Detracting Against a Venerable, Part I: Pius XII and the Historians

Most of us are already sorely aware that Ven. Pius XII has had his name dragged through the mud because of his apparent silence during the Holocaust during the last Great War. Indeed, the extent of the criticism against the man can at times be mindboggling. However, I’m not entirely sure that some of the readers of this website know entirely the history of that backbiting, and so, taking from an essay that I wrote several years ago, I’ve taken the liberty to show the extent of the damage, and can say happily that there is something of another revision in the history (no pun intended) on the writings about Pius XII during the war years. Historically, the detractions started with a play by former Hitler Youth leader and then Soviet agent Rolf Hochhuth and his play The Deputy in 1963.[1]

Up to that point, the criticism of the Pontiff that faced off with the proverbial twin evils of the previous century had been tame, expressing minor sorrow at papal shortcomings yet praising papal bravery, particularly during the Roman occupation.[2] Naturally, anyone that examines the pope’s actions can say that he could have done more, yet the pope himself was not silent, as Hochhuth and others say, but worked through diplomatic channels to help save the Jews. Decidedly that, such a sentiment ignores the help that the pope gave to the Jews, whether directly or not. The fact of the matter is that the pope helped, though he did so through diplomatic means, being silent only when he knew that his voice would not be heard, and to suggest otherwise seems flies into the face of the situation at hand.

The documentation on the issue begins with that which the pope left us himself. The Christmas Messages, first of 1939 and then of 1942, are critical. In the Christmas Message of 1939, the pope lamented the breakout of war and asked for peace, in addition to asking for fair treatment of racial minorities.[3] The more forthright Christmas Message of 1942 seems almost like an implicit condemnation of National Socialism, though the pope never mentions it by name. What is mentioned is the persecution of people because of their nationality or race.[4] When asked about what he meant by these words, he expressed the belief that he had been clear about his sentiments, though given how the debate continues, either the pope was not clear or is clearly not seen in context.[5] Next to the words of the pope, the memoirs of the diplomats involved serve as good sources to see what went on in the Vatican itself during the Holocaust.

The memoir of Cardinal Tardini, who was Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione’s assistant during the war, is good insofar as it attempts to portray the human face of the pontiff. The memoir goes into the Roman occupation and the October Roundup and the relationship that the Vatican had with the Germans.[6] Tardini points out that the pope was misunderstood on several instances, and that his words were often misconstrued to serve an ideological purpose.[7] The most telling statement made by Tardini is his explicit statement that the pope would have been willing to go to a concentration camp if need be. This was during the Roman occupation.[8] The other memoir of note is the memoir of Harold Tittmann, the American charges d’affaires at the Vatican. His view is crucial to any inquiry into the papacy and the Holocaust because he was the one that often found himself meeting with members of the Secretariat of State to discuss the Jewish Question. While partially critical of the pope, he explains why the Pope would have been silent, and offers conjecture to support his case.[9] Tittmann’s ultimate conclusion of the whole affair is that the pope did the right thing in his apparent silence.[10]

The first commentary after the war comes from Leon Poliakov, who is moderately critical of the pope. In The Vatican and the Jewish Question: The Record of the Hitler Period, he explains that the pope should have been more vocal about anti-Semetic policies carried out by the Vichy regime.[11] In The Jews Under Italian Occupation, he gives the pope credit for hiding the Jews from the Germans, yet maintains that the pope should have made a formal public protest.[12] Poliakov would become one of Hochhuth’s principle sources for The Deputy. Hochhuth himself would write the work that started the debate about the pope and the Holocaust as a play in 1963. In The Deputy, Hochhuth portrays the pope as an aloof figure that is more concerned about the spread of communism and of Vatican finances then about the moral crisis in Europe.[13] Hochhuth’s claims have overall not survived the digging of historians, though they are crucial because his arguments are the ones that tend to show up in different forms among the detractors of Pius XII. All the while, the Vatican, under pressure from outside groups that were eager to see the Vatican Archive, decided to compile and publish the documents relating to Pius XII and the war.

The Actes de Documents du Saint-Siege relatifs a la Seconde Guerre Mondaile, or simply the Documents, was compiled by four Jesuits by order of Pope Paul VI, with the intention of clearing the air about the pope and the Holocaust in particular.[14] The four Jesuits were Pierre Blet, Robert Graham, Angelo Martini and Burkhart Schneider. The Vatican would release the Documents from 1965 to 1981, though due to demand for a more concise volume, Fr. Blet released Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican in 1999.[15] Blet goes over any event of importance in a rather matter-of-fact way, referring to documents the entire time. It is crucial for any study of the role of the Papacy during the period to read either Blet or the Documents for the sake of clarity and understanding. John Cornwell, however, is another story.

It is an accurate statement to say that recent scholarship on Pius XII and his relationship with the Jews is reaction part to John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. The arguments made are outlandish, treating the pope as an anti-Semite who sought to increase the power of the Papacy by means of a centralization of the Church.[16] The arguments made by Cornwell, it is safe to say, have for the most part been discredited. Though almost immediately after the publication of Hitler’s Pope came new scholarship the following year that treated the subject. Michael Phayer’s The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 looks at the whole Church with regard to the Holocaust. The approach is critical. Phayer maintains that the pope was more concerned about the fight against communism, which led to his using the Nazis as a wall against the Soviets.[17] The work of Susan Zuccotti deal with Pius XII and the Holocaust in Italy. Her book Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, claims that it is myth that the pope helped the Jews during the occupation of Rome.[18] She also maintains that the pope knew of the October Roundup before it happened, and that the Vatican did not do anything about the matter.[19] The historiography was captured by Jose Sanchez in his 2002 book Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. The work examines all arguments in the scholarship up to that point before reaching his conclusion. Sanchez maintains that the pope was forced to choose to either speak out against the atrocities committed during the Holocaust or to protect the world’s Catholics, particularly in Germany.[20]

Sanchez goes on by saying that the pope worked silently behind the scenes, though the result of the choice that he made leads to the conclusion that he could have done more.[21] More recently, two other books have also gotten involved in the subject.[22] The first, by Frank J. Coppa, called The Life and Pontificate of Pope Pius XII: Between History and Controversy, demands that the word silence be defined before the debate continues. He points out that the debate had hitherto used the word “silence” ambiguously, with various definitions from various authors.[23] Coppa’s overall conclusion on the matter is that the pope did indeed speak out, particularly in the Christmas Message of 1942. The problem over the confusion is that old problem of communication during wartime, particularly because of the German propaganda mill.[24] The other work, by Robert Ventresca, called Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII, holds that the pope was not silent, yet not obviously about his actions either.[25] Ventresca is critical of the pope in some aspects, particularly about his inaction in Poland.

Another essay in this series, dealing with the actions of the pope himself with regard to the issue, is forthcoming. What can be said in the meantime is that Pius XII has apparently had something of a defense from those that study his wartime record in detail, though these are full of criticisms in their own right.

[1] Jose Sanchez, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 2.

[2] Joseph L. Lichten, A Question of Judgment: Pius XII and the Holocaust (Washington: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1963), 9. Here Lichten discusses Hochhuth’s sources for The Deputy, particularly the work of Leon Poliakov.

[3] Pierre Blet, , Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican, trans. by Lawrence J. Johnson (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1999), 30. Before the outbreak of the war, the Vatican spoke to all of the major powers, save the United States, the Soviet Union and Japan about a peace conference to handle the “Polish Question”. See Blet, 11. It is clear that the powers did not listen.

[4] Blet, 161.

[5] Sanchez, 57. The one who asked the pope on the matter was Harold Tittmann, the American charges d’affaires in Rome to Myron Taylor, Roosevelt’s personal representative.

[6] Domenico Cardinal Tardini, Memories of Pius XII, trans. Rosemary Goldie, (Westminster: The Newmann Press, 1961), 41. The German relations are discussed on 43.

[7] Tardini, 43. Sanchez points this out on pg. 51 of his book, citing an instance where the Germans changed the text of Summi Pontificatus to make it look like the Pope saw Germany as a victim of foreign aggression.

[8] Tardini, 86.

[9] Harold H. Tittmann, Jr., Inside the Vatican of Pius XII: The Memoir of an American Diplomat During World War II, ed. by Harold H. Tittmann III, (New York: Image Books, 2004), 122.

[10] Tittmann, 123.

[11] Sanchez, 25.

[12] Lichten, 9

[13] Sanchez, 27.

[14] Blet, 1. The Documents are of eleven volumes, and only one has been published in English. The other ten are written in French, Italian, Latin and Spanish. Each document has a French introduction and is presented in the original language. The colossal scope of the Documents and the language barrier lend to the historiography issue.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Sanchez, 4. It is important to note that Hitler’s Pope is more like a retelling of Hochhuth’s nonsense.

[17] Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust: 1930-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 58. The problem with this argument is that it would require going into the mind of the Pope to know it for certain, which is obviously impossible. Decidedly that, the Pope refused to explicitly denounce the Nazis without denouncing the Soviets, which does not lend itself to Phayer’s argument; in fact it detracts from it. See John Jay Houghes “Something Deeply Shameful,” in The Pius Wars: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, ed. by Joseph Bottum and David G. Dalin (Lahnam: Lexington Books, 2004), 59.

[18] Sanchez, 35.

[19] Ron Rychlak, “A Dangerous Thing to Do,” in The Pius Wars: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, ed. by Joseph Bottum and David G. Dalin (Lahnam: Lexington Books, 2004), 33. Rychlak points out the problem with Zuccotti’s argument is that she actually contradicts several documents of note, and also the words of both of Pius’ immediate successors.

[20] Sanchez, 172.

[21] Sanchez, 174. Sanchez speaks particularly about actions that could have been taken in Italy. See Sanchez, 177.

[22] Since the release of Ventresca’s book, several other books have come out dealing with the same subject matter. To add to this, the Vatican has opened up the records dealing with the papacy of Pius XII, which allow for more in depth research in the area for a more accurate depiction of events which up to now was not possible.

[23] Frank J. Coppa, The Life and Pontificate of Pius XII: Between History and Controversy (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 153-54.

[24] Coppa, 163.

[25] Robert Ventresca, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 2013), 185.