been effective in saving numbers of these unfortunate people." Of the thousand deportees of October 16, only ten survived. The remaining four-fifths of Rome's Jews were alive at liberation.

A footnote to these events: fifty-one years after Weizsacker's decisive intervention, his son Richard was the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany to visit Israel, and there to express his shame at what Germany had done to the Jews in the Nazi era.

AS THE GERMANS began deporting Jews from other parts of northern Italy, the Pope opened his summer estate at Castel Gandolfo to take in several thousand (women had their babies in the Pope's apartment) and authorized monasteries throughout the German-occupied areas of Italy to do likewise. As a result, while the Germans managed to seize and deport a further 7,000 Italian Jews to their deaths, 35,000 survived the war -- one of the highest ratios of those rescued of any country.

There was to be a further decisive papal rescue action after the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944. Under the leadership of the Pope's senior representative in Budapest, the Papal Nuncio Angelo Rotta, the diplomats of eight neutral countries represented in the Hungarian capital -- including the Swedish ambassador and his staff, prominent among them Per Anger and Raoul Wallenberg -- organized a city-wide rescue scheme.

Under Rotta's energetic lead, an "International Ghetto" was established in the northern section of the city, in which more than 40 safe houses were established, marked by the Vatican emblem, and other national emblems. Into these safe houses -- a series of tall, modern apartment buildings -- 25,000 Jews found refuge, and survived. Elsewhere in Budapest, Roman Catholic institutions hid several thousand more Jews in their cellars and attics.

The influence and authority of Pius XII was wide-ranging. In the port of Fiume, the Italian police chief, Giovanni Palatucci -- the nephew of an Italian bishop, Giuseppe Palatucci -- together with his uncle, saved 5,000 Jews from deportation during the German occupation of the port. They did so by providing the Jews with false identity papers, enabling them to gain safety in the bishop's diocese in southern Italy. For helping the Jews of Fiume, Giovanni Palatucci was arrested by the SS and sent to Dachau, where he was executed.

Pius XII took a direct part in sending money to support the Jewish refugees from Fiume. He also sent considerable sums of money to other rescuers of Jews in Italy, and to the French Capuchin monk, Father Pierre-Marie Benoit, from whose monastery in Marseille several thousand French Jews were smuggled across the borders of neutral Spain and Switzerland.

AMONG THE LEADING Roman Catholic clergymen who helped save Jews was Archbishop Giovanni Montini, the future Pope Paul VI. When the government of Israel asked him, in 1955, to accept an award for his rescue work during the Holocaust, Montini replied: "All I did was my duty. And besides I only acted upon orders from the Holy Father."

When the deportation of 80,000 Jews from Slovakia to Auschwitz began in March 1942, Pius authorized formal written protests by both the Vatican secretary of state and the papal representative in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.

When a second round of deportations began in Slovakia the following spring, Pius wrote a letter of protest to the Slovak government. Dated April 7, 1943, it was outspoken and unambiguous. "The Holy See has always entertained the firm hope," Pius wrote, that the Slovak government "would never proceed with the forcible removal of persons belonging to the Jewish race. It is, therefore, with great pain that the Holy See has learned of the continued transfers of such a nature from the territory of the republic."

That pain was "aggravated further," the Pope wrote in this same letter, since it appeared "that the Slovak Government intends to proceed with the total removal of the Jewish residents of Slovakia, not even sparing women and children. The Holy See would fail in its Divine Mandate if it did not deplore these measures, which gravely damage man in his natural right, mainly for the reason that these people belong to a certain race."

Six times the Pope appealed to the Slovak leader -- the Catholic priest Father Tiso -- to halt the deportations. After the sixth appeal, on April 7, 1943, the remaining planned deportations were halted.

On April 8, 1943, the day after his final protest to Father Tiso, Pius XII instructed the Vatican's representative in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, to take "all necessary steps" to support those Bulgarian Jews facing immediate deportation. From Istanbul, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli (later Pope John XXIII), a former Papal Nuncio in Bulgaria, and godfather to the king's sons, added his voice to that of Pius XII, urging the King of Bulgaria not to deport the Jews of his kingdom. Roncalli also signed transit visas for Palestine for several thousand Slovak Jewish refugees.

On learning of the plight of Jews in concentration camps in Romanian-occupied Transnistria, Angelo Roncalli contacted Pius XII, who interceded at once with the Romanian authorities, and authorized the dispatch of money to those in the camps. When, in 1957, the Israeli government sought to thank Cardinal Roncalli for his help, the Cardinal replied: "In all those painful matters I referred to the Holy See and afterwards I simply carried out the Pope's orders: first and foremost to save human lives."

Such is the historical record. It explains why Rabbi Dalin is so disturbed by the continuing assertions that Pius XII did nothing to help Jews, was an anti-Semite, and effectively acted as "Hitler's Pope."

AN IMPORTANT ASPECT OF THIS BOOK is the carefully constructed background to Pius XII's attitude to the Jews, going back to his early days as a young Vatican official. Indeed, from his schooldays, Eugenio Pacelli -- as he then was -- was friends with a Jewish student, Guido Mendes, later a distinguished Roman physician. As a result of this friendship, Pacelli was the first Pope to have shared a Sabbath dinner in his youth at a Jewish home. In 1915, then aged 39, he helped draft Pope Benedict XV's powerful papal denunciation of anti-Semitism in Poland, which insisted that the Christian law to love one another "must be observed and respected in the case of the children of Israel."

In 1919, as Papal Nuncio in Munich, Pacelli defended the Church against the ferocious onslaught of Communism, then -- as in Russia two years earlier -- spearheaded by individual Jews who had long since abandoned their religious faith. But anti-Communism did not make him pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic, as his critics claim. In May 1922, Pacelli warned the Jewish politician Walter Rathenau of an assassination plot by German anti-Semites. A month later, Rathenau was murdered. In November 1923, five days after Hitler's failed attempt to seize power in Munich, Pacelli wrote critically to the Vatican about the Nazi movement, and noted with approval the public defense of Munich's Jews by the city's Catholic archbishop.

In 1933, while serving as Cardinal Secretary of State -- the Vatican's Foreign Minister -- Pacelli negotiated the "Reich Concordat" with Hitler's Germany, determined to protect German Catholics from the anti-religious policies of the new regime. Dalin makes a convincing argument in favor of the Concordat as a protective measure, stressing that it was not a moral endorsement of Nazism. Indeed, from the outset of the anti-Jewish persecutions in Germany, Pacelli opposed them.

On April 4, 1933, three days after the one-day boycott of Jewish shops, Pacelli instructed the Papal Nuncio in Berlin to warn the regime against the persecution of German Jews, asking the nuncio to become actively involved on behalf of the Jews. Four months later he twice expressed to the British ambassador to the Vatican his "disgust and abhorrence" at the Nazi regime. The ambassador reported to the Foreign Office in London -- on August 19, 1933 -- that Pacelli "deplored the action of the German Government at home" including "their persecution of Jews."

In 1936 Pacelli visited the United States. One result of his mission, Dalin notes, was that, at President Roosevelt's personal request, he prevailed upon Father Charles Coughlin, the "radio priest," to end his anti-New Deal -- and also anti-Semitic -- broadcasts. While willing to meet Roosevelt, Pacelli never met Hitler. When, in a much-heralded gesture of friendship, Hitler visited Mussolini in Rome in 1938, Pacelli deliberately absented himself from the city, together with Pope Pius XI.

While Secretary of State, Pacelli made an astonishing 55 protests against Nazi policies, including, repeatedly, the "ideology of race." In 1938 Pacelli publicly endorsed and repeated the words of Pius XI, that "it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually we are all Semites."

So outspoken were Pacelli's criticisms that Hitler's regime lobbied against him, trying to prevent his becoming the successor to Pius XI. When he did become Pope, as Pius XII, in March 1939, Nazi Germany was the only government not to send a representative to his coronation.

IMMEDIATELY UPON BECOMING POPE, Pius XII responded to Mussolini's anti-Jewish legislation by appointing several Jewish scholars who had been dismissed from the university to positions inside the Vatican. Among them was the distinguished Jewish cartographer, Roberto Almagia, a professor at the University of Rome since 1915. On the day after his dismissal, Almagia was appointed director of the geography section of the Vatican library. While working there he completed an exceptional four-volume study of the Vatican's cartographic holdings.

Another dismissed Jewish scholar, Professor Giorgio Levi della Vida, a world authority on Islam, was also given a job in the Vatican library, cataloguing the Arabic manuscripts.

In his first encyclical as Pope, Pius XII specifically rejected Nazism and expressly mentioned the Jews, noting that in the Catholic Church there is "neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision." The head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Mueller, commented that the encyclical was "directed exclusively against Germany." So outspoken was it that the Royal Air Force and the French air force dropped 88,000 copies of it over Germany.

One strong piece of evidence that Dalin produces against the concept of "Hitler's Pope" is the audience granted by Pius XII in March 1940 to the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the only senior Nazi official to visit the Vatican during his papacy. After Ribbentrop rebuked the Pope for "siding" with the Allies, the Pope responded by reading from a long list of German atrocities and religious persecution against Christians and Jews, in Germany, and in Poland, which Germany had occupied six months earlier.

The New York Times, under the headline "JEWS' RIGHTS DEFENDED," wrote on March 14, 1940: "The Pontiff, in the burning words he spoke to Herr Ribbentrop about religious persecution, also came to the defense of the Jews in Germany and Poland."

DALIN DRAWS ATTNETION in this book to the man whom he regards as the missing personality in the story: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, a position of influence in the Muslim world to which Hajj Amin had been appointed by the British in 1922. This senior Muslim prelate met Hitler several times during the war, called openly for the destruction of European Jewry, and intervened with Hitler to prevent rescue efforts.

Having been given an office in wartime Berlin, Hajj Amin mobilized political and military support for the Nazi regime. Traveling to German-occupied Yugoslavia, he helped raise a Muslim Waffen SS company, which turned its savage attentions against both Jews and Serbian Christians. In one of his many broadcasts from Germany to the Middle East, Hajj Amin said of the Jews: "They cannot mix with other nations but live, as parasites among the nations, suck out their blood, embezzle their property, corrupt their morals...." Hitler found the Mufti a useful tool.

In answer to Daniel Goldhagen's charge that the Roman Catholic Church remains a danger to the Jews today, Dalin writes: "It is radical Islam -- Hitler's overt ally in World War II -- not the Catholic Church, that threatens Jews today."

In his book Hitler's Pope, John Cornwell calls Pius XII the "most dangerous" cleric in modern history. Dalin feels that the Mufti is the one who deserves this title. As Dalin writes: "Hitler's mufti is truth. Hitler's pope is myth."

Professor Dalin's book is an essential contribution to our understanding of the reality of Pope Pius XII's support for Jews at their time of greatest danger. Hopefully, his account will replace the divisively harmful version of papal neglect, and even collaboration, that has held the field for far too long.

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About the Author

Sir Martin Gilbert is Winston Churchill''s official biographer and the author of ten books on the Holocaust. His latest book, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, was published in June by HarperCollins.