Pius XII & the Jews: the real story

May 28 2003 | by

FORTY-FIVE YEARS ago, at precisely dawn of 9 October 1958, Eugenio Pacelli, who had guided the Catholic Church for 19 years under the name of Pius XII, died. He was eighty-two years old. The whole world wept; Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Lay people and atheists found themselves united in their grief and exaltation of his greatness.

“He is a saint” was the general opinion of believers, and indeed, five years later, the Church began the process of beatification. However, coinciding with this initiative, incredible arguments started up, coming from a small group of Jewish intellectuals who accused Pius XII of having done nothing to fight Hitler and prevent the extermination of Jews in concentration camps during the Second World War.

Since then, the controversy has escalated and there has been no peace for Pope Pacelli. Forty-five years have passed since his death and the debate continues.


A black legend


Catholic historians have provided thousands of documents proving that the accusations are false. But Pius XII’s enemies continue to protest against him, ignoring all documentation and managing to attract media attention worldwide.

“Pius XII’s enemies have succeeded in creating a black legend about this Pope,” recounts Father Pierre Blet, the French Jesuit and the most important historian to examine the life and activity of Pius XII during the Second World War. “A legend based on nothing but which is difficult to crush.”

Pope Pacelli’s pontiff was one of the longest in papal history. It was also one of the most difficult because it was studded with dramatic events such as the Second World War, Nazism, the Jewish Holocaust, Stalin’s Communism, the Church of Silence and social and moral changes in habit, consequences of the economic boom which developed as a result of post-war reconstruction.

Pius XII was a highly-cultured man, a Pope who was abreast of the time he lived in, ruling with intelligence, farsightedness and holiness. Many Catholics also see strong mystical significance in him.

He was ordained bishop on 13 May 1917, the day on which the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima began, which is why he was called the ‘Pope of the Virgin of Fatima’. It is also said that when he was Pope, he had visions of Jesus. In fact, a well-known Jesuit during this period, Father Virginio Rotondo, one of Pius XII’s friends, received confirmation of the Pope’s visions.

For these motives, but also due to his entire life and work, Pius XII was considered a saint. John XXIII, his successor to Peter’s throne, in his 1958 Christmas message, while speaking of him said: “our father and Pontiff, who we can already see among the saint in heaven.” Pope John said that Pius XII deserved “three titles: great doctor, light of the Holy Church, lover of divine law.” Some time later, when announcing to the world the opening of the Second Vatican Council, Pope John said once again that “Pius XII carried out during his pontiff a theological encyclopaedia” without which it wouldn’t have been possible to organise the Council. At the end of 1963, when the Council was still open, Paul VI who had taken John XXIII’s place, officially opened the cause for Pius XII’s beatification and it was then that the accusations, the debates and the defamatory campaigns began, which haven’t stopped since.


Who are the enemies?


Pius XII’s cause for beatification has continued its course. It has taken longer than imagined and in the year 2000, on the occasion of the Great Jubilee, it seemed as the end was near. In fact, rumour had it that John Paul II had decided to declare both Pius XII and John XXIII saints on the same day. But yet again, news of the recognition of Pope Pacelli’s holiness provoked new and violent reactions, so violent that the Church changed its programme and replaced Pius XII with another pope, Pius IX.

But who are these enemies? Do their accusations have historical foundation or are they pure fabrication?

We asked Father Pierre Blet who, as we have already said, is a great expert in the history of the Church concerning the Second World War. “This is slander,” replied the Jesuit. “The accusations directed at Pius XII don’t have any historical foundation. We have proved it by printing thousands of documents proving the contrary, but the slanderers don’t take any notice of documents.”

Father Blet is seventy-six years old, a graduate from the Sorbonne in Paris and a professor of Modern History at the Faculty of Ecclesiastical History of the Pontifical Gregorian University and has taught diplomatic history at the Ecclesiastical Pontifical Academy for seventeen years. A few years ago, when the enth book of accusations against Pius XII came out, several journalists asked John Paul II what he thought of Pope Pacelli. “He was a great Pope,” he replied. “And what do you think of these accusations?” urged the journalists. John Paul II replied: “An adequate reply has already been given. All you need do is read Father Blet’s books.”


Archive material


All the accusation, debates and diatribes in which Pius XII is involved concern his behaviour during the Second World War regarding the Jews. Pope Pacelli is accused of not having defended the Jews, of not having condemned Nazism, and through his silence, of allowing and assisting the concentration camps, and is even accused of having been anti-Semite himself and being one of Hitler’s friends.

“When faced with such slander,” Father Blet told me “the only form of defence is to refer to original sources, i.e. documents. And this is what the Church has done. It was Paul VI who took the initiative in 1964 when the first defamatory campaign began about Pope Pacelli. In fact, the campaign of vilification against Pope Pius XII can be traced to the debut in Berlin in February 1963 of a play, by a young, Protestant, left-wing West German writer and playwright, Rolf Hochhuth.  The Deputy, in which Hochhuth depicts Pacelli as a Nazi collaborator, guilty of moral cowardice and ‘silence’ in the face of the Nazi onslaught, is a scathing indictment of Pope Pius XII’s alleged indifferences to the plight of European Jewry during the Holocaust. 

Hochhuth’s play ignited a public controversy about Pius XII that continues this day.  Despite the fact that The Deputy was a purely fictional and highly polemical play, which offered little or no historical evidence for its allegations against Pope Pius XII, it was widely discussed and acclaimed.  Indeed, it inspired a new generation of revisionist journalists and scholars, who were intent on discrediting the well-documented efforts of Pope Pius XII to save Jews during the Holocaust.

 Pope Montini, one of  Pius XII’s close collaborators, almost a substitute Secretary of State, and thus someone who knew him very well, knew that none of what was attributed to him was true. He called me and put all the Vatican’s secret archive material at my disposal, telling me to publish all the documents concerning the war and the actions of the Pope and the Holy See during the wartime period. Three other Jesuits were called to carry out this delicate task with me: Father Bukhart Schneider, Father Angelo Martini and Father Robert A. Graham. We worked for 17 years and published a colossal work called Acts and documents of the Holy See during the Second World War comprising twelve volumes and 12,000 pages. We didn’t find even the most minor document to back the accusations against Pius XII. Instead, we found hundreds of documents proving the contrary, and that Pius XII fought with all his might against the war, nazism, racism, anti-Semitism and that he did his best in every way, both personally and through various Catholic institutions, to help Jews persecuted by Hitler. This is the documented truth, the rest is imagination and slander.”

Pope Pius XII was apostolic nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1925: was he a friend of the Nazis and Hitler?

“Pope Pacelli was a friend of the German people whom he respected deeply, but not of the Nazis and even less of a friend of Hitler. On 3 March 1939, the day after his election to Pope, the Berliner Morgenpost, mouthpiece of the Nazi movement, wrote: “The election of Cardinal Pacelli is not accepted with favour in Germany because he was always opposed to Nazism.” It is worth noting ‘always’, which means that even at the beginning, when the movement didn’t have any crimes on its conscience, it still failed to impress Pius XII. Having lived for a long time in Germany, Pacelli knew Hitler and his collaborators well. He believed that the Fuhrer was possessed by the devil and it appears that he even tried to exorcise him from a distance. As Pope, he fought against Hitler with all his strength. There are documents which show how in 1940, he supported and encouraged a plot thought up by several German soldiers who wanted to rid their country of the dictator. He acted as a go-between between Germany and the anti-Hitler soldiers so that the plot would gain English support and succeed. If such documents had never been written, then it would have been impossible to even think of such behaviour by a pope. But Pius XII wanted to save Germany and the world from Hitler and Nazism. This is why he exposed himself to the point of supporting a military plot.”

Why didn’t Pius XII ever condemn Hitler and Nazism with an explicit document, an encyclical for example?

“This is the most common accusation made about Pacelli. The Pope is father and pastor of believers and as such he worries about their existence and their safety. If the Pope had released a document condemning Hitler and Nazism, it would have meant the end for millions of German Catholics as well as the Jews. There are no doubts about this. The Pope was well aware of this. On 20 July 1942, the Dutch bishops protested against the exportation of Jews from the Netherlands which also led to the deportation of almost 700 baptised Catholics of Jewish origin. In his speech to cardinals on 2 June 1943, Pius XII, referring to his prudent behaviour, gave an explicit explanation: ‘Every one of our words directed at this goal to the relevant authorities and every single member of public addressed needs to be seriously pondered and measured regarding the interests of the suffering themselves, so as not to  worsen or render their situation insupportable, despite without wishing to.’

“Wise behaviour therefore, that was recognised even by the Jews themselves.”

In what way?

“Several people of the Jewish world who lived during this period and have examined it as academics and historians, have said the Pope was right. This is supported, for example, by the testimony of Jewish Holocaust survivors, such as Marcus Melchior, the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark, who attests that ‘if the Pope had spoken out, Hitler would probably have massacred more than six million Jews and perhaps ten times ten million Catholics, if he had the power to do so.’ The same opinion has expressed by the American Robert M.W. Kempner, chief public prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial who wrote: ‘Any propaganda action inspired by the Catholic Church against Hitler would have been suicide and would have resulted in the execution of many more Jews and Christians.’

“Remaining within the limits of prudence, Pius XII continued to condemn the atrocities which were committed. The theory that Pope Pacelli remained silent about Nazism is false.”

Are there any documents which prove this?

“Lots. When Pius XII first learned of the Nazi atrocities in Poland, he urged the Catholic bishops of Europe to do all they could to save the Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution.  After the German attack on Belgium, Holland and Luxemburg by Hitler’s troops, Pius XII signed three telegrams in which he expressed his sorrow for the three sovereign states, openly condemning the invasion of neutral states, defining it a crime against every human or divine right. In his radio message of 1942, he denounced all cruelty of the war underway and the violation of international conventions which should have limited the horrors, mentioning ‘those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction.’

And in his speech to cardinals on 2 June 1943, he spoke about how many turned to him, because owing to their nationality or race, they were ‘destined, without any guilt of their own, to suffer exterminating constrictions.’

“At a certain moment, reflecting above all on the news which came to him from Poland, he decided to write a document explicitly condemning Nazism, and he sent it to the Archbishop of Krakow, Monsignor Adam Sapieha who had remained to defend his people, to ask his advice. His document was sent to Archbishop Sapieha in August 1942 through an Italian priest, Quirino Paganuzzi, who as chaplain of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta escorted aid trains directed for Poland. Having read the document, Monsignor Sapieha burned the paper. ‘It is a courageous declaration,’ he said ‘but if this writing ends up in the hands of the Nazis, we Poles will pay for it with mass slaughter.’ Monsignor Sapieha’s opinion was naturally referred to the Pope and the document was never published.

“This prudence in making explicit and formal accusations didn’t halt the Pope’s actions in defending the Jews. There were numerous initiatives in this field.”

For example?

“Through the Secretary of State, the apostolic delegations and all the various organisms of the Church had started up a vast aid campaign offering support for Jews and all war victims. Volumes 8, 9 and 10 of Acts and documents of the Holy See during the Second World War are packed with documents in which Jewish communities and rabbis from around the world and many other refugees thank Pius XII and the Catholic Church for their help and for all that has been done in their favour. Father Robert Leiber, one of Pius XII’s secretaries, confirmed to me that Pope Pacelli used his own personal funds to assist Jews persecuted by Nazism. In Croatia, Hungary and Romania, apostolic nuncios, upon Pius XII’s direct entreaty, managed to halt deportation on many occasions. Convents, monasteries and religious congregations received orders to host and save Jews. In the book, The last three Popes and the Jews by the Jewish historian Pinchas Lapide the following is written: ‘The Catholic Church under the pontificate of Pius XII was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands.’

“The Committee on Army and Navy Religious Activities of the National Jewish Welfare Board during the war sent Pius XII a long letter in which is written; ‘Holiness, little by little oppressed populations are re-gaining their freedom. News has reached us by our military chaplains in Italy of the help and protection given to Italian Jews by the Vatican, priests and Church institutions during the Nazi occupation of the country. We are extremely moved by these extraordinary episodes of Christian love and all the more bearing in mind the danger many of those who sheltered and assisted Jews sought after by the Gestapo exposed themselves to.’

“Albert Einstein, the great scientist, was struck by the initiatives of the Church in favour of Jews and in the 23 December 1940 issue of Time Magazine, he signed this declaration: ‘Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth… I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel great affection and admiration because only the Church had the constant courage and strength to remain on the side of intellectual truth and moral freedom. Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth… The Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom.’

“In 1955, when Italy celebrated the tenth anniversary of its liberation, the Union of Italian Jewish Communities proclaimed 17 April as a ‘Day of Gratitude’ for the Pope's wartime assistance in defying the Nazis.’

When Pius XII died, Golda Meir, Foreign Minister for the State of Israel declared: ‘The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.’ And William Zukermann, director of the Jewish American publication, Jewish newsletter, wrote: ‘The rescue of thousands of Jewish Nazi victims by the Vatican... one of the greatest manifestations of humanitarianism in the 20th Century as well as a new, effective method of fighting anti-Semitism.’

“The American rabbi David Dalin, a widely-published scholar of American Judaism and the history of Christian-Jewish Relations wrote ‘Pius XII and the Jews’ which was published in the 26 February 2001 issue of the Weekly Standard, and reprinted in the August-September issue of Inside the Vatican, published in Rome. In it he wrote: ‘ The Talmud, the great sixth century compendium of Jewish religious law and ethics, teaches Jews that ‘whosoever preserves one life, it is accounted to him by Scripture as if he had preserved a whole world.’  More so than most other twentieth century leaders, Pius XII effectively fulfilled this Talmudic dictum when the fate of European Jewry was at stake.  Pope Pius XII's legacy as a ‘righteous gentile,’ who rescued so many Jews from Hitler's death camps cannot and should not be forgotten.’

Updated on October 06 2016