Pius XII’s reputation has not worn well since his death in 1958. His critics see him as a pontiff indifferent to the suffering of Jews at the hands of the Nazis and a weak spiritual leader intimidated by Adolf Hitler and manipulated by Benito Mussolini. Pius’s defenders say that view paints a radically distorted picture of a man who was caught between the need to protect his church, with its 40 million German Catholics, and the barbarity of Nazi Germany and Israel. Fascist Italy.
By the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church could no longer ignore the outcry. Between 1965 and 1981, a 12-volume compilation of Holy See documents on World War II was published by the Vatican. It was long suspected, however, that evidence unflattering to Pius XII had been withheld. In 2019, Pope Francis decided it was time to admit outside historians to the archives. Pulitzer Prize-winning authorThe Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” and “The pope who wants to be king: the exile of Pius IX and the emergence of modern EuropeKertzer was in Rome at the gate of the archives the day the relevant files were opened for study. The result is the most comprehensive account of the Vatican’s relationship with the Nazi and Fascist regimes before and during the war, the pope’s procrastination, and the opportunities for moral courage that were lost.
In retrospect, it seems remarkable that Pius XII ever thought he could get along with Hitler. Days after the pope’s coronation in 1939, the German dictator showed the world how much the Munich Pact meant to him when he invaded Czechoslovakia and incorporated it into the Reich. Yet Pius XII, hesitant and often disconnected from harsh realities, believed he could negotiate with a man he saw as a necessary bulwark against communism. The fate of the Jews of Europe never entered his thoughts.
It is disturbing to read the decision of the new pope to set aside the encyclical attacking racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor, Pius XI, had planned to publish the day before his death, and his warm birthday wishes to the Führer in April 1939, six months after the horror of Kristallnacht. These and other deplorable facts have, however, been known for a long time.
Truly shocking is Kertzer’s discovery in the archives of an account of a secret meeting between the pope and a representative of the Reich, the German son-in-law of King Victor Emmanuel, just weeks before the invasion of Poland. The Vatican has carefully kept any mention of this meeting out of the official record, and it was only with the opening of these files in 2020 that it came to light.
At this meeting, Pius XII agreed to avoid any involvement in what he called “partisan politics” in the Reich, which would have included the activities of the Gestapo, the Nazi euthanasia program and the rule of the terror imposed on Jews, in exchange for an end to restrictions on parochial education and attacks on its clergy. “No one here is anti-German,” the pope told Hitler’s envoy, according to a Vatican transcript. “We love Germany. We are happy if Germany is big and powerful. And we do not oppose any particular form of government, if only Catholics can live according to their religion. The pope personally repeated this message to Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, shortly after the defeat of Poland and the closing of churches and convents.
Kertzer’s description of Vatican policy during the war is even more heartbreaking. Pius XII continued to believe he could tame an inferno of hatred if he stuck to diplomatic overtures and soothing language, and he refused to condemn the invasion of Catholic Belgium, the Netherlands, or France. . Polish calls for help went unanswered. He was candid about the Allied bombing of Rome, but about the roundup of Rome’s Jews in 1943 he said nothing. He refused to excommunicate Hitler, Heinrich Himmler or Mussolini, all nominal Catholics until the day they died. Although Pius XII spoke of martyrdom on occasion, he had no intention of going in that direction.
“The Pope at War” is more than an examination of one man’s failures, however. Among the book’s many satisfactions is the wide net the author casts with skillfully drawn portraits of the German diplomats, Italian politicians, ambassadors and nuncios, cardinals and Vatican bureaucrats with whom the pope interacted. . It is a chronicle with very few heroes. One, a French cardinal, Eugène Tisserant, tried to persuade Pius XII to denounce the Nazi genocide, to no avail. “I fear that history has much to reproach the Holy See for,” he remarked in 1940. How prescient these words were.
John Loughery is the author of four biographies, including “Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Creation of Irish America” and “Dorothy Day: The Dissident Voice of the American Century.”
The secret history of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler
Random house. 621 pages. $37.50