Between morality and diplomacy: the Vatican's "silence" during the holocaust.

Author:Coppa, Frank J.

On 12 June 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the French Ambassador to the Holy See, Francois Charles-Roux, regretting the impartial reaction of Pius XII to the aggressive demands imposed upon Catholic Poland by the Nazis, observed that "the Holy See can perform its activity in two ways, either through diplomacy or by asserting the principles which stand against the theories now in fashion." (1) Rejecting the notion that "might makes right" this Frenchman favored a policy based on ethical principles. Pius XII agreed in principle with him. "The Pope at times cannot remain silent. Governments only consider political and military issues, intentionally disregarding moral and legal issues in which, on the other hand, the Pope is primarily interested and cannot ignore," Pius XII told the Italian ambassador Dino Alfieri on 13 May 1940. Quoting Saint Catherine of Sienna's critique of papal policies in the fourteenth century, this pope believed her admonition was equally applicable to him and that "God would subject him to the most stringent judgment if he did not react to evil or did not do what he thought was his duty." Referring to the European situation of 1940, Pius asked "How could the Pope, in the present circumstances, be guilty of such a serious omission as that of remaining a disinterested spectator of such heinous acts, while the entire world was waiting for his word?" (2)

A series of observers including the Swiss playwright Rolf Hochhuth and the German political philosopher Hannah Arendt subsequently posed the same question. The first brought the issue to the fore and the second concluded that more was expected of the "Vicar of Christ" than a simple political figure. (3) Referring to "the atrocities taking place in Poland, Pius XII confessed he wanted to "utter words of fire against such action," (4) but held his tongue and did not publicly and clearly denounce either Communism or Nazism during the Second World War. Some both within and outside the church condemned this "silence." The Jesuit priest Gustav Gundlach, who helped draft Pius XI's encyclical against anti-Semitism, complained that the "ethical" course pursued by Pius XI (Achille Ratti) was abandoned in favor of the more "expedient" one of Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli). (5) Others have been even more critical accusing Pius XII of being anti-Semitic as well as pro-Nazi, with one writer branding him "Hitler s Pope."

These accusations have been countered by a series of devoted followers of Pius XII and apologetic authors who have depicted this pope as an Architect for Peace and Angelic Shepherd, defending his person and policies while condemning his Defamation and decrying his Greatness Dishonored. (6) Monsignor Giovanni Montini, later Pope Paul VI, offered an explanation of sorts for the papal position early on: "From a moral stance the Vatican could only be in favor of good against evil, and of the law a against force," he proclaimed, but added that from a political viewpoint it could only be an impartial Witness to the war." (7) Others branded the Vatican attempt to separate politics and morality as Machiavellian. These diametrically op posed evaluations have ignited a controversy that has already lasted longer than Pius XII's pontificate (1939-1958), provoking what has been termed "The Pius War." (8) An objective historical account of this pope's role during the Holocaust is long overdue in order to separate fact from fiction, and counter the polemical accusatory and apologetic "studies," which continue to clutter the field.

Despite the excuses of his defenders and accusations of his denigrators, Pius XII recognized the moral dimension of his wartime discretion and the ethical dilemma inherent in his diplomatic neutrality. Privately he apparently expressed doubts about his conciliatory approach. (9) Nonetheless, he did not utter "words of fire" in condemnation of Nazi abuses admitting as much as early as 1940, fearing his denunciation would make things worse. (10) Critics contrast this cautious conduct to his vocal crusade against Stalin's Soviet Union in the postwar period when he disdained silence. "Can, may the Pope be silent?," Pius asked the assembled crowd in St. Peter's Square in February 1949 adding "Can you imagine a successor to Peter who would bow to such demands?" The crowd shouted an unequivocal "No! (11) There followed a decree of 1 July. 1949, (Responsa ad dubia de communismo) excommunicating those who supported communism, a condemnation never before launched against adherents of Nazism or Fascism. (12) Some assumed this reflected the pope's view that Bolshevism posed a greater threat than Nazism, ignoring that the condemnation of Communism followed the end of the war, while during its course Pius had been "silent" about Bolshevik atrocities as well as those of the Nazis. Though it was illogical to discount the differences between the wartime period and the postwar one, the stark contrast between Pius XII's conduct during the Second World War and the Cold War contributed to the call for a re-evaluation of this pontiff.

The reassessment occurred gradually. For more than a decade, Pius XII did not suffer the consequences of what some later deemed his "sin of omission" since the genocide was largely ignored by most states and statesmen at that time. Consequently, from the collapse of Nazi Germany until 1963, there was considerable praise and little open criticism of Pius XII's public neutrality during the course of World War II. In fact, at his death in 1958, Jews joined Catholics in praising this pope's wartime efforts on behalf of the persecuted. This positive evaluation was challenged as the magnitude of Hitler's genocide became manifest by the early 1960s and this pope's indirect criticism and limited actions were weighed against tie grave crimes perpetrated. The increased questioning, but still latent critique, of papal policy, was given broad exposure by Hochhuth's play "The Deputy (1963), which provided a dramatic if less than objective presentation of Pius XII's behavior and role during the genocide, now deemed a central feature of the Second World War. (13) This play, translated into more than twenty languages, reached a wide audience and depicted Pius as a calculating figure preoccupied by narrow clerical interests to the detriment of the Nazi victims. Denigrators of this pope found ammunition in the drama for their campaign against Pius XII's "silence," while his defenders noted its historical inaccuracies and failure to acknowledge this pope's humanitarian efforts on behalf of the persecuted.

The charges launched by Hochhuth's play engendered a controversy re-ignited during the projected beatification of Pius XII alongside John XXIII, at the turn of the century. Following the first eruption, Pope Paul VI, hoping to quell the criticism of the pope he had loyally served, allowed four Jesuits access to the closed Vatican archives for the Second World War--which led to the publication of the eleven volume Actes et documents du Saint Siege relatifs a' la seconde guerre mondiale (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1965-81). (14) Their publication, as well as the passage of time, saw the storm over Pius XII's "silence" temporarily subside-but not end. It dramatically resumed at the turn of the century during the discussion of the beatification of Pius XII, rekindling the controversy. Since a number of others had been equally, if not more silent than Pius XII, and provided less assistance to the persecuted Jews than he did, the condemnation of the pope provided a convenient means of avoiding individual and collective responsibility and therefore not readily abandoned. Some hoped that the availability of additional sources would resolve this psychological, ideological and polemical debate.

New memoirs such as those of Harold Tittmann, Jr., assistant to Myron C. Taylor, Roosevelt's personal representative to Pius XII, have been published, (15) providing valuable insights into this pope's thought and actions. Other important documents have surfaced, including the belated appearance and publication of the encyclical commissioned by Pius XI in 1938 against racism, (16) along with the disclosure of a secret agreement made in 1938 by Vatican officials without Pius XI's knowledge, promising not to interfere with Fascism's anti-Semitism. In addition, the contentious and ongoing debate has played a part in opening the files of the Vatican Information Service in the Vatican Archives, (17) and access to them has been facilitated by the publication of a two volume work. (18) The papal assistance provided the victims of the conflict has been dubbed a crusade of charity," by defenders of Pius XII, who posit he was far from an inactive spectator during the conflagration. (19)

The dispute also led to the early access to some of the papers of Pius XI and notes of his secretary of state from 1930 to 1939, Eugenio Pacelli--who later became Pope Pius XII. (20) The recently opened Affari Eccelesiastici Straordinari/Stati Ecelesiastici files provide insights into general Vatican policy during these troubled times and the later months of Pius XI's pontificate, with a number of fascicoli of the Germania files tracing the deteriorating relations between Pius XI's Vatican and Nazi Germany. Valuable information can also be gleaned from the files of the Munich and Berlin Nunciatures from 1922 to 1939, (21) as well as the opening of the Cardinal Faulhaber Archive in the Archiepiscopal Archive of Munich and Freising. (22) Together, these papers help reveal the attitudes of Pius XI, the Curia, and Pacelli towards the anti-Semitism of the Fascist regimes, shedding new light on the role of each for the Vatican's response to the totalitarian regimes.

Among other things, these sources reveal that Pacelli did not originate the conciliatory policy towards Nazi Germany he later pursued--though this is virtual dogma in much of the...

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