Pius XII: Not Vindicated

It is a peculiar statue. The work of a well-known Italian sculptor, Francesco Messina, it is set about halfway into Saint Peter’s to the right of the main nave, next to a painting of Saint Sebastian and immediately opposite a statue of Pius XI. Pius XII is standing, in full regalia; his papal cloak envelops him, draped over his shoulders like a protecting towel as if he had just emerged from a swim. With one hand he blesses the faithful, but his face is turned away to the right, as if someone or something is distracting him. The face itself commands attention. Its lower half is finely formed, ascetic—the mouth small, symmetrical, full-lipped; the nose straight, Roman, slightly humped in the center of the bridge. Above it the eyes are hidden behind thick spectacles, like the goggles worn by racing drivers of fifty years ago, making the whole visage forbidding, even sinister. It has authority, but of a daunting kind.

For the Vatican to commemorate a past pope with such an effigy is extraordinary; but then finding the right way to see a man who was known in his lifetime as "the most holy one" has been a perennial problem. When, on October 9, 1958, Pius XII died, he was immediately hailed by Catholics as a saint. "It was as though you were touching heaven with your little finger just to get an audience with him," a Vatican archivist has recalled. He was the object of praise, admiration, and gratitude. Then in 1960, as Michael Phayer writes in The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, Eugenio Pacelli’s reputation underwent a change with statements by German Catholic bishops at the time of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem and on the eve of the Second Vatican Council. The cardinal of Munich, Julius Dopfner, spoke of regrettable decisions that had been made by church leaders during the Nazi era, and collectively German bishops apologized for the "inhumane extermination of the Jewish people."

Even then there was little or no criticism of Pius XII from Jewish organizations. Many Jews were far from pleased at Pius’s stance, but only with German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy in 1963 did the floodgates open. The criticism from all sides grew so intense, including people walking out of churches at the mention of Pius’s name, that the Vatican ordered a special defense.

Paul VI, who had been one of Pius’s closest advisers, ordered that all Vatican documents relating to the war be made public (twelve volumes have now been published, the final one in 1981, though as Phayer makes clear, several important papers have not been released). In November 1965, undaunted, Paul VI further instructed that the first steps should be taken toward declaring Pius XII a saint. In the week of his election as pope, Paul wrote a public letter announcing, "History will vindicate the conduct of Pius XII when confronted by the criminal excesses of the Nazi regime."

History has done no such thing. There is now a shelf of books assessing Pius’s career, the most contentious of which, John Cornwell’s 1999 study Hitler’s Pope, may well have set back the Vatican’s schedule for beatifying the pontiff.

One of the many virtues of the two books under review is that, although the authors have read Cornwell and use some of his research, they do not make the same mistake of stacking the evidence. Phayer’s book, particularly strong on German source material, is at pains to list Pius’s strong points—his piety, his loathing of Hitler, the instances of personal warmth, the occasions when he criticized Nazism. Phayer examines not only Pius’s actions but those of other leading Catholics, and his study extends beyond the end of the World War II to follow the evolution of official Catholic thinking during the rebuilding of Germany, the cold war, and the gradual theological reforms that led to Vatican II. This enables Phayer to show how the church "completely reversed its position relative to the Jews," but it also gives him a more thorough reading of Pius XII’s overall record. It is a damning and convincing verdict that emerges.

Phayer, who is professor of history at Marquette University and the author of Protestant and Catholic Women in Nazi Germany, dismisses the argument that for Pius to speak out would have made matters worse. He argues that Pius was a man "whose deep concern about communism and the intact physical survival of the city of Rome kept him from exploring options on behalf of the Jewish people." Further, Pius’s fondness for Germany and his wish to play a major role in brokering peace meant that he favored "a diplomatic remedy for a moral outrage." The Vatican "gambled, putting its moral authority at stake for the sake of a favorable diplomatic position." Quoting from the private diary of the French Catholic writer Germaine Ribiere, Phayer finds Pius "psychologically and temperamentally incapable of decisive action."

Of course, most of these criticisms have been made before, but Phayer’s even-handed approach to Pius’s character and the breadth of his analysis, taking in the Vatican’s role throughout Europe from well before the Holocaust to the postwar years and beyond, gives his book an authority that is greater than any other work since John Morley’s 1980 study, Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews During the Holocaust (Ktav Publishing House).

Toward the end of Phayer’s book, his detached tone deserts him a little and anger breaks through. His argument that Pius not only was sympathetic to leading Nazis after the war, but also actively helped in organizing an escape route for them is not fully convincing. Much rests on the exact standing of the pro-Nazi Austrian bishop, Alois Hudal, who on his own admission harbored Nazi war criminals-including Adolf Eichmann. Hudal was working in Rome throughout the Nazi era, and according to Phayer acted as an intermediary between Pius and the Nazi occupying forces. Susan Zuccotti, on the other hand, describes Hudal as "not a confidant of the pope" and having "little influence in the Vatican." At the least, it is a case not proved.

Zuccotti’s book, Under His Very Windows, is almost a companion volume to Phayer’s. There are considerable areas of overlap, particularly in the episode which gives her book its title—when, in October 1943, 1,959 people were rounded up and detained within half a mile of the Vatican, the majority carted off in cattle trucks to die in Auschwitz, without the pope making any effective protest. For the most part, however, Zuccotti, who has written two previous books on the Holocaust, has a different ambit than Phayer. She is interested in looking at the papacy’s record concerning the Jews under Italian control from 1928 on, even before Hitler’s coming to power. She thus is critical of Pius XI as well as Pius XII, and she also goes further than any previous study in examining in detail every claim made in their defense.

Thus while Phayer accepts that Pius XII made concerted efforts to help Italian Jews hide, Zuccotti takes every instance where Pius is said to have so acted and subjects it to scrutiny: What did he do for Jews in Italian-occupied Croatia, or for Jews in France? What did he do after the October 1943 round-up to help hide Jews in Roman convents, monasteries, hospitals, and schools? In Vatican properties? What part did he play in the attempts to rescue Jews in the North or Central Italy, in Venice or Trieste? What exactly did he do, and what was in his power that he did not? If he did little, why did so many Jews after the war go out of their way to thank him?

Zuccotti’s conclusion is as absolute and thorough as Phayer’s. Disturbed by "the fundamental dishonesty of claims from ostensibly reputable sources that the Vatican helped refugees far more than in fact it did," she ends by confronting "the myth of papal involvement in the rescue of Jews." If Pius XII intervened at all, "that intervention was limited almost entirely to Jews who had become Catholics." In Italy and all areas occupied by Italian troops, she summarizes, "large numbers of priests, nuns, monks, and Catholic laypersons risked their lives to save Jews with little guidance from the pope."

These two books, taken together, seem to me the most convincing, and thus the most important, summary of the church’s involvement with the Holocaust from the early 1930s to the present day. The care with which they have been written makes them especially moving. Yet they will not be the end of the story. The film rights to Hochhuth’s 1963 play have recently been sold to a Spanish producer. The director will be the world-famous Greek filmmaker, Constantine Costa-Gavras, whose credits include Z and Missing. He is known for his highly politicized semifactual approach, and has stated that he wants "to reach a mass audience with films about oppression and injustice." Perhaps Phayer and Zuccotti’s publishers may get their books to him in time. 

 


Related: John F. Morley reviews Hitler's Pope: Pacelli's Prosecutor
John Connelly reviews Michael Phayer's Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War
The Editors on authorial confusion: Anyone Here Named Richard Cohen?

More on Pius XII and sainthood: Michael Phayer, Canonizing Pius XII
Peter Quinn, Why the Rush?

Published in the 2001-03-09 issue: 

Richard Cohen is the author of By the Sword: A History of Gladiators, Musketeers, Samurai, Swashbucklers, and Olympic Champions (Modern Library) and Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star That Gives Us Life. His new book, How To Write like Tolstoy, is due out next May from Random House.

Also by this author
Burns. Tom Burns.

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