Pius XII was not “Hitler’s pope”, according to a new book

The Vatican always defended its World War II pope, Pius XII, accused by some of having kept silent as the Jewish holocaust unfolded and insisting that he quietly strove to save many lives. A new book, citing recently released Vatican files, argues that the Catholic Church focused on saving Jews who had become Catholic or were children of “mixed marriages” between Catholics and Jews.

The documents reveal intense searches for baptismal documents, lists of converts’ names provided by the Vatican to the German ambassador, and fervent calls by Catholics for the pope to find descendants of Jews, according to David Kertzer’s book “The Pope at War.” (The Pope in the war), published Tuesday in the United States.

Kertzer is the author of “The Pope and Mussolini” about Pius’s predecessor, Pius XI, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize. His new book is based on millions of documents from the recently released Vatican archives and from the state archives of Italy, France, Germany, the United States and Great Britain, presenting a history of World War II from the perspective of the papacy of Pius XII and his extensive diplomatic network with the Axis and Allied nations.

“The amount of material in these archives about finding baptismal documents for Jews that could save them is staggering,” Kertzer said in a phone interview ahead of his book’s release.

The 484-page volume, with a hundred pages of references, presents the image of a timid pontiff, who was not anti-Semitic but rather thought that neutrality was the best way to protect the interests of the Catholic Church in the midst of war. .

Kertzer, who is a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, believes that Pius XII was driven by fear of what might happen if the Axis won, as he suspected it would until almost the last moment, and eventually spread of godless communism in Europe if the Axis lost.

Kertzer says that Pius opted for caution in order to avoid conflict with the Nazis at all costs. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, was instructed not to write anything about the atrocities committed by the Germans and to cooperate with the fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini.

This meant that no word would ever be said in public explicitly denouncing the massacres of the SS, not even when Jews were rounded up outside the Vatican walls and put on trains to Auschwitz, as happened on October 16, 1943.

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Kertzer concludes that Pius was not “Hitler’s pope”, as the provocative title of a book by John Cornwell says. But neither was he a standard-bearer for the Jewish cause, as Pius’s supporters claimed.

Marla Stone, a professor of humanities at the American Academy in Rome, said the book “assumes a middle ground between the ancient poles of historical interpretation.”

“In the past, you had to choose between the version that Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s pope,’ a Nazi sympathizer who yearned for a Nazi-fascist victory, obsessed with defeating the Soviets at any cost, and a dedicated anti-Semite. ”, Stone said in an academic discussion last month. “The other historical position was that Pius XII did everything in his power to help those who suffered from Nazi and fascist oppression, and that he was constrained by circumstances.”

“The Pope at War” is one of several books being published two years after Pope Francis opened the archives of Pius XII and made reams of documents available to scholars that could help answer lingering questions about the role of Pius and what he did or did not do during the war.

One of the first to see the light of day was written by the archivist of the Vatican secretariat of state, Johan Ickx. Perhaps understandably, he praises Pius and the Vatican’s efforts to help Jews and others fleeing war.

“It is clear that the Jews thought that Pius XII was on their side and that he and his team would do everything possible to try to save them,” Ickx told the Vatican news service.

Reverend Peter Gumpel, a German researcher who participated in a campaign in favor of Pius’ sanctity, now bogged down, argued that the pontiff could not speak openly so as not to irritate Adolf Hitler and provoke more killings of Jews. He mentions the case of a Dutch Catholic bishop who spoke out against the deportation of Jews and the response of the Gestapo, who deported Jews who had converted to Catholicism.

Between 1965 and 1981, the Vatican published 11 volumes of documents in order to downplay criticism of Pius’s silence after the 1963 premiere of “The Deputy,” which argued that the pontiff had turned a blind eye to the atrocities. of the Nazis.

However, the Vatican prefect himself, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, recently said that the issue had to be reconsidered.

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In a talk coordinated by a Spanish research institute in Rome, Pagano admitted that the Jesuits “sometimes looked at half of a document, and the other half did not.” He noted that he had discovered “strange omissions.”

He asserted, however, that there was no attempt to hide inconvenient truths, but rather that the omissions were a consequence of the lack of full access to all files and the chaos associated with rushing through a disorganized file.

Kertzer identifies two major omissions in his book: The first is the transcripts of a series of secret meetings between Pius and a personal envoy of Hitler, Prince Philipp von Hessen, beginning shortly after Pius’s election and continuing for two years. These meetings gave the pontiff a hitherto unknown direct access to Hitler.

The second major omission was the content of a note from Pius’s chief diplomatic adviser on Jewish affairs, Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acquia, in response to requests for Pius to comment on arrests of Italian Jews, which increased in the fall and winter. of 1943. While Dell’Acquia’s opinion was known — that Pius should keep quiet — Kertzer says that the anti-Semitic expressions he used to describe Jews were excluded from the 11 volumes of documents.

The Vatican has already criticized Kertzer’s work in the past. He disputed a 2020 essay published by The Atlantic magazine with some preliminary conclusions, saying they were “strong but unproven claims.”

An example of the Vatican’s priorities can be seen, Kertzer says, by looking at the detention of Roman Jews on October 16, 1943. That cold morning, 1,259 Jews were rounded up and taken to a barracks near the Vatican, to be sent to Auschwitz. The next day, the Vatican secretariat of state was authorized to send a delegate to the barracks, who stated that among those detained were “people who had been baptized, confirmed and married in the church,” according to the envoy’s notes.

In the days that followed, the secretary of state compiled lists of people the church considered Catholic and passed them on to the German ambassador, asking him to intervene. In total, some 250 of the 1,259 people detained were prevented from being deported.

“To me, this reflects, and I think is new to the book, the Vatican’s involvement in the selection of Jews,” Kertzer said in the interview. In the decision of “who is going to live and who is going to die”.

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