Pius XII’s contested legacy

Commission & Omission

That Pius XII was too silent and did too little to help the Jews during the Holocaust has now been accepted by most historians. Eamon Duffy’s carefully crafted and insightful article (“The Diplomat,” November 4) makes the point once again. I agree wholeheartedly with his conclusion: “in the face of one of the most terrible crimes in human history, impartial diplomacy and agonized calculation do not seem an adequate response from Christ’s vicar on earth.”

Putting aside the issues of personal failings and institutionalized anti-Semitism, the real question now is why Pius XII was so silent and why he did so little to help the Jews, when, as Duffy correctly points out, he loathed the Nazis and was not an anti-Semite.

In her recent celebrated study The Eichmann Trial, Deborah Lipstadt explains how Adolf Eichmann escaped from Europe after the war: “With the help of Catholic officials who had the imprimatur of high—if not the very highest—Vatican offices, Eichmann obtained a Red Cross passport and, using the pseudonym Ricardo Klement, made his way to Buenos Aires.”

Michael Phayer’s book The Catholic Church and the Holocaust noted that the signature of Fr. Krunoslav Dragonovic, “visitator of Pontifical Assistance” and “Vatican liaison to Croatians,” appears on the visa of the notorious Klaus Barbie and asks: “Why did Pius XII allow Vatican-affiliated organizations to expedite the escape of war-crimes fugitives?”

Much earlier still in 1988, in his Academy Award–winning documentary Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, Marcel Ophuls interviewed Ivo Omr-camin, former operator of the so-called ratline, who explained that Barbie did in fact get to Bolivia via the Vatican. Ophuls also interviewed a half-dozen members of the Counter Intelligence Corps of the U.S. Army who worked with Barbie after the war before he escaped from Europe. They all maintained that the United States wanted Barbie because he knew where the Russians were mining uranium ore to make an atomic bomb, and because he was a great recruiter of spies for the United States.

There was an obsessive anti-Communist culture in the Vatican from the 1930s onward and it certainly influenced not only what happened and did not happen there during the Holocaust but what happened there after the war. Once the war ended, the U.S. government sheltered some of the mass murderers of Jews because they were useful in the burgeoning Cold War and Vatican officials were helpful in getting those mass murderers out of Europe.

To ascertain Pius’s true legacy, we must consider what he did and did not do during the Holocaust as well as what he allowed to take place in the Vatican he oversaw until his death in 1958. A steady policy of Vatican anti-Communism cost the lives of countless Jews throughout Europe during the Holocaust and, ironically, saved the lives of some of the genocidal murderers who had killed them.

Patrick Henry

Walla Walla, Wash.

Corrections Must Be Made

There is no Catholic Church historian writing in English more eminent than Eamon Duffy. His account of Pius XII’s actions during World War II, however, contains a factual error and significant gaps in crucial details. He postdates by a year the Concordat with Hitler’s Germany, which Duffy rightly describes as “designed to ensure maximum freedom for the church in an increasingly authoritarian state.” The treaty was signed not in 1934 but in July 1933. Polish Cardinal August Hlond’s complaints about Pius XII’s failure to condemn Nazi persecution of the church in Poland came from Hlond’s safe refuge in southern France. Vatican radio did denounce the atrocities, but ceased when informants in Poland sent word that the broadcasts increased their sufferings. Polish bishops refused to publicize the anti-Nazi letters sent to them by Pius XII for the same reason.

Duffy mentions the pope’s telegrams of condolence to the rulers of Belgium and Holland, following their conquest by Hitler. Duffy fails to tell us, however, that on May 3, 1940, a week before the invasion, Pius sent word of Hitler’s plans (a clear violation of neutrality) to his nuncios in those countries with authorization to pass on the warning to others.

In his 1997 history of the popes, Saints and Sinners, Duffy writes that Pius XII’s Christmas 1942 denunciation of Nazi genocide angered both Mussolini and the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (not “Ambassador” as he writes there). Now he tells us that “few people then or since” viewed the pope’s words as “an unequivocal and outspoken condemnation of Nazi genocide against the Jews.” At the time, however, an official Nazi report called the pope’s speech “one long attack on everything we stand for. He is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews...and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” And the New York Times called the pope’s speech “a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”

Finally, Pius XII’s public silence during the roundup of Roman Jews in October 1943, which we now know took him unawares, was the price he paid to rescue the vast majority (reckoned even by papal critics at between four and five thousand). The anti-Hitler German ambassador to the Holy See, von Weisacker, warned the pope that a public protest would enrage Hitler and make rescue impossible. As Duffy himself says: “Protest was a luxury for which other people would die.” Which was more important? Establishing a good PR record, or saving lives?   

(Rev.) John Jay Hughes

St. Louis, Mo.

Published in the 2011-12-16 issue: 
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