Pius XII, a great friend of the people of Israel

The silent work of Vatican diplomacy to save hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust is consistent with the rejection of Nazism, from the beginning, by Pius XII.

José M. García Pelegrín-August 3, 2022-Reading time: 9 minutes

Photo of Pius XII. ©Getty Images/F. Ramage

In view of the imminent declassification of documents In the Vatican archives regarding the Jewish persecution by Nazi Germany (the "holocaust"), it is a good time to review Pius XII's responses to this pagan ideology: is it true that he is often reproached for having "kept silent" in the face of Nazi crimes, that he "could have done more"?

When Eugenio Pacelli - elected Pope on March 2, 1939, the same day he turned 63, as successor to Pius XI - died on October 9, 1958, there were many expressions of mourning and recognition. Among these were the declarations of the then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier, who lamented the loss of "a great friend of the people of Israel". It is also well known that when Israel Zolli - who had been the Chief Rabbi of Rome between 1939 and 1945 - was baptized in the Catholic Church on February 13, 1945, he chose Eugene as his first name, in gratitude for the efforts that Pius XII had made to save the Jews of Rome.

The data

During the German domination of Rome, between September 10, 1943 and June 4, 1944, the Pope gave orders to open cloistered convents and even the Vatican itself and the Pope's summer residence at Castengandolfo to shelter Jews persecuted by the SS and the Gestapo: in 155 convents in Rome, 4,238 Roman Jews were hidden.238 Roman Jews were hidden in 155 convents in Rome, to which must be added the 477 others who were received in the Vatican and the approximately 3,000 who found refuge in Castengandolfo, where the Pope's room sheltered pregnant Jewish women: in the papal bed about 40 children were born into the world. 

This aid work due to the Pope's direct intervention was not confined exclusively to Rome; through "silent" Vatican diplomacy hundreds of thousands of lives were saved; in 2002 Ruth Lapide, wife of the famous Jewish writer Pinchas Lapide, confirmed that he put the number of Jews saved directly by Vatican diplomacy between 1939 and 1945 at some 800,000 people.

Pius XII, Righteous Among the Nations

Vatican aid to persecuted Jews gave Pope Pius XII a reputation that was embodied in the Yad Vashem committee's recognition of the title "righteous among the nations" for Roman priests such as Cardinal Pietro Palazzini (1912-2000), who during the months of the German occupation of Rome was vice rector of the Roman seminary. When Pietro Palazzini, in 1985, received this honor at Yad Vashem, he referred to the person who had been behind all the Vatican aid: Pope Pius XII.

Germany also showed gratitude to Pius XII after the fall of Nazism; this was expressed, for example, in the official recognition of naming streets after him. Another example of the prestige enjoyed by Pius XII during his lifetime is the cover devoted to him by the magazine Time in August 1943, in which he was recognized for his efforts on behalf of peace.

A play

However, only five years after his death, international public opinion took a 180-degree turn regarding the perception of Pius XII. The black legend about the Pope begins with a play: The Vicar by Rolf Hochhuth, premiered in 1963. Surprising as it may seem, the biased view of that work managed to gain widespread acceptance. This interpretation has continued for decades; in one of the most controversial expressions, John Cornwell went so far as to call him "Hitler's Pope": this was the title of his book that appeared in 1999, Hitler's Pope

In an article for the newspaper Die WeltIn this regard, journalist Sven Felix Kellerhoff said: "There is probably no other historical figure of worldwide stature who, like Eugenio Pacelli - in such a short time after his death - has gone from being a widely respected role model to a person condemned by the majority. This was mainly due to the play The Vicar by Rolf Hochhuth".

Forgotten facts

In contrast to the species spread by The VicarThe facts speak a different language. Eugenio Pacelli, Apostolic Nuncio in Germany between 1917 and 1929, first in Munich and from 1925 in Berlin, showed a clear rejection of National Socialism from the very moment he met it, on the occasion of the coup d'état perpetrated by Ludendorff and Hitler with his march to the Feldherrnhalle in Munich on Friday, November 9, 1923. In the report he sent to the Vatican on these disturbances, the Nuncio described Hitler's movement as "fanatically anti-Catholic"; during the trial of Ludendorff, Eugenio Pacelli referred to nationalism as the "most serious heresy of our time".

Years later, when he was already Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli officially represented Pope Pius XI in Lourdes, on April 29, 1935, in a multitudinous act to pray for peace; in his speech, Pacelli condemned the "superstition of blood and race", a clear allusion to Nazi ideology.

An encyclical of "Pius XII". 

The clearest demonstration of his rejection of Nazism came with the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge. Although it was promulgated - on March 21, 1937 - by Pope Pius XI, it bears the mark of the then Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli. The encyclical was a response not only to the many attacks against representatives of the Church, but more specifically to the German government's failure to respond to the protests against the violation of the Concordat, signed on July 20, 1933, between the Holy See and the German government: over the years, Pacelli delivered to the German Ambassador to the Holy See more than 50 diplomatic notes of protest, to no avail.

Eugenio Pacelli left his mark even on the title of the encyclical, the first in history to be promulgated in a language other than Latin, a further proof of the importance attached to it by the Holy See: the draft, prepared by the Bishop of Munich, Michael Faulhaber, began with the words "Mit grosser Sorge" ("With great concern"); Eugenio Pacelli crossed out the word "grosser" in his own hand to replace it with "brennender"; thus the title of the Encyclical was fixed, with which it would go down in history: "Mit brennender Sorge" ("With burning concern" or, in the Vatican's official translation: "With lively concern").

The encyclical, which described Nazi ideology as "pantheism" and criticized the tendencies of the National Socialist leadership to revive ancient Germanic religions, expressed in unequivocal words the rejection of the National Socialist ideology of "race and people" and contrasted it with the Christian faith. The encyclical Mit brennender Sorge was in fact the only major protest in the twelve years of Nazism. It reached the approximately 11,500 parishes that existed in the Reich, previously unbeknownst to the Gestapo.

Nazi reaction

The Nazi leadership considered it a clear attack on their ideology, and responded to it with harsh repression. One example is a conversation between Franz Xaver Eberle, auxiliary bishop of Augsburg, and Hitler on December 6, 1937, which was reported in writing to Rome by Cardinal Faulhaber, on the express instructions of Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli. In this conversation, Hitler told Eberle that the Germans had only one Cardinal in the Vatican who understood them and "unfortunately, this is not Pacelli, but Pizzardo".

Also interesting is Joseph Goebbels' opinion of Pacelli, who mentions him in his diary more than a hundred times. For example, in 1937 he writes: "Pacelli, completely against us. Liberalist and democrat". On the occasion of the election of Eugenio Pacelli as Pope, on March 2, 1939, the German Minister of Propaganda notes: "Pacelli, elected Pope (...) A political Pope and, possibly, a combative Pope who will act cunningly and skillfully. Beware!". And on December 27, 1939, Joseph Goebbels referred to the Pope's Christmas speech: "Full of very biting and hidden attacks against us, against the Reich and National Socialism". Particularly significant is what he notes on January 9, 1945: "Prawda is once again strongly attacking the Pope. It is curious, almost funny, that the Pope is called a fascist and that he is in cahoots with us to save Germany from its plight."

Causes of discredit

However, with the passage of time, this was unfortunately the case: what Goebbels, and he must have known it well, found "curious, almost funny" - that Pius XII was considered favorable to Nazism - came about shortly after his death. How is it possible that, in view of these actions and condemnations, of what the Nazis themselves thought about Pius XII, the image of the "Pope who remains silent" or even of "Hitler's Pope" is still so widespread?

The jurist and theologian Rodolfo Vargas, an expert on Pius XII and president of the Association Solidatium Internationale Pastor AngelicusIn response to this question, he refers to the "power of fiction": "Fiction is very powerful, and possesses a power of fascination that specialized literature and research do not have".

The aforementioned journalist Sven Felix Kellerhoff offers another explanation, in an article published on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the premiere of the film The VicarThe vision of the Pope given in this play "has nothing to do with reality; but it is more convenient to hold the alleged silence of a Pope responsible for the genocide than the collaboration of millions of 'Aryan' Germans, who - at least - looked the other way, often benefited from it and not rarely participated in it".

A change of opinion

However, for some time now this perception is beginning to change, at least in specialized publications: coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the death of Pius XII, in 2008, several works appeared highlighting his quiet but effective activity. A work that takes on even greater significance if one takes into account the fear that reigned in the Eternal City during the German domination. Ludwig Kaas, who had been President of the Catholic Zentrum party and had moved to Rome at the beginning of April 1933, thought of destroying all the material he possessed from the time of the Weimar Republic because "it was to be expected that the SS would occupy the Vatican".

Historian Michael Hesemann, referring to the question of whether Pius XII protested "sufficiently" against the Jewish genocide, argues that those who accuse Pius XII of not having protested more explicitly against the Holocaust fail to take into account that his relief activities were possible precisely because the Pope did not openly protest: "If the SS had occupied the Vatican, this extensive plan of salvation could not have been carried out and the certain death of at least 7,000 Jews would have occurred.

A decisive precedent

There was a precedent, of which the Pope was well aware: when, in August 1942, German occupation troops deported Jews from the Netherlands, the Catholic bishop of Utrecht protested. The consequence was that the Nazis sent to Auschwitz also Catholics of Jewish origin; the most famous victim was Edith Stein, who had converted from Judaism to Christianity and subsequently entered the Carmelite Order. As early as 1942, when he first learned of the Shoah, Pius XII commented to his confidant Don Pirro Scavizzi: "A protest on my part would not only have been of no help to anyone, but would have unleashed anger against the Jews and would have multiplied the atrocities. Perhaps it would have aroused the praises of the civilized world, but to the poor Jews it would only have produced a more atrocious persecution than the one they suffered".

There has also been a recent effort to disseminate a more objective view of Pius XII. For example, in 2009 an exhibition on him was held in Berlin and Munich; it ended in a room entitled "Here you can hear the silence of the Pope"; indeed, you could hear the radio message of Pius XII at Christmas 1942, in which Pope Pacelli spoke of "the hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, sometimes only for reasons of nationality or race, are destined to death or to progressive annihilation". That Pius XII remained silent about the Holocaust, as the writer Rolf Hochhuth had been claiming since 1963, trying to influence the public debate in Germany, has just been definitively refuted by facts. 

New perspectives on Pius XII

On the other hand, also in the world of fiction there has been a change of trend in recent years; in addition to some other films, in Germany, the First Channel (ARD) of public television produced between 2009 and 2010 a miniseries that vindicates the role of Eugenio Pacelli, as Nuncio, as Cardinal Secretary of State and also as Pope Pius XII: Gottes mächtige Dienerin (The powerful servant of God), is an adaptation of a novel published in 2007 and narrated from the point of view of Sister Pascalina Lehnert, although it focuses on Pius XII's debate with his own conscience. In the exclusive interview The director, Marcus O. Rosenmüller, told me during the filming that "the Pope found himself in a tremendously difficult historical situation and had to weigh the various arguments in order to act correctly. Our film tries to translate his reflections into images; for example, after the Utrecht raid in July 1942, due to the bishop's protests against the deportations of Jews, Pius XII throws, page by page, a document he had already written into the kitchen stove". 

Marcus O. Rosenmüller commented on the biased versions of Pius XII that have been given for some time now: "The accusation of anti-Semitism made against Pacelli seems to me to be absolutely absurd; it is mere provocation. We are presenting a Pope who was intellectually opposed to National Socialism and who, because of certain events - such as the deportations in the Netherlands - did not find it easy to know what the right decision was. Since he was also a diplomat to the marrow of his bones, it is possible that this diplomacy made it somewhat difficult for him to act. But we also strive to take into account the time in which he lived. To demand of the Vatican and in particular of Eugenio Pacelli that they should have seen everything from the beginning with crystal clarity is an anachronism. The "Hitler" phenomenon is also the phenomenon of his underestimation: for a long time, English and French politicians underestimated the dimension of Nazism. When Hochhuth claims that the whole world was against Hitler and only Pius XII turned a deaf ear to those who sought help, he is saying something simply untrue".

Perhaps these fictional works may eventually reverse the distorted image that, almost 60 years ago, provided another work of fiction of a Pope who not only did not remain silent in the face of genocide, but who made efforts to save as many as possible; and who succeeded precisely by doing so in a silent way.

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