Canonizing Pius XII

Why did the pope help Nazis escape?

The past, a historian once ironically remarked, is unpredictable. Certainly, much of what happened in World War II falls into that category, including the saga of Pope Pius XII. Some historians view the record of his long papacy (1939–58) and wartime predicament sympathetically; others view his actions (or inactions) critically, if not harshly. The interpretations of nonhistorians vary even more widely, with some (John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope) accusing him of pursuing personal power at the expense of the Jews, while others (Ronald Rychlak, Hitler, the War, and the Pope) argue he did everything in his power to help them.

Adding to this particular confusion is the growing number of commentators who either want to promote or sidetrack Pius’s cause for sainthood. While the interpretations of historians are supposed to depend on the careful evaluation of the facts, Pius’s promoters and detractors don’t necessarily play by these rules. Disagreeable facts are ignored by some and exaggerated by others. Unfortunately, the Vatican itself has indulged in such polemics. In We Remember, the 1998 statement on the church’s role in the Holocaust, the Vatican claimed that Pius saved "hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives." It was an absurd statement. Historians have been able to document a limited number of cases in which the Vatican intervened on behalf of Jews and have identified other instances when an opportunity to do so was passed by.

Given the complexity of the issues and the extreme circumstances of the war, why are some of Pius’s defenders now arguing that his response to the Holocaust was exemplary and even proof of his saintliness? Peter Gumpel, the German Jesuit priest shepherding Pius’s cause for sainthood, has gone so far as to write that "no one of whatever station or organization did as much to help the Jews as did Pius XII." Yet judging by the evidence now available to historians, that statement is as preposterous as it is naive. Whatever one feels about the difficulty of the choices Pius faced, his record with regard to the Jews is mixed at best.

Still, Pius’s promoters continue to grasp at straws. They have recently become excited about a newly released Vatican document, a report by then-Nuncio Eugenio Pacelli to the Vatican secretary of state which, they claim, shows that the future pope opposed Nazi anti-Semitism. To be sure, historians, like scientists, cannot remain committed to their theories when substantive new information casts doubt on them. If this interpretation of the newly found Pacelli letter is accurate, it would force historians critical of Pius (for example, David Ketzer, The Popes against the Jews) to rethink their claims about the role Vatican anti-Semitism played in the Holocaust. (Actually, the report was merely Pacelli’s notification to the Vatican that Munich’s Cardinal Michael Faulhaber had mentioned the Jews sympathetically in a sermon given soon after the November 1923 Nazi disturbances in Bavaria. It was not Pacelli but the cardinal who had spoken compassionately about the Jews; still, it is clear that Pacelli approved of the cardinal.)

One of the things historians look for, and try to explain, is change or inconsistency in a person’s behavior. Most historians agree that Pius’s single most pressing political concern, as a Vatican diplomat and as pope, was with how to stop the spread of Russian Bolshevism and atheistic communism. Yet even here the record is not entirely consistent. For in the middle years of the war, Pius’s fear of communism took second place to concern over the physical fate of the Vatican and the city of Rome. The possibility that Rome would be destroyed, by either the Nazis or by Allied bombing, shaped many of his actions.

It would have been remarkable for Pius XII, or any World War II leader, to make the "right" decision in each and every case. Roosevelt and Churchill were great leaders, but like most persons they made many mistakes. Neither, for example, acted in any direct way to end the Holocaust, and they, unlike Pius, had air power at their command that was capable of bombing Auschwitz. Like other wartime leaders, Pius was faced with tortuous choices. For instance, Catholic Poles were furious when he personally refused to speak out, after Vatican Radio had initially done so, against the atrocities perpetrated on Poles by the Germans. Just-released documents indicate that prior to the war the Vatican took note of Germany’s anti-Semitism. When Pacelli served as his predecessor’s secretary of state, the Vatican had consistently intervened in German affairs. Practical circumstances, the war, led him as pope to alter the course in both instances.

Presumably Pius could have been more outspoken about events in Italy. Just before the roundup of Rome’s Jews, Pius offered to lend, at most generous terms, any amount of gold the Jews needed for ransom. Yet when the Jews of Rome were seized in October 1943, Pius said nothing. Why? In 1944, Pius wrote Berlin’s Bishop Preysing that he had been deeply saddened by what was happening to the Jews, but that he could not have spoken out for fear the Germans would destroy Rome. If that were to happen, he believed, the faith of Catholics around the world would be weakened. Was this the right decision? I think not. Was it immoral not to speak out? Hardly; Pius had practical reasons for not speaking out—danger to himself and to the Vatican, danger to the thousands of Jews still in hiding in the city, and danger of a Communist uprising in Rome. Which reason was uppermost in his mind we will most likely never know.

Yet there is one important Holocaust-related matter where I think Pius clearly did act at variance with traditional Catholic teaching about justice and how the ends must never justify the means. I am referring to Pius’s role in assisting Fascist war criminals to escape to South America. By and large, Pius’s advocates have played the ostrich when it comes to the Vatican’s "ratline." Denying Pius’s complicity in the church’s smuggling of Nazi and Croatian Fascists out of Europe flies in the face of incontrovertible evidence. Uki Goni’s The Real Odessa (Granta Books, 2002, second edition) provides the conclusive documentation. Using previously unavailable material from the Public Record Office in England and from the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration, Goni clearly demonstrates that Pius knew that ecclesiastical institutions in Rome were hiding war criminals. "The British that the pope secretly pleaded with Washington and London on behalf of notorious criminals and Nazi collaborators," Goni writes. Why did Pius help these murderers escape justice? Because he was convinced they would carry on the fight against communism elsewhere. It turns out that Pope Pius was one of the first cold-war warriors.

In fact, the ratline conforms to a pattern of Vatican postwar action. Pius sought clemency for Arthur Greiser, who had murdered thousands of Polish Catholics and Jews (the Poles executed him anyway); and for Otto Ohlendorf, head of one of the notorious Nazi mobile killing squads (U.S. Military Governor General Lucius Clay rejected the pope’s appeal, saying that Ohlendorf was guilty of specific, heinous crimes); and for other mass murderers. After the war, the U.S. State Department complained that the Vatican was uncooperative in expelling suspected war criminals from Vatican City. The Vatican knew that Croatian Fascists brought looted gold with them from Yugoslavia after the war, but did not report this to the Tripartite Commission for the Restitution of Monetary Gold.

What do these jarring facts tell us about Pius? Why would the leader of a church that supported the state’s right to use capital punishment plead for the lives of mass murderers? If Pius was so saddened about Europe’s Jews—as he wrote Bishop Preysing in 1944—why did he later help their killers escape? Why have advocates for Pius’s canonization failed to address the ratline issue? Wouldn’t it be better for them to admit the facts and then place these failings in the full context of Eugenio Pacelli’s life? Perhaps his advocates can make an argument that, because of the Communist threat, the ratline does not disqualify Pius from sainthood. That argument has yet to be made, however.


Related: Richard Cohen, Pius XII: Not Vindicated
Peter Quinn, Why the Rush?
The Editors on We Remember: Misremembered

On Hitler's Pope: John F. Morley, Pacelli's Prosecutor
The Editors, Cornwell's Popes

Published in the 2003-05-09 issue: 

Michael Phayer is professor of history emeritus at Marquette University.

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