Monday, April 13, 2015

Back to the beginning ...Pius XII, peace proposals and European realpolitik.

A couple of months ago I completed the history of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry as seen through ADSS.  It revealed yet again, the volume of information available to the Pope and his advisers, information that was accurate and timely.  A pattern of papal response emerges from 1944 that is markedly different to what had occurred in the years prior. Up to June 1944 Pius XII made generalised statements that could be read as condemnations of German atrocities against Jews even though Jews were never named as a specific victim group.  After the liberation of Rome, Pius was more free to speak than at any other time during the war.  His personal telegram to Admiral Horthy of Hungary urging an end to persecution of people on racial grounds was a breakthrough.  I believe Pius, who had arguably the best diplomatic and historical perspective in Europe of any leader at the time, was now caught between the "rock" of a certain German defeat and the "hard place" of an equally certain Soviet victory across Eastern and much of Central Europe.  His life-long aversion to Bolshevism was too entrenched to be swayed towards any form of compromise.  And yet, his statements could not deny what was arriving on the desk of the Secretariat of State, which from August 1944 after the death of Cardinal Maglione, was the pope's desk.

History is the account of what was, not what if.  I will not indulge in fantasies along those lines.  What I think is of importance is to go back to the available sources and examine them to see if we can come to a clearer understanding of why Pius refrained from explicit statements and the processes that were engaged in.

A couple of well-worn historical tools will help.  Michael Burleigh in his excellent Moral Combat: a history of World War II, emphasises the necessity to avoid the temptation to slip into hindsight history.  It is easy for me to sniff when I read Neville Chamberlain's name or damn Alexis Leger of the French Foreign Ministry and his craven attitude towards Hitler.  Chamberlain and Leger were astute politicians and skilled diplomats, and they were men of their time and had the all-too harrowing memories of the 1914-1918 war etched on their minds and memories.  If war could be avoided, it should.  Hitler's demands were not unreasonable surely?  It came as no surprise that the new Pope, elected days before the Germans broke another promise and entered Prague, made peace the first priority of his papacy.

The first six months of his papacy - March to September 1939 - were tense and frustrating. In Volume One of ADSS there are close to 40 documents that give us a very clear picture of a papal initiative that sought to prevent the outbreak of war.  Pius proposed a peace conference and offered the skills of the Holy See to help in anyway whatsoever.  I believe Pius wanted to believe that Hitler did not want to go to war.  Pius was under no illusions as to the sort of man Hitler was; he was not to be trusted.  However if the major European powers came together, might not this help to rein in the German Chancellor? 

All efforts for the conference came to nought, but not for want of effort on the part of the Pope.  I will post the documents related to the peace conference over the next few posts.  

Volume One of ADSS was published in 1965.  Since then there has been a lot more information made available.  I crave the reader's indulgence when reading the notes. I have erred, I hope, on the side of caution, in order to make the process easier rather than more difficult.

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