A Vindication of Pope Pius XII — A Review of Catholics Confronting Hitler, the Catholic Church and the Nazis by Peter Bartley. Ignatius Press. 2016
In 1963 a vicious anti-Catholic play came upon the literary scene. Written by German Protestant and former member of the Hitler Youth, Rolf Hochhuth, it was called “The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy.” It dragged the name of the Pope of my youth, Pius XII, through the mud claiming that he was partly responsible for the deaths of Europe’s Jews at the hands of Nazi extermination plans because of his refusal to speak out against the anti-Semitic racial philosophy of Nazism.
When I ordered Bartley’s very interesting and readable history of that troubled time, I remembered all the “hoopla” surrounding “The Deputy” and the slings and arrows aimed at the Catholic Church by those who looked for any excuse to demean the very name of Catholicism, even at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. The play is not mentioned in the book, but that distant memory was dredged up in my mind. Since that time, many books have been written which defend the Holy Father, notably The Last Three Popes and the Jews by Pinchas Lapide (1967) whose work is referenced many times by the author of our present book.
Bartley is an English writer whose research is thorough and whose writing style is eminently readable. He begins with a brief history of Hitler’s rise to power after Germany’s devastating defeat in the First World War.
Hitler had served admirably in the Great War. When Germany’s defeat was announced, he was recovering from temporary blindness in a military hospital. He wept at the news. The harsh peace terms of the Treaty of Versailles left Germany economically ruined; her people were embittered. A stint in Munich as an intelligence officer introduced him to the DAP — the German Workers’ Party (the group he had been sent to report on). The political philosophy of this group, founded by Anton Drexler and Karl Harrer was right up Hitler’s alley. On his own he had come to a national socialist ideology that was xenophobic and anti-Semitic. He joined the party and soon had wrested control of it and changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party — NAZI for short. The year was 1921.
The Party had a twenty-five point platform. For our interests in this review, the most salient point was that it allowed for freedom of religion — within limits. A “positive Christianity” was envisioned which would do away with all sects and combine the populace into a form of German identity Christianity, racially “pure” with adherence only to the German Fatherland. Jews would be denied citizenship on the basis of being part of an “inferior race.” This did not portend well for Catholics either, because their Church held allegiance to a foreign power.
When Hitler joined the Party in 1919, there were thirty members; by 1923 there were over seventy thousand members in Bavaria alone, with interest spreading to Berlin. An added advantage was the loyalty of the Freikorps men who had been soldiers in World War I and had banded together into private armies to squash the Communists which, under Captain Ernst Rohm they did with “matchless brutality.” These became the thugs of the SA, Hitler’s Brownshirts who would perform any act of murder and mayhem to please their leader and advance the cause.
Things came to a head when the economy was on the verge of collapse because the country could not pay war reparations. The French occupied the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland, in attempt to enforce payment. Hitler and his sidekick Ludendorff conspired to overthrow the Bavarian government (an operation planned in a Munich beer hall). The “putsch” failed and landed Hitler in jail where he spent his time writing Mein Kampf. This treatise solidified the Nazi philosophy, making the primary enemies of the Fatherland Bolsheviks and Jews. Hitler seems to have equated Communism with Jews. While it is so that Marx and many of the early Russian Bolsheviks were Jewish, as they died off (or were murdered, as in the case of Trotsky), Communism ceased to be dominated by Jews. In any case, when blind hatred takes over, one ceases to be rational; Hitler saw Jews in every position of influence in Germany as the enemy.
Enter the Nuncio Pacelli
Archbishop Pacelli was Apostolic Nuncio to Germany under Pope Pius XI. This sainted and fiery pope had written an encyclical as early as 1922 (Ubi Arcano Dei) condemning extreme nationalism. The Catholic Bishops of Germany began to preach against anti-Semitism and other forms of racialism. Their pastors were instructed to do the same. As it turned out, few Catholics became members of the Nazi Party, and those few who attempted to attend Mass in SA uniform were barred from entering the churches. In short, the Catholic Church early on decried the Nazi philosophy from the Chair of Peter and from the mouth of the Holy Father’s representative in Germany. Pacelli had set himself in the sites of Hitler’s clique early on, but their enmity did not intimidate him or the Church from speaking out on the dangers of the movement.
Germany’s economy began to rally under the Weimar Republic, but the death of its Chancellor and the Wall Street Crash of 1929 led to economic chaos. Hitler used this to his advantage, excoriating the republic’s politicians for bringing the country to ruinous times. He began to stand out as the strongman who could solve Germany’s woes. Membership in Nazi Party quickly tripled, and in the 1930 election, the Party won 107 seats in the Reichstag. Two years later, Nazis won more than double that number and the party had become the largest political party in Germany. Catholic Bishops continued to rail against the Party’s racialist policies and finally prohibited Catholics from becoming members. By then it was too late. In 1933, President Hindeburg, old and tired, appointed Hitler Reich Chancellor.
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the thorough explanation of how the various denominations reacted to Hitler’s “Pure Christianity.” Many Protestants went along with the new thinking of a Christianity divorced from the Old Testament — thereby eliminating Jews from any historical connection to Christianity. Some, but not many, Catholics seemed to think this was possible as well. Conservative Protestants were horrified at the idea, and of course, the official position of the Catholic Church would never countenance acceptance of the thought. It was easier for Catholics in one respect to reject the idea of an Aryan Church because that was done for them by the hierarchy. However, this situation also brought down more persecution on bishops, priests, and the Catholic faithful by the Nazi government. For a while, Hitler was able to fake commiseration and concern for those of a traditional bent who were persecuted, blaming the fanatics in the Party, such as Rosenberg, for such extreme treatment. Hitler’s anti-Communist rhetoric also soothed many Germans who were fearful of a Communist takeover of the country.
A turning point came finally in 1937 when the Holy Father could no longer countenance Hitler’s extreme racial laws and the persecution of Germany’s bishops, priests and Catholics in general. He had his Secretary of State, the former Nuncio, Cardinal Pacelli, assist the German hierarchy in composing and issuing the Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety), not in Latin, but in German. The letter was smuggled into Germany via a fleet of motorcycles and distributed to every Catholic parish in the country. On Palm Sunday, it was read from every Catholic pulpit. It hit the Nazi ideology and treatment of Christians and Jews very hard. Naturally, the regime was totally taken off-guard and fumed against the “Jew-God and his deputy in Rome.” Any person who could accuse the Church of going easy on Nazism after the public reading of this encyclical in Germany would have to be mentally deficient. The Vatican newspaper capped off the criticism of Hitler and Nazism in an editorial branding Hitler “a man without honor.”
As we know, nothing stopped Hitler. In 1934, he had the Catholic chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss, murdered so that he could eventually take over that German-speaking nation. Every advance that Hitler made in his march through Europe was met by extreme alarm at the Vatican coupled with very public criticism.
In November of 1934, the Nazis carried out the murderous Crystal Night attack, a planned assault on Jews, their homes, businesses and synagogues. More than seventy Jews were murdered or seriously injured, two hundred synagogues were torched; many homes and businesses were destroyed. On a more personal and equally sinister level, Hitler’s doctors carried out their first murder on a disabled child at the request of his father. Euthanasia was illegal in Germany — until now. Soon it became part and parcel of the Nazi program to “purify” the German race. The Nazi program was taking shape in all its brutality.
War on the Horizon and a New Pope
The saintly pope was in poor health; the worries of Europe’s uncertain future took their toll on his health. Almost to his dying day, he was busy making arrangements for refugees from the persecutions of the Nazis. On February 10, 1939, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was praised worldwide for his unrelenting efforts to stop the heartless policies of Hitler.
His successor, as we know, was that implacable foe of Hitler and his racial policies, Eugenio Pacelli, former Nuncio in Germany and Pius XI’s hard-working Secretary of State. The eyes of the world were trained on Rome at this unsettled time. Pius XII was elected after one of the shortest conclaves in history. He was greeted by almost total enthusiasm by all the leaders of the world, with, naturally, the notable exception of the Nazi leadership. It was fervently hoped by most of the world that the new pope, who was a diplomat, would be instrumental in averting war in Europe. He did adopt a more conciliatory tone than his predecessor, but that did not stop Hitler from dismembering Czechoslovakia and demanding a return of the Polish Corridor to Germany. The new Pope’s first concern was his Church and her people; of course, he also wished to stop the persecution of the Jews under Hitler’s dominion. He tried his utmost to avoid war. But when Hitler ordered German troops into Poland, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany.
The book goes into detail as to the conduct of war in the various areas of Europe: Poor Catholic Poland was raped and brutalized — after all, her people were not “Aryans!” There are hundreds of details of the efforts to rescue Jews of Central and Eastern Europe, each with its own heart-wrenching and sometimes amusing story. The Vatican itself acted as a hiding place for hundreds, if not thousands of Jews. This, of course, was extremely dangerous because Italy was occupied by the Nazis and Italy surrounds Vatican City. On one occasion, the Palatine Guard increased fivefold for a short time: There were one hundred Catholics and four hundred Jewish members in uniform!
A Final Story — Catholic Resistance within Germany
German Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, did not just give in to the Gestapo’s thuggish tactics. When they removed crucifixes from the schools, Christian mothers protested in the streets — loud enough that the crucifixes were returned. When priests and monks and nuns were evicted from their religious houses and sent into exile, Bishop Clemens August von Galen of Munich railed against the state for confiscating Church property on the excuse that the buildings were needed for war hospitals. His sermons were so fiery and brave against the state’s bold tactics, that Hitler called a temporary halt to the seizures in the interest of national unity. Bishop Galen is best remembered for his sermon denouncing the Nazi euthanasia policies. The Nazi plan was to rid the nation of the “burden” of caring for the mentally and physically handicapped and any others who were a drain on the state, children and adults alike. At first these unfortunates were shot; then the preferred method became gassing. The brutality of it takes the breath away.
Bishop Galen was outraged at this practice. He preached a sermon to his congregation outlining what was happening in their country, attacking the principle that only the productive were worthy of life. “What,” he shouted, “will happen to our brave soldiers who return home wounded, maimed or sick!” The RAF dropped copies of this sermon all over Germany. A great outcry came from parents who had sons serving in the war. What kind of country was Germany becoming? After his euthanasia sermon, the Gestapo arrested Bishop Galen, but he was immediately released after a public demonstration. He became known as the Lion of Munster, fearless against the Nazi butchers. Twenty nine of his diocesan priests were imprisoned as revenge. This became the common practice of the Nazis — to engage in reprisals whenever a Bishop or priest spoke out against their thuggery.
The White Rose
Not every young person in Germany was enamored with the Hitler Youth. It was regimented, boring and stultifying. There grew up several groups of young adults, mostly college- age, who made attempts to disassociate themselves with the Nazi philosophy: The Edelweiss Pirates, a Catholic group in Bavaria, loved the outdoor life and the freedom to be themselves. They sang, camped outdoors, hiked, and set upon groups of Hitler Youth when the occasion presented itself. The Swing Youth were enamored of the American way of life, loved Jazz and swing music and spoke to each other in English. Both groups were outlawed by the government, their members arrested and sent to reform school. Their leaders were executed as an example to others to conform or else.
The most impressive and effective of the youth groups was the White Rose in Munich. Bishop Galen’s sermons inspired the young Hans Scholl to begin a newsletter of his own. He obtained a duplicating machine and wrote a series of anti-Nazi newsletters patterned after the sermons of the Bishop. Hans was a medical student, as were a number of his conspirators. Soon his sister Sophie and several friends and professors at the school joined them in writing, copying and distributing the leaflets all over Munich. Their enthusiasm spread to other cities, and soon, White Rose leaflets were being distributed all over Germany. They even found their way into Norway, Sweden and England. It was not long before an acquaintance betrayed them to the Gestapo. Most of the leaders, including the Scholls, were arrested. One of their compatriots, Christoph Probst, wanted to become a Catholic. He was allowed a priest by the Nazis and his wish was granted. After a trial that lasted all of three and a half hours, they were all found guilty and sentenced to beheading. Their story is brutal and touching. Inge, Hans and Sophie’s younger sister revealed the secret of their inner strength: “Christ became for them the elder brother who was always there, closer even than death. He was the path which allowed of no return, the truth which gave answer to so many questions, and life itself.”
There were other resistance groups all over Germany. Some even attempted (unsuccessfully) assassination of Hitler. They paid the price.
Catholics Confronting Hitler certainly puts the lie to the accusation that Pope Pius XII did not do anything to help the suffering Jews. In a way, he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Speaking out forcefully only brought more brutal reprisals upon the suffering. In fact, several important rabbis asked both Pius XI and XII to quiet their rage in condemning the Nazis for that very reason. They had to act silently and conspiratorially rather than vociferously. At the end of the War, Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli, in gratitude for everything the Pope had done for his people, converted to Catholicism taking as his baptismal name Eugenio, the first name of Pope Pacelli.
Besides this main theme of putting the lie to Hochhuth’s accusations against the Pope, the book also proves that not all Germans loved Hitler and Nazism. Many who opposed him paid with their lives.
This is a book filled with beautiful stories of bravery, true patriotism and love for one’s fellow man, regardless of race or religion. It is highly recommended.
Purchase Catholics Confronting Hitler, the Catholic Church and the Nazis by Peter Bartley now.