Photo Credit: Random House

Title: The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler
By David I. Kertzer
Random House, 672 pages




Why did the Pope not condemn the wholesale murder of Jews by the Nazis? This question has vexed religious and political influencers, as well as worldwide Jewry, since the end of World War II. David I. Kurtzer, author of The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler, sifted through voluminous WWII archives which were opened in 2020 by the Vatican, as well as those of the various Allied governments, and in his new book shares hitherto undisclosed diplomatic communications between the Vatican and the Allies and Axis powers. Kurtzer offers many thought-provoking answers while at the same time encouraging the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

However, in order to arrive at a satisfying answer, readers must become familiar with a less well-known aspect of WWII – relating to the personal relationships between the fascist Italian government led by Benito Mussolini, the Vatican headed by Pope Pius XII, and Germany’s Chancellor Adolf Hitler, and the fate of the Jews living in Italy during the years’ 1933-45, especially from September 1943-45, when Germany invaded Italy.

While most of us are familiar with the war’s trajectory in both Western and Eastern Europe, the secret cables and messages between the ambassadors from the Allied and Axis countries and the Vatican, to and from each other, reveal why the Pope failed to intervene, let alone condemn the murder of the helpless innocent Jews by the Germans and their fellow murderers.

By understanding the domestic politics of Italy and Germany vis à vis the Vatican, as well as how the United States, Britain, and the French government in exile fully comprehended the Pope’s duplicity, yet hesitated to openly criticize him for his silence, we may understand, but never accept, the horrific and unforgivable conduct of the Pope.

Pope Pius XI, the predecessor to Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli), who died in February 1939, initially supported Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, as a bulwark against atheistic, anti-Catholic Marxism-Communism, which was growing in Germany and Italy due to the worldwide depression but was anathema to the Vatican. Once Pius XI saw Hitler close Catholic schools and replace them with state schools and arrest a great number of Catholic clergy for sexual and financial crimes, Pius XI, in March 1937, publicly condemned Hitler personally, and his Nazi government, in no uncertain terms.

This public condemnation so unsettled Hitler, who feared the anger of Germany’s Catholic population numbering some 20 million German citizens against his government, that he quickly backtracked on his anti-Church legislation and acts. To prove the direct and far-reaching influence of the Pope’s protests, and why his silence towards the Jews’ extermination was so damnable, on January 30, 1939, as Hitler celebrated his sixth anniversary of his ascension to power, he addressed a packed crowd at the German Reichstag, where he highlighted in his self-congratulatory speech the huge financial contribution to the Church being made by the Reich. As Mussolini whispered to Hitler when they first met in 1934, “it was best to keep the church happy.” Already, the Vatican recognized its own enormous influence over the governments with whom it came into contact.

Earlier, Pius XII’s brother, who was Secretary of the Vatican Secretariat, perhaps the most powerful political position within the Vatican, had successfully concluded the Lateran Accords in 1929 between the Vatican and the Italian Government, led by Mussolini. These Accords were essentially a tradeoff between the Vatican, which agreed to support Mussolini’s fascist, anti-Communist government, and Mussolini, who gave the Vatican the status of a sovereign state with political powers.

In the spring of 1938, soon after Hitler and Mussolini met again in Italy, Mussolini’s government enacted anti-Jewish racial laws which effectively copied the German Nuremberg laws of 1935, depriving Italian Jews of their professions, property, and legal rights, but made no effort to deport the Jews living in Italy. Hitler commented at the time, “After Italy’s new policy regarding the Jewish problem, the spirit of the Axis is complete.”

When Pius XI died a few months before Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, his successor Pius XII followed a completely different course, relating to both the Italian and German governments. Pius XII had been the Vatican nuncio (ambassador) to Germany from 1917 through 1929, until he was appointed as Cardinal Secretary of State by Pius XI in 1930 upon his return to Rome. Pius XII spoke fluent German, and had wielded great influence in Germany among its mostly religious Catholic population. The author of The Pope at War states that during his tenure as nuncio in Germany, the future pope was no ally of Hitler, probably, I surmise, because Pacelli followed the lead of Pius XI, who had made no secret of his enmity toward Hitler for his anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish policies.

Mussolini, the Prime Minister of Italy, had supported Franco’s fascist government in Spain, and Hitler saw him as a potential partner in his own war against the Allies in general, and the Jews in particular. Finally, both Mussolini and Hitler sought to avoid being publicly criticized – or worse, condemned – by the Pope. This, because of the thousands of parish priests in both countries who interacted daily with their Catholic parishioners. These priests mostly reflected in their preaching and messages to their church members the political and religious attitude of the Vatican. Although most parishioners (that is to say, the Catholic population living in each of these countries) were loyal citizens of their respective countries, they would unquestionably in most cases obey both the letter and spirit of their government’s laws and doctrines. However, these same loyal citizens would give pause if their local priest stood up against their own government. Therefore, Mussolini and Hitler fully recognized that the Vatican was in a strong position to interfere and even block their own racist and anti-Jewish plans through local priests preaching from their churches against the murderous acts of the local government.

However, such anti-government messages from the Church would only transpire if the Pope himself publicly condemned and protested any anti-Christian behavior by the government and its leader, especially the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians, no matter their religion.

Nevertheless, the future Pope, Pius XII, also recognized that if the Axis powers were victorious and were to rule over Europe, their innate anti-clerical policies, reflecting Hitler’s absolute god-like control over Germany, could result in the victorious Axis governments shutting down the local churches, as well as stripping the Vatican of all its powers, both political and otherwise, resulting in the isolation of the Pope and the weakening of his influence on both the local and international stage.

Accordingly, unlike Pius XI who was willing to risk the safety of the Vatican itself and the Catholic Church throughout Germany and Italy by condemning Hitler and showing his disdain for Mussolini, Pius XII was resolved to first and foremost protect the institute of the Church. This, starting with the Vatican, extended as well to the personal safety of his priests throughout Germany and Italy, and finally to the Catholic population, including baptized Jews (even in opposition to Hitler’s “pure” racial laws). However, non-baptized Jews were of no concern to the Pope, especially if protecting them would anger Hitler and endanger the status of the Vatican and the Church. Pius XII’s direct intervention to save Jews would offend Hitler, whom he was afraid could portray the Church as giving aid and comfort to the enemy Allies, and use that as an excuse to destroy the Church, both politically, financially, and physically.

Therefore, this delicate balance between the Vatican’s silence and Hitler and Mussolini’s “neutral” church policies, would play out as long as the Pope was convinced that the Axis powers would win the war in Europe. However, as we shall see, when the tide of war in Europe, North Africa, and Asia turned in the Allies’ favor, once the Americans entered the war after Pearl Harbor, and Russia stopped Germany at Stalingrad, it became obvious to the Pope that Hitler and his Axis powers (Italy and Japan) would lose the war. At that point, the Pope changed his strategy of pro-Axis “neutrality” and reached out to FDR and Churchill through their ambassadors to the Vatican, seeking a role as a peacemaker and asking them to spare Rome from Allied bombing by declaring Rome an “open” city. This was vehemently rejected by Churchill as well as General Eisenhower, who successfully argued with FDR that nothing less than unconditional surrender would satisfy the Allied powers military objectives.

This original reference came in 1555, when Pope Paul IV mandated that Jews living in Rome, numbering about 2,500, be locked in the ghetto at night, and their professions and civil rights were severely restricted. Under the thumb of the Popes, and at their mercy, they were known as the Pope’s Jews. This until 1870, when the Italian forces conquered the papal states.

In this book, the author uses the same terminology to describe a series of nefarious acts by the Pope and his priests who, while intervening quietly to save baptized Jews from being arrested and deported when Germany invaded Italy in September 1943, did nothing for unbaptized Jews.

In 1943, as Italy was being bombed relentlessly by the Allies, and the Italian people were starving for food and their basic life needs, Victor Emmanuel III, the popular but powerless king of Italy, was pressured by his advisors to remove Mussolini as prime minister, and install an anti-fascist government, more appealing to the Allies, who were expected to win the war. This way, the Italians could project themselves as unwilling partners to Hitler, having been duped by Mussolini, a rabid anti-Catholic fascist dictator, whom they had now removed. The Italians would also claim that they were victims of Hitler, much like Austrians falsely claimed after the war, and expect to be fed and supported by the Allies.

Bishop Aloisius Joseph Muench, Pius XII’s post-war liaison to the Office of Military Government, United States.

Indeed, on July 25, 1943, Mussolini was arrested by the Italians and jailed in exile in the Gran Sasso mountains. Hitler sent in Otto Skorzeny, a crack SS officer who, using gliders, flew to the mountains, disarmed 200 Italian guards, and freed Mussolini. Mussolini publicly announced that he would continue his fascist government to be based in the northern part of Italy, headquartered in Milan, while the new government headed by General Badoglio would be established in the south of Italy, in Rome. (On April 28, 1945, Mussolini was shot dead trying to escape from Milan to Switzerland by Italian partisans, and was hanged upside down, with his mistress, in the public square of Milan.)

Hitler was furious that his partner had been removed, but more worried that Italy would sue for a separate peace. As a result, in September 1943, Germany invaded Italy and occupied Rome. Hitler used Rome as a corridor to move his troops and equipment north, to continue the battle in Europe.

During this occupation by Germany of Italy, the SS under orders from Himmler began rounding up Jews for deportation by train to Auschwitz, wherever they could be found. Many Jews had hidden in churches, as well as in the countryside. However, with the Pope’s implicit approval, as no protest by the Vatican was made against these roundups and deportations, the local Italian clergy fully cooperated with the Nazis by pointing out where the Jews were hiding in their churches, and these hapless Jews were arrested by the German SS and immediately deported to Auschwitz without mercy.

However, there were a considerable number of Italian Jews who had been baptized since 1938 when the Italian racial laws were enacted. Some had married non-Jewish spouses and given birth to mixed race Jewish children called “mischlings” by the Germans. These Jews, who were known to their local parish priests, were included on a list handed to the Vatican’s emissaries, to not just protest, but to actually intercede, and allow these Jews to be exempt from deportation.

Indeed, the Vatican sent this list of names to the German Embassy, demanding that these Jews and their mischling children be removed from the trains. Regardless, these Jews, known as the “Pope’s Jews,” could not be saved except for a few well-connected exceptions, as the Germans did not generally recognize these baptisms and would not differentiate between Jews. The Pope was incensed that these baptized Jews would suffer the same fate as non-baptized Jews, but he was not going to endanger the Vatican or local Catholic clergy by publicly condemning these deportations. Thus, within a few meters of the Vatican gardens, Jews of all kind were rounded up and placed in trucks to be brought to the trains headed to Auschwitz.


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Daniel Retter periodically contributes feature articles and book reviews for the JP. He is the published author of the HaMafteach, the Indexed Referenced Guide in both Hebrew and English to the Talmud Bavli and Mishnayos. Mr. Retter practices immigration, real estate, and business law as “Of Counsel” to Wildes and Weinberg Law Offices in their Miami Office, and he resides in Miami Beach, Fla. He may be contacted at [email protected].