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New evidence of Pope Pius XII’s shameful silence in the face of Nazi brutality

Vic Alhadeff
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Published: 16 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

A Vatican scholar’s new book, based on previously sealed documents, provides damning evidence of the wartime pope’s moral failure and complicity.

Historian Istvan Deak wrote of Eugenio Pacelli, known to history as Pope Pius XII: “Fearful of Hitler’s wrath, the Pope barely raised his voice against Nazi racism … and spoke even less against Nazi antisemitism.”

Other observers noted that the pope remained silent while more than 1000 Jews were arrested in Rome on October 16, 1943, to be deported to their certain deaths at Auschwitz, and also when 335 civilians were executed in caves outside Rome known as the Fosse Ardeatine. In fact, he never specifically condemned Nazi atrocities.

“Despite claims by the pope’s defenders that a behind-the-scenes protest on his part led to an end to the round-up of Rome’s Jews following October 16, the action of the capture of the Jews did not suffer any pause,” wrote one commentator. “On the contrary, it continued by the Germans in an undisturbed manner.”

And then there is this unforgiving verdict: “As a moral leader, Pius XII must be judged a failure. He had no love for Hitler, but he was intimidated by him, as he was by Italy’s dictator … Pius XII clung to his determination to do nothing to antagonise either man. In fulfilling this aim, the pope was remarkably successful.”

These and other judgments are included in The Pope At War by David I. Kertzer, an American professor and scholar of the Vatican who has written 13 books. This recently published 621-page volume, which includes 100 pages of archival sources and references, is based on thousands of documents which were opened in 2020 after being sealed on Pius XII’s death in 1958 and stored in Germany, France, Britain, the US, Italy and the Vatican.

the book includes the extraordinary revelation that Hitler had a direct line of communication to Pius XII, one 'so secret that not even the German ambassador' was aware of it.

Kertzer explores what he describes as myths and falsehoods regarding one of history’s most controversial popes and the extent to which he spoke out - or didn’t - against the genocide of the Jewish people that was perpetrated on his watch.

According to Kertzer - whose Pulitzer Prize-winning earlier book, The Pope and Mussolini, is regarded as a definitive work about Pius XI - the case against Pius XII is overwhelming.

Emphasising that the latter was not “Hitler’s pope”, as an earlier work described him, he says the controversy is “largely focused on his silence during the Holocaust, his failure ever to clearly denounce the Nazis for their ongoing campaign to exterminate Europe’s Jews or even to allow the word ‘Jew’ to escape from his lips as they were being systematically murdered.”

The book includes the extraordinary revelation that Hitler had a direct line of communication to Pius XII, one “so secret that not even the German ambassador to the Holy See” was aware of it.

The line was through Prince Philipp von Hessen, a Nazi Stormtrooper whose grandfather was German Emperor Frederick III, whose great-grandmother was Britain’s Queen Victoria and whose wife was the daughter of Italian King Victor Emmanuel. Von Hessen repeatedly conveyed Hitler’s request that the pope say nothing about the “racial question”, in return for which the Church would be left in peace.

From the outset, writes Kertzer, the pope “was eager to reach an understanding with Nazi Germany” and to collaborate with Italy’s fascist government. Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia five months before World War II was Pius XII’s first test, and it foreshadowed what was to occur.  “Hitler’s ambassador to the Vatican [Ernst von Weizsacker] alerted Berlin to the pressure the pope was facing to protest the invasion,” Kertzer writes.

The ambassador reported: “The pope has declined these requests very firmly. He has given those around him to understand that he sees no reason to interfere in historic processes in which … the Church is not interested.”

In 1938, Mussolini enacted harsh laws against Italian Jews. Kertzer: “No criticism of the racial laws would ever escape the pope’s lips.” Yet he did object when the laws were used against Jews who had been baptised and were regarded as Catholic.

He also declined to protest when Germany invaded Poland and when hundreds of Polish civilians were massacred. He would let the facts “speak for themselves”, explained Cardinal Luigi Maglione, who was Vatican Secretary of State during the war. And he would pray for Poland. Poland’s ambassador appealed to Pius XII to publicly bless Warsaw; this was followed by a request that the pope meet with a Polish delegation. Both requests were denied.

Kertzer: “If many were surprised by the pope’s silence, Hitler was not.” A message from Germany’s ambassador to the Vatican stated: “Pope’s refusal to take sides against Germany would be entirely in harmony with assurances he has repeatedly conveyed to me through trusted agent in recent weeks.”

The pope’s actions were largely informed by his belief that Germany would dominate Europe and the Axis powers would prevail.

The pope consistently gave speeches which appeased both the Axis alliance and the Allies, Germany interpreting such ambiguous papal phrases as “peace with justice” as criticism of the conditions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. Yet Kertzer does mention a 1941 journal entry by Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII: “He asked me if his silence regarding the Nazis’ actions is not a mistake.”

As evidence of massacres mounted, appeals to the pope to protest also escalated - from Brazilian, Belgian, US, British, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, Czech and Yugoslav envoys, among others. Even faraway Peru lodged an appeal. And an urgent request by Jerusalem’s chief rabbis for a meeting went unanswered.

Concerned by communism and regarding his primary duty as protection of the Church, the pope’s actions were largely informed by his belief that Germany would dominate Europe and the Axis powers would prevail, Kertzer writes.

He did appeal to the Allies not to bomb Rome - despite having remained silent when Germany and Italy bombed London - insisting Rome was an “open city” free of military activity, even though Germany and Italy used it as military headquarters. A telling message to Berlin from ambassador von Weizsacker, on March 29, 1944, stated: “The pope is working six days a week for Germany, on the seventh he prays for the Allies.”

And on June 2, 1945, after Germany had surrendered, Pius XII delivered a major speech in which he focused on what he claimed was a Nazi campaign against the Church. “He made not the briefest mention, no mention at all, of the Nazis’ extermination of Europe’s Jews,” writes Kertzer. “If any Jews had been in those concentration camps … one would not know it from the pope’s speech.”


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The Pope At War. The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler by David I Kertzer. Published by Random House.

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