Sunday, June 30, 2013

John Pollard, Pope Pius XII, and Paul O'Shea

Serious and critical comment is expected and appreciated in book reviews.  Colleagues learn from one another, are guided in further research and stimulated to explore other avenues of enquiry from a well-written and accurate review of their work.  I have read several reviews of my own work and I have also reviewed the work of others. 

When I undertake a review I do so believing in the intellectual and academic honesty of the author unless it is proved otherwise.  I ensure that I read the complete text carefully usually twice.  The first “read” is to get a broad picture of the work and make some preliminary notes.  The second “read” is a combination of external checking and clarification of sources along with the process of writing the draft review.

Over the years I have read my fair share of excellent reviews as well as a number of reviews where I had to wonder if the reviewer had read the book. 

Dr John Pollard is a member of the History Faculty at Cambridge University.  He has written extensively on the papacy, fascism and various intersections between the two.  His published works include “Benedict XV: The Unknown Pope and the Pursuit of Peace” (2001 / 2005) and “Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy” (2008).  I have read the biography of Benedict XV and regard it as the standard text on this significant but largely unknown pope.




Pollard’s review of my book is, I believe, harsh and unfair in a number of areas.  The review follows with my comments in the text in red.

A Cross too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe, O'Shea, P. (2011)

Reviewed in “Diplomacy and Statecraft”

Every time I see another "Hitler's Pope" book I groan. There have been so many of them, for and against Pius XII, since the publication of John Cornwell's original Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII in 1999. The ensuing debate, which is essentially a re-run of that triggered by Rolf Hochhuth's play The Representative of 1963, has never struck me as constituting a serious historiographical controversy: historians of the papacy are almost entirely agreed about what Pius XII knew about the Holocaust, when he knew, what he did or not say publicly, what he did to help Jews, and the reasons for his behaviour. Much of the debate has effectively been "political"-between Jews and Catholics or between liberal Catholics like John Cornwell and conservative Catholic apologists for the reputation of Pius XII. Rabbi David Dalin, who has written in support of Pius XII, is the exception that proves the rule. In any case, the debate has been conducted not only through the medium of dozens more books and hundreds of articles, but very largely through other media-TV and radio chat shows, documentaries and journalistic articles and reviews. O'Shea is a Catholic, and an historian, but he does not come out roaring for one side or the other from the outset, though, despite his sympathy for Pius XII's wartime predicament, he ends up being highly critical of him.

I think it is disappointing that a review opens with a statement such as Pollard’s opening line.  It is also disingenuous to neglect to mention at least some of the significant historians who are writing in this field today.  To reduce the study of Pius XII to a “debate” between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholics is not helpful.

Sadly, his shaky understanding of modern European and papal historical contexts does not inspire confidence. Referring to Hitler as "Il Duce" rather than "Der Fuehrer" (p. 154) is a terrible solecism.

This is my first cause for concern.   Taking the sentence out of context can lead the reader to believe that I am so ignorant that I could have written that Hitler was referred to as “Il Duce”!  However, that is not at all what the context suggests.  If Pollard had looked up the reference on page 154 – number 54 – and then checked the notes, he would have found a reference to this article published in the Rome based news service Zenit. Matteo Luigi Napolitano is an historian who specialized in diplomatic history.  He has also spent time in the ASV.  In an interview with Zenit in May 2003 Napolitano said that in document he had read he had found explicit instructions from the pope through Cardinal Pacelli to avoid all use of the word “leader” in his New Year Address.  The Italian word for “leader”, in this context, is “duce”.  In fact the most commonly used title for Hitler that I have found in the ASV was “Signor Cancelliere del Reich”.  Pacelli wrote to Orsenigo in Italian.  The relevant section follows:
In the draft of an address for year-end 1936, Archbishop Orsenigo described Hitler as "'Duce' [leader] of the German people."
In the coded reply, which Cardinal Pacelli sent on behalf of the Pope, the nuncio was told to "eliminate the words 'Duce of the German people'" and to "delete" all the part that praises the Führer's activity.
The complete interview may be found here:


 Worse is come when he gives the impression that (Italian) Fascism and German National Socialism were the same thing (p. 99): Fascism was not racialist and anti-Semitic until the mid to late 1930s.

I am not sure how Pollard comes to this conclusion.  My treatment of fascism was to outline the central components of the ideology and ideologies with particular emphasis on the quasi-religious elements.  Italian fascism and its German mutation were similar in much of the ideology that drove them.  It was the German variety that developed into a more extreme form.  I also argue that fascism is inherently racist because of the ideology of nationalism: who belongs and who does not, is essential to the fascist worldview.  Much of my understanding of fascism and National Socialism draws from the work of Michael Burleigh.  Impressions are important; but to take a statement out of context creates an entirely different impression that, in this case, is somewhat inaccurate.

Equally inaccurate is the terminology he uses about the Catholic Church and Catholics-referring to the "Catholic Far Right" (p. 3) is dangerously misleading for those who understand what the term "Far Right" means in contemporary Europe.

I agree that there may be a level of misunderstanding over the use of the term “Catholic Far Right” but I do not accept it is misleading – that implies a deliberate attempt to pervert the historical record. That said I am not quite sure what the contemporary European understanding of the term means.  If it is some sort of alliance or companionship with political elements from the political far right with groups such as “neo-nazis” or other such organisations, then I would probably agree that the term needed more nuance.  However, I doubt that many serious Catholics would lend their aid to groups that pine for an imaginary fascist past.

The Collegio Capranica in Rome was not "known as the starting place for many Vatican diplomats" (p. 81); arguably it was the Pontifical Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics.

This is an example of hair splitting!  Yes, the Pontifical Academy of Noble Ecclesiastics was the diplomatic training place for many of the future Vatican diplomats, but a quick examination of some of the alumni from the Capranica would at least suggest that more than a few diplomats also began their Church careers there. I do accept that the use of the phrase could be “misleading”.

I could list other inaccuracies but the one which is most alarming is his statement that "Pius (Pius XI) expressed a similar attitude to the Catholic political parties. It pertained to the Pope and bishops alone to govern the Church" (p. 85). This is confusing for the uninformed reader: these parties only operated in the secular, political sphere, not inside the Church.

Context!  This is what I wrote:

The long-term strategy employed by Pius X was consistent with the gradual Roman centralism that had begun under Pius IX and continued during the pontificate of Leo XIII. Cornwell summarized it well: “Pius X was determined to exert untrammeled primacy over the Church as a spiritual, doctrinal, legal, and administrative entity. This was the clear-eyed papal vision of total separation of sovereignties: the Church with the Pope unquestioningly at its head, and the world mediated through the papal diplomatic service and the bishops.” Pius expressed a similar attitude to the Catholic political parties. It pertained to the pope and bishops alone to rule and govern the Church. There was no governing role for the laity. Eugenio Pacelli was to follow in very similar patterns in the 1930s.
That would appear to be somewhat different to what Dr Pollard suggested I said.

Finally, it is simply not true that "Pius named almost every victim group except one-Jews" (p. 10). He rarely mentioned Catholic Poles by name either and never other victims of Nazi racial policies like those other Slav untermenschen, the Russian POWs, or homosexuals, or gypsies or, for that matter, the Serbian Orthodox victims of the Croatian Ustasha.

Throughout the course of the war, evidenced in ADSS the pope spoke on many occasions lamenting the loss of life of “innocents”.  While not mentioning individuals or national groups, careful reading of the pope’s addresses demonstrates references to Poles, the people of the Low Countries, hostages, refugees, prisoners of war, indiscriminate taking of life in war zones, victims of euthanasia and other forms of violence.  Pius XII’s commitment to public neutrality was official Vatican policy, a point Cardinal Maglione understood well.  When Maglione wrote to nuncios and other diplomats he echoed the voice and intention of the pope. It is, therefore, safe to say that in ADSS 8.207 (cited 179) Maglione’s comments faithfully represented the views of Pius XII.   

Nonetheless, I will accept Pollard’s criticism that what I have written is, on face value, may not be entirely accurate.  However, context is important.

On the other hand, he is right to draw attention to the fact that neither did Pius name victims of Soviet atrocities-like the thousands of Polish officers massacred at Katyn in 1940. In both cases, he did so for largely diplomatic reasons; he did wish to upset either the Axis or the Allied powers.

He gets better once he has focussed on Pacelli, Hitler, Germany, and the Jews, and his explanation of the complex, tortured personality of the future Pius XII is compelling and convincing. Surprisingly, however, he limits his treatment of the War and the fascist genocides to only one chapter-just 38 pages out of over 200. Here he tackles all the usual issues around Pius XII's responses to the Holocaust and rehearses the reasons why he thinks that papa Pacelli did not carry out the moral functions of his papal office as the Vicar of Christ and the infallible "oracle of God" by publicly and repeatedly condemning the enormity of the crimes of the Nazis, the Italian Fascists, the Croatian Ustasha and other "lesser evils."

The construction of the book is designed to try and explain the “why” of Pius XII’s action or inaction during the war.  In order to understand Pacelli’s responses or lack thereof, I spent most of the book examining his pre-papal life and the context of late Tridentine ecclesiology.  To try and to otherwise would have achieved nothing.  The first several chapters set out the parameters of the Catholic theology of contempt and Supercessionism that found it ultimate expression in the tragic neglect and abandonment of Europe’s Jews during the Third Reich and the war.

And I, with tongue in cheek, take the reviewer to task for appearing not to understand “infallibility”!

His explanation is certainly not original: it stresses Pius XII's determination to do nothing to prejudice Vatican neutrality during the conflict, his obsessive fear of Communism, and his concern that the Church and Catholics-especially German Catholics-would suffer if he spoke out. Above all, he argues that Pius genuinely believed that if he spoke out, this would impede rescue work, and more Jews would suffer. In particular, he was concerned that the work which Vatican envoys, apostolic delegates, and nuncios, were engaged in to save Jews in Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, and Vichy France, and even further afield, should not be adversely affected. So he arguably prioritised the international diplomatic dimension of the papacy over its prophetic functions. But, as O'Shea himself admits, that does not really explain or excuse his failure to do more to save the Italian Jews caught in the round-up of October 1943 in his own see city, Rome.

The last chapter in the book brings us back to the "Hitler's Pope" debate; whether it is opportune for Eugenio Pacelli to be beatified by the Church as Pope John Paul II wanted. He emphatically says "no." This suggests to me that O'Shea's book is directed at a largely Catholic audience, rather than the wider world and this is confirmed by the last statement in the book: "The sins of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust must rest upon the whole Church, not only the Vicar of Christ..." Maybe so, but let us not forget the complicity and connivance of other so-called "Christians," Protestants and Orthodox, in the crimes against humanity during the Second World War.

On the question of for whom the book is best suited, I suggest it is directed at a broad audience.  Dealing with ignorance of the whys and wherefores of Catholicism is a regular part of my own teaching both at secondary and tertiary levels as well as with some colleagues.

John Pollard
Trinity Hall
University of Cambridge
Cambridge, UK


What disturbed me most about this review was the impression, accurate or not, that the reviewer had not read the complete text.  I hope this was not the case.

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