After all the scrutiny directed at Pius XII in the past decade, two things might justify another book about his actions during and after the Holocaust: new historical sources or a new historical vision. Michael Phayer, author of the indispensable The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (2001), claims to have both: newly declassified documents from American intelligence officials and diplomats operating in Europe in the 1940s, and a comprehensive view that accounts for Pius XII’s controversial behavior—anti-Communism. Phayer portrays Pius as the “first cold warrior” with an “obsession with Communism” that overpowered every other consideration when it came to Hitler’s Germany. This book invites two questions from the reader. First, did U.S. intelligence officers operating outside the Vatican gain insights that might advance our understanding of what was happening inside the Vatican? Second, does anti-Communism, undoubtedly central to Pius’s mindset, provide a key that will finally unlock the mystery of why he acted as he did in the 1940s?

As far as the war years are concerned, Phayer actually adds to the mystery. We know that Pius never openly condemned Nazi genocide of the Jews. But what did he say when fellow Catholics became victims of mass murder? The answer is: not much. From the fall of 1939 the Nazi regime began a slaughter of Polish Catholics without precedent. Priests were arrested and incarcerated by the thousands. Men, women, and children died by the hundreds of thousands, victims of calculated policies of extermination that can be called genocidal. Pius was supplied with reports of Nazi crimes in Poland, but to the chagrin of Polish church officials he issued no public protest.

During 1942 reports poured into the Vatican detailing Nazi mass murder, not only of Poles but of Jews. Poles and non-Poles wondered in disbelief at the Vatican’s silence. In September 1942 the governments of Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Cuba, and Belgium sent démarches to the Holy See asking for the pope to speak out against the atrocities. American and British representatives to the Vatican also urged the pope to protest. Phayer surmises that Pius must have felt upstaged by virtually every non-Nazi voice of opinion on earth, and therefore released his Christmas message in 1942, which mentioned the “hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.” In contrast to the judgment of his earlier book, Phayer now believes that these words constituted a clear condemnation of genocide.

Phayer asks why the pope did not specify who the victims were. He conjectures that since the pope had failed to intervene on behalf of the Poles, he could not come out in specific defense of the Jews. But why not identify the perpetrators? The Vatican was not always so bashful in its denunciations. In 1932 Pius XI called Communism the “most perilous of all evils.” All other evils, including fascism, were relative. Indeed, fascism could be an ally in the fight against absolute evil. At least that is how Phayer portrays Vatican decision making. He writes that Pius XII “chose the lesser of two evils.” Of Pius XII’s predecessor Phayer writes, “the fascist governments of Western Europe seemed an antidote to Communism in papal eyes. Largely for this reason Pius XI welcomed Hitler and signed the concordat with Germany early in 1933.”

But these claims are speculative. There is no record of Pius XII’s “choosing Nazism,” or of Pius XI’s “welcoming” Hitler or considering fascism an antidote to anything. In fact, Pius XI told a Bavarian diplomat in 1931 that the Nazis were “enemies of the church.” Given the papal statements we do possess, a more plausible interpretation is that Pius XI and Pius XII opposed both Communism and Nazism, but in different ways. Pius XII seems to have considered Communism an unchanging ideology, necessarily hostile to religion. It made no sense to try to appease it. Nazism, by contrast, was riven with contradictions. There were moderates and radicals, and he appears to have wondered how Vatican policies might strengthen the former and weaken the latter. Such a mindset was precisely the opposite of our current view, according to which Communism may have had redeeming features (its battle to wipe out illiteracy, for example), while Nazism was evil incarnate.

What I offer here is not a definitive interpretation but a reading of what Pius probably thought, a reading based on a series of public and private statements. The problem with Phayer’s book is that extrapolations from his central thesis (on papal anti-Communism) appear as if they were established historical facts. He alleges, for example, that Pius XII considered the advance of German armies into the Soviet Union a reconquest of territory for Christendom. Phayer writes that it was “natural for Pius XII to view World War II as a showdown between the Christian West and the Bolshevist East.”

No inch of territory should fall to the Soviets. Germany, which he did not mention as the perpetrator of atrocities in the [1942] Christmas address, was to be the vanguard in this decisive encounter. The pope walked a fine line in holding this view: Germany, not the Nazis, would be decisive in the confrontation between Christianity and Communism.

A reader of these words may imagine that Phayer has uncovered a diary or unknown speech that permits new insights into the papal mindset. Actually, he has not. He acknowledges in the very next paragraph that we “lack documentation about the behind-the-scenes thinking at the Vatican.”

The base of source material grows thinner with time, and in his account of the postwar years Phayer increasingly presents as fact what is really intelligent speculation. Here the subject is the “ratlines” through which, it is alleged, the Vatican helped German and Croat war criminals escape to South America. Phayer does bring some new documentation to bear on the subject: records of American intelligence operatives in Rome who seem to have had agents on Vatican properties (these sources are not identified). Yet I could not find a single case where the ratline in fact led to Pius himself—who is, after all, the subject of this book.

One supposed beneficiary of Vatican support was the Belgian fascist Pierre Daye, who set up an operation smuggling Germans out of Spain in late 1944. The only connection to Pius shown by Phayer was an audience granted to Daye in 1943. According to the Argentine historian Uki Goñi (cited by Phayer), Daye was also supported by French Cardinal Eugène Tisserant and Argentine Cardinal Antonio Caggiano, but Goñi does not connect these men to Pius or demonstrate that the pope gave his blessing to any effort to assist Daye’s operation.

It is alleged that other smuggling operations ran directly out of Rome, a city filled with refugees from Central and Eastern Europe. The Vatican was committed to helping these refugees emigrate so that they could escape persecution in their Communist-dominated countries of origin. In 1946 Vatican Undersecretary of State Giovanni Montini (later Paul VI) told the Argentine ambassador that Pius wanted to help Catholics of whatever nationality emigrate. Phayer writes, “If among these hundreds of thousands of displaced persons a relatively small number of fascist war criminals should also find their way across the ocean, the Vatican had no objection.” In fact, we have no evidence that anyone in the Vatican was aware that they were abetting war criminals. According to Phayer, what mattered to the Vatican was the “emigrant’s politics, and the bigger the Nazi the greater the anti-Communist became the rule.” But no documents are presented showing that anyone in the Vatican really thought this way.

Phayer alleges Vatican complicity in the smuggling of hundreds of members of the Croatian Ustashi from Rome to Argentina—though the Croats in question appear to have been held on the properties of the College of St. Jerome, which, though under Vatican protection, was not part of the Vatican. A leading Croat priest, Krunoslav Draganović (whom Phayer describes as an “Ustasa priest”), had contact with Montini, but Phayer does not demonstrate any direct collusion of high Vatican officials in organizing this “ratline.” In earlier work, Phayer alleged that Montini had to know that Draganović would use Vatican-supplied “relief funds for fugitives from justice.” But does Phayer know that Draganović presented himself to Montini as a Croatian ultranationalist?

We do know that Draganović managed to fit some rather diverse activities into his career: he taught theology in prewar Zagreb, worked for a Croatian bishop sympathetic to the Ustashi, directed refugee affairs at St. Jerome’s right after the war, informed for the CIA in the 1950s, and finally defected to Communist Yugoslavia in 1967. Amazingly, in view of the role Phayer attributes to Draganović in running ratlines, Tito’s regime did not put him on trial. Historians have wondered whether Draganović was a Communist double agent (in which case the ratline would run to Belgrade and perhaps Moscow) or whether he defected as a result of a Vatican-Yugoslav effort at damage control in the early years of détente. As Phayer himself wrote in his first book, “One could put any face that one liked on the mercurial, venal Father Draganović.” Of course, it was Draganović who was putting on the different faces, becoming useful to fascist, Catholic, liberal-democratic, and then Communist regimes. Does it stretch the imagination to think this chameleon could have presented himself to Montini as an opponent of the Ustashi? After all, he came to Montini with a recommendation from Archbishop Stepinac, whom Phayer credits with perhaps the most courageous denunciation of genocide made by any high-ranking cleric during the war.

Phayer justly accuses Vatican officials of failing to concern themselves with how many of the refugees aided by Draganović were war criminals. Perhaps they might have consulted U.S. or British officials to find out more—though, as Phayer shows, the diplomats knew much less than the Office of Strategic Services, and from 1947 neither the United States nor the British sent suspected war criminals back to their countries of origin. Indeed, they often made use of them.

Who, then, produced documentation to tie low-ranking Croat officials to crimes committed on Yugoslav territory? The answer is: the Yugoslav government. Here the historian must note something that was obvious to Vatican officials but may not be obvious to all readers of Phayer’s analysis: the Yugoslav government of this period was in the hands of Stalinists. For them nothing was apolitical, not even a “war crime.” Business owners, anti-Communists, and Roman Catholic priests were all construed as “fascist war criminals.” We don’t know exactly who took shelter at St. Jerome’s, but we do know what would have awaited them back home. In 1945 the British returned tens of thousands of Croatian soldiers and civilians to Yugoslavia—including women and children—and they were summarily executed by Communist partisans as soon as they crossed the border. The killing was indiscriminate and immediate. We also know from Capt. Evelyn Waugh that Tito’s partisan forces exterminated Catholic priests in 1945, again with no effort to determine individual guilt. Many questions about East European displaced persons await resolution, but this question does not: we know that to send Croats back into Tito’s Yugoslavia was not to send them back to justice.

Was Pius XII a hardliner “obsessed” with Communism? My Webster’s Dictionary defines obsession as a “persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling.” In fact, Pius’s response to Communism was the reasonable, responsible, and logical response of the head of the Catholic Church. If there was an obsession, it was on the side of the Communists.

Pius XII’s view of Communism as an ideology necessarily at odds with Catholicism was not the fruit of unreason; rather, it was based on his own attempts to reach out to the Soviet regime in the 1920s. As nuncio in Berlin, he had met repeatedly with Soviet representatives, twice with Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin. He implored them to agree to a regulation of the affairs of the Catholic Church in their territory. Pius XII has been much criticized for putting stock in concordats with Mussolini and Hitler, but for the sake of the church he had also been willing to negotiate with Lenin and Stalin. They rebuffed him, and then set out to destroy Christianity on Soviet territory. In 1995 Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of the Commission for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression, claimed that two hundred thousand clergy had been slain under Soviet rule: “Documents relate how clergymen, monks, and nuns were crucified on royal gates and shot in the basements of the Cheka, scalped, strangled, drowned, and submitted to other bestial tortures,” Yakovlev reported. In 1922 Lenin had written to Molotov: “The greater the number of representatives of the reactionary clergy and bourgeoisie we succeed in executing...the better.”

This explains why the Vatican was happy to get written agreements with other totalitarian regimes permitting sacraments and religious education. It also helps explain why the pope was absolute in his public condemnations of Communism but not of fascism: from the former he had nothing left to lose. In the case of Germany and the vast stretch of Europe it controlled, he worried that outright denunciation could worsen the position of Catholics. In 1935 he told Dietrich von Hildebrand, “Martyrdom cannot be ordered by Rome, it must come spontaneously.” If Christians wanted to oppose Nazism directly, that was fine; but the Vatican could not force them to do so. He therefore spoke in very general terms—not against Nazism but against those who question the unity of the human race—or made his real sentiments known to small groups and in small publications.

This vagueness, common to both Piuses, drove Catholics who hungered for moral clarity crazy. Take, for example, the theologian Karl Thieme, who urged the pope to make a statement of solidarity with Jews after Krystallnacht in 1938. Thieme wrote to his collaborator Johannes Oesterreicher: “Impromptus made during audiences with pilgrims...are no substitute for a word of the church’s teaching authority.” The people needed to be “ very concrete matters.” Or take the editors of Commonweal commenting in January 1943 on the pope’s Christmas address. It was “difficult,” they wrote, “to realize that certain sections [of the pope’s message] are issued in the very midst of a world cataclysm.”

It’s not difficult to understand why Pius XII felt Communism posed a mortal danger to Catholicism, but Phayer does little to illuminate readers on this more general background. If he criticizes Pius XII for obsessiveness, what does Phayer imagine a more “conciliatory” (his word) pope might have achieved? Phayer has not fully worked out his counternarrative, but he does drop some hints. He writes that historians have been quick to give credit to John XXIII and John Paul II for bringing the cold war to an end, but not to blame Pius XII for helping to launch the conflict. The implication is that someone more like John XXIII would not have collaborated in sinking the world into decades of international strife.

In 1958, John XXIII exchanged greetings with Soviet statesmen, and because of his efforts, Phayer writes, “the cold-war iceberg had begun to melt.” But the exact relation between such words and détente is not clear. Phayer moves onto firmer ground when he credits John Paul II with an important role in ending the cold war. But why does Phayer believe the Polish pope was “completing the work” of John XXIII? In fact, John Paul built upon the work of Pius XII. Like Pius, he made clear that Leninism and Catholicism could not be reconciled, and every time he appeared next to apparatchiks like Edward Gierek or Wojciech Jaruzelski the message could not be clearer: here, a serenely confident figure in white unafraid to speak of truth; there, awkwardly gesturing men incapable of speaking freely or saying anything true about the environment they had created. John Paul did not cause ice to melt. He broke through an edifice of lies. He also revered Pius XII.

But John Paul’s own commitment to truth was also qualified. Historians had to wait for his successor to gain access to documents from the papacy of Pius XI, who died in 1939. The international standard for making records of state available to researchers is thirty years. It is difficult to fault serious and accomplished historians like Michael Phayer for intelligent guesswork when the Vatican leaves them no other option. Perhaps Phayer has concluded that, in light of the Vatican’s extreme secrecy, his subject does not deserve the benefit of the doubt. If history were a court of law, Phayer’s charges against Pius XII would be thrown out for lack of evidence—but the Vatican would be held in contempt.


Related: Canonizing Pius XII, by Michael Phayer
Pacelli's Prosecutor, by John F. Morley

Published in the 2008-09-26 issue: View Contents

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

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