Detracting Against a Venerable, Part II: The Actions of the Pope

In the previous article about this topic, I showed what various historians said about Pope Pius XII with regard to the Holocaust; here, I want to answer the question of what the pope did specifically, particularly through his public acts and utterances, as well as his workings behind the scenes through his nuncios and bishops.

The nuncios, with the exception of Orsenigo in Germany, spoke frequently.[1] Out of the entire diplomatic corps, in Europe, the two most active nuncios appear to be Rotta in Hungary and Burzio in Slovakia; both men were outspoken critics of the racial laws in their countries, and the Holy See would use them as mouthpieces to complain.[2] As for the bishops, they had a tendency to write pastoral letters on the Holocaust relative to their countries.

In Hungary, the bishops issued a pastoral letter asking Admiral Horthy, the Calvinist regent of Hungary, to stop the deportation of Jews.[3] In Slovakia, the bishops asked the president, Fr. Josef Tiso, to allow for the sparing of at least baptized Jews.[4] A second letter appeared a year later, which was slightly more forceful than the last.[5] In Slovakia, the letters were relatively unsuccessful, while in Hungary, the pope sent Horthy a telegram before the pastoral letter had a chance to have any effect.[6] In France, the bishops showed a good degree of responsibility with regard to protesting the anti-Semitic laws of the Vichy regime.[7] The nuncio, Valeri, would speak to the Vatican on the issue of these laws, and the largest problem that both the bishops and the Vatican had was with regard to the persecution of the baptized Jews.[8] In Germany, the bishops had a tendency to be mixed on the issue.

Bishop von Preysing was not happy with Orsenigo, and was not happy with what he saw as wishy-washiness on the part of the pope.[9] Von Preysing was of the sentiment that the Vatican should have taken a more outspoken stance on the issue of the Holocaust. It is evident that some other German bishops shared this view. [10] In spite of themselves, some of the German bishops remained silent. This upset von Preysing, who wanted a more public hierarchy.[11] The overall situation in Germany was not helped by the relative ease that some bishops had with the Nazis. In the pontificate of Pius XI, the bishops of Osnabrueck and Baden were openly courted by the Nazis, in one case by Goering.[12] It can be said that the Germans had hoped to court the Catholic Church in this respect. It is clear, however, that Pius XI would not like the idea.[13] In Poland, the bishops were distraught about the apparent silence of the Papacy as a result of the Nazi occupation. Hlond, the Cardinal Primate of Poland, attempted to comfort the Poles when a group went on pilgrimage to Rome, though his criticism of the Nazis was rather damp.[14] Hlond would warn the Pope of the feeling of abandonment that the Poles had on the part of the pope even as late as December 1941. Bishop Radonski Wloklawek criticized the pope from London, where he was in exile, saying that as the pope remained silent, people suffered.[15] On the whole, it is clear that the Polish hierarchy was not composed of people that were fond of the pope. The pope did, however, speak directly when he had to.

The country of Slovakia presents itself with an interesting case. The reason for this is the fact that the president of Slovakia was himself a Catholic priest. The first policies that would prove to be problematic were implemented in 1941. The ensuing drama would ultimately make Tardini lament the fact that the Holy See could not manage one of its priests.[16] The reason for the drama was because of the scandal of a Catholic, someone who would have to be diametrically opposed to racism, implementing what was clearly seen at the time as racist policy.[17] On the ground, the nuncio, Burzio, was the mouthpiece of the Holy See to voice displeasure to the Tiso regime.[18] In the Vatican, it was principally Maglione who would deal with such issues.[19] Indeed, there were issues. In October 1941, Burzio heard that the Jews were being shot if they were discovered by Slovak soldiers. The situation escalated. There was a rumor that Jewish women were being used as prostitutes for German soldiers. Before that, there were rumors of gas chambers in Poland, to which the Jews were being deported.[20] The Holy See, which had protested the deportations, was taken back. The bishops would release their pastoral letters at around this time, the second one being released a year after the first.[21] In the meanwhile, Maglione would use Burzio to issue complaints to Tiso, the result of which being the cessation of the deportation of at least baptized Jews. Overall, Tiso did not cooperate. The discourse between Vatican officials, principally Maglione and Burzio, and Tiso’s government, particularly Tuka, the prime minister, was nothing short of redundant. On one side, the Vatican maintained that anti-Semitic policies were inherently anti-Christian, while the Slovaks insisted that they were justified in their actions. Tuka himself believed that the Vatican was influenced by the Jews.[22] Once the Soviets got closer, the danger for the Jews rapidly increased due to the greater German influence in the country. Burzio, armed with a letter from Roncalli in Istanbul, forwarded by Bernardini in Switzerland, was instructed to complain, while Maglione himself would go and complain to Sidor, the Slovakian representative in Rome. Evidently, the complaint worked, as the deportations ceased, only to resume with a greater ferocity within the week, sparing not a single Jew, baptized or not.[23]

The entire ordeal came to a head when Pius, seeing that the mess was going nowhere, personally interceded for the Jews. He wrote Tiso a letter.[24] The pope told Tiso that it was his priestly duty to end all deportations, and that he must therefore stop them. The pope ordered Tiso to act according to his “sacerdotal conscience” and out of “dignity”. Tiso responded with a letter written in Latin that defended his actions, claiming that the actions that Slovakia supposedly took were not really taken, but were calumnies by Slovakia’s enemies.[25] The only evidence of any response made by the pope of Tiso’s reply came in the form of a note made by Tardini on the top of the return letter, denoting that the pope had read it.[26] The fact that the pope interceded little for Tiso after the war during his show trial shows the Vatican’s position on the matter.[27] The situation in Hungary would play out similarly, though Horthy, the regent of Hungary, appeared to listen more than the intransigent Tiso.

The striking thing about the Hungary situation is the action of Rotta, the nuncio, who often complained about Jewish maltreatment. Even when the government of Horthy, Calvinist though he was, was replaced by a more German friendly one in 1944 as the Soviets came in, Rotta would issue complaints about racial laws.[28] The Holy See often approved of Rotta’s behavior.[29] Tardini told Rotta to do whatever he could to help the situation, and more than once he did.[30] In Hungary, much like in Slovakia, the fight was over the baptized Jews and the dignity of the Jews in general.[31] Rotta himself insisted that he spoke for the pope on these issues. His problem, however, seemed to be that he knew that his protests would amount to virtually nothing. The reason, he maintained, for complaining, was because it was his duty to speak, and that his actions would reflect on him and the Vatican, particularly the pope.[32] Even after a failed papal intervention and the replacement of the Horthy regime, he hid Jews from the Germans, apparently without the aid of the Holy See, the reasons for which can be seen in Pius XII’s telegram to Admiral Horthy.[33]

In 1944, Bernardini forwarded the Vatican information on the Auschwitz protocol, which detailed the process of mechanized extermination. Deportations had already been ongoing in Hungary, and protests were made principally by Rotta. The War Refugee Board, however, acting through the office of Myron Taylor, Roosevelt’s representative at the Vatican, asked the pope to issue a complaint to Horthy, who still held on to some power at that point, to stop deportations.[34] The pope’s telegram to Horthy demanded a cessation of persecution based on race, as such would be anti-Christian in nature and in practice.[35] Critics are right to point out that the Vatican knew about the situation in Hungary and said nothing publically.[36] Tittmann actually asked for a protest the year before, though to the outside world nothing looked likely to come from such a request. The result of the telegram, however, was a positive, insofar as all deportation stopped in Hungary.[37]

Unfortunately, the deportations ceased only for a short while. It is needless to say that Rotta was outraged. He gathered the diplomats from Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and Sweden to issue complaints to what was by that time a new government under Szalasi.[38] The world, in the meantime, demanded that the pope would speak out against the renewed deportations. This never happened, at least not publically. What the pope did do was join the Hungarian bishops in an appeal to help all of the baptized suffering and the persecuted in general in Hungary.[39] As for a public protest, the Vatican maintained that such would occur if and only if it could at the same time complain about the Soviet Union, though that clearly never happened.[40] In any event, any public protest would have been ineffectual.[41] The closest the Vatican ever came to a public protest was the Christmas Message of 1942.

The Message condemned discrimination based on race and nationality. The historiography on the matter is mixed. Phayer maintains that the protest was “ineffectual”, insofar as the Germans, he claims, had no reaction.[42] Both Blet and Sanchez contradict him on the matter, and claim that the Germans were taken back by the comment.[43] Even at the time, however, no one questioned the fact that the pope was being a little vague, if not excessively so.[44] There is, however, a massive catch to the question of vagueness. Ventresca points out that the pope could have been thinking like a Thomist while protesting, insofar as he would introduce a simple principle and let common sense guide to the conclusion.[45] If such is the case, then Pius gave people credit for having enough intelligence to reason through a simple syllogism. The fact that the Allied newspapers covered the pope in that light seems to support this view.[46] In spite of the praise, however, the OSS, which conducted a report on the 1942 Christmas Message for exploitative purposes, came to the conclusion that the pope could have said more.[47] With this in mind, the question must be asked: why no encyclical? Why no sweeping denunciation of the Nazis to help the world justify what the Allies saw as a moral crusade against the Hun? The answer lies in the Concordat.

The Concordat was signed by the Church to guarantee Her rights in Germany.[48] Even after the Concordat was signed, Hitler desired to get rid of it. Simply put, the Concordat inhibited his ability to destroy the Catholic Church in Germany.[49] To make the matter worse, the Nazis were imprisoning Catholic priests and the laity who were speaking out.[50] Pius XI spoke out against the growing threat with Mit Brennender Sorge in 1937; the thing did not phase the nonchalant German Catholics at all.[51] Apparently the Germans did not care about what was happening. Given that fact, any encyclical to land a comment on the Jewish Question would have had little if no effect on the masses that mattered.[52] Decidedly that, if by some miracle a German would get his hands on any papal encyclical, the text, if it was critical of Germany, would be changed to make the Vatican look pro-Hitler.[53] This would be one of the factors that the pope would have to consider when dealing with the Roman occupation.

The Germans occupied Rome as a result of the failure of Mussolini’s government in 1943.[54] The danger to the Holy See was more than obvious; the Germans put a guard around the Vatican.[55] In Germany, there was talk of taking the pope to Munich, though obviously nothing ever came of that plot.[56] During the entire affair, the pope was worried about the bombing of Rome, and spoke to the Allies to see if they could avoid hitting Rome itself.[57] Some have insinuated, however, that papal silence on the Holocaust was directed to the same end.[58] The problem with such an argument is twofold: first, the pope opened the monasteries and convents to allow for the Jews to hide from the Germans; second, he complained to the German ambassador once he had heard that the Jews were being rounded up, not to mention the other complaints discussed above.[59]

The Roman Roundup, or the October Roundup, as it is often called, took place in 1943. The pope found out about it the morning after from the mouth of an Italian countess and was livid.[60] He ordered Maglione to arrange a meeting with Weizsaecker, the German ambassador, to voice his personal complaints. In the weeks leading up to the arrests, the pope had offered to help Jews pay off a ransom in gold demanded by the Nazis, and while originally welcome, the Jews declined papal aid once foreign aid had arrived.[61] Given this, the pope had every reason to be livid. The pope warned Weiszaecker that there could be a public protest as a result of the roundup.[62] Those close to the pope say that he was drafting such a denouncement at around this time, though he burned it.[63] Sr. Pascalina, the pope’s housekeeper and one of the sources of the story, recounted that she asked the pope about the lack of protest, to which Pius responded that he wanted to, yet had to proceed with extreme prudence.[64] The fact that Weizsaecker responded to the papal complaint by saying that a public denouncement would be a bad idea as it would result in increased Jewish persecution seems to buttress the pope’s prudence.[65] Ultimately, though, the papal protest seems to have resulted in some good. Osborne, the British ambassador, credits it as the reason as to why some and not all of the Jews were seized.[66] It is debatable, however, as to whether or not the Nazis were going to seize all of the Jews.[67] If they were not, then it is obvious that any papal protest with regard to the October Roundup would have been gratuitous; if they were, then the papal protest appears to have worked. Alois Hudal, who was the rector one of the ecclesiastical colleges in Rome, recounts that he sent a letter to the German commander in Rome, Stahel, which eventually ended up on Himmler’s desk, who upon reading it ordered an immediate cessation of the roundup, though the existence of the letter is dubious.[68] Whatever the case may be, the Jews, whether by papal protest or not, were spared.

Pius XII, given his record, seems to be a misunderstood figure. His desire to use diplomacy to save the Jews is seen as silence by many, primarily because of the lack of a public denunciation or protest. The fact that such an approach had mixed success warrants criticism, and critics are right to point out that the pope could have been more forthright in some instances rather than use vague language. The problem, even with that criticism, though, is that it seems to fail to consider the question of real effectiveness. When the pope wrote to Horthy, he was successful, yet when he wrote to Tiso, unsuccessful, and only intervened directly when he found it necessary. This is why he did not complain after the renewal of deportations in Hungary after the deposition of Horthy in 1944. The question that must be asked is one of mere public relations rather than an actual stand against evil. The moral leadership of the pope is measured in this light. He spoke, though indirectly. He helped Jews, though with the exception of Rome, indirectly. He used his position to help the Jews behind the scenes, namely through the diplomatic channels open to him. Once the diplomatic channels failed, he was silent because he knew that those that should have ears would not hear. The choice, then, is not a question of silence or of a failure of moral leadership, but the integrity of the office of the Papacy, insofar as what Pius would have otherwise been saying would have amounted to nothing but mere pandering to the Allies for the sake of their propaganda machine. At the end of the war, Pius had, after all, acted as a pope ought to have acted.

[1]Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 83. While not explicitly stated here, the relations that Bishop von Preysing of Berlin had with Orsenigo make the German situation clear. Phayer points out a quarrel between the two about speaking out on pg. 76, and labels Orsenigo a Nazi and a fascist on pg. 44. How this could be in the face of Catholic doctrine remains to be seen. Orsenigo did, however, intercede for the Jews on at least one occasion, albeit unsuccessfully. See Blet, 150.

[2] See 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), 170 and 192. Though these two were the most outspoken, they certainly were not the only complainers. Other nuncios of note are Cassulo in Romania, Cicognani in the United States, Bernardini in Switzerland, and Roncalli in Istanbul.

[3] Blet, 194-95. Phayer is critical of the Hungarian hierarchy, and believes them to be divided on the issue for historical reasons.

[4] Blet, 173. Phayer says that the pastoral letter was by nature aloof, claiming that the bishops were saying that the Jews were getting their just desserts for the Crucifixion. See Phayer, 89.

[5] Phayer, 89-91. Phayer points out that there was division in the Slovakian hierarchy, insofar as only some bishops were actively trying to help the Jews.

[6] This will be discussed at length later.

[7] Phayer, 92. There could be a problem with the view of the Vatican here, as there was no protest.

[8] Blet, 233. Maglione pointed out that the Vatican had already denounced racism. Presumably he is referring to Pius XI and the Christmas Message of 1939, as the Christmas Message of 1942 had yet to be delivered.

[9] Robert A Ventresca, Soldier of Christ: The Life of Pope Pius XII (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2013), 183.

[10] Phayer, 77. Phayer makes it evident on pg. 75 that a group of bishops desired to draft a letter defending life in the face of the Nazi euthanasia program.

[11] Phayer, 67-68.

[12] William, Lord Clonmore, Pope Pius XI and World Peace (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. Inc., 1938), pg. 166.

[13] Lord Clonmore, 176-77. Here the Pope reacts to the anti-Catholic sentiments of Goebbels, who attacked what he called “political Catholicism”; this would have been detrimental to the Concordat, which shall be discussed later.

[14] Jose Sanchez, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2002), 49. Pius did say that he grieved for Poland in Summi Pontificatus. See Sanchez, 50. The actual statement, Sanchez points out, could be a veiled invective against both the Nazis and the Soviets.

[15] Ventresca, 173. Radonski said this in a letter to Maglione.

[16] Ventresca, 208.

[17] Frank J. Coppa, The Life and Pontificate of Pius XII: Between History and Controversy (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2013), 161.

[18] Ventresca, 208 and Sanchez, 92.

[19] Blet, 205.

[20] Phayer, 87-88. Phayer believes that the principle issue of the Holy See was the prostitution issue.

[21] Blet, 171. Phayer makes the distinction on tone, 90-91.

[22] Ventresca, 208. Incidentally, some Jews had asked the pope to intercede for the Slovakian Jews. See Blet, 169-170.

[23] Blet, 176.

[24] Ventresca, 211. Ventresca points out that the entire debacle was dealt with by the pope himself, who would often talk to Maglione on the matter. The tone of the historiography here appears to point out that Pius was more than annoyed over the whole situation.

[25] Blet, 177. Presumably, Burzio, Roncalli and Bernardini were enemies of Slovakia, if Tiso is to be read literally.

[26] Blet, 178. Pheyer makes no mention of either letter.

[27] James Ramon Felak, After Hitler, Before Stalin: Catholics, Communists and Democrats in Slovakia, 1945-1948 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 111. Evidently, the Communists presented the Catholics as a victim of the Tiso regime by virtue of the fact that Tiso listened to Hitler rather than Rome. See Felak, 200-201.

[28] Blet, 190.

[29] Ventresca, 212. The pope knew of Rotta’s behavior and approved of it himself.

[30] Blet, 192

[31] Blet, 191.

[32] Ventresca, 214.

[33] Phayer, 107

[34] Ventresca, 214-15.

[35] Text from the telegram and Horthy’s response can be found in Blet, 194-95.

[36] Phayer, 108. Phayer believes that reaction from Swiss Protestants forced the pope’s hand on the matter; essentially that he acted out of embarrassment. The problem with this view is that it disregards the fact that the Vatican spoke through Rotta.

[37] Kubowitzki, a member of the World Jewish Congress, who worked with the Vatican at this time, believed that his organization and the United States had more to do with the cessation of deportations than the papal telegram. If this is the case, then the Pope would not have had a need to issue what would have evidently been a gratuitous protest. See Ventresca, 215.

[38] Blet, 196.

[39] Blet, 197.

[40] Ventresca, 216. Ventresca points out that the Horthy regime asked the Vatican to denounce Bolshevism earlier, though that never happened either. Evidently, the pope found himself in the worst of all situations.

[41] Sanchez, 165.

[42] Phayer, 82.

[43] Blet, 161 and Sanchez, 57. Considering that Blet has access to the Vatican Archives, and as such any German response, he seems more reliable a source than Phayer.

[44] Phayer, 80 and Ventresca, 185.

[45] Ventresca, 185.

[46] Coppa, 160. While it is absolutely certain that the Allied newspapers would be looking for such a thing on purpose, the fact that they had an ear to the Vatican and connected the proverbial dots gives them credit for understanding the syllogism.

[47] Ventresca, 186.

[48] Lord Clonmore, 161. I will not go into whether or not the pope signed the Concordat to solidify the Nazi regime because to argue that point is asinine in the face of Church history. If any institution is threatened, then it will attempt to protect itself in any way. Here, the means of Salvation itself is threatened, and as such, the Church acted accordingly.

[49] William Lord Clonmore, Pope Pius XI and World Peace (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1938), 165.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Sanchez, 133

[52] Coppa is right when he says that the public does not read encyclicals. See Coppa, 162.

[53] Sanchez, 51. This is presumably how Tardini meant when he said that the Pope was misconstrued. See Domenico Cardinal Tardini, Memories of Pius XII, trans. Rosemary Goldie, (Westminster: The Newmann Press, 1961), 43.

[54] Sanchez, 141.

[55] Blet, 213.

[56] Blet, 210.

[57] The first mention that Tittmann makes of this is back in 1941, when the Pope asked Myron Taylor to see if Rome could not be bombed. See 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), 65-66. The discussion is furthered by Cicogniani on 150.

[58] Michael Phayer, “Catholics, Jews, and the Bombardment of Rome: The Priorities of Pius XII During World War II,” in FDR, the Vatican, and the Roman Catholic Church in America, 1933-1945, ed. David B. Woolner and Richard G. Kurial (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), 159.

[59] Ventresca, 195 and Ventresca, 202, respectively. Sanchez recounts an incident when the Bishop of Assisi was ordered by Maglione in a letter to hide Jews, and that to do such a thing would be the wish of the pope. The problem is that no record of the letter exists outside of what Robert Graham, one of the compilers of the Documents, has said about it. See Sanchez, 148.

[60] Ventresca, 202.

[61] Blet, 215.

[62] Ventresca, 203.

[63] Ibid. Ventresca points out that some of the German bishops and some Jewish leaders persuaded the Pope not to speak out as any Papal protest would have made matters worse for them.

[64] Coppa, 166. It is unclear whether or not Sr. Pascalina asked the pope that question at the time of the October Roundup, though such a question as that is in the historical record.

[65] Ventresca, 203.

[66] Blet, 217.

[67] Ventresca, 206.

[68] The entire story is recounted by Ventresca. See Ventresca, 204.