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Articles > Winning the War over Pius XII

Winning the War over Pius XII

- by Karol Jozef Gajewski

The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, edited by Joseph Bottum and David G. DalinA Review of The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, edited by Joseph Bottum and David G. Dalin (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books); ISBN: 0-7391-0906-5; 282 pages, hardcover, $29.95; available from, local bookstores, or directly from the publisher:; phone orders (in America): 1-800-462-6420 or 301-459-3366.

Jew in the Ghetto of Warsaw, Nov. 1939

For those of us who, like this reviewer, have watched with alarm the shifting fortunes of the "Pius War" during the past few years, this landmark collection of essays, coupled with William Doino’s masterful annotated bibliography, will serve as an indispensable guide to the battlefront. The leitmotif running throughout the volume -- that attacks on Pius’ reputation as a leader of outstanding moral courage are ill-informed, pseudo-historical and often derived from wells of anti-Christian animus -- is eminently supported by a mountainous reserve of primary and secondary source material.

The stage is set by Joseph Bottum in the introduction. He asserts that, although the defenders of Pius might have won individual battles, they have lost the war. "Truth crawls, lies have legs" is an old adage, and so often in the study of Pius’ career both as secretary of state and later as Supreme Pontiff, spurious charges have been made: that he was an icon of anti-Semitism in an institutionally anti-Semitic Church, that he was more exercised by a pathological fear of Communism than by the murder of millions of Jews, that he was obsessive to the point of mania over his own centralized power base. And so it goes on.

Defenders of Pius have, as a consequence, spent endless time and written thousands of words refuting each charge, yet the smears, at least in the popular mind, appear to remain -- a touch fainter perhaps, but nevertheless still capable of condemning Pius to infamy.

Thus, an ostensibly Catholic editor, Peter Stanford, could unblushingly refer to Pius as a "war criminal" in a Sunday Times (London) review praising unreservedly John Cornwell’s slanted and perversely written Hitler’s Pope.

Yet in spite of these observations, Bottum is surely premature in his assessment of failure. Indeed, the very publication of this book, which Bottum co-edited, is evidence that Pius’ supporters are making significant advances.

The battle has been joined with a vengeance and nowhere is this clearer than in the evidence provided by Rabbi David Dalin in his groundbreaking essay, "Pius XII and The Jews," first published in the Weekly Standard in February 2001. Dalin pointed out that the genesis of anti-Pius rhetoric lay not in Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), Rolf Hochhuth’s seven-hour play first performed in Berlin’s Freie Volksbuhne in 1963, but in the turmoil of early Cold War politics. In fact, the origins of Hochhuth’s over-hyped polemic can be traced even further back -- to the early days of the Weimar Republic when theatrical innovators such as Erwin Piscator, in turn heavily influenced by Soviet agitation-propaganda, produced plays which celebrated the imminent demise of capitalist society and of course, capitalism’s supposed clerical offshoot, the Catholic Church.

Dalin’s immensely important contribution to an even-handed debate on Pius’ actions before and during the war is buttressed by essays from well-known scholars in the field, including Ronald Rychlak, John Conway, Rainer Decker and Fr. John Jay Hughes (to name but four of the eleven authors).

Rychlak, professor of law at the University of Mississippi, examined the vexed question of Pius’ wartime actions in his seminal work Hitler, the War and the Pope. Here he is content to dissect -- with an exceedingly keen scalpel -- research findings of one of the more recent scholarly critics of Pius, Susan Zuccotti. Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy gave us a portrait of an overly bureaucratic and dithering Pope, sitting impassively at his desk while Jews were being rounded up prior to extermination during the Nazi occupation of Rome in October 1943.

Of course, the book’s title was intended as an ironic rejoinder to the famous telegram by the German ambassador to the Holy See, Ernst von Weizsacker, in which the experienced diplomat sought to soothe Hitler by claiming that Pius would not protest against deportations of Roman Jews.

The signing of the "Reichskonkordat" July 1933. Author Joseph Bottum (left) and scholar Susan Zuccotti (right). Fr. Peter Gumpel, below, is the official relator of Pius’s cause.

However, the context of the phrase and the double-edged nature of its interpretation need careful examining. Zuccotti, as Rychlak points out, fails to engage adequately with these nuances. Further evidence of her flawed methodology was apparent in a recent article in the prestigious journal Holocaust and Genocide Studies (Fall 2004) in which she attempted to meet criticism (by Rychlak and William Doino) of her "weak Pope" thesis.

The "Zuccotti Test" is typically applied to witness reports and documentary evidence where it exists. Here, the rules are simplicity itself: subject pro-Pius statements to the utmost rigor of analysis, searching for the most obscure self-serving justifications that can be read into them and then, by comparison, take anti-Pius statements on complete trust. The former are always deceptive, the latter exude historical truth.

One example, taken out of many, is the suggestion on page 302 of Under His Very Windows that certain Jewish spokesmen stretched the truth about Pius because they "were anxious to protect and preserve the fragile good will between Jews and non-Jews that seemed to be emanating from the rubble of the war in Italy."

Can this really be classified as a sustainable judgment or is it merely a verbal projection of the author’s wishful "if only it had really been like this" thinking?

John Jay Hughes in his essay "Something Deeply Shameful" also delves into the truth behind the October round-up, dismissing along the way Michael Phayer’s arguments presented in The Catholic Church and the Holocaust 1930-1965. Hughes points out that Weizsacker was playing a double game. He was indulging in what his deputy, Albrecht called a campaign of "tactical lies" designed to mollify Nazi suspicions of the Pope’s true position vis-a-vis Roman Jews while, importantly, forestalling a possible plan to kidnap Pius. A recent (January 2005) article in the Italian newspaper Avvenire detailed the background of the kidnap plot, code-named Operation Rabat, and also of the important role of SS General Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff in refusing to carry it to its conclusion. No written evidence of the secret meeting between Pius and the SS general exists, but before Wolff died he gave personal testimony to Church officials explaining what had happened.

The need to disguise statements and use cautious phraseology to divert the pathological rages to which Hitler was prone as the war turned against Germany was incumbent on any anti-Nazi German diplomat. Coupled with this was the undoubted fact that Hitler’s inner circle, headed by the increasingly powerful "Brown Eminence" Martin Bormann, was comprised of vicious anti-Semites and anti-Christians, because too often these characteristics were hitched together, like a Mephistophelean horse and carriage.

Adolf Hitler and Martin Bormann at the end of the war. Below: SS General Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff (left) and Colonel- General Ludwig Beck (right).

Lack of documentary evidence of Pius’s support for the persecuted Jews is hardly surprising, notwithstanding Zuccotti and Phayer, given the circumstances of total war raging in 1943 and 1944. Here it is not a question of sinister Vatican machinations at work. Rather, Pius XII was aware of the need to destroy all messages once seen by their recipients, or preferably, the use of memorized oral instructions. This had been policy even earlier in the war. In late 1939 there was a flurry of activity, collectively known to British diplomats as the "Vatican Exchanges," in which Pius had been directly involved. Secret liaisons were arranged between high-ranking German army officers (led by Colonel-General Ludwig Beck), elements of military intelligence (the Abwehr) and an Agent "X." In reality the latter was a prominent Catholic lawyer from Munich, Joseph Mueller. The aim of these anti-Nazi conspirators was to mount a coup d’etat that would overthrow Hitler, replacing him with a government open to peace negotiations. There are no documents in the Vatican to describe the various meetings which took place in Rome between Mueller and his clerical confidantes.

However, in British government files are papers relating directly to the "exchanges" and oblique references exist in the memoirs of Sir John Colville, a favorite secretary of the prime minister, Winston Churchill.

A discerning student will learn much from reading and thoughtful reflection on the essays of the eminent researchers presented here.

He will observe Pius’ prudential use of condemnation of Nazism, so eloquently described by Rainer Decker as "Ad Maiora Mala Vitanda" -- To Avoid Worse Evils. He will also note the less than edifying story recounted by John Conway of the joint Catholic-Jewish Commission set up in 1999 to study the already-published selection of documents on the Vatican’s wartime activities. Briefly, the Commission came to grief amid recriminations from both sides -- the official relator (independent judge) for the cause of Pius’ beatification, Fr. Peter Gumpel, maintaining that certain members of the Commission had been engaging in an agenda-driven exercise calculated to damage the integrity of the Holy See itself. This, as Conway describes, is hardly the way to deal with history, which by its nature is subject to provisional judgments made on incomplete evidence.

It should be noted, however, that after Conway’s article was written in late 2001, archives covering the pontificate of Pius XI (1922--1939) were opened.

The major part of The Pius War -- almost 200 pages in length -- is comprised of William Doino’s annotated bibliography.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this contribution because it deals with a huge range of primary and secondary documentary sources, witness accounts, and biographies of both Pius XI and XII, and discusses different historiographical approaches to Pius XII, from both "attackers" and "defenders."

In an elegant section entitled, "The Words of Eugenio Pacelli [Pius XII]," Doino provides nearly 15 pages of documentation of Pacelli’s (largely unknown) forceful and very pointed statements against anti-Semitism, racism, Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust -- both before and after he became Pope -- forever demolishing the charge that he was "silent" in the face of evil. Most welcomingly too, Doino does not confine himself to Englishspeaking historians but points to works by French, Italian and German historians. That these latter are of immense importance to any writer seeking to produce a rounded picture of Pius’ activities before and during his pontificate becomes obvious by examining the voluminous mistakes of interpretation to be found in John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. This book, published in 1999, set the tone for much of the denigration of Pius that followed. Yet on several critical issues, Cornwell’s negative perception of Pius foundered because of his lack of knowledge of European, and particularly German, historians working in the same field.

As a case in point, there can be few more controversial decisions than that of Pius XI and his secretary of state, later Pius XII, to sign the Reichskonkordat of July 1933. The concordat has been variously portrayed as a cynical attempt to appease the newlyinstalled Nazi government by allowing the destruction of the Catholic Center Party (Zentrum) and even as a necessary step on the way to the Holocaust itself.

Pius XII and his housekeeper Sister Pascalina Lehnert.

This warped thesis was largely instigated by Klaus Scholder, whose work Die Kirchen und das Dritte Reich was subsequently translated into English as The Churches and the Third Reich. Eminent historians Ludwig Volk and Konrad Repgen decisively refuted the notion that the concordat allowed Hitler to succeed in his totalitarian aims, yet because their work remains in German only, comparatively few in England and the US are aware of the documented conclusions which fly in the face of John Cornwell’s biased assessment. A further strength of the annotated bibliography lies in its exhaustive coverage of witness accounts -- from those close to Pius such as his Jesuit confidant Father Robert Leiber and housekeeper Sister Pascalina Lehnert -- to those of persecuted and rescued Jews themselves.

Invariably the witnesses, both Jew and Gentile, speak with unreserved admiration of Pius’ fortitude, his willingness to help directly and indirectly anyone threatened with extermination, and pour unrelenting scorn on the accusations circling since "The Deputy" that there was a culpable papal silence while the Holocaust unfolded in all its terror.

Michael Tagliacozzo, himself a survivor of the round-up of Roman Jews in 1943, is quoted as saying that "I have a folder on my table in Israel entitled ‘Calumnies Against Pius XII’" and further, "Pope Pacelli was the only one who intervened to impede the deportation of Jews on October 16, 1943."

The witness accounts are studded with gems of recollection such as these and serve as a most necessary antidote to negative perceptions of Pius based on partial evidence and incessant repetition of what has become, essentially, "the big lie." So, where are we in our survey of the "Pius War"? Is the conflict really lost -- at least for the present generation -- as Joseph Bottum pessimistically maintains?

I think not. One straw in the changing winds has recently been provided by John Cornwell, author of a new work, The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II (Doubleday, 2004). Reviewing the book for its December 9, 2004 issue, the London Economist commented that Cornwell had been "chastened" by the devastating criticism Hitler’s Pope had received, and noted that Cornwell now finds it "impossible to judge" Pius XII, "in light of the debates and evidence" following publication of his now-discredited anti-Pius polemic.

A partial retraction indeed, but, with the appearance of masterful works like The Pius War, we could well be at the stage in the conflict once described by Winston Churchill, after the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, as "this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

Author’s note: Karol Jozef Gajewski is a writer and educator living in the United Kingdom; he specializes in European history, the result of his family’s experiences during the Second World War. In 1939, his father joined the Polish army, fighting against the Nazi invaders, and then the Soviets, before being captured by the Red Army. He spent some weeks interned, then escaped, made his way back home again (in the German partition area of Poland) and joined the Armia Krajowa (Home Army). He eventually made his way to Switzerland, was interned and released just as the war in Europe ended. He joined the Polish Second Corps under General Anders, and eventually settled in Britain with his family.


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