The Magazine

Pius XII and the Jews

A defense

Feb 26, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 23 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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EVEN BEFORE PIUS XII DIED IN 1958, the charge that his papacy had been friendly to the Nazis was circulating in Europe, a piece of standard Communist agitprop against the West.

It sank for a few years under the flood of tributes, from Jews and gentiles alike, that followed the pope's death, only to bubble up again with the 1963 debut of The Deputy, a play by a left-wing German writer (and former member of the Hitler Youth) named Rolf Hochhuth.

The Deputy was fictional and highly polemical, claiming that Pius XII's concern for Vatican finances left him indifferent to the destruction of European Jewry. But Hochhuth's seven-hour play nonetheless received considerable notice, sparking a controversy that lasted through the 1960s. And now, more than thirty years later, that controversy has suddenly broken out again, for reasons not immediately clear.

Indeed, "broken out" doesn't describe the current torrent. In the last eighteen months, nine books that treat Pius XII have appeared: John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, Pierre Blet's Pius XII and the Second World War, Garry Wills's Papal Sin, Margherita Marchione's Pope Pius XII, Ronald J. Rychlak's Hitler, the War and the Pope, Michael Phayer's The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows, Ralph McInerny's The Defamation of Pius XII, and, most recently, James Carroll's Constantine's Sword.

Since four of these -- the ones by Blet, Marchione, Rychlak, and McInerny -- are defenses of the pope (and two, the books by Wills and Carroll, take up Pius only as part of a broad attack against Catholicism), the picture may look balanced. In fact, to read all nine is to conclude that Pius's defenders have the stronger case -- with Rychlak's Hitler, the War and the Pope the best and most careful of the recent works, an elegant tome of serious, critical scholarship.

Still, it is the books vilifying the pope that have received most of the attention, particularly Hitler's Pope, a widely reviewed volume marketed with the announcement that Pius XII was "the most dangerous churchman in modern history," without whom "Hitler might never have...been able to press forward." The "silence" of the pope is becoming more and more firmly established as settled opinion in the American media: "Pius XII's elevation of Catholic self-interest over Catholic conscience was the lowest point in modern Catholic history," the New York Times remarked, almost in passing, in a review last month of Carroll's Constantine's Sword.

Curiously, nearly everyone pressing this line today -- from the ex-seminarians John Cornwell and Garry Wills to the ex-priest James Carroll -- is a lapsed or angry Catholic. For Jewish leaders of a previous generation, the campaign against Pius XII would have been a source of shock. During and after the war, many well-known Jews -- Albert Einstein, Golda Meir, Moshe Sharett, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, and innumerable others -- publicly expressed their gratitude to Pius. In his 1967 book Three Popes and the Jews, the diplomat Pinchas Lapide (who served as Israeli consul in Milan and interviewed Italian Holocaust survivors) declared Pius XII "was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands."

This is not to say that Eugenio Pacelli -- the powerful churchman who served as nuncio in Bavaria and Germany from 1917 to 1929, then as Vatican secretary of state from 1930 to 1939, before becoming Pope Pius XII six months before World War II began -- was as much a friend to the Jews as John Paul II has been. Nor is it to say that Pius was ultimately successful as a defender of Jews. Despite his desperate efforts to maintain peace, the war came, and, despite his protests against German atrocities, the slaughter of the Holocaust occurred. Even without benefit of hindsight, a careful study reveals that the Catholic Church missed opportunities to influence events, failed to credit fully the Nazis' intentions, and was infected in some of its members with a casual anti-Semitism that would countenance -- and, in a few horrifying instances, affirm -- the Nazi ideology.

BUT TO MAKE PIUS XII A TARGET of our moral outrage against the Nazis, and to count Catholicism among the institutions delegitimized by the horror of the Holocaust, reveals a failure of historical understanding. Almost none of the recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust is actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. Their real topic proves to be an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists.