Introduction: The Stakes
The critics and defenders of Pius have been debating these questions for some 40 years. It is a contentious and unsettled dispute. This paper will examine, in a chronological approach, how scholars interpreted the documentation, testimony and other information involving the actions of the Vatican during the Holocaust. The first chapter analyzes the origin of the controversy, namely, how scholars responded to Rolf Hochhuth's play, "The Deputy." The second describes the debate as it evolved throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The final chapter explores the contention over Pius reputation under the current Pope, John Paul II. The conclusion summarizes the problems of ascertaining the truth behind such a nebulous, polemical and inconclusive controversy.
Though the actor playing the Pope is not on stage very long, the Papal presence is felt throughout. When the Pope does appears, he delivers such lines as:
Certainly the terror against the Jews is loathsome,but we must not allow it to incense Us so that We forget the duties that devolve upon the Germans for the immediate future as the present protectors and rulers of Rome. Moreover, Germany must remain viable not only to hold the frontiers against the East, but also to hold the balance of power.
Four pages later, as the Pope is dictating a non-committal, prosaic speech about peace and brotherhood, he stops and asks his counselor "One of those checks, Fontana, Which you delivered to Us today, reminds Us of the securities of the Hungarian Railroads. Will you see to it, dear Count, that We suffer no losses even if the Red Army should occupy Hungary?" .
It is an emotionally powerful scene, as Fontana's son, Father Riccardo, is pleading for the Pope to publicly condemn the horrors of the Holocaust, of Auschwitz, of the Roman Jews being led away under the Pope's very windows. The Pope finishes dictating, without specifically referring to any of this, and then symbolically washes his hands. Hochhuth's conclusion was "Perhaps never before in history have so many people paid with their lives for the passivity of one single politician."
Due to its scandalous, spiritual, and emotional subject matter, this play generated an enormous amount of controversy. With the Vatican's tradition of not releasing a Pope's official records until 75 years after his death, the opinions of both Pius' critics and defenders have frequently become dogmatic, passionate, and biased. Pius' critics portrayed him to be indifferent, pusillanimous, greedy, unworthy, unfit, cowardly, criminal, or even pro-Hitler. He was even depicted by some to be a sinister, silent partner of the Nazis. The malicious tradition of Catholic anti-Semitism, nearly two millennia old, was contributory to many Nazi principles. His defenders were just as unyielding and opinionated. To almost all that knew him, these allegations of personal venality were bitter falsehoods, promulgated either from vindictiveness, malice or ignorance. Pius' supporters portrayed him as a man of faith, sympathetic to all those damaged by the war. They perceived him as a sincere, warm, peace-loving and even saintly man. Unsubstantiated unflattering opinions of Pius malign both his reputation and that of the entire Roman Catholic Church. Pius' official proclamations during the war did not specifically mention the Jews, the Holocaust, the concentration camps, or Hitler. Pius believed in restraint, diplomacy and balanced relations between countries. He believed all the belligerent nations were amoral on a variety of issues. He believed he could not denounce Hitler without denouncing Stalin as well. He determined (along with many others) that neither Stalin nor Hitler was willing to be guided by the Vatican's wishes. Direct public protest could cause increased wickedness instead of alleviating it. This is the essential issue behind the "silence" controversy. Is silence equated with inaction, collaboration or cowardice (as Pius' critics state)? Or did his actions, in such a troubled, murderous time, serve the Church and humanity the best they could? The Post "Deputy" Controversy
A reevaluation of the Pope's actions occurred. Within one year after the publication of The Deputy came Carlo Falconi's The Silence of Pius XII. Though far better researched than Hochhuth's play, the inference was the same. Falconi blamed Pius for silence on a variety of issues: the murder of civilian, the massacres of Russian
prisoners, the "euthanasia" program, the persecution and annihilation of the Jews, and even the outbreak of war and its prosecution. Falconi states that the Pope even could have prevented the war in the first place. In his chapter, "What Should He Have Done?" Falconi asserts that excommunications, anathemas or theatrical gestures probably would not have stopped Hitler. He believes if the Pope had only agreed to participate in a plan presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the British House of Lords on March 20, 1939, World War II may have been prevented. Falconi assumes Pius actually had quite an easy, righteous option to take. As Falconi claims:
Whether Hitler would have listened to the united spiritual force of Christendom remains doubtful. He was not a man who suffered ultimatums lightly, even when they were backed by force. The possibility of Christian religions combining together (for the first time since the Reformation) and forcing a change in Nazi practices was also highly doubtful. Why did Falconi place such emphasis on the Archbishop's fanciful plan and not the Vatican's highly organized diplomatic corps? Pius was heavily involved with preventing the outbreak of war. Although Falconi attempts to attribute conniving motivations to Pius, utilizing the Vatican Palaces as a neutral and non-partisan meeting ground is reasonable. Falconi does convey several reasons why the Pope (in Falconi's opinion) did not publicly and specifically condemn the Nazis. Future writers used these critiques to vilify or explain the Pope's actions.
The Pope was deeply concerned about divided loyalties, responsibilities and allegiances among Catholics. The psychological and religious dilemmas of Axis Catholics (especially Germans) troubled the Pope. As Guenter Lewy wrote in his book The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany published in 1964:
Given the indifference of the German population toward the fate of the Jews, and the highly ambivalent attitude of the
German hierarchy towards Nazi anti-Semitism, a forceful stand by the supreme pontiff on the Jewish question might well have led to a large-scale desertion from the Church the Pope knew that the German Catholics were not prepared to suffer martyrdom for their Church; still less were they willing to incur the wrath of their Nazi rulers for the sake of the Jews, whom their own bishops had castigated as a harmful influence in German life.
According to Falconi, other rationales for the Pope's silence were: his desire to preserve a powerful and influential Church for the future, his diplomatic training, his Germanophilia, and his revulsion against melodramatic gestures.
This statement from Pius, in the midst of the Holocaust, is important because of what it illustrates about his attitude, personality and motives. For once, he was not silent. He knew millions would hear his message. But how effective and unambiguous was it? What response was he hoping for? By encompassing all civilians, did the Pope dilute his message (after all, German civilians were being bombed as well)? Or was it seen as a barely screened strike against Nazi barbarism (as Pius believed). Many people, the Allies especially, did not believe Pius' message went far enough.
Pius' Christmas message is also consequential in terms of how scholars employ it to further their assertions and frame their interpretations of Pope Pius XII. His anti-Communist rationale behind specifically condemning the Nazis is controversial.
Friedlander succinctly relates his conclusion:
I must content myself with pointing out that on two important points the German documents show impressive agreement: on the one hand, the Sovereign Pontiff seems to have a predilection for Germany which does not appear to have been diminished by the nature of the Nazi regime and which was not disavowed up to 1944; on the other hand, Pius XII feared a Bolshevization of Europe more than anything else and hoped, it seems, that Hitler Germany, if it were eventually reconciled with the Western Allies, would become the essential rampart against any advance by the Soviet Union toward the West.16
During the mid-1960s, the reputation of many conservative, tradition-bound establishments were being reexamined. The Vatican was no exception. In response to the one-sided criticism it was suffering, the Vatican allowed four Jesuits to edit the World War Two papers of Pius. The Holy See and The War in Europe: March 1939-
August 1940 was released in 1965. One problem with these edited documents is in their limited time frame. "Jews" were referred to merely four times and never by Pius specifically. Though additional volumes were released, they were hampered by the sameeditorial problems.
In 1967, the noted Jewish scholar Pinchas E. Lapide released Three Popes and The Jews. The time span examined is actually from the time of Christ until 1966. His well-researched revelations and unbiased scholarship aided Pius' reputation a great deal. After thoroughly analyzing what Pius did and did not do, Lapide assertively decided in favor of Pius' actions. He understands Pius was not faultless. Lapide summarizes:
Frail and fallible, Pius had choice thrust upon him time and time again, which would have made a lesser man falter. The 261st Pope was, after all, merely the first Catholic, heir to many prejudices of his predecessors and shortcomings of his 500 million believers. The primary guilt for the slaughter of a third of my people is that of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust. But the secondary guilt lies in the universal failure of Christendom to try to avert, or at least mitigate the disaster Only against the background of such monumental egotism, within the context of millennial Christian anti-Judaism, can one begin to appraise the Pope's wartime record. When armed force ruled well-nigh omnipotent, and morality was at its lowest ebb, Pius XII commanded none of the former and could only appeal to the latter, in confronting, with bare hands, the full might of evil Who, but a prophet or a martyr could have done much more?17
For nearly 150 pages, listing country by country, Lapide describes what the Catholic Church actually achieved. From money provided, facilities freely opened, passports given, people hidden or helped to escape, Lapide mentions many instances of altruism to verify the value of the Vatican's quiet diplomacy. He asserts:
In private, the Pope undoubtedly did an immense amount for the Jews. He instructed the churches, monasteries and convents to raise the limit of the number of guests normally taken in, so that as many Jews as possible could find asylum. . In gratitude for this, the American Jewish Welfare Board wrote to Pope Pius XII on the 21st July,1944, "We ar deeply moved by this remarkable display of Christian love, the protection afforded to Italian Jews by the Catholic Church and the Vatican during the German occupation of Italy --- particularly as the risks incurred were immense." It is therefore, I think, established beyond all doubt that the humane work of the Pope in helping suffering European Jewry during the Second World War, not only by large donations but by hiding them from their persecutors, was in the finest charitable traditions of the Catholic Church.
Sam Waagenaar's The Pope's Jews followed Rhodes' accomplished work the next year. He essentially tries to repudiate the Vatican's rationalizations for her actions. In fact, in the chapter "Vatican Claims", concerns itself with the amount of money and lodgings the Vatican provided .a very nebulous subject when it pertains to illegal refugees. Another chapter is "More Vatican Claims," in which Waagenaar refutes Rhodes' work (without footnotes). An Example of Waagenaar's style of analysis:
Historians are not supposed to "speculate," but it can't be helped here. Now suppose the Pope had been kidnapped. Would not "the civilized world" indeed have protested, including most likely millions of devout Catholics in Germany and German-occupied territories? Might this not even have changed the course of the whole war?
In his chapter, "The Converted Rabbi," he relates the story of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israele Zolli. According to Waagenaar, Zolli and his family converted to Catholicism not out of gratitude and respect for the Catholic Church and Pius (Zolli took "Eugenio", Pius' baptismal name, as his own), but out of "spite" for his Jewish compatriots. This is true to a certain extent, but the real reasons are naturally more complex.
Waagenaar's bibliography also lists all the previous books discussed here, though without proper footnotes it is difficult to tell exactly where his sources came from. He has taken the clandestine work of the Church, transposed it into a myth, and blamed the upper echelons of Christians and Jews alike. The Nazis were barely, if at all, mentioned. The appalling tragedies of the Holocaust are due to the faults of the victims and their rescuers.
Neither book created much of a stir in the immediate post-Watergate period. The intrigues and diplomacy of the Vatican were swiftly fading into the almost forgotten past. The remaining volumes of Records and Documents of the Holy See Relating to the Second World War were not even translated into English (probably due to the lack of public interest and not any sinister motivations). It would take a new Pope to attract interest in the Vatican's practices and accomplishments.
the debate remained. Possibly due to the social and political upheavals of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, the "silence" of Pius no longer automatically provided an animated argument. Two works were then published in the mid-1970s, Anthony Rhodes' The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators (1973) and Sam Waagenaar's The Pope's Jews (1974). These books are significant because, though published almost simultaneously, they interpret the Vatican's actions and motivations from contradictory viewpoints. Rhodes' book analyzes the complexity of what the Vatican was trying to achieve diplomatically. He explains the problems involved with simply critiquing what the Pope did and did not do. Rhodes explains:
All these writers examine the relations of the Vatican with Nazi Germany, without referring to other aspects of Vatican diplomacy in the inter-war years. In this book, an attempt has been made not only to assess the validity of these accusations against the Vatican, but also to show that its attitude towards Nazi Germany was the logical sequence of the new foreign policy inaugurated by Pius XII immediately after the First World War, and applied in his dealings with a number of European states.21
Rhodes himself believes that Hochhuth's characterization is nonsense. Pius was responsible for the Church and for people's souls. He was not influenced by the lure of money, territory or power. He could not be bought or frightened. He simply believed, in the long run, that it was more effective for him to do certain things covertly. Rhodes explains:
In private, the Pope undoubtedly did an immense amount for the Jews. He instructed the churches, monasteries and convents to raise the limit of the number of guests normally taken in, so that as many Jews as possible could find asylum. In gratitude for this, the American Jewish Welfare Board wrote to Pope Pius XII on the 21st July, 1944, "We are deeply moved by this remarkable display of Christian love, the protection afforded to Italian Jews by the Catholic Church and the Vatican during the German occupation of Italy --- particularly as the risks incurred were immense." It is therefore, I think established beyond all doubt that the humane work of the Pope in helping suffering European Jewry during the Second World War, not only by large donations but by hiding them from their persecutors, was in the finest charitable traditions of the Catholic Church.22
Sam Waagenaar's The Popes Jews followed Rhodes' work the next year. He essentially tries to repudiate the Vatican's rationalizations for her actions. In the chapter "Vatican Claims," Waagenaar concerns himself with trying to account for the money and lodgings the Vatican was reputed to have provided. This is not an easy task when it pertains to illegal refugees the Vatican was purposely trying to keep hidden. The following chapter "More Vatican Claims" attempts to refute Rhodes' work. An example of Waagenaar's style of analysis:
Historians are not supposed to "speculate," but it can't be helped here. Now suppose the Pope had been kidnapped. Would not "the civilized world indeed have protested, including most likely millions of devout Catholics in Germany and German-occupied territories? Might this not even have changed the course of the whole war?"23
In his chapter concerning the conversion of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israele Zolli, Waagenaar states Zolli and his family converted to Catholicism not out of gratitude and respect for the Roman Catholic Church and Pius (Zolli took "Eugenio," Pius' baptismal name, as his own), but out of "spite" for his Jewish compatriots.24 For many, his conversion was the ultimate display of thankfulness, especially toward Pius. His difficult relations with his Jewish brethren is one reason, but the real reasons are much more complex.25
Waagenaar's bibliography also lists all the previous books discussed here, but without proper footnotes it is difficult to tell exactly the authenticity of his sources. With the historical hindsight not prescient to the participants, Waagenaar has taken the clandestine work of the Church, transposed it into a myth, and then blamed the upper echelons of Christians and Jews alike. The Nazis appeared almost incidental. After these publications, the intrigues and diplomacy of the wartime Vatican were swiftly fading into the past. The remaining volumes of the edited Records and Documents of the Holy See Relating to the Second World War were not even translated into English. This was probably due to the lack of public interest in the U.S.A. and Britain, and not any Machiavellian motivations to keep anything secret. It would take a new Pope to spark interest into the Vatican's practices and accomplishments. On October 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. A new era in examining and questioning the Papacy had begun.
By refusing to accept a significant measure of responsibility, by merely condemning "selfishness" and "hatred," the Church, once again, fails to provide leadership. The repentance that consists in saying, "To the extant that I did something wrong, I am sorry," is the repentance of the non- repentant. Surely for Catholics too, repentance requires a desire to know and understand your sin . All this verbiage and no recognition of the central fact: the Holocaust would not have been possible without the complicity of most Christians and without the virulent tradition antisemitism that had long infested the very soul of Christianity. 35
Cargas' Forward analyzes these complexities:
The problematic theme is the virtual presumption of that "the Pope," remained universally and absolutely "indifferent" and "silent" in the face of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. There is prima facie truth to this, of course, since 6 million people were systematically murdered in a part of the world that supposedly had been "Christian" for some centuries. But given what we already know of the facts and events and complexities and ambiguities of that most massive struggle in human history that was World War II, the absoluteness of the language of "silence" is true only in a symbolic and not in an actual historical sense. The discussion, as John Pawlikowski has trenchantly observed, will be best served by retiring such fractious absolutes entirely. Real history in this century, as in all others, tends to be complex and ambiguous, not neat and simple, as the categories of "silence" and "indifference" mislead us into believing.36