Friday, March 19, 2010

Some nuances on reponsibility ...

Dear Thomas,

Thanks for letting me know that my old Amazon profile was still floating around in cyber-space! I think it has been there since 2001 or 2002. I can assure you that my position has moved since then. I think it fair to say that genuine research work must always be open to the possibility that things may well often change. Now in 2010, my opinion of Pius XII is far more nuanced.

From an historian's perspective, which is how I look at Pacelli's papacy (most of the time!) I agree with much of what you write. Yes, he was in a terrible position - damned if he did, and damned if he didn't. However, he was not just "another leader", he was the visible head of the Catholic Church and as such, carried an enormous resposibility for the entire Church.

In 1939 he made it clear in his first encyclical that he would speak the truth without fear or favour, but I believe that while he did speak the truth, he did so in the arcane language of "Old School" diplomacy; a language understood by an ever shrinking group. Certainly, the Nazis were not interested in "Old School" diplomacy. On this point, Jesuit historian, Charles Gallagher has written an interesting article: “Personal, Private Views” in America 2003, 189.5, 8-10. In it he outlines Pacelli's modus operandi and demonstrates that his training and manner precluded any public expression of revulsion towards people that privately he found to be repugnant.

Another aspect of the question of the Pope's responsibility lies within the Vatican curia and its agencies. To suggest that Pius carries the moral burden of Catholic action or inaction during the Holocaust is simply unfair and unrealistic. However, he was at the centre of an organisation where he held supreme executive authority and, as can be seen from the published record in Actes et Documents, he played an intimate role in many decisions - of all degrees of importance - the helped shape Rome's reponses to the ever-growing reports of mass murders etc. The documents show us a very well-informed Pope working with a competent team: Cardinal Maglione, Monsignors Montini and Tardini along with other members of the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (Vatican Foreign Office if you like) and other congregations. And while it is true to say that hindsight is a valuable thing, even from the published record we see that Rome had a fairly clear picture of what was happening across Europe, as well as the rest of the world. The Vatican was very well informed.

So what to do with the information of the murder of Europe's Jews? Pius wrestled with this for a long time - summer 1941 up to the Christmas address in 1942 and then in the wake of the Rome aktion of October 1943 and so on. At this point I disagree with what you present as the view of Kilian McDonnel. I agree with McDonnel that Pius agonised over every word he spoke, but I contend that the pope knew how ineffective his words were. He knew the German government and its agencies took no notice of his speeches, diplomatic protests or appeals. He also knew that the German church would not bring forth martyrs in defence of their own faith, let alone the faith of another group. He knew the German bishops were divided in their approach to Nazism, but that they were generally united in support of the war effort after 1939. What was he to do?

From what I have read in the Actes et Documents there is very little evidence to support McDonnel's suggestion that the Pope feared German reprisals against Catholics if the pope spoke out against them or their policies. The Christmas Address of 1942 was interpretted by the Wilhelmstasse (German government district) "as an attack on everything National Socialism stands for" - but there were not anti-Catholic reprisals.

The Dutch bishops spoke out very clearly in the summer of 1942, citing Pius XII as their moral authority to speak, and the Nazis exacted a fearful revenge. But what was it the bishops said? They condemned the transporting of Jews "to the east" as contrary to Christian ethical teaching. They did what bishops were supposed to do. However, when you look at the German reaction it is clear that the "revenge" was simple: having taken the non-baptised Jews, they turned around and took the previously exempt baptised Jews, including Edith and, her oft unrecognised sister, Rosa Stein. No other Catholics were arrested (unless they were rounded up for the crimes of hiding Jews).

Let's keep the conversation going!


  1. Hello again Paul,

    I suppose that my position too has become more nuanced as I move away from the polemical and reactionary histories; realising that this is a highly complex issue that deserves consideration and that not everyone who does so is anti-Catholic. That said, I still think that John Cornwell and Daniel Goldhagen got it completely wrong and were downright dishonest in how they presented history yet I also accept the possibility that well-intentioned Catholics have glossed over undeniable historical realities; perhaps your criticism of Margherita Marchione on Amazon, in this respect, was legitimate. History can certainly be skewed both ways and I often have to remind fellow Catholics, who are just as well-intentioned, that we're not absolved of scholarly responsibility - i.e. we shouldn't tell lies for God.

    You rightly identified the fact that following the Dutch Bishops condemnation, the Nazis deported only Jews who had converted to Catholicism and not non-Jewish Catholics who were obviously in the majority. But we must accept that the Nazis were very willing to imprison the more vocal Catholics, like Bl. Franz Jägerstätter and René Lefebvre, should they step out of line. We all know how ruthless the Gestapo were. In addition, about 470 Jews were hidden within the Vatican alone – surely known to Pius – and he had to consider their safety. In regards to the eventual round-up of the Roman Jews, I sometimes wonder whether Susan Zuccotti or Michael Phayer expected Pius to run out into St. Peter’s Square, white cassock flapping in the wind, shouting something dramatic like ‘You shall not pass!’ Or perhaps they believe he should have sent out a contingent of the Swiss Guard to charge the heavily armoured garrison with their halberds! Like you said, ‘damned if he did, and damned if he didn't’ – what really could he do? I think it is also worth examining the position of the Jews in pre-Nazi Italian society since I believe many were greatly sympathetic to the nationalistic and atheistic Mussolini (who kept a Jewish mistress) and possibly Pius thought that the Jews of Italy were never in danger - why else did one third of them join the National Fascist Party?

    Towards the end of my original comment, I made reference to the Danish context because I believe that in many ways the situation is rather similar. Having written a short essay comparing the plight of the Danish Jews with that of their Lithuanian brethren, (who had the lowest rate of survival) I am familiar with much of the available literature.

    Leni Yahil, historian for the Shoah Resource Centre at Yad Vashem, observes that the Danes appeased the Nazis by providing extremely significant practical assistance: free passage for Wehrmacht, airports for the Luftwaffe, as well as offering a supply of agricultural and industrial products. The fact that they retained a degree of freedom of action in internal affairs is evidence of their cooperation with Nazi Germany and Conrad Kisch argues that the autonomy offered to Denmark throughout much of the war was due to an observation of Danish acquiescence. Also forgotten is that Danish policies towards pre-war Jewish immigrants were identical to those elsewhere in Europe; entrance visas were rarely offered and refugees were refused entry and sent back to their country of origin. In other words, the Danes were hardly prophetic and actually maintained enough political autonomy to condemn the atrocities.

    Nevertheless, the fact remains that 98% of Danish Jews survived the Holocaust as did an equally considerable 85% of Italian Jews. In both cases, an attitude of neutrality and prudence prevailed simply because it was the most effective means of safeguarding Jewish lives. However, the Danes, unlike the Italians, were not under the same suspicion and most importantly had easy access to Sweden via the Øresund Strait.

    All the Jews of Italy could do was hide; praying that the Nazis respected Vatican neutrality so that they weren't discovered amongst the monasteries, convents and homes of Catholics.

  2. Just an addendum to the comment I posted, the surival rate of Dutch Jews, where the Bishops were most vocal, was around 25%. Moreover, probably the most obvious reason why the Danish Rescue of the Jews was so successful was because there was a mere 7,800 of them residing in Denmark.

    Also Paul, I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about recent articles attacking Pius XII by identifying the admittedly shameful ratlines for Nazi war criminals operated by a few clerics and a prelate following the end of the War in Europe. See:

    Based on my reading, it seems that the ratlines were largely operated by Bishop Alois Hudal - an Austrian Nazi sympathiser whose elevation to the episcopacy was nepotistic. Not only this, it is established that he was rendered a pariah within the Church, because of said sympathies, and exiled from the Vatican. I think it is extremely unfair to associate the ratlines with Pope Pius XII as Julian Kossoff does.

    What do you think?

  3. I've read Kossoff's article and have to say that my initial impression is somewhere between a bit of a yawn and a roll of the eyes. Quite simply:

    1. The Vatican was as large and complex organisation.

    2. The different departments of the Vatican often acted quite independently from others - Cardinal Tisserant commented once that it would be a great help if there was a notice board where major news items could be posted.

    3. It would be naive to imagine that Pius had a finger on the pulse of every congregation, dicastery or department within the Vatican, at every waking moment of the day. It would be just silly to think he had full knowledge of everything that happened in the multitude of colleges and religious houses across Rome.

    5. Much of the Ratline history has been ably recorded by Mark Aaron and John Loftus in their 1991 book, Unholy Trinity: The Vatican, The Nazis, and the Swiss Bankers, and a succession of other historians. No one can credibly claim that Pius was complicit in the smuggling of Nazi criminals.

    6. The role of Bishop Alois Hudal, the "Brown Bishop" is also well known. He was the archetypal outsider who wanted desperately to be an insider. Pius kept Hudal at a distance, so it would be very unlikely that Hudal had the opportunity, let alone the willingness to pass on to the Pope information about his activities in helping war criminals get out of Europe. The Americans kept an eye on Hudal regarding him as, more or less, completely untrustworthy.

    7. The other source of considerable was the Croatian College of San Girolamo. It is generally considered that the Croatian College was an operation that put Hudal's "work" into the shadows.

    8. Did Pius have any idea? It is hard to tell - I am inclined to think he did not. What we do know is that shortly after the war, Pius appointed the German-American, Bishop Aloysius Muench (1889-1962) (See the excellent book by Suzanne Brown-Fleming (2006)
    The Holocaust and Catholic Conscience: Cardinal Aloisius Muench and the Guilt Question in Germany. Pius wanted the Church situation in Germany normalised as quickly as possible, including a toning down of the American de-Nazification process. This brought the papal representative into direct conflict with the American Military Government. Whatever Muench's intentions in pleading for clemency for war criminals, there was little doubt that he was acting in accord with the wishes of the Pope. The big difference here was that Muench was acting within the legal boundaries; Hudal and the San Girolamo people were definitely acting outside the law - canon or civil.

    9. In summary - I think Kossoff has not done his homework.


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