Skip to Content

Features

This papal visit is a good time to reprieve Pius XII

Simon Caldwell says that the wartime Pope was no Nazi sympathiser: on the contrary, he was a thorn in Hitler’s side and a protector of persecuted Jews

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

13 May 2009

12:00 AM

Simon Caldwell says that the wartime Pope was no Nazi sympathiser: on the contrary, he was a thorn in Hitler’s side and a protector of persecuted Jews

The Pope has done an impressive PR job this week, trying once and for all to scotch the suspicion that he and his Church are anti-Semitic. ‘Sadly, anti-Semitism continues to rear its ugly head in many parts of the world,’ he said as he visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. ‘This is totally unacceptable. Every effort must be made to combat anti-Semitism wherever it is found.’ President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu watched approvingly as Benedict XVI laid a wreath on a stone covering the ashes of people killed in the Holocaust. Operation ‘White Robe’, as Israeli security named the papal visit, was proving a success.

But if Catholics and Jews are to bury the hatchet for good (and, as the Pope says, religious types should really stick together in these secular times) there’s another ghost that must be laid to rest — that of Pope Pius XII, the wartime Pope, so often and so wrongly accused of being ‘Hitler’s Pope’.

It’s such a widely held conviction that Pius was anti-Semitic that there’s even an exhibit of him at Yad Vashem (one the Pope chose not to visit), suggesting that he was at the very least a coward. ‘When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene’, says an inscription.

It’s time the truth was told. And the truth is that Pius was a good man who worked hard to save as many Jewish lives as he could; and that when the Vatican opens its secret archive in 2013, Pius’s reputation will be restored. As the distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert says, the Yad Vashem exhibit amounts to a ‘dangerous’ misrepresentation of the actions of a pope who should be considered a righteous gentile.


The false narrative of Pius XII as a Nazi sympathiser was started by The Deputy, a fictional play by Rolf Hochhuth that appeared in 1963, five years after Pius’s death. The Deputy was a critical success and spawned a succession of polemical works, which seemed to prop each other up — like drunks on their way home from the pub. The most notorious is Hitler’s Pope, the 1999 bestseller by the British author John Cornwell, and the most recent is last year’s Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler by Gerard Noel. But before you take any of these seriously, remember that Cornwell has wisely distanced himself from the conclusions of his own book, saying he now finds it ‘impossible to judge Pius’.

So what did Pius XII do in the war? Is it true he stood idly by? The first criticism of him is that he didn’t sign the Allied condemnation of the persecution of the Jews of 17 December 1942 — the year the Final Solution was implemented. But how could he? He was not an ally, he was neutral. But he was not neutral in the face of evil, and a week later he used his Christmas message to denounce the horror of ‘the hundreds of thousands who… solely because of their nation or race have been condemned to death or progressive extinction’.

This infuriated the Nazis. They already despised Pius because he had shown himself to be hostile to their ideology when he was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, Vatican Secretary of State in the 1930s. But now the Reich Security Main Office, the SS department responsible for the deportation of the Jews, noted that ‘in a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist new European order… and makes himself the mouthpiece of Jewish war criminals’.

So as far as the Nazis were concerned, Pius was no silent pope. He was such an irritant that Adolf Hitler, who always responded to criticism violently, devised a plan at a meeting on 26 July 1943 to invade the Vatican and to arrest the Pope and his senior cardinals. Hitler’s plan came to light in 2007 when Dan Kurzman published A Special Mission, a book based on interviews with Karl Otto Wolff, the SS general ordered to carry it out. The operation was delayed indefinitely when Wolff advised Hitler against it in December 1943. The United States, Spain and Portugal each offered the Pope exile but he refused to leave the Holy See. Italy became an occupied country when it signed the armistice with the Allies on 3 September 1943, and three days later Pius told senior bishops his arrest was imminent and that he would resign at that point. The bishops were told to assemble in a safe country — probably Portugal — and elect a new leader.

In December 1943, incidentally, there were 477 Jews secretly sheltering in the Vatican; about 3,000 more were in Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence near Rome, and a further 5,000 were being hidden in the city’s many religious houses. Some Jews were equipped with fake baptismal certificates and disguised as priests, while the nuns of one convent gave up their beds to Jewish women.

But why, even so, didn’t Pius XII speak out? Because at this juncture it would have been madness for the Pope to make any gesture that would further provoke Hitler. Quite simply it would have resulted in more mass murder. It is of enormous significance, however, that the acts of secret heroism were initiated on the direct instructions of Pius on 16 October 1943, the day the SS began to round up Rome’s Jews for deportation. Documentary evidence exists to prove this, and just days before Benedict XVI arrived in Israel, Avner Shalev, the chairman of Yad Vashem, told reporters that he had seen such evidence and that ‘it would certainly result in a significant improvement in our relations with the Vatican’. More is expected to emerge from the Vatican archives.

In the meantime, most of the evidence in defence of Pius has come from a long line of Jewish historians who since the 1960s have established that the Catholic Church saved more lives than all the international agencies put together. The Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide estimated that the Church under Pius saved up to 850,000 Jews from death — and he based his assessment on Yad Vashem’s own records. The testimony of Israel Zolli, the Chief Rabbi of Rome, is also revealing: in 1946 he became a Catholic, taking the baptismal name Eugenio in tribute to Pacelli.

Leaders are often rightly criticised when they talk a big game but do little. Pius XII chose his words prudently but he worked like a dog to save as many lives as he could.

After the war Pope Pius and Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, agreed that the Vatican should signal to Catholic countries at the United Nations that they should vote with their consciences on the partition of Palestine. The vote of 29 November 1947 would enable the creation of the Jewish state, and Catholic countries represented more than half of those voting in favour of the resolution.

The Pope was still in Israel on Thursday as the country celebrated its independence day. Lets hope that as his trip neared its conclusion he was able to persuade Peres and Netanyahu finally to raise a glass to his predecessor — not Hitler’s Pope, but Israel’s.


Show comments
Close