A Cross Too Heavy: this is what I said.

A Cross Too Heavy: 
some thoughts on Pope Pius XII and the Jews in 2012.

Temple Beth Israel, East St Kilda

If you have come to hear a condemnation of Pope Pius XII as a vicious Antisemite, as one who did doing nothing during the years of the Shoah then I am afraid you will leave disappointed.  If you’ve come expecting to hear that Pius XII was the greatest saviour of Jews during the Second World War and the Shoah I am afraid you are also going to leave disappointed. 

The reality of this subject is that it is and continues to be enormously complex, enormously difficult and enormously fraught with a whole series of contextual problems.  I would like to spend this afternoon covering some of those areas.  By way of moving into this a couple of “reality checks” are necessary. 

What is available on Pope Pius XII? 

There is an enormous volume of literature, secondary information primarily drawn from histories of the Second World War, histories of the Shoah, histories of the Catholic Church, histories of developments within Catholic theology, histories of the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, and from other related disciplines.

Does that help us clear the air about Pius XII?  In some cases “yes” in some cases “no”.  What is of particular interest to the story are the so-called “secret archives”. 

Shortly before he died Pope John Paul II ordered the so called Vatican Secret Archives to have the papers from the pontificate of Pius XI, Pius XII’s immediate predecessor, (pope from 1922 to February 1939), ready as soon as possible.  Those files were open to the public in 2003, but only covered the Vatican’s relations with Germany.  One of the interesting things that the media picked up on after the Pope’s announcement to open the files, was the hope that “all the dirty secrets” would be revealed.  When the files were finally opened only about two dozen historians turned up over the course of the next six months, hardly the hordes that were expected.  The media interest dropped off almost immediately. 

It took about another two years before the first monographs and books about what was found in those files came to light.  The black did not become any blacker, the white did not become any whiter, but the grey got even murkier.  It seems to be the way things are. 

In 2006, less than 12 months after Benedict XVI was elected Pope, the second opening of the Archives took place of the files for the entire papacy of Pius XI. 

The Vatican Archives fills shelf space to about 100 kilometres.  When you translate that into documents, and not just documents relating to the Jews of Germany or Austria or Sudetenland but to all of the files relating to the Vatican’s activities throughout the world, there are millions of pages of documentation, mostly written in Italian the working language of the Vatican State. Many of those documents were written in the very convoluted diplomatic language of the time. The documentation requires skills in a variety of areas to help the historian make sense of what it is they are reading – and context is arguably the most significant key.

Pius XII was pope from 1939 to 1958.  The primary material from the Second World War, are the twelve volumes of The Acts and Documents of the Holy See relating to the Second World War (ADSS) published between 1965 and 1981.  They contain 5,089 documents.  As part of my continued reading into Pius XII I have read my way through the volumes.  What did I find?  The black didn’t get much blacker, the white didn’t get much whiter, but the grey got a little bit murkier. 

The projected opening of the files on Pope Pius XII is expected in 2014.  Since last opening of the Archives in 2006, a small but dedicated group of historians have been spending an enormous amount of time in the Archives themselves researching, looking for information, looking at angles and simply reading the material that is there and there have been a number of excellent books published.  One historian in particular who has spent considerable time in the archives is Thomas Brechenmacher of Potsdam University

Brechenmacher is taking the archival material related to reports sent to Rome by Cesare Orsenigo, the Nuncio in Germany, from 1933 to 1939 and putting them online in a joint project with the Vatican Secret Archives.  This is a major project and has been made available for anyone interested in reading original material.  The reports of 1933 include over 150 documents covering topics such as the responses to the last free election in Germany in March, the Enabling Act, and the boycott of Jewish businesses in April.  It also has Orsenigo’s responses to Vatican requests for the nuncio to help the Jews.  Here I am referring specifically to Pius XII, or as he was then Cardinal Pacelli the Secretary of State who sent cables to Orsenigo such as the one on 4 April 1933 saying “Do whatever you can to help the Jews”.  Rome was aware of the growing persecution of Jews in Germany.  Where do we find this?  In the archival material, much of which has been made available via the internet.  My point is, there is a wealth of information available.  It will take years to read and analyse the files, but this is the way history is done.  Brechenmacher’s work is one example.

The pre-war years are of great importance in understanding the responses made by Pope Pius XII during World War Two and before we look at the war, let us make a summary of Eugenio Pacelli’s pre-papal life.  What we know about this man who was elected Pope in March 1939 was that he had spent most of his life from the time of his ordination as a priest in 1899 through to his election as Pope in 1939 as a professional diplomat for the Vatican.  He entered the diplomatic service shortly after his ordination and so by the time he was elected Pope he was a consummate diplomat.  He was a charming man.  He was fluent in at least six European languages – Latin, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Hungarian – and had a basic grasp of English.  He served as nuncio to Bavaria and Germany from 1917 until 1929, after which he worked as Secretary of State to Pope Pius XI from 1930 until his election as pope on March 2, 1939.

Pacelli understood the world in which he lived in 1939.  He had seen what happened in Spain during the Civil War between 1936 and 1939 when Catholic Spain erupting into an orgy of violence.  He had witnessed Catholic Mexico suffer in a similar way through 1920s.  He was gravely concerned at the possible threat from Soviet Russia. By the time he became pope, Pacelli almost alone amongst the leaders of the Catholic Church, had an almost unique perspective on the world.  He understood the diplomacy of the world.  He understood what the Church was confronted with.  He also understood what the Jews were up against. 

Alone amongst most of the diplomats during his time in Germany Pacelli had read “Mein Kampf” and saw it for what it was.  When the Nazi movement began to flex its muscles in Munich in November 1923, nuncio Pacelli included observations on them in his regular reports to Rome.  After the failed Munich Putsch on 9 November 1923, Pacelli wrote to Rome.  In summary he said “Hitler is bad news for Germany, he is bad news for the Catholic Church and he is bad news for the Jews”. 

We have the benefit of hindsight.  There would have very few people in 1939, 1940, and 1941 who could have imagined what was going to befall the Jews of Europe.  Some people could project themes out of ‘Mein Kampf’ perhaps.  Some people could see that the Nazis were escalating their anti-Jewish policies, but very few, even amongst the Jewish communities of Europe could bring themselves to believe that the physical annihilation of a people could become government policy.  It was simply beyond imagination. 

In 1939 a new pope, highly experienced in diplomacy and with a vast understanding of the realities of European power politics was confronted with the serious threat of a war.  The first six months of his papacy were spent trying to bring the parties around the table with the Papacy and the Pope acting as mediator. Volume I of ADSS gives very detailed chronology of how Pius XII attempted to stop the Second World War breaking out.  He was not successful.  This is very interesting because diplomacy was the way he operated. 

Charles Gallagher described Pacelli’s diplomacy as that of the nineteenth century pattern of “Gentlemen’s agreements”. Pacelli sought a quiet word with a diplomat on a matter in one place, wrote a discreet message to another diplomat on a different matter. With tact and great courtesy he would reaffirm the Church’s rights granted to the Church through negotiations called the Concordats, which were contracted between different states.  And that included Germany

We have to be contextually realistic here.  Pacelli himself said of the negotiations about the German concordat: “they held a gun to my head what was I going to do?”  If Pacelli and Pius XI said “no” to Hitler’s request to regularise an agreement between the Catholic Church and the Third Reich, they rightly feared for the safety of German Catholics. Both men knew what Hitler was doing.  It was a poisoned chalice.  However, by saying “yes” to the concordat at the very least gave the Church a platform in writing governed by both Civil Law in Germany and International Law outside of Germany that the Vatican could work with.  The Vatican’s primary concern was the preservation of the Catholic Church in Germany.  Was the Vatican’s primary concern for the Jews of Germany – no.  And in a sense there is no surprise here.  Hindsight is a dangerous indulgence.   Auschwitz did not yet exist. 

At the outbreak of war Pius said the Vatican would remain neutral, not lending aid or support to either side.  When he wrote his first encyclical in October 1939 the pope condemned the war but did not name the belligerent power, Germany.  He mentioned Poland by name in the context of praying for “suffering Poland”. 

Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German security police allowed the encyclical to be published in Poland only after exchanging references to Poland with Germany, in order to make the pope appear “pro-German”. It made for clever propaganda and exposed one of the major weaknesses of the pope’s neutrality.  For the rest of the war Pius XII did not officially move from that position.  This is where the historian has to delve into the documentation to explore “behind the scenes”. 

At this point I think it would be helpful to pause and consider a number of important elements about the nature of the papacy and its role as an agent in modern world history.  As pope, Pius XII was believed to be the visible head of the Catholic Church on Earth; the visible inheritor of a tradition that dated back nineteen centuries.  He was also the visible inheritor of a relationship between the Jews and Catholic Christianity, a relationship that had not been particularly positive in many parts of its history.  Does this mean that he was anti-Semitic?  The answer is an emphatic “no”. He was not.  Why?  Language provides a key to answering this problematic question.  “Antisemitism” was a bio-political term created by the German politician Wilhelm Maher in 1879.  If the question asked was expressed “Was Pius anti-Jewish?” the answer is again “no”.  I have not come across any text that he did not like Jews as people.  If however we ask the question “Was he anti-Judaism?” in the sense of a religious question the answer is, yes he was.  Not out of any personal spite or malice but out of the long held Christian belief in supercessionism. 

Traditional Christian theology held that Christianity had superseded Judaism.  Judaism was now an archaeological relic that held no validity before God according to the Christian position on supercessionism.  Did that mean therefore that Pius would not lift a finger to help?  No not at all, but the power of an ancient tradition ran deep.

We have traces of supercessionism in two encyclical letters Pius wrote in 1943 which create some serious difficulties.  The first, Divino afflante spiritu, on scripture, and the second Mystici corporis Christi, on the theology of the Church both used traditional Christian anti-Judaism motifs.  The problem I have is related to the context, namely that both encyclicals were published in 1943.  Knowledge of what was happening to Jews across Europe in 1943 was widespread and detailed and can be found in the published material from the Vatican.  The simplest way to describe it was that Jews sent east did not come back.  This knowledge had been circulating for quite some time, probably since the summer/autumn of 1941, around the same time as Roosevelt and Churchill had concrete evidence of mass killings in the east.  The anti-Judaism language of the encyclicals is hard to reconcile with the knowledge of what was happening to the flesh and blood Jews of Europe.

If emotion is allowed to blur the serious work of establishing contexts and examining what the historical record contains there will be no valid outcome.  Let us look to the published record and outline what was known keeping in mind the background of Pius XII – diplomat who had tried to avert a war, inheritor of an ancient religious tradition – now faced with something unparalleled in human history.

We know that at some point in the summer of 1941 after the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler gave the order for the physical extermination of every Jew in the German sphere of influence in Occupied Europe.  The killings were already happening but now the escalation of those killings went to a new level.  The Vatican and the Pope became aware that there was a new dimension in the Nazi persecution of Jews.  From the late summer and early autumn of 1941 we have descriptions in ADSS of the ghettos.  We have accounts of transports leaving different European cities.  We have in September 1941 the report from Berlin of the Jews required to wear a star. 

What was the Pope’s responsibility in all of this?  The Pope’s first responsibility was to heed Christian Biblical mandate in John’s Gospel “feed my sheep” (John 21.17) – the care and welfare of the Catholic Church.  Did that exclude anybody else?  Of course the answer is “no” and the Pope spoke on more that one occasion of the call to universal charity using the image of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10.  Pope Pius the diplomat was also acutely aware of the potential danger facing Catholics in Germany and the fear that if he spoke out more clearly condemning German atrocities that negative repercussions for the Church in Germany could materialise.  This too is problematic.

It was reasonably well known since 1933 that German Catholics were not a monolithic group.  Reports from nuncio Orsenigo on patterns in Catholic voting between 1930 and 1933 showed some disturbing trends.  Many Catholics were voting for conservative parties as well as the Catholic Centre Party, but there also had to be significant percentage of Catholics who voted for the National Socialist Party.  Then there was the report sent by archbishop Konrad Gröber of Freiburg which said quite clearly, in summary, there would be no martyrs in Germany.  Catholics were not going to put themselves on the line for their faith, in Germany.  There were some who did go to their deaths in defence of their faith but most did not.  So the question of whether or not the Church in Germany would suffer persecution is an interesting one. 

The Church was subject to petty harassment and I do not want to make comparisons of suffering but if one compares the reality of German Jews stripped of citizenship, professions, earning income ability, etc. compared to a Catholic diocese being told there is no paper to publish the diocesan newspaper, one is forced to define levels of persecution.  Was the Church in Germany in immediate serious dangerous threat of being subject to an all out persecution?  From the available history I say “no”.  Hitler was an evil man; a man who knew his enemies weaknesses and he knew the Church in Germany, Catholic and Evangelical, would not be a major problem.  He knew that and acted accordingly. 

This brings me back to the question of the threat to Papal neutrality.  One of the arguments that is brought out about Pius XII is if he had spoken out clearly and unambiguously, that is “Do not kill Jews it is wrong” then it would only have escalated the persecution.  Hindsight must be kept in mind very clearly and the historian must avoid the temptation to deal with “what if” questions.  Historians deal with “what was” not with “what if” and I do think it is safe to say that in a couple of examples where we do have groups of leaders in the Church speaking out and looking at the consequences of their protests it does make it difficult to accept that “if” the Pope had spoken out things would have gotten much worse.  Of course the classic response to that statement is “How could things have gotten any worse?” 

In July 1942 the Dutch Catholic and Evangelical bishops published a pastoral statement, read from the pulpits throughout Holland, condemning the deportation of the Jews.  What happened?  The Germans rounded up converted Jews and sent them to Auschwitz, among whom were Edith and Rosa Stein.  By war’s end 85 per cent of Dutch Jews were dead.  In Vichy France throughout 1942 and 1943 several of the bishops spoke out very clearly, that any Catholic who supported in any way the deportation of the Jews was committing a grievous sin, violating divine law.  What happened?  Nothing.  There was no retaliation on the part of the German authorities, no retaliation on the part of the Vichy police.  We have some evidence to suggest that after the bishops had spoken French Catholics took seriously the obligation to help their neighbour and it would appear that at least 100,000 Jews, French and foreign were saved.  In Ukraine, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Lvov, Andrezey Szeptyckyj wrote to Hitler and to Himmler in the summer of 1941 appealing to them to stop killing the Jews.  Then he wrote to the Pope in August 1942 and said “Today the whole country agrees that the German regime is evil, almost diabolical, and perhaps even more so than the Bolshevik regime.”  There is no record in the published documents of the Vatican of a response to that letter.  If it is there it will be revealed when the archives are opened. 

The question “what if the Pope had spoken out” remains a vexed one.  I’m inclined to think that given that the man knew the power of the spoken word, and he knew that he was listened to by both the Germans and the Allies, and that he knew he would not and could not please both sides, his carefully balanced and nuanced speeches would always be criticised as either too little or too much.  The Christmas speech of 1942 is a significant example.  In one sentence he came as he ever did to speaking plainly about the extermination of the Jews: “to those hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only on account of their nationality or race, are condemned to death or to a slow decline”.  The Germans interpreted the statement as a condemnation of Nazism from a pope who would always side with the Jews.  The Allies demurred that the speech was probably as good as they would ever get. So again the question of whether the Pope should have, could have spoken out more clearly or whatever is a very vexed one and looking at the information that we have in front of us I have come to the conclusion at the moment that he sincerely believed he had spoken as clearly as he believed he was able to speak in order to prevent worse things happening to the victims. 

What then was the pope doing?  The evidence comes through very clearly in the published material from the Vatican Archives that the Pope knew of rescue activities, he knew of initiatives being taken across Europe to hide, to rescue, to ransom Jews.  He knew of desperate attempts to obtain exit visas, transit visas, and permanent resident visas for Jews in various countries in Latin America.  The Brazilian visa farce was one very clear example. 

The President of Brazil had offered 3000 visas to the Pope as a gift at his coronation in March 1939 to be used at Pius’ discretion.  The visas were for Catholics of Jewish descent.  It ended with nothing happening because the Brazilians kept changing the conditions attached to the visas.  Every several weeks over nearly two and half years conversations between ambassadors and Vatican diplomatic staff would try and secure the visas and the Brazilians would introduce new restrictions, finance pre-requisites; qualifications of one form or another; and the reality of anti-Jewish prejudice whether the Jews were baptised or not.  The visa exercise was suspended shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union.  What it does show us is the Pope was actively involved in at least trying to get 3000 Catholics of Jewish descent out of Europe.  That he failed in that regard was not his fault.  

What else did the Pope do?  In September of 1939 as soon as the war broke out he commissioned the Russian-born Archbishop Alexander Evreinoff to establish the Vatican Information Bureau.  The purpose of the Vatican Information Bureau was to provide assistance in whatever way the Holy See could for anyone who asked for help.  During its years of operation from 1939 to 1947 the Vatican Information Office handled over 21 million letters and telegrams from people across the globe, including Jews.  The Office was established for anyone who called upon the Vatican for help and in the course of its six years of existence it handled more requests for help than the International Red Cross.  The published material for the Vatican Information Office has been available since 2004. There are two volumes, one which contains all the archival references, all the particular files and the second volume which contains samples of requests that were sent to the Vatican asking for help with a significant chapter on Jews writing to the Pope asking for help.  Every single letter, telegram, note that was sent to the Vatican was responded to.

I believe it is a case of not so much what he did do but what he did not do in the sense of avoiding anything that could antagonise the Germans into finding an excuse to accuse the Vatican of violating neutrality, thus justifying an invasion of the Vatican State, of providing an excuse to tear up the concordat and end diplomatic relations.  The Pope knew that there were activities going on behind the scenes.  How much did he know of individual rescue attempts in Lithuania for example?  The answer is probably nothing.  What did he know of rescue attempts in Budapest in the summer of 1944, he actually new a reasonable amount from the material that we have available.  He knew that the Nuncio in Hungary, Angelo Rotta, was handing out baptismal certificates and Vatican safe passes to save Jews Arrow Cross fascists who were trying to round up Jews in conjunction with Eichmann and send them to Auschwitz.  Did the pope know what was happening in Rumania, the horrors in Transnistria, and the dangerous gamble the Romanian government was undertaking in its efforts to extricate itself from the war?   Yes he did.  We have a significant amount of documentation.  Was he aware of individual rescue attempts in Rumania – probably not. 

Italy was a different story.  The communications network worked well until September 1943 for southern Italy and Sicily, and then with increasing irregularity for the rest of the country until the end of the war.  Pius knew that the Bishop of Campagna in the south of Italy near Naples was busy doing everything he could physically to help the interned Jews in the Campagna camp.  The records are available and show clearly that the pope sent money on at least three occasions.  From the limited resources that he did have he sent money when and where he could.  It was done through diplomatic channels.  There is no question that the pope sent the money for interned Jews.

If one goes looking for big dramatic actions you will be disappointed.  Did he get in the way of any rescue attempts?  The answer is no he didn’t, he certainly did not.  Did he forbid people to engage in rescue?  No he didn’t.  How then do we appreciate the public acknowledgements made to him after the war that claim he was a veritable saviour of Jews during the war?  When Golda Meir, the Israeli foreign minister, sent a public note of condolence from the Israeli government on the death of Pius XII expressing sorrow at the passing of a man she wrote:  “During the ten years of Nazi terror, when our people went through the horrors of martyrdom, the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their victims”.  I believe she was not being insincere, but making a courteous diplomatic gesture that reflected the understanding at the time.

It was impossible the Pope would not have known works of rescue about some of them; he is what we would call a micro-manager today.  It would mean that it would be very unlikely that anything of any great significance during the war years that came through the Vatican would not have crossed over his desk.  In many of the Vatican documents there are notes at the bottom written such as “seen by the Holy Father”, “the Holy Father says yes to this, not something else”, “wait for a response from the Holy Father”. 

This leads me to the point I find most difficult.  I defend without reservation, Pius XII up to September 1943 before the October 16 German raid on the Jews of Rome.  Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and left the war on the 8th September 1943.  Up until September 1943 the safest place for a Jew to be in Europe was in Italy or in the Italian occupied parts of southern France, the Italian-occupied Greek islands and parts of Croatia and Slovenia.  Thousands of Jews tried to get into those parts of Europe occupied by the Italians.  They knew they’d be safe and they were.  In the summer of 1943 Hitler knew the Italians were looking for a way out of the war and began preparing to occupy the peninsula when the time came.  Rommel was moved to the north of Italy and Kesselring was given charge of military operations in the country.  The Germans started moving troops into Italy before the Italians had even announced the armistice.

When the armistice was declared on September 8, most of the Italian armed forces simply laid down their arms went home.  There was great confusion.  During the period between the declaration of the armistice, the Germans finally marching in and then new provisional Italian Government declaring war on Germany late October 1943 the situation for the Jews in Italy entered a limbo.

The general attitude that we can find in both documentation and the secondary material is that there is a general belief that Hitler would not touch the Jews in Italy because the pope was in Italy.  And Hitler certainly not touch the Jews of Rome because they were in the pope’s own city.  There is evidence that the Jewish community in Rome believed that too.  From the middle of September news starts to filter through that something was going to happen to the Jews of Rome.  In the Vatican published documentation there is enough indication that the Vatican knew something was going to happen. 

By late September 1943 Rome had known now for two years Jews sent east did not come back.  They knew that Jews were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands in the east.  The first references to a place in Upper Silesia Oswiecim, Auschwitz, begin to emerge.  There is information not only of mass killing but systematic industrialized mass killing.  There are even references to prussic acid being used.  The German embassy sent messages via the Swiss embassy warning that something terrible was going to happen to the Jews of Rome.  The messages can be summarised as “tell the Jews to get out of Rome.  The messages were passed on to contacts within the Vatican.  Many of the Roman Jews, along with Jewish refugees in Rome had “heard stories”.  Many people knew at the very least that something terrible was happening.  It was the source of the urgent messages that is surprising; the German embassy mistrusted by Berlin and under the suspicion of the security apparatus, was leaking information to the Swiss knowing the Swiss would pass it on to the Vatican.  When the archives are finally opened we may find some reason to explain or indicate if this information was ever passed on from the Vatican to the Jewish leadership in Rome.  If that had happened then I would say in a sense “Yes the Pope did everything he could” because he exercised a moral responsibility to warn the Jewish community in Rome something was going to happen.  I don’t know if that document exists.  There is nothing in the current documentation that says it does but that does not necessarily mean it is not there.  It would make me wonder however why the editors chose, if it does exist, not to put it in the documentation. 

The round up of the Jews began on October 16, the Shabbat during Succot, deliberately chosen by the Germans in another form of humiliation of Jewish religious life and practice.  The Pope knew about the roundup by no later than 8.00 that morning.  Princess Enza Pignatelli-Aragona, a distant cousin, was given a car by the German embassy to take her to the Vatican to tell the Pope what was happening.  I repeat the German embassy gave her a car to go and tell the pope.  Throughout the rest of the day there were frantic negotiations and meetings with German embassy staff, including the Ambassador, Ernst von Weizsäcker, and attempts to end the raid without in any way compromising Vatican neutrality.  The great irony in all of this was the fact that the source of the leaked information, the German embassy, was surely amazed that the Vatican asked the ambassador to do whatever he could for the Jews and decide the best course of action.  The Germans clearly expected the pope to protest.  That he did not came as a great surprise. 

The roundup of the Jews of Rome took place over roughly a day on October 16 from early morning to mid-afternoon.  The Jews were mostly women and children and the elderly because it was thought at first that the Germans were conducting a labour raid so the men and boys escaped through the rabbit warren of houses that still existed in what had been the Papal ghetto.  More were rescued by local non-Jewish Romans, some of whom grabbed Jews off the streets and hid them.  At least seven thousand Jews were hidden across the city; many in religious houses; the vast majority of them survived because of the goodness of the Roman people.  There was no need for any papal order. 

The seized Jews were taken to the military college that abuts the wall that is the outer perimeter of the Vatican City.  It begs another question, another “what if” question which I am not going to elaborate, except to say that when the world knew what was happening to the Jews of Europe, what did Pius XII expect would happen to the 1200 Jews of Rome? It begs a lot of questions.  I do not know the answers and I do not know if we ever will.  Archival material may come to light after 2014 that may help us understand. 

The Jews of Rome were trucked from the Collegio Militare to Tiburtina Station going past St Peter’s.  From Tiburtina they were sent north on October 18, 1943.  Every step of the way, at Florence, Padua, Bologna and finally as they crossed into Austria, there were phone calls made to Rome to let the pope know where the train was.  In Padua Jews on the train managed to get a note out of one of the cattle cars that was taken to the Bishop of Padua with “please tell the Pope”.  He wrote to the Pope five days later by which point 1007 of the transported Jews were dead.  Bishop Carlo Agostini’s letter is in the published documents – ADSS Volume 9, number 389.  Sixteen eventually returned to Roma at war’s end. 

Whether it was a case of protecting neutrality, protecting the rescue work that was going on in other places, I am not certain.  I believe Pius acted out of concern, tempered with caution, tempered with knowing his enemy all too well.  I do think he made a mistake, and that is my personal opinion.  Until we see the rest of the archival material we are not going to be fully certain, and even then it may not solve much at all. 

Certainly I think by the end of the war Pope Pius XII had reached a point where his concern at the sweep of the Red Army across eastern Europe had taken his focus for Europe from the murderous killing of the National Socialist to what he now believed was a far greater threat the long term future of the Catholic Church, the Christian Church and Western Civilization in Europe.  He still spoke out for those suffering because of the war, but by late 1944 there was a definite shift in papal language as the threat of a Soviet dominated Europe looked increasingly likely.

To those who say he did everything he possibly could I challenge by saying “but there are examples which suggest more could have been done or at least said…”  To those who say he did nothing I disagree.  To the small but growing and very loud group of apologists I say you are akin to Holocaust deniers, you sow the seeds of doubt and wish to make myths historical reality.

I wish to close with a myth that has shown itself remarkably resilient over the years.  In 1967 the Jewish Consul in Milan, Pinchas Lapide wrote “The Last Three Popes and the Jews”.  In his book Lapide, a Jew, argues vigorously in defence of Pope Pius XII.  Lapide has been used extensively by apologists because who could there be better to speak in defence of Pius than a Jew?  On what ground could you not find Lapide convincing?  Lapide claimed that Pius XII was directly responsible for saving 860,000 Jews.  He provided no evidence but this figure of 860,000 Jews has entered the mythology of the “canonize him now” groups.  The number of people who are using Lapide at an academic level and in tertiary institutions is appalling.  It is a myth.  It has no foundation in historical fact.  I think this is the greatest problem Pius XII scholars have, namely having to deal with a growing mythology that is attempting to canonise legends and make then history.  It can not and it should not be done.

The substance of this presentation was taken from “A Cross Too Heavy” and Paul O’Shea’s blog “Paul on Pius” (http://paulonpius.blogspot.com.au/)


  1. Dear mr o'Shea,

    Please can you tell me if it's true that The Vatican issued a letter on 20 november 1946 that Jewish children hiding with catholic families in France should not be returned to their surviving parents, or is this a hoax? Pius-detractors use it to support their claim that Pius XII was indifferent to the fate of the Jews.


  2. "Pius XII a gift for the 20th Century " - Benedict XVI



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