The Magazine

Pius the Good

The brief for a much-maligned pope.

Jun 12, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 37 • By WILLIAM DOINO JR.
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The Myth of Hitler's Pope

How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis

by David G. Dalin

Regnery, 256 pp., $27.95

EVER SINCE THE GERMAN PLAYWRIGHT Rolf Hochhuth produced The Deputy--a long, unwatchable 1963 production that depicted Pope Pius XII as indifferent to the Holocaust--the notion that the Vatican bears a large portion of the guilt for Hitler's murder of six million Jews has waxed and waned. But it seemed mostly to be fading away, one of the sillier ventures in historical misunderstanding.

And then, suddenly in the late 1990s, it was back--and back with a vengeance. James Carroll published a long essay in the New Yorker in 1997 called "The Silence," setting up his 750-page book, Constantine's Sword, using Pius XII to indict all things Catholic. With the success of John Cornwell's ingeniously titled Hitler's Pope in 1999, the I-hate-Pius-XII books came fast and furious. Garry Wills's Papal Sin, Michael Phayer's The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows, David Kertzer's The Popes Against the Jews, Daniel Goldhagen's A Moral Reckoning--who could keep up with them all?

Well, one person who managed was David G. Dalin, a rabbi and historian who became increasingly bothered by these attacks on the role of the Vatican during World War II. In 2001--in the pages of this magazine, as it happens--Dalin published "Pius XII and the Jews," a 5,000-word blast at the anti-Pius ideologues. Every so often an essay comes along that changes the way people approach a controversial topic. After it appeared, Dalin's essay became one of the most talked about statements ever published on Pius XII: widely praised, challenged, and reprinted throughout the world.

Dalin has now expanded his essay into a book-length treatment of Pius and related themes. As Dalin shows, with copious documentation, the "silence" of Pius XII and the Catholic Church is one of the great falsehoods of the 20th century. During the rise and reign of the Third Reich, Hitler's racism and the Nazis' anti-Semitism were being condemned by Catholic spokesmen from every corner of the globe--especially the Vatican.

This is not to say that the Church's record is unassailable. Just as one can find bad Catholics today, so one can easily find ecclesiastical cranks, anti-Semites, and collaborators during the Nazi era. But they do not represent the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and the accurate history of those days shows how they lost their attempt to influence the Church.

Among the Catholic leaders who stood tall during that time, argues Dalin, was Eugenio Pacelli, the man who was to become Pope Pius XII. Tracing his life as a young priest, Dalin examines his service as nuncio to Germany (1917-1929), secretary of state to his predecessor Pius XI (1930-1939), and pope (1939-1958). Refuting the notion that Pacelli was a reactionary anti-Semite, Dalin proves that he was, if anything, a philo-Semite. As early as 1916, the young Pacelli helped craft a powerful statement against anti-Semitism, then followed that up by befriending and rescuing Jews from outbreaks of anti-Semitic pogroms.

On November 14, 1923, writes Dalin, just five days after Hitler's failed putsch against the local government in Munich, "Pacelli wrote to [Secretary of State] Cardinal Gasparri denouncing Hitler's National Socialist movement and favorably noting Munich archbishop Michael Faulhaber's vocal defense of Bavaria's Jews." Later, after Pacelli succeeded Gasparri, the very first protest he sent Germany was against Nazi anti-Semitism in April 1933, just months after Hitler became chancellor.

Concerning the much-maligned Concordat, signed between Germany and the Church in July 1933, Dalin argues persuasively that it was a necessary defense mechanism against a ruthless totalitarian state. True, Hitler began violating it almost immediately, but had it not been signed, the situation would have been even worse. As Zsolt Aradi, who covered Pius XI's pontificate and wrote one of the best accounts of it, commented: "Actually, the little freedom that the Concordat left for the clergy and hierarchy was widely used to save as many persecuted Jews as could be saved." Critics of the Concordat have never proposed a viable alternative.

Using newly released archives, Dalin establishes that Pacelli was something of a prophet in the 1920s and '30s, warning everyone who would listen about the dangers of Hitler. After a 1937 meeting with Cardinal Pacelli, the American consul A.W. Klieforth wrote to the State Department that Pacelli "regarded Hitler not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel but as a fundamentally wicked person." According to Klieforth, he "did not believe Hitler capable of moderation," in spite of appearances, and that Pacelli "opposed unalterably every compromise with National Socialism."