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



On October 6, 1943, the third day of Sukkos, the SS arrived in Rome’s ghetto and wrested all the Jews from their homes, to be herded into trucks headed to the train station. All this occurred with the Pope’s knowledge, literally in his backyard, to his deafening silence. No public plea and no public protest was heard. In all, 1,259 Jews were removed from their homes and deported to Auschwitz.

As the author writes: “The Pope could have no doubt about the fate that awaited the Jews. The seizure of Rome’s Jews, which was a stone’s throw from the Vatican, who were aware of their deportation to their deaths, put his policy of not protesting or intervening with the Nazi’s ongoing deportations to the test. How could he remain silent now?”

The Pope summoned the German ambassador, Ernest von Weizsazker, through Cardinal Luigi Maglione, to discuss this terrible situation of the “Pope’s Jews.” The Cardinal said: “It is painful for the Holy Father that in Rome itself under the eyes of the Common Father, to see so many people suffering simply because they are of a particular race.” (The word “Jew” never escaped his lips, like his boss the Pope.)

Weizsazker replied: “What would the Pope do if things continued?” Replied Maglione: “He would not be constrained to say a word of disapproval.” Replied Weizsazker: “It has been more than four years that I have admired the Pope’s attitude. He has succeeded in steering the ship among rocks of every kind without a collision. And even if he had favored more the Allies, he has maintained a perfect balance… Is it now a good time to put the Pope in danger? I think the consequences of that a step would provoke… This comes from the highest source [Hitler].”

The matter died there and then.

We see that the Pope’s agenda was to protect the Church and its status from being attacked by the Germans or Italians, and to only attempt to protect baptized Jews, whom he considered to be Catholics. It is telling that the word “Jew” was never mentioned by the Pope in any of his hundreds of speeches, encyclicals, and messages during the war.

All this background material is covered in the book. What is left to review are a sample of the critical speeches made by the Pope, and the most important hitherto secret diplomatic cables sent and received by the various Allied and Axis ambassadors to their respective governments. These cables reflect the Allied ambassadors’ criticism of the Pope’s conduct and speeches as being hypocritical or useless, and the Axis ambassadors’ praise for the Pope’s public words as being helpfully balanced and neutral. The reader will gain an appreciation for the delicate balance and high-wire act which reflected the Pope’s conduct throughout the war.

What struck me as most remarkable at the very outset of the war, and portended how the Pope would conduct himself from 1939 through 1945, was his shocking failure to condemn Germany for invading Poland in September 1939. After all, Poland was an overwhelmingly Catholic country, which suffered greatly when invaded by Germany, and doubly so when split between Germany and Russia.

Actually, the Polish clergy rushed to plead with the Pope to condemn this brutal invasion, but not a word was heard from the Pope. In fact, his silence was commented upon by the German ambassador to the Vatican, who sent a telegram to Berlin stating: “Pope’s refusal to take sides against Germany would be entirely in harmony with assurances he has repeatedly conveyed to me through trusted agent in recent weeks.”

The British ambassador to the Vatican noted soon after the invasion: “The Vatican offered no word of reprobation of either the German or Russian invasion of Poland.”

Thereafter, when in May 1940, Germany invaded the Catholic countries of Belgium, Holland, and Luxemburg, the French ambassador, Francois Charles-Roux wrote at the time: “All the Catholics in France, England, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, are waiting for the Holy Father to condemn the crime the Germans committed with their invasion of three neutral countries.”

Proof that the Pope’s possible condemnation of Hitler and Mussolini would seriously impact the Axis’ war plans may be seen in a message Goring wrote to the Italian ambassador wondering whether the Pope would excommunicate both Hitler and Mussolini. The ambassador replied to Goring that it was unlikely, “but it would be a dangerous influence on popular opinion.”

Concerning the Pope’s support for Italy’s entering into the war allied with Germany as Germany invaded much of Western Europe at the beginning of the war, the Pope told Mussolini’s ambassador to the Vatican, “[I]n a perfectly natural setting, I reminded the faithful that it is their duty to sacrifice for the fatherland even if necessary with their life. I have neglected nothing on my part and I would be disposed to do even more…”

The Vatican was afraid of Germany, but not of Italy. In the words of Vladimir d’Ormesson, the French ambassador to the Vatican: “Pius XII would have condemned the Axis aggression but the horrific violence simply served to drive Pius XII back into his shell.”

Some of the ambassador’s other instructive comments: “He only collaborates with fascism, although treated with indifference by Mussolini, and seizes every possibility to show his loyalty to the Fascist Movement (of Italy).”

“It was crucial to understand that the Vatican made a total distinction between Germany and Italy, the latter power continuing to benefit from a favorable prejudice.”

“The Pope would be more disposed to befriend Germany if Germany would renounce its pact with Russia, as Bolshevism being the principal enemy of the Church, Germany in crushing (Russia) would regain sympathy at the Vatican and be considered an arm of the Church.”

But for the moment, confided the ambassador, “the Pope fears offending the church when Europe will be under the thumb of a triumphant Germany. One gets the strong feeling the Pope has such a fear that a phrase or a word might be repeated outside Vatican City, so he prefers to remain silent and merely nods and raises his eyes to the sky.”

The long and short of this is that the Pope seemed not to be worried or concerned with the fate of the Jews, except for those who had been baptized or married with children to non-Jewish spouses, or anyone else for that matter, except for his beloved church. He was willing to suffer withering criticism from Western countries so as not to endanger the Church from Hitler or Mussolini.

Initially, I leaned toward the classic Jewish opinion, as I understood it, that the Pope was evil, a rasha. However, after reading this book, even with my predisposition to criticize the Pope’s silence, it occurred to me that quite possibly, it was not solely antisemitism which silenced the Pope from condemning the slaughter of six million Jews. Instead, as the leader of the Church, the Pope did what he could to save his Church from destruction by the warring parties.

As between the Church and the Jews, he chose the Church.

The Pope at War, numbering some 600 pages and heavily annotated, while rich with documentation and details, reads nevertheless like a novel. It is fast-paced and allows the reader to believe he or she is present in the room as the events unfold. I highly recommend this book to anyone wishing to understand the Pope’s silence.

Note: At times, I have abridged or paraphrased some of the longer quotations.


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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].