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Pope Pious XII

Updated on August 19, 2017
John Everette profile image

History in general and history of the Catholic church, in particular, has long been of interest to me.

A picture taken use by Cornwall  for his book "Hitler's Pope"  The picture had nothing to do with Nazi Germany or Hitler.  It was taken much earlier than believed by critics.
A picture taken use by Cornwall for his book "Hitler's Pope" The picture had nothing to do with Nazi Germany or Hitler. It was taken much earlier than believed by critics. | Source

Pope Pious XII and his ctirics

In the latter half of the Twentieth Century critics of the Vatican and the Catholic Church have targeted Pope Pious XII (Eugenio Pacelli) for what they believe he did and did not do as far as Hitler and Nazis Germany were concerned in regard to the Jews and the Holocaust. One critic, a British journalist, John Cornwell, in 1999 went so far as to write a book entitled “Hitler’s Pope”. This prompted an American historian and rabbi, David G, Dalin to write “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” in 2005. Dalin’s book was in direct opposition to not only Cornwall’s book but other books and articles written by critics of not only Pope Pious XII but the Vatican and the Catholic Church.

Cornwell’s book is said to make accusations and claims that Eugenio Pacelli, as papal nuncio and later as Pope Pious XII did not only fail to do what he could for European Jews, but he failed to explain his actions or failures to act after the war. After reading Dalin’s book one may come away with the impression that after the war there was little demand for Pope Pious XII to explain his actions. This was due to how thankful thousands of Jews were so very thankful to him for what he did in using the office of pope and Vatican radio to mobilize the Catholic church, Catholic institution and Catholic laity to provide places of safety and security for countless Jews in Rome and in the Nazi occupied territories. Not to mention his personal efforts to aid the Jews escape deportation to certain death in Nazi concentration camps.

Eugenio Pacelli
Eugenio Pacelli | Source

Pavclli' life from birth to Papal nuncio and the concordat

In March of 1876 Eugenio Pacelli was born into an aristocratic family of lawyers that had served the papacy and the Vatican since 1819 during the time of Pope Pious IX. Eugenio’s father was among other Roman aristocrats and civic leader who sided with the pope in the unification of Italy that brought about a liberal monarchy in 1870. It was that monarchy that brought political emancipation and religious freedom for the Jews in Rome to the point that they soon became “fully integrated” into Italian society and politics. This allowed his family to socialize with some of Rome’s leading Jewish families and Eugenio being sent to Rome’s most liberal high school where he had many Jewish classmates and friends.

In 1894 Pacelli chose to be a priest and entered began seminary training.

In 1899 Pacelli was ordained as was assigned to his family’s church where he once served as alter boy.

In 1901 Cardinal Gassaparri invited Pacelli to be part of a program whose aim was to train clerics for service in the Vatican’s diplomatic ranks. At first Pacelli was against accepting the invitation but after receiving assurances from Cardinal Gassaparri that he would be just as involved in serving people as a diplomat as he was as a pastor he accepted the invitation. A few weeks later he was asked by the pope to deliver the Vatican’s condolences to King Edward VII of England upon the death of Queen Victoria.

In 1908 Pacelli returned to England where he met a young member of Parliament- Winston Churchill. The two quickly became friends.

In 1914 Pacelli succeeded Cardinal Gassapari as secretary of the Department of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs. Then, with the outbreak of World War I he helped formulate and draft all official documents for Pope Benedict XV. One of those documents being in answer to an appeal from the American Jewish Committee to use his moral and spiritual influence to condemn anti-Semitic pogroms in Poland that resulted in the deaths hundreds of deaths, well as the wounding of thousands of Jews. The document came to be seen as the 20th Century’s first expression of papal opposition to anti-Semitism.

In 1917 Pacelli became papal nuncio to Bavaia. This essentially made him the pope’s ambassador to the German Empire. As the pope’s ambassador it became his responsibility to establish diplomatic relations with Bavaria and the rest of the Germany. In this capacity he traveled to Berlin and introduce himself to the German government of Kaiser Wilhelm II. He then went on to live in Munich which at the time was a hotbed of political unrest due to the pro-Soviet Communist Party that had many assimilated and secular Jews among its members.

In 1918 it was this pro-Soviet Communist Party that led a revolution in Munich that resulting in the revolutionaries taking over the royal palace where it established its short lived Soviet Republic of Bavaria. These rebels also invaded two embassies resulting in the arrest of the Austira-Hungarian consul. In response Pacelli sent Monsignor Lorenzo to meet with the leaders of the new government about the safety of people under Pacelli’s protection. The government’s response was a warning that he would be expelled if he did anything to oppose the Communist government of Munich. Pacelli wrote the pope about the meeting which seemingly made him a target of Bolsheviks’ hostility and violence in that:

  1. Pacelli’s official residence was sprayed with machine gun fire
  2. A small group of Bolshevik revolutionaries broke into his residence and not only threatened him, but robbed the residence until he was able to reason with them.
  3. Another Bolshevik group of revolutionaries attacked his car until once again was able to reason with them

Pacelli also wrote the Vatican about the attacks and it was this letter that many of his critics later point to as evidence of Pacelli’s anti-Semitism.

The critic’s translation of the letter-a gang of young women of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles, the boss of the rabble was a young Russian woman, and divorcee (while their chief) is a young man of about 30 or 35, also Russian and a Jew, pale, dirty with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.

However, that same letter was shown to have been mistranslated by critics for perhaps a more accurate translation showed no anti-Semitism on Pacelli’s part as his comments were clearly about the Bolshevik rebels, as a group and, had attacked him and his residence.

From 1917 to 1929 Pacelli, as papal nunio, gave some forty-four speeches, each one denouncing some part of Nazi ideology.

In 1923 he wrote, Cardinal Gassparri, then Vatican secretary of state, denouncing Hitler’s National Socialism movement.

In April of 1933 Pacelli instructed the papal nuncio in Berlin to warn Hitler’s regime against persecuting Jews. He then went on to instruct the papal nuncio, after the Enabling Acts were enacted in Germany, to intervene on behalf of German Jews.

Pavelli at the signing of the concordat with Nazi Germany
Pavelli at the signing of the concordat with Nazi Germany | Source

Pacelli and the concordat

In August of 1933 Pacelli was engaged with the Nazi regime as they negotiated a concordat (treaty) between Germany and the Vatican. The Vatican wanted this concordat as a means to protect the rights of Catholic Churches, clerics, and laity in Germany. The Nazi regime sought this treaty for their own reasons for even while negotiations were going on 92 Catholic priests were arrested, the premises of 16 Catholic youth clubs were searched and closed along with 9 Catholic publications.

The concordat was eventually signed and as Pacelli later related to Ivonna Kirkpatrick, then British ambassador to the Vatican, he signed the concordat because he felt he had a pistol pointed at his head for without it Catholics in Germany would be at the mercy of the Nazi regime. As it was he had no confidence that Hitler and the Nazi had any real intention to honor the treaty, but at least the church would have something on which to base protests.

Critics then to point to this concordat as further evidence of Pacelli’s inability and unwillingness to fully deal with the Nazis on behalf of the Jews, even though this concordance was also meant to help German Jews.

In 1936, as one of his acts as the new Vatican secretary of state, Pacelli went on a 30 day tour of the United States during which he met with FDR. This marked the first meeting between a Vatican secretary state and an American president in the United States.

In 1937 Pacelli drafted an encyclical for Pope Pious XI condemning National Socialism

In 1938 Pacelli met with Joseph P. Kennedy, then United States Ambassador to Great Britain, during which he informed the ambassador-National Socialism attacks the fundamental principal of freedom of the practice of religion. He also informed the ambassador that the church felt “at times powerless and isolated in the daily struggle against all sorts of political excesses from the Bolsheviks to the pagans arising from Aryan generations”. Finally he informed the ambassador that “the possibility of an agreement as political compromise with Nazis should be out of the question.”

Also in 1938 Pacelli personally secured immigration documents for displaced Jewish professors so that they may escape to either Palestine or the United States, this in the wake of Mussolini’s initial actions against Jews in Italy that were just beginning. Mussolini would go on in 1939 to enact his regime’s first wave of anti-Jewish laws that were patterned after Germany’s Nuremberg Laws which dismisses Jewish teachers from public schools and universities as well as civil service jobs and armed forces. They also expelled Jewish children from secondary schools. The laws also not only barred Jews from marrying Catholics but Jews could not employ Catholics.

Pope Pious XII
Pope Pious XII | Source

Pope Pious XII uses his position as Pope for the sake of the Jews

Despite Germany’s efforts not to have Pacelli succeed Pope Pious XI as pope after the Pope Pious XI’s death, Pacelli was made pope as Pope Pious XII in 1939. This occurred one month before World War II started. The Nazi feared that Pacelli would continue his “pro-Jewish” policy. In the German press Pacelli said that –many of [Pacelli’s] speeches have made it clear he does not fully grasp the political and ideological motives which have their victorious march in Germany.”

In 1940 German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbontrop chastised pope for siding with the Allies. The pope’s response was a long list of Nazi atrocities.

Over Vatican Radio in 1941, during his Christmas address Pope Pious XII clearly condemned Nazi attacks on Jews.

The Pope’s 1942 Christmas address expressed concern for “those hundreds of thousands who without any fault of their own…are marched down to death.” This address likely brought about as a result of not only some 80,000 Jews rounded up in Slovakia (for which the Vatican filed a protest, but the deportation of Jews from Nazi occupied France. The Nazi responded with –His speech in one long attack on all that we stand for.

In July 1943 Hitler ordered SS chief in Italy, General Karl Otto Wolff to occupy the Vatican and Vatican city as soon as possible to not only secure the Vatican archives and art treasures there, but to take the Pope into protective custody so that he does not fall to the Allies. The General somehow succeeded in talking Hitler out of his plans. However, he German ambassador regularly warned Vatican officials from further provoking Berlin.

Also in 1943, after Nazi occupied Italy and Rome, the Pope learned of planned roundup and deportation of Jews. He immediately ordered that all Catholic churches and institutions and laity open their doors to Jews. He even went so far as ordering that his summer residence open its doors to Jews. The round up and deportation of Jews in Rome went on until Allies captured the city. This all resulted in only 18% of Roman Jews being deported to concentration camps and the deaths of only 2,091.

The Nazi then invaded Hungary and immediately enacted anti-Jewish laws. Papal response was quick as the papal nuncio in Hungary met with the deputy minister and demanded that deportations be stopped. The pope sent a message to the regent of Hungary asking that he use his influence to stop the deportations. In twenty-four hours the deportations were terminated. The apostolic delegate to Istanbul, Archbishop Angelo Roncalle (future Pope John XXIII) secured immigration documents for Jews to escape to Palestine. This act caused Hajii Amin al-Husseine to complain to German Minister Ribbontrop of the arrival of more Jews into Palestine.

Pope Pious XII one of the most controversial popes
Pope Pious XII one of the most controversial popes | Source

While to some it may seem that papal nuncio Pacelli and later as Pope Pius XII that may have done all that he could do to stop the Nazi, as Pope, Pacelli did in fact use his position as pope over the Catholic Church in various countries to hinder the Nazi goal of exterminating European Jews. Some of this done over his use of Vatican Radio, some through his personal intervention as well as meetings with dignitaries from Britain and the United States.


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 

      12 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Very interesting article which answers some of my questions on this matter. I believe religious leaders of today should excommunicate their membership which are violent or who teach violence. This would help identify the Terrorists in the world.


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