The Pope at War: The Secret His­to­ry of Pius XII, Mus­soli­ni, and Hitler 

  • Review
By – January 9, 2023

The response of Pius XII and the Vat­i­can to the Holo­caust has been one of the most con­tro­ver­sial top­ics in all of Holo­caust lit­er­a­ture. The pope did not protest the killing of Euro­pean Jews; his major con­cern was the fate of bap­tized Jews, a tiny seg­ment of those slat­ed for mur­der by the Nazis. Even Roman Catholic his­to­ri­ans, such as John Corn­well (Hitler’s Pope: the Secret His­to­ry of Pius XII, 1999) and James Car­roll (Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 2001), have reviled the pope for his silence and inac­tion dur­ing the Holo­caust. Oth­er his­to­ri­ans, how­ev­er, have been more sym­pa­thet­ic to the pope, argu­ing that he did as much as pos­si­ble in light of the mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal fac­tors lim­it­ing his options.

There is no per­son more qual­i­fied to exam­ine this top­ic than David I. Kertzer, a pro­lif­ic pro­fes­sor at Brown Uni­ver­si­ty and the lead­ing author­i­ty on the mod­ern rela­tion­ship between Jews and the church. His pre­vi­ous books include The Kid­nap­ping of Edgar­do Mor­tara (1997), The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Mod­ern Anti-Semi­tism (2001), and the Pulitzer Prize-win­ning The Pope and Mus­soli­ni: The Secret His­to­ry of Pius XI and the Rise of Fas­cism in Europe (2014). His lat­est work is a deeply researched, elo­quent, and pas­sion­ate cri­tique of the wartime papa­cy. Kertzer quotes the wartime British ambas­sador to Rome: Pius XII’s poli­cies were bla­tant­ly despi­ca­ble” and result­ed in a renun­ci­a­tion of moral lead­er­ship and a con­se­quent atro­phy of the influ­ence and author­i­ty of the Vatican.

The major goal of Pius XII, Kertzer makes clear, was to pro­tect the insti­tu­tion­al church, its prop­er­ty, its pre­rog­a­tives, and its abil­i­ty to ful­fill its mis­sion as he saw it.… Those who respect­ed the church’s pre­rog­a­tives, showed a def­er­ence to the Catholic cler­gy, and offered the resources of the state to strength­en the church were good. Those who threat­ened the church’s influ­ence, under­cut its insti­tu­tion­al activ­i­ties, and threat­ened its prop­er­ty and its rep­u­ta­tion were bad.” Thus, in April 1939, the pope told a spe­cial Ger­man envoy to the papa­cy that the church loved Ger­many. We are pleased if Ger­many is great and pow­er­ful. And we do not oppose any par­tic­u­lar form of gov­ern­ment, if only the Catholics can live in accor­dance with their religion.

Pius XII feared that, should the papa­cy con­demn the Nazi regime, his tens of mil­lions of Ger­man Catholics would be endan­gered. Plus, many Ger­man Catholics were sym­pa­thet­ic to Nation­al Social­ism, and they might have left the church had they been forced to choose between the two. Then there was the pope’s con­cern that fas­cist Italy, Germany’s major Euro­pean ally, would seize the Vat­i­can, depose him, take over the church’s prop­er­ties, and per­se­cute its cler­gy and laity. Final­ly, there was the church’s abhor­rence of athe­is­tic com­mu­nism. If the pope had to side with the Sovi­et Union or Ger­many, he pre­ferred Ger­many — not because he admired Nazi Ger­many, but because he detest­ed the Sovi­et Union even more. The pope thus believed he had good rea­sons for act­ing (or not act­ing) the way he did, even if it put the moral author­i­ty of the Vat­i­can at risk.

In con­demn­ing the Roman Catholic Church in gen­er­al and Pius XII in par­tic­u­lar, the Vatican’s crit­ics, includ­ing Kertzer, have unwit­ting­ly paid it a great com­pli­ment. They take the church’s claims to moral lead­er­ship seri­ous­ly, and then they con­demn it for not liv­ing up to this stan­dard. In fact, the papa­cy act­ed the way that orga­ni­za­tions and gov­ern­ments usu­al­ly behave: as amoral insti­tu­tions out to pro­tect their inter­ests. Its behav­ior dur­ing the war, then, was hard­ly sur­pris­ing. If Pius XII is to be judged for his actions in pro­tect­ing the insti­tu­tion­al inter­ests of the Roman Catholic Church,” Kertzer apt­ly con­cludes, his papa­cy was a suc­cess.” But as a moral leader, Pius XII must be judged a failure.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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