One of the most controversial popes of modern times is Pope Pius XII, who was the Catholic Church’s leader during World War II. Did he do what he could, given the situation, or could he and the Church have done more to save Jewish lives? The verdict is still out in what has been called the “Pius War.”
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Germany was a very Christian country. Two-thirds of the country’s 60 million people were Protestants, while 20 million were Catholics. Germany’s Jews comprised less than one percent of the population.
Jews had experienced religious persecution in German lands throughout the centuries, but by the early 1900s secular anti-Semitism, which claimed the Jews belonged to an inferior and dangerous race, was also prevalent in German society. Thus, when the Nazi regime announced in 1933 that it favored a “positive Christianity” that would combat “Jewish materialism at home and abroad,” most Germans weren’t bothered by the blatantly anti-Semitic language. Instead, they were reassured that Nazism would be “good for the Christians.” Just a few years later they would discover how wrong they were – a tragic delusion that would also have ramifications for Europe’s Jews.
During the early years of the twentieth century, the Vatican was still smarting from the modernizing influences of the Enlightenment. Even within the Catholic world, the bishops of some countries, such as Germany, acted autonomously, with only minimal input from Rome. Thus, when German bishops initially forbade Catholics from joining the Nazi party, that was a local policy. There was no such decree from the Vatican, which at first deemed the communists a greater threat to Church beliefs and institutions than the Nazis.
Rather than accept the Vatican’s diminished role, early twentieth-century popes such as Leo XIII and Pius XI sought to reassert the Vatican’s authority and create an absolutist papacy that would control all Catholic affairs for all Catholics. This is thought to be one reason why in July of 1933 the Vatican signed a bilateral treaty with Hitler – the first foreign power to do so. In the Reichskonkordat, which boosted Hitler’s international standing thanks to the Vatican’s recognition, Hitler promised to protect the rights of Catholics under the Nazi government and let the Vatican assert its authority over Catholic affairs. In return, the Vatican promised not to interfere with politics. That included prohibiting individual Catholics from protesting Nazi policies.
The promise not to interfere was in line with the Vatican’s policy of neutrality during the wars of the 1800s and early 1900s. The Church saw its role as that of peacemaker, which it couldn’t accomplish if it took sides during wartime. And, of course, its primary interest was to protect Catholics and Catholic institutions throughout the world, something it couldn’t do if it gave it’s blessing to one side of a conflict.
Almost immediately, Hitler began to break the terms of the treaty; the Nazis had no intention of sharing power with any entity, and especially not the Catholic Church. Therefore, despite Church protestations, Catholic youth groups were shut down, clergymen and nuns were harassed and sometimes arrested on trumped up charges, such as currency smuggling or immorality, and several Catholic lay leaders were murdered during the 1934 purge called the Night of the Long Knives. In March 1937, Pius XI issued an encyclical letter, Mit brennender Sorge (“With Burning Concern”), in which he condemned paganism and the “so-called myth of race and blood,” among other things. The encyclical, which was sent to all German Catholic bishops and read from their pulpits, also defended the rights of baptized Jews, whom the Nazis considered to be Jewish.
Modern Catholic historians like to point to this encyclical as evidence that the Vatican was vigorously protesting Nazi policy. And, indeed, the Gestapo seized all copies of the letter after it was publicly read. But others note the omission of any reference to the Nazis’ persecution of Jews, as well as the lack of an outright condemnation of the Nazi regime. In other words, the Vatican protested those aspects of Nazi dogma in conflict with Church beliefs, but still had no intention of burning its bridges politically.
The War on the Church
One of the architects of the Reichskonkordat was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII in 1939. Germany was the only country that didn’t send a representative to attend Pacelli’s coronation ceremony. It would have been odd if it had, because by this time the Nazis were busy dismantling the Church in the lands they ruled. For instance, Catholic schools in Germany were closed in 1939 and the independent Catholic press was shut down in 1941. There were special barracks for clergymen at the Dachau Concentration Camp and about 95 percent of its 2,720 prisoners were Catholic. In Poland, Catholic leaders were arrested, exiled, and sometimes murdered, while churches, monasteries, and convents were closed. There was a similar crackdown on Church institutions and Catholic leaders in Austria and the Sudetenland.
This was done despite the fact that the Vatican had declared neutrality at the outbreak of the war, both to protect Catholic interests and to avoid having Vatican City occupied by the Italian army. Given this situation, Jesuit historian Vincent A. Lapomarda writes in The Jesuits and the Third Reich, “To condemn Pius for not seizing every opportunity to protest the crimes against the Jews overlooks the fact that he could not even save his own priests. What is amazing is that the Catholic Church under the Pope’s leadership did far more to help Jews than any other international agency or person…”
John Connelly, in his review of Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Cold War by historian Michael Phayer for Commonweal, a Catholic journal, offers a different opinion, writing: “We know that Pius never openly condemned Nazi genocide of the Jews. But what did he say when fellow Catholics became victims of mass murder? The answer is: not much. From the fall of 1939, the Nazi regime began a slaughter of Polish Catholics without precedent. Priests were arrested and incarcerated by the thousands. Men, women, and children died by the hundreds of thousands, victims of calculated policies of extermination that can be called genocidal. Pius was supplied with reports of Nazi crimes in Poland, but to the chagrin of Polish church officials he issued no public protest. During 1942, reports poured into the Vatican detailing Nazi mass murder, not only of Poles but of Jews. Poles and non-Poles wondered in disbelief at the Vatican’s silence. In September 1942, the governments of Brazil, Uruguay, Peru, Cuba, and Belgium sent demarches to the Holy See asking for the pope to speak out against the atrocities. American and British representatives to the Vatican also urged the pope to protest.”
In his Christmas message for 1942, Pius XII finally made a statement, in which he mentioned “hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”
Once again, there was no specific mention of Jews.
Catholic apologists have once again come to the pope’s defense for the omission of any explicit reference to Jewish suffering, pointing to an incident that occurred the summer before, which seemingly showed the futility of speaking out.
On July 26, 1942, Dutch bishops openly protested the deportation of Dutch workers and Jews. The Nazis were quick with their response. They rounded up over 40,000 Catholics of Jewish descent, who were never heard from again.
According to Madre (Mother) Pascalina Lehnert, who served as Pius XII’s housekeeper and secretary from 1917 to 1958, the reason why the pope never publicly protested the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews and others was because he was concerned that many more lives would be endangered if he did. As he said to Italy’s ambassador to the Vatican in 1940 about German atrocities, “We would like to utter words of fire against such actions and the only thing restraining us from speaking is the fear of making the plight of the victims even worse.”
These weren’t idle words. According to Mgr. Jean Bernard, later Bishop of Luxembourg, who was one of the Catholic clergymen interned at Dachau: “The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by a religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican. We all had the impression that our warders made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked … the Protestant pastors among the prisoners used to vent their indignation on the Catholic priests: ‘Again your big naive Pope and those simpletons, your bishops, are shooting their mouths off … why don’t they get the idea once and for all, and shut up. They play the heroes and we have to pay the bill.’”
And as Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide has pointed out: “The saddest and most thought- provoking conclusion is that whilst the Catholic clergy of Holland protested more loudly, expressly and frequently against Jewish persecutions than the religious hierarchy of any other Nazi-occupied country, more Jews – some 107,000 or 79% of the total – were deported from Holland; more than anywhere else in the West.”
Under the Radar
Even though the pope didn’t openly protest the Holocaust, he did help save Jewish lives, following a policy that covert action would do more good than public words. For instance, Mother Pascalina was in charge of taking care of the several hundred Jewish refugees sheltered within the Vatican’s walls after the Nazis invaded and occupied Italy in 1943. Thousands of Italian Jews were also hidden in monasteries, convents, schools and hospitals.
Some historians, such as Susan Zuccotti, author of Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy, argue that these Catholic institutions hid Jews on their own initiative and without any directive from the pope; Zuccotti goes even further and states that Pius XII was against such rescue efforts. But Jonathan Gorsky, writing in an article for Yad Vashem, claims: “The rescue of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust, and the opening of Catholic institutions as places of shelter, could not have occurred in the face of papal disapproval. This is especially true with regard to institutions within the confines of Rome and the Vatican. Although critics have maintained that some of the figures produced by papal supporters are considerably exaggerated, no one has denied the significant scale of Catholic rescue activity, and gratitude was indeed expressed by leading Jews after the war.”
In addition to providing refuge, the Church also issued false baptismal and immigration certificates to help Jews escape from Nazi-controlled lands. For instance, in Hungary 80,000 of these baptismal certificates were issued and efforts, not always successful, were made to get the new converts to British Mandate-controlled Palestine and other places. The person behind the initiative was Nuncio Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII after Pius XII passed away in 1958. Unlike some clergymen who expected their new converts to remain Catholic for life, Roncalli appears to have assumed that most of these wartime converts would return to Judaism after the danger passed.
Nuncio Roncalli is sometimes held up as a sterling example of a Catholic activist during the war, in opposition to the passivity of Pius XII. Not only did he try to help Hungarian Jews, but he also helped rescue Jews from Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy. But in an interview with historian Pinchas Lapide after he was pope, Roncalli insisted that he was not the one who should receive credit for the work he did to save Jews, because his orders had come from Pius XII.
There were many other priests and individual Catholics who risked their lives to save Jews. And after the war many prominent Jewish leaders thanked the pope for his efforts, including Chief Rabbi of Israel Rav Yitzchak HaLevi Herzog, general secretary of the World Jewish Council Dr. Leon Kubowitzky, and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
But even while giving credit to Pius XII for the efforts he did make during the war, nagging questions remain: Why did he insist that the Vatican remain neutral even after it was clear the Nazis were bent on murdering all of Europe’s Jews and intended to destroy the Church? Why didn’t the pope condemn the Catholic regime in Croatia for its murderous behavior toward the Jews, as well as other Catholic-initiated atrocities? When Catholics such as the German professor Karl Thieme were asking for moral clarity – and especially when it became public knowledge that Europe’s Jews were doomed in any event – why didn’t the pope speak out on behalf of the Jews, mentioning them by name instead of only alluding to “hundreds of thousands of persons,” and openly encourage his followers to do what they could to save Jewish lives?
The Final Word
There are no conclusive answers to these questions. But we do know that Europe’s Christians also paid a heavy price for their early silence – which was famously summed up by Pastor Martin Niemoller, an early supporter of the Nazis who changed his mind and was imprisoned at Dachau and other camps for his anti-Nazi views:
First they came first for the communists, and I didn’t speak out –
Because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out –
Because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out –
Because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.
Next: Were relations between Jews and the Catholic Church any better in the United States? We’ll take a look in Part VIII of this series.
“Pius XII and the Holocaust,” Jonathan Gorsky, Shoah Resource Center, Yad Vashem.
The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, Guenter Lewy, Littlehampton Book Services Ltd., 1964.
“The Catholic Church and the Holocaust,” Steven A. Allen, Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, Ohio State University, 1998.
The Catholic Church and the Holocaust (1930-1965), Michael Phayer, Indiana University Press, 2000.
“The First Cold Warrior?”, John Connelly, Commonweal, September 26, 2008, 20-24
“The German Churches and the Nazi State,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“The Holocaust and the Catholic Church,” James Carroll, Atlantic Magazine, October 1999.
The Jesuits and the Third Reich, Vincent A. Lapomarda, Edwin Mellen Press, 1989.
The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism, 1914-1958, John Pollard, Oxford University Press, 2014.
“The Vatican & the Holocaust: 860,000 Lives Saved – The Truth About Pius XII & the Jews,”
Robert A. Graham, S.J., Jewish Virtual Library.
Three Popes and the Jews, Pinchas Lapide, Hawthorn Books, 1967.