Pius XII: The pope who fought Hitler

Pope Pius XII visits the San Lorenzo neighborhood in Rome. Photo: CNS photo/courtesy of Knights of Columbus

The pope who led the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, Pius XII, is often known today by the epithet, “Hitler’s Pope”. His reputation to a generation who was not alive during the war is that of a person who was “silent” – who failed to speak in defence of the Jews when they were facing the Nazi holocaust. The charges against Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church of “silence” and “failure to act” to save the Jews are made by modern popular historians and repeated by the main stream media so frequently that they are generally assumed to be true – to be based on evidence.  Is this assumption correct?

If the claims against Pope Pius XII were true, then one would expect that those who represented the Jewish people at the time they were so imperilled would have had something to say about it. Instead, when one examines the contemporaneous statements regarding the Pope and the Church, by those who lived through the events in question, one finds rare and unqualified praise.

In fact, at the close of the war, and up to and after his death in 1958, Pope Pius XII was revered throughout the world as the leader who had faced down the evils of Nazism. He was not a person who was viewed as “silent”. He was the leader who was known throughout the western world as the one who had spoken when the other leaders were silent. They had heard the voice of the Pope, personally, and through his mouthpiece, Vatican Radio, condemn the Nazi ideology and its murderous consequences throughout the war. They had read, frequently in the Jewish press, the condemnation by Pius XII of Nazism for many years preceding his election to Pope. They were aware that it was Pope Pius XII who had been vilified by the Nazis as the “Jew-loving Pope.”

Jewish leaders who had witnessed the suffering of their people at first hand praised Pope Pius XII as the person who, in the face of the ruthless elimination of any opposition by the Nazis, had mobilised the members of the Church and the Catholic faithful to act, at the risk of their lives and the lives of their families and communities, in a massive rescue. The result of the concerted action by the network of the Catholic faithful was estimated by the Israeli diplomat and historian, Pinchas Lapide, who personally interviewed Holocaust survivors, to be the saving of 700,000 to 860,000 lives “from certain death at Nazi hands”.

Testimony as to the courageous stance taken by Pius XII was given by the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, in his autobiography “Before the Dawn.”  Mr Zolli, as the leader of the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation of Rome, was a contemporaneous witness both to the pressures bearing upon his people and to the actions of the Pope and the Catholic faithful under him. After the war, he converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name of Eugenio, in honour of Pope Pius XII, whose baptismal name was Eugenio Pacelli.  His wife also converted and took the baptismal name of Eugenia. Mr Zolli wrote the book recording his personal journey to conversion, in which the figure of Pius XII, his courage as the leader of his faithful and the selflessness of those who generously risked or gave their lives to help their fellow man he described in the following terms;

“No hero in history has commanded such an army; none is more militant, more fought against, none more heroic than that conducted by Pius XII in the name of Christian charity.”

According to the December 23, 1940 issue of Time Magazine Albert Einstein said:

“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 cause 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.”

When Pope Pius XII died on 9 October 1958, Golda Meir, then Israeli delegate to the United Nations, sent official condolences:

“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.”

Catholics, a minority in Germany, overwhelming voted against the Nazi party in the 1933 elections, with 84 per cent of Catholics voting against Hitler.  Catholic areas, including Bavaria, Aachen and Coblenz-Trier, voted against Hitler 3-1; Protestant areas voted in favour of Hitler as Chancellor.

Prior to his election as Pope Pius XII, as Secretary of State, Cardinal Pacelli, as he then was, repeatedly and publicly denounced the Nazi ideology. The Israeli diplomat and historian, Pinchas Lapide, noted that, of the 44 speeches he made between 1917 and 1929, at least 40 contained attacks of Nazism or condemnation of Hitler’s doctrines.

In March 1935, he wrote an open letter to the bishop of Cologne calling the Nazis “false prophets with the pride of Lucifer“.

On 28 April 1935 at Lourdes, at a Eucharistic Triduum, in a speech before 250,000-350,000 pilgrims, the future Pope Pius XII condemned the Nazis as ideologues who were, in fact,

“only miserable plagiarisers who dress up ancient errors in new tinsel.  It matters little whether they rally round the flag of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.”

On 13 July 1937, he spoke at Notre Dame Cathedral, in Paris, before a capacity audience of many thousands of Catholic pilgrims, describing the Nazis as “the wicked leaders of that noble and powerful nation who wish to lead it astray into an idolatry of race”.

On 14 March 1937, Pope Pius XI issued the strongly anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (“with burning anxiety”), explicitly condemning Nazism. The encyclical was written by Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. The following day, the Voelkischer Beobachter carried an attack on the “Jew-God and His Deputy in Rome”. The Nazi press claimed that “Pius XI was half Jewish and Cardinal Pacelli was all Jewish“.

Following the death of Pope Pius XI, in March 1939, Cardinal Pacelli was elected Pope.  He chose the name of his predecessor as a message to the Nazis that the anti-Nazi stance was continuing. Prior to his election, in February 1939, political pressure was brought to bear on the Cardinals by Nazi and fascist representatives to stop his election. The Nazi journal Das Reich wrote:

Pius XI was a half-Jew, for his mother was a Dutch Jewess; but Cardinal Pacelli is a full Jew.”

The day after Pacelli’s election as Pope on 3 March 1939, the Berliner Morgenpost wrote:

The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not favourably accepted in Germany, since he has always been hostile to National Socialism.

Less than two months after WWII broke out, on 27 October 1939, Pius XII issued his first encyclical Summi Pontificatus.  He described Catholic teaching of “the new man who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him that created him – where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision“.

The Royal Air Force and the French Air Force dropped 88,000 copies of it over Germany as propaganda.  The head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Mueller, commented that the encyclical “was directed exclusively against Germany”.

Kate Guilfoyle leafs through documents at her Sydney home. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

On 28 October 1939, the New York Times commented on the encyclical. In an editorial on 9 November 1939, The American Israelite stated:

In decrying totalitarianism, Pope Pius XII called the individual the end and the State the means of bringing out the fundamental equality of men because men are endowed with reason.  This concept of democracy is reiterated in the Pope’s Encyclical, stressing again the inviolability of the human person as a sacred being …”

In his 1939 Christmas message to the Cardinals, reported in The Tablet, Pius XII referred to the invasion of Poland:

“We find premeditated aggression against a small work-loving, peaceful people on the pretext of a threat which never existed nor was possible.  We find atrocities and illicit use of means of destruction against old men, women and children.  We also find contempt for freedom and for human life, from which originate acts which cry to God for vengeance.”

Pope Pius XII is criticized by some for “silence” because declined to be a party to the Allied Declaration of 1942 condemning the Nazi treatment of the Jews. As a religious leader, Pope Pius XII was unable to jeopardise Vatican neutrality by adhering to a political statement by the Allied powers. To lose neutrality would have allowed the Nazis access to the monasteries and convents in which thousands of persecuted were being hidden, at the risk to the lives of the communities sheltering them. Furthermore, the loss of neutrality would have lost the network of intelligence by which the resistance operations were conducted.

However, in his 1942 Christmas Message, broadcast over Vatican Radio, as a religious leader, Pius XII made a strong and moving plea to the world on behalf of the persecuted. Saying that the world was plunged into “the gloom of tragic error,” he said that, “the Church would be untrue to herself, she would have ceased to be a mother, if she were deaf to the cries of suffering children which reach her ears from every class of the human family”.  He spoke of the need for mankind to make “a solemn vow never to rest until valiant souls of every people and every nation of the earth arise in their legions, resolved to bring society back to its immovable centre of gravity in the Divine Law, and to devote themselves to the service of the human person and of a divinely ennobled human society”.

He said that mankind owed this vow to:

“the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nationality or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.”

The meaning of the Christmas message was quite clear to the New York Times, which, in an editorial on 25 December 1942, praised Pope Pius XII for his moral leadership:

This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.  In these circumstances, in any circumstances, indeed, no one would expect the Pope to speak as a political leader, or a war leader, or in any other role than that of a preacher ordained to stand above the battle, tied impartially, as he says, to all people and willing to collaborate in any new order which will bring a just peace …”

On 27 June 1943, Vatican Radio broadcast the Papal injunction;

“He who makes a distinction between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God and is in conflict with God’s commands.”

The Nazi Propaganda Ministry produced copies of a pamphlet attacking “the present pro-Jewish Pope,” whose actions have caused “a lack of confidence in him in the Catholic world“.

In an affidavit dated 14 March 1972, General Karl Wolff, SS Commander and Deputy to Heinrich Himmler, deposed that he was ordered by Hitler to develop a plan to kidnap Pius XII.

On 6 September 1943, Pope Pius XII called the Cardinals together for a secret meeting to tell them that he had been informed by intelligence of the imminent invasion of the Vatican and that he was to be kidnapped and killed.  He told the Cardinals to be prepared to escape to a neutral country such as Portugal.  He placed a letter of resignation on the table and said that when the Germans capture him they will capture Cardinal Pacelli, not the Pope.  He told the Cardinals to elect a new Pope and form a government in exile.  The letter, dated 24 September 1943, stated that the Swiss guards were not to defend him or the Vatican, as they would be annihilated.

After Mussolini’s fall from power, the new Italian government surrendered to the Allies in September 1943.  German troops occupied Italy, including Rome, in order to stop the Allied offensive.

During the occupation of Rome, on 26 September 1943, the Jewish community was ordered by Kappler, the Gestapo chief, to hand over 50 kilograms of gold within 36 hours or 300 hostages would be taken.  The Roman Jews were only able to raise 42 kilograms of gold.  When it transpired that the amount demanded could not be raised, Chief Rabbi Zolli went to see the head of the Vatican Treasury, who upon the Pope’s approval, gave him a loan of some 15 kilograms of gold.  However, the loan was not required, as the balance of the gold was donated by ordinary Catholic people.  Rabbi Zolli informed the Pope that the Vatican loan was not needed.

On 13 September 1943, sentries were posted at the Vatican-Italian boundary line.  The Pope became imprisoned in the Vatican by the Nazis.  Vatican telephone lines were tapped.  Pinchas Lapide stated:

“Undaunted by these measures, the smallest state on earth went on quietly defying the military masters of Continental Europe.”

On 16 October 1943, the Nazis began a round-up of the Jews of Rome.  This action by the Nazis has resulted in criticism by scholars who describe Pius XII coldly failing to protest as the Jews were rounded up for deportation “under his very windows”, and others who say that the Pope did not act, or did not protest often enough or loudly enough.

At this time, Pope Pius XII did not publicly protest. Instead, he engaged in a mission to save those whose lives were imperiled by the invasion of the Nazis into Rome. Evidence by contemporaneous witnesses such as Israel Zolli, and Adolf Eichmann, from his diaries and from his testimony at his trial, shows that, upon being informed by contacts of the round-up, both the Pope and the Red Cross protested vigorously but were unable to get an immediate response as the round-up was conducted by the SS, which was independent of German area command.  Pius XII gave orders by a letter delivered by his nephew, Francesco Pacelli, to Bishop Aloys Hudal. The letter was then delivered to the City Governor of Rome, General Stahel by Father Pancratius Pfeiffer, a German monk and the Pope’s personal assistant.  General Stahel persuaded the German High Command to stop additional round-ups, although the Germans refused to release those already seized.  The arrests stopped at 2:00pm the day they began.

By the morning of 16 October 1943, according to Sir Martin Gilbert, a total of 477 Jews had been given shelter in the Vatican and its enclaves, while another 4,238 had been given sanctuary in the many monasteries and convents of Rome.

Pinchas Lapide stated:

At that time there were some 9,600 Jews in Rome, of whom approximately 1,500 were refugees from Nazi-occupied countries; 8,500 – that is to say more than 85%- were hidden by Christian clerics, monks, nuns, and other Catholics.  The then Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli reports; ‘the Holy Father sent by hand a letter to the bishops instructing them to lift the enclosure from convents.’”

Lapide stated that he had a list of 155 convents and monasteries- Italian, French, Spanish, English, American and also German which sheltered throughout the German occupation some 5,000 Jews in Rome.  He continued:

No less than 3,000 Jews found refuge at one time at the Pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo; sixty lived for nine months at the Jesuit Gregorian University, and half a dozen slept in the cellar of the Pontifical Bible Institute whose rector was then Agostino Bea-now dubbed “the father of the Jewish Schema”.  The Palatine Guards, which in 1942 possessed a strength of 300 men, had grown by December 1943 to 4,000 holders of the precious Palatine laissez-passes, some 400 of whom at least were Jews, of whom approximately 240 were accommodated within Vatican precincts.

Pope Pius XII gives a blessing at the end of a radio message Sept. 1, 1943. The pontiff made several calls for peace over the radio during World War II. Photo: CNS file photo

Father Pancratius Pfeiffer was credited with the rescue of 400 hostages, including eight Jews, the reprieve of whom he obtained on the way to the firing squad. Lapide described the actions of the rescuers as follows:

“Elsewhere in Italy at least 40,000 Italian Jews and others who managed to flee to Italy were saved by humble priests, monks, farmers and labourers, dozens of whom lost their lives for sheltering them.  The Cardinal of Genova, Boetto, saved at least 800; the Bishop of Assissi hid 300 for over two years; Monsignor Palatucci, Bishop of Campagna, and two of his close relatives, saved 961 in Fiume.  In grateful memory of Dr Giovanni Palatucci who paid for his charity with his life at Dachau the municipality of Ramat Gan in Israel dedicated a street to him on April 23 1953.”

The wartime US intelligence records of Allen Dulles report that the bombardment of Castel Gandolofo resulted in the injury of 1,000 people and the death of about 300 more.

‘The highness of the figures is due to the fact that the area is crammed with refugees.’

The Pope’s personal bedroom was converted to a nursery and birthing area, and about 40 babies were born there during the war.

The Palestine Post, 22 January 1946, provided:

Synagogue in Monastery

In the very monastery founded by St Francis of Assisi, Jews worshipped in their own synagogue, built in the basement of the monastery.  While Catholics worshipped overhead, they knew that beneath them their fellow human beings, victims of Nazi oppression, were also praying.  The Jews’ own sacraments and religious items had been kept safe in the monastery at Assisi.”

Vatican relief agencies provided over $1 million, during the second half of 1944 alone, on food and clothing for needy “civilians” in religious houses hospitals and other institutions.

An Allied interception of a German war message, obtained from OSS documents in the US National Archives and Records Administration of the CIA, dated 26 October 1943, ten days after Roman round up of Jews, provides:

“Vatican has apparently for a long time been assisting Jews to escape. The fear is growing that further actions to transport factory hands and workers are planned. Communists are speaking of taking measures for the self-protection of workers and this has already been taken up by the enemy…..our propaganda inadequate. We consider it urgently necessary for pro-German Italians to enlighten the population.”

In 1943, the Jewish communities of Chile, Uruguay and Bolivia sent letters to Pope Pius XII thanking him for assisting Jews and for acting to arrange their escape – additional to these were 2,500-3000 persons holding Paraguayan and Honduran passports and about 200 Dutch Jews who held Latin American passports.

The Pope paid for the costs of emigration from his own funds.  Prince Konstantin of Bavaria stated in 1952:

“It is the Pope himself who puts the necessary funds at the disposal of the Palatine Father Weber to set up an organization which smuggles victims of racial persecution out of occupied Rome and across enemy lines.  They are supplied with passports which are duly filled in and issued by the envoys of the Latin American States such as Brazil, Nicaragua and Ecuador who are interned within the Vatican.”

Father Robert Leiber, Pius XII’s private secretary and personal confidant during the war said:

”The Pope sided very unequivocally with the Jews at the time.  He spent his entire private fortune on their behalf … Pius spent what he inherited himself, as a Pacelli, from his family.

In June 1944, the Allies liberated Rome.  Thousands of Jews came out of hiding and told the world of their rescue by the Vatican.  The Detroit Jewish News 7 July 1944, paid tribute:

“It is gradually being revealed that Jews have been sheltered within the walls of the Vatican during the German occupation of Rome.”

A 14 July editorial in the Congress Weekly, the official journal of the American Jewish Congress, said that the Vatican had provided Jewish refugees with kosher food.

Estimates of the total death toll of World War II vary between 58 million to 74 million.  Over six million Jewish people were murdered by virtue of their ethnicity and religion.

Papal intervention with governments susceptible to pressure or persuasion saved Jews in Hungary, Rumania, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Resistance by clergy and faithful enabled the survival of Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis occupation forces in France and Italy. Pressure by Pius XII and the Vatican enabled the escape and repatriation of Jewish refugees and other endangered people from Eastern Europe to Catholic countries, including Spain, even though it was under fascist leadership, Portugal and South America.

Estimates place the number of Polish civilians killed in the war at between 5 and 5.5 million including 3 million Polish Jews and about 2-3 million Polish gentiles, mainly Catholics.  Lapide recorded that even as the Polish Catholics were being crushed, Catholic clergy and religious saved at least 15,000, but possibly as many as 50,000, Jews.  The highest proportion of Jewish rescues, (and the highest number of “Righteous Gentiles” named in the Yad Vashem rescue of Jews during the War), was conducted by Poles, despite the fact that the penalty for hiding them was instant execution.

Over 3,000 members of the Polish clergy were killed, 1,992 of them dying in concentration camps.  Of the 2,720 clergy sent to Dachau, (“the Priests’ Barracks”), 2,579 were Catholic priests, along with uncertain numbers of seminarians and lay brothers.  One thousand, seven hundred and forty eight of these were Polish priests, of whom, 868 died in the camp.  There were 478 German Catholic priests.  Altogether, in Dachau, 1,034 priests died in Dachau.  The priests were housed in a special “priests block” and were targeted for brutal treatment by the guards.  In 1942 the authorities of Dachau offered the priests the possibility of special treatment on the condition of them declaring that they belonged to the German nation.  Not one came forward.

It is estimated that at least 3,000 priests were sent to other concentration camps, including Auschwitz, while priests from across Europe were condemned to death and labour camps: 300 priests died at Sachsenhausen, 780 at Mauthausen and 500 at Buchenwald.  Several thousand nuns were also sent to camps or died on the way.  Lapide stated, as regards the clergy killed in saving their fellow man, or those people who died in opposing Hitler:

If human brotherhood has any sense beyond the grave then these failures have not died in vain.  Rabbi Arthur Gilbert eulogises all would-be rescuers when he writes;

‘These Catholic priests had looked upon the faces of their Jewish neighbours and recognised Jesus willingly sacrificed in an act of atoning love.  In their opposition to Hitler they demonstrated that Christianity is not to be judged by the failure of a handful of Christians, just as Judaism should not be judged by the sinfulness of some Jews.  Faith that calls upon God, the Creator of man in His own image, heals and reconciles man to his brother.’

In fact, it was Pope Pius XII who was the person who was not silent. He was the one western leader who stood up against the Nazi powers with courage. It was his courage and integrity that motivated the vast army of Catholic clergy and faithful to act against the tyranny of the Nazi extermination program, at risk to their lives and the lives of their families. The tragedy and drama of World War II, and the story of Pius XII and his band of religious resistance was summed up by Pinchas Lapide:

“The beacon of moral light flickered dangerously in the winds of terror and degradation, but it did not fail.  In the words of Sholem Asch, ‘On the flood of sin, hatred and blood let loose by Hitler upon the world, there swam a small ark which preserved intact the common heritage of the Judeo-Christian outlook; that outlook is founded on the love of God and love of one’s fellow men.  The demonism of Hitler sought to overturn it in the flood of hate.  It was saved by a handful of saints.’”

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