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What is the purpose of the Catholic Church? Is it a spiritual institution dedicated to saving souls and offering moral leadership to the world? Or is it a multibillion-pound organisation anxious to protect its wealth and power? Or, if it is a bit of both, what is more important: morality or pragmatism?
These are the questions at the heart of David Kertzer’s magnificent The Pope at War, an examination of one of the most contentious religious figures of recent times, Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII in March 1939. Kertzer won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 for The Pope and Mussolini, which focused on the Italian dictator’s dealings with Pacelli’s predecessor as Pope, Pius XI, and this new book is every bit as good.
Pius XII is controversial – in some quarters, notorious – because he never publicly condemned the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War. With access to the newly opened Vatican archives, and in calm, unhurried prose, Kertzer’s book ought to silence any future debate about him: based on the evidence presented here, there can no longer be any doubt – as a moral leader, Pius XII was a disaster.
Part of the reason was the Pope’s character – he was naturally timid – but Kertzer also reveals that there was a whiff of anti-Semitism around the Vatican during the war. In March 1943 – after the extermination of the Jews was known about – Monsignor Giuseppe Di Meglio wrote in a report entitled “Palestine and the Jews” that “most Jews are mainly dedicated to industry and, for the most part, commerce. This commerce remains quite profitable for them when they find themselves living among Christians. If, on the contrary, all and only the Jews come together, one has an enormous gathering… of swindlers, while lacking those to be swindled. Therefore, most Jews had no desire to migrate to Palestine.” The report was subsequently seen by the Pope, and there is no evidence that he was outraged by the anti-Semitic slurs within it.
Anti-Semitism in the Vatican wasn’t just confined to individual clerics. Francis D’Arcy Osborne, the British envoy to the Vatican, wrote in a 1938 dispatch to the British Foreign Secretary that Lenin had benefited from “the mental agility, the cynical adaptability and the amoral ingenuity of the Jew”.
But Kertzer also demonstrates Osborne’s subsequent outrage at the Holocaust, writing in December 1942 of “the unprecedented crime against humanity of Hitler’s campaign of extermination of the Jews”. Osborne was appalled at the Pope’s lack of protest at Nazi atrocities, saying in September 1942: “A policy of silence in regard to such offences… must necessarily involve a renunciation of moral leadership and a consequent atrophy of the influence and authority of the Vatican.”
In his Christmas address on December 24 1942, the Pope did make one reference to the “hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own and solely because of their nation or their race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction”.
But because he didn’t mention the Jews by name, these words could be taken to refer to the actions of a number of different nations – the Pope had a well-known fear of communism, for example, so he could have been condemning Stalin’s crimes. Kertzer reveals that “Osborne subsequently wrote that the Pope seemed ‘pained and surprised’ that these words had not satisfied those who had been calling on him to speak out”.
Both Hitler and Mussolini were – nominally, at least – Catholics themselves. But the Pope never moved to excommunicate them, nor to threaten to excommunicate the Catholic Germans who took part in the killing of Jews. Part of the reason may have been that he was worried speaking out might mean Hitler would escalate his campaign against Catholicism. Many churches in Poland had already been closed and Catholic priests sent to concentration camps. Perhaps he feared that even the Vatican, the immensely wealthy heart of the church, was at risk.
However, as Kertzer points out, there were Catholic priests who did take a stand against the Nazis. Some, for instance, tried to help Jews by hiding them on church property. While the Pope did not prevent them doing this, he wasn’t exactly encouraging, either.
Kertzer could have mentioned, by contrast, Bishop von Galen, who gave a sermon in Münster in Germany in August 1941 denouncing a different Nazi atrocity: the killing of the severely disabled. Significantly, although Hitler was furious at von Galen, he did not act against him for fear of alienating the local German population.
We can’t be certain, of course, what Hitler would have done if the Pope had protested openly about the fate of the Jews. What we do know for sure is that, if Pius XII had spoken out, he would have rendered humanity a service that we would still be celebrating today. Instead, unlike the long list of martyred Catholic saints who endured hideous tortures in defence of their moral and spiritual beliefs, Pius XII chose to remain silent.
The Pope at War is a long book, but unlike many scholarly works it is readily accessible to the general reader. Kertzer is a gifted writer, and the chapters are short and punchy. He is also to be congratulated on avoiding polemic. It would have been easy, given the evidence, to have suffused the pages with moral outrage. But because he lays the facts bare and presents all sides of the argument, he lets readers come to their own conclusion. And that conclusion ought to be a devastating one: Pius XII’s prime concern during the war wasn’t offering moral leadership, but protecting the interests of the Catholic Church.
The material from the newly opened Vatican archives largely speaks for itself. For example, several months prior to the outbreak of the war, the Pope was secretly negotiating with Hitler a better accommodation between the Nazis and the Catholic Church. The Nazis’ intermediary was a German aristocrat called Prince Philipp von Hessen. At their first meeting in May 1939, Pius XII, who had spent time in Germany and was fond of the country, told von Hessen that “No one here is anti-German. We love Germany. We are pleased if Germany is great and powerful. And we do not oppose any particular form of government, if only the Catholics can live in accordance with their religion.”
These remarks, we must remember, were made just months after the Nazis had unleashed a torrent of violence against German Jews during Kristallnacht. And even after the Germans had invaded Poland in the autumn of 1939 and committed a series of new atrocities, the Pope ended another secret meeting with von Hessen by asking that his “warm greetings” be conveyed to the Führer. Ultimately, these secret negotiations came to nothing, but they are the background against which we should see the Pope’s public silence during the war about the Holocaust. What a tragedy, the reader might think after finishing this groundbreaking book, that the Pope did not “love” the Jews as much as he “loved Germany”.
The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler by David I. Kertzer is published by Oxford University Press at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books