> Winning the War over Pius XII
Winning the War over Pius XII
- by Karol Jozef Gajewski
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
local bookstores, or directly from the publisher: lexingtonbooks.com;
phone orders (in America): 1-800-462-6420 or 301-459-3366.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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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