What standards should we use to judge figures of the distant past—those of their time, or of our own? No historical figure evokes this question more acutely than Pope Pius XII. In the 1940s, leading newspapers celebrated him as a “lonely voice” against Nazism, a courageous opponent of those bent on persecuting the Jews. At his death in 1958, Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir cabled condolences to the Vatican: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for the victims.”

Yet three years after that encomium, a play by the German Rolf Hochhuth accused the pope of failing to speak out forcefully against the Nazis. Historians confirmed that while Pius condemned aggression and violence, he never censured the Nazi regime or spoke out against the killing of Jews—even though the Vatican received information about it in 1942. In 1989, Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote that if the pope had issued an encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism, he might have averted the Holocaust. A few years later, the historian John Cornwell completed this line of criticism by anointing Pius “Hitler’s pope,” a man who by his silence had enabled the greatest crimes known to humankind. 

The pope’s defenders fought back, insisting that Pius had muffled criticism in order not to endanger the Vatican’s behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of the victims. Rabbi David Dalin wrote that the pope’s “diplomacy and the Vatican’s rescue operations saved hundreds of thousands of Jews and other innocent victims from Nazism.” Now in Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler (Basic Books, $29.99, 384 pp.), Mark Riebling, a respected expert on national security, takes this approach to a new level. In his view the pope was not simply a top diplomat, but a spymaster who oversaw intricate intelligence networks that passed information to select parties in hopes of helping to destroy Hitler. Pius was silent, Church of Spies insists, because his operations were secret.

Those operations placed him in contact, direct and indirect, with anti-Hitler conspirators. The Munich lawyer and later postwar politician Josef Müller facilitated contacts from Rome to the German state and military, including high-ranking Hitler opponents in the SS and in military counter-espionage, like Admiral Wilhelm Franz Canaris. Hitler led a charmed existence, however, and escaped one assassination attempt after another. In March 1943 Colonel Henning von Tresckow placed a bomb in a plane carrying Hitler to his quarters in East Prussia, but the detonator froze; Pius as well as generals in Berlin waited hopefully, only to learn the plane did not crash. The greatest disappointment came on July 20, 1944, when the thick leg of an oak table shielded Hitler from the blast of a bomb placed beneath it by Claus Count von Stauffenberg, leader of a group of high military officers attempting to take over the government and sue the Allies for peace. (Josef Müller had worked closely with the Stauffenberg conspirators, but was incarcerated at the time of the assassination attempt, and thus survived retribution in the mass roundup and executions that followed.) 

Riebling takes readers into each plot, and makes them all vivid. We hear the doors of the sleek old limousines snapping shut, see the green and black uniformed officials across banquet halls and around the curving staircases of hotels in Berlin and Rome. Through the plans’ arcane details one can feel the anxieties of people who for years racked their brains, under the shadow of the guillotine, for ways of destroying Hitler. More than other authors, Riebling dwells upon the religious commitments of Hitler’s foes. Stauffenberg, we learn, was a Catholic troubled by the regime’s anti-Jewish policies, and his circle intersected with that of the Kreisau conspirators around Helmut von Molkte, whom Riebling calls “latter-day apostles of a new Babylon.” They received spiritual guidance from the Jesuit Augustin Rösch, of whom Moltke’s widow Freja later said: “we really felt quite reborn because of him.” After ridding Germany of Hitler and ending the war, they hoped to fashion faith communities—Christenschaften—in which Germans could recuperate from the deification of the state. Instead, most were arrested and executed, including a second Jesuit, Alfred Delp, who left us his haunting prison diaries.

In my view Riebling underplays the challenges of accurately recapturing his heroes’ stories. He writes, for instance, that Pius made the “choice to help kill Adolf Hitler” in late October 1939, but the source he cites refers to the necessity of “removing” Hitler, which by no means necessarily means killing him. Because Vatican archives on the period are closed, Riebling is forced to extrapolate from sources produced after the war—often several degrees from the individuals in question, and with the diminished accuracy of memory. Also problematic is the way Riebling uses Pius’s peripheral role in the plots against Hitler to account for his “silence” on the Holocaust. Citing Nazi retribution for the July 1942 pastoral letter of Dutch bishops against deportations of Jews, Riebling claims the pope feared that public condemnation would do more harm than good. Yet in his own meticulous study The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War (University of Toronto, $37.95, 424 pp.), historian Jacques Kornberg notes that German authorities had already decided to deport forty thousand Jews from the Netherlands in June, and that the first trains had left before the bishops spoke out.


BUT IF WE grant that these were in fact the pope’s calculations, were those calculations wrong? We lack sufficient evidence to say. Besides the 1943 Rosenstrasse protests of “Aryan” wives for their Jewish husbands, no public protest halted the deportation of Jews in areas controlled by German authorities.  We also know that the Vatican did have some success using diplomatic channels to halt deportations of Jews from Nazi puppet states like Slovakia and Hungary, or from Germany’s ally, Romania. We do not know whether a papal appeal to other Catholics, in particular Central Europe’s bishops, informing them of the genocide against Jews, and of its incompatibility with Catholic teaching, might have caused more Catholics to act to save Jews. We have every reason to assume the German state would have portrayed any such appeal as a declaration of war, and would have moved to seize church properties, thus costing lives of many Jews and non-Jews. Far less vicious rulers than Hitler have not hesitated to confiscate monasteries, churches, and convents. 

At the time, persuasive arguments for papal caution were not lacking. As John Pollard has pointed out in his study of the papacy, Pius believed to the end that he might act as an intermediary to bring about peace, and that if the Holy See was to maintain diplomatic relations with both sides, it had to remain impartial. According to Josef Müller, the German conspirators urged the pope not to condemn the Nazis because doing so would have made German Catholics “even more suspected than they were and would have greatly restricted their freedom of action in their work of resistance.” This claim was recorded by U.S. Ambassador Harold Tittmann after dinner with Müller in Rome in June 1945, long before the Hochhuth controversy and a perceived need to shield the pope from criticism. 

Pius sympathized with efforts to assist Jews, but viewed the decision of whether to do so as a prudential one best left to individuals. In March 1943 the archbishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing, wrote that deportations of Jews were recommencing from his diocese and their likely fate was death. “Would it not be possible,” he asked, “for your Holiness to try once again to intervene for these many unfortunate innocents?” On April 30 the pope replied that he would not speak out, but encouraged pastors “on the spot” to judge whether “the danger of reprisals...counsel restraint...in order to avoid greater evils.” It was consoling, he continued, to learn “that Catholics, notably in Berlin, had manifested great Christian charity toward the sufferings of non-Aryans.” He expressed special “paternal gratitude and profound sympathy” for Msgr. Bernard Lichtenberg, provost at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin, languishing in prison for criticizing Nazi racism from the pulpit.

It’s possible that the retribution against Dutch converts in 1942 had made Pius hesitate to speak as openly as Lichtenberg (soon to die while being transported to Dachau). Yet one can’t help noting the pope’s continued use of anodyne idioms of diplomacy, designed not to offend Nazi Germany, even in private communications. He wrote Preysing that “Our paternal love and solicitude are greater today toward non-Aryan or semi-Aryan Catholics, children of the church like the others, when their outward existence is collapsing and they are going through moral distress.” In Years of Extermination, historian Saul Friedländer notes that “‘moral distress’ and the collapse of ‘outward existence’ were not exactly the right terms” for the fate of the Jews under Hitler. And indeed, the pope’s inability to summon outrage in intimate communication suggests precisely the kind of self-censorship that occurs under totalitarian regimes. It’s clear that the pope was aware of a problem: his note to Preysing was meant to justify what appeared to be scanty public criticism. But again, given the inaccessible nature of closed Vatican archives, we have no definitive insight into what Pius was thinking.


JACQUES KORNBERG'S WAY AROUND this problem in The Pope’s Dilemma is to assess Pius’s behavior within patterns established by earlier popes operating among contending and sometimes warring European states. In World War I, Benedict XV condemned aggression but pointedly not aggressors, a careful stance adopted not only in order to facilitate peace, but also because Catholics fought on both sides and the Vatican feared that partiality would divide the church and hamper its efforts to mediate the salvation of all humans. The trend continued under Pius XI, who knew of the injustices of French occupation of the German Ruhr, and of Italian aggression in North Africa, but did not condemn them. Where Nazism was concerned, he worried that open censure might cause Hitler to take the church out of Germany as Henry VIII had taken it out of England. 

But now comes the hard part for Kornberg’s argument. If one acknowledges such a well-established concern for the church’s unity, what is the basis for a harsh judgment of the papacy? A letter Kornberg himself published in the New York Review of Books in October 1989 makes precisely this point, calling it “preposterous to suggest that Pius XII would have tested the faith of German Catholics by launching a campaign against anti-Semitism.” Kornberg was responding to Conor Cruise O’Brien’s idea that a papal critique might have averted the Holocaust. “O’Brien’s might-have-been,” Kornberg continued in 1989,

disregards the papacy’s practical concern with maintaining religious institutions, based on its view of the church as the necessary channel for grace and salvation. Clearly this took priority over promoting Christian love, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom. The role cast for the papacy as humanity’s courageous moral conscience in a time of crisis is a recent phenomenon, perhaps in part a reaction to twentieth-century horrors. If a pope ever took up this challenge, he would rank as even more of an innovator than Gorbachev.

And yet in his current book Kornberg does more than regret that the pope was not a visionary; he accuses him of “moral failure,” even of acquiescence to murder. He writes that the pope “could have promoted a more benign view of Judaism, at a time of extreme Jewish distress,” but that “he chose not to do so.” Yet Kornberg has no more internal evidence of Pius’s choices than Riebling does. Kornberg wishes the pope had gone beyond simple lament and called for “action” against Hitler. But what kind of action could have stopped Hitler? Violence? That’s hardly something a modern pope can call for. And so Kornberg seems as much a victim of wishful thinking as O’Brien. Indeed, the example he cites—Gorbachev, who until the very moment he was ousted in the summer of 1991 believed that through some brilliant innovation or reform, Leninism could be squared with democracy—reminds us that even astute reformers cannot suddenly jump out of the shadow of their assumptions. And Pius was neither an innovator nor a reformer, but, as Paul O’Shea calls him in A Cross Too Heavy, an “intelligent and highly educated conservative Tridentine Catholic.”

Kornberg’s lament over the papacy’s “moral failure” is only part of his compelling, lucid, and highly learned argument. Probing the mental barriers that limited the popes—the “historical context” that shaped their choices—The Pope’s Dilemma delineates a tradition, going back to Augustine, in which Catholicism stressed human weakness and the absolute need for salvation mediated by the church. Avoiding extremes like Jansenism, the church learned to “compromise with human nature as it was,” Kornberg writes, and it tolerated nationalist readings of Christianity, by which “clergy everywhere made God a steadfast ally of their own nation at war.” The state was respected for guaranteeing space within which the church could operate, disdaining politics while abhorring the room that “pluralism” left for theological error. For his part, unimpressed by the virtues of democracy, Pius XII hoped to restore a medieval Christian commonwealth, with a “unity of faith, custom, and morals.” The popes of the interwar years had arrayed a Catholic militancy against forces of secularization; the church, Pius XI told French pilgrims in 1938, had the “right and duty to claim total control over the individual.” The evangelization went hand in hand with a cult inflating the pope’s self-image to extraordinary dimensions. “Who of you can suffer,” Pius asked a Polish delegation in 1939, “without me suffering with him?” 

In Kornberg’s view, this self-assigned infallibility conduced to the cynicism of a “divine institution” that constantly created alibis for being less than divine. This returns us to the papacy’s concern for appearance, for seeming to have spoken out when in fact it had not. In a private meeting of October 1941 with Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, the future John XXIII, Pius had worried how his “inaction” on Nazi mistreatment of the Jews would be perceived abroad. Korn-berg thinks such concerns for appearance were an end in themselves. For example, in April 1943 papal undersecretary of state Domenico Tardini recommended papal intervention with Slovakia to stop deportations. But he wanted the note leaked in order to deflect responsibility from the church in case the effort failed. Kornberg writes that Tardini “assumed this empty gesture would win high praise.”

My sense is that operations in the Vatican were messier. Tardini wanted the church to put on a good face, true; but what institution is not concerned about its appearance? At the same time, it seems clear that Tardini—a respected figure—sincerely wanted to help, and may have judged that arguments about losing face would help win over skeptics in the hierarchy. In the event, thanks to the efforts of Nuncio Burzio and the remarkable Sr. Margit Slachta in Bratislava, a letter was produced, and helped halt planned deportations. 


BY WAY OF accounting for the changing view of Pius over the decades, Kornberg credits a radical shift in the church after World War II—toward respect for the autonomy of the individual’s conscience, toward faith in the spiritual gifts residing with individual believers, and toward a recognition that the church, in Karl Rahner’s words, was both sinful and holy, from top to bottom. It was a shift both exemplified and ratified by Vatican II, but anticipation of it long predates the council, and even World War II itself. On April 1, 1933, State Secretary Pacelli met with his boss, Pius XI, to discuss news from Germany, where the newly installed government had launched a boycott of Jewish businesses. Pacelli made a note: “The day may come when we will have to be able to say that something was done about this matter.” At the time, the church still taught (non-magisterially) that Jews were fated to suffer for rejecting Christ; indeed, just a few years prior, Pius XI had closed down a society within the church that advocated improved relations with Jews. Still, it seems, Pacelli anticipated these assumptions one day being overshadowed by larger truths. In a time just beyond the horizon, people would ask the church: Where were you? 

Such prescient moral intuition helps explain why Pius XII became a figure of such compelling and even crucial historical significance, and why what he said and did—and did not say and do—sparks such ambivalence today, and remains so polarizing. Who can generate more passion—whether among those damning or defending him—than Pacelli?

In 1942 the editors of the New York Times read the twenty-six-page papal Christmas message with tremendous care and concluded as follows:

When a leader bound impartially to nations on both sides condemns as heresy the new form of national state which subordinates everything to itself; when he declares that whoever wants peace must protect against “arbitrary attacks” the “juridical safety of individuals”; when he assails violent occupation of territory, the exile and persecution of human beings for no other reason than race or political opinion; when he says that people must fight for a just and decent peace, a “total peace”—the impartial judgment is like a verdict in a high court of justice.

Yet many in our day insist that the pope’s Christmas message was insufficient.

The important truth is that criticisms of Pius XII go far beyond concern over one man’s failings or one institution’s hypocrisies. The list of governments, organizations, and leaders who have either traduced sworn obligations or failed in high callings is endless, from democracy and liberal nationalism to all brands of socialism, from leaders of charities to banks to great armies. Somehow, however, the papacy stands apart. Saul Friedländer writes that the popes exposed themselves to uniquely probing assessments because their claim was one of “moral witnessing” and not merely protecting “institutional interests.”

These words are important for gauging Kornberg’s own standards. “As a universal moral authority,” he asserts in his book’s conclusion, “an immense gap existed between [Pius XII’s] claims and reality.” That gap is particularly glaring and dismaying because “Catholic traditions had always revered the memory of its martyrs.” Kornberg seems to imply that Pius should have given up his life. If so, of what other institution, religious or secular, would an outsider conceivably write such a thing?

Kornberg might argue that he is only granting the truth of what some inside the church had already said. He mentions the diaries of the unfortunately little known German Catholic anti-Nazi Theodor Haecker, who wrote in 1940 that the Vatican had forgotten that Peter was not only bishop of Rome, but also a martyr. And he might also have cited Konrad Adenauer, who regretted after the war that bishops had not been put in concentration camps as a result of their Christian witness.

Still, there is something remarkable about the conclusion Kornberg reaches. What The Pope’s Dilemma tells us, despite all the disdain its author has gathered for the Vatican over decades of meticulous study, is that it’s good when Catholics go to their deaths in witness to their faith. Kornberg is suggesting that if this witness was worth dying for, it was worth living for. This in itself is a kind of faith, shared by authors ranging from Dalin and Riebling to Kornberg, Cornwell, O’Brien, and many others. It is a faith that popes and bishops and countless prelates over many centuries have failed to shake.

Published in the February 24, 2017 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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