New records found in the Vatican prove: Pope Pius XII. was not interested in the fate of the Jews persecuted by the Nazis – he was only concerned with the well-being of his church. And he covered up sexual abuse by Catholic priests.
When Pope Francis announced in 2019 that the Vatican would open its previously sealed documents on the policies of his predecessor Pius XII. open to Nazi Germany, historians who deal with the recent history of the Catholic Church were electrified.
Because only a few topics have heated up the mind as much as the unresolved question of the relationship of the “war pope” to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich for decades. For the critics, Pius XII. not committed enough to the Jews threatened with assassination. His apologists, on the other hand, took the view that he had stood staunchly against Hitler.
As of 2020, US historian David Kertzer was among the historians who were able to see the parts of the Vatican files that were only made available to the public 75 years after the end of World War II. Kertzer has just published his book “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII” in the USA.
“The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler” by David I. Kertzer (English edition)
The book is not yet available in Germany, but it is to be hoped that this will change soon. Because the almost 600 pages have it all. Kertzer, historian, Pulitzer Prize winner and son of a rabbi, comes to a clear verdict: Pope Pius XII. has failed before his moral responsibility. And the author can support his opinion very well with new facts.
Pius XII, who served as nuncio in Germany during the 1920s, was elected pope in March 1939. Adolf Hitler had every reason to breathe a sigh of relief, because his predecessor Pius XI. had not kept quiet with criticism of the National Socialist rule in Germany.
Again and again he publicly railed against the fact that the Nazis were attacking the Catholic Church, trying to weaken its influence and closing down Catholic institutions. In 1937 he published an encyclical harshly condemning the Nazis. Hitler didn’t like that at all.
After the death of Pius XI. and the arrival of his successor, who was considered pro-German, he had reason to hope that relations between the Vatican and Berlin could improve. Because the new pope had only one goal: he wanted to protect his church in Nazi Germany.
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Every other target had to lag far behind. The “Führer” in Berlin wanted to take advantage of this, because he was interested in improving mutual relations. He no longer needed a culture war with the Catholic Church because it was disrupting preparations for the planned war.
In mid-April, just a few weeks after the election of the new pope, Hitler therefore sent a secret emissary to Rome to get in touch. This man was Prince Philipp of Hesse, a noble National Socialist from the early hours with excellent contacts in Italy.
He was married to Princess Mafalda, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. and sister of the Crown Prince Prince Umberto (who later perished in a concentration camp).
On May 11, 1939, an intermediary arranged a secret meeting between the prince and the newly elected Pope – it was to be the first of several. We now know very well about these hitherto unknown meetings, because Kertzer found transcripts of these meetings among the documents that were kept closed until recently. In this first conversation, which was secretly recorded by one of the Pope’s collaborators hidden in the next room, Pius laid down conditions for a relaxation of the relationship under his rule.
These included ending the closure of Catholic schools and the publication of books against his church and papacy, and reversing cuts in government funding to the Catholic Church in Austria.
The conversation took place in a friendly tone. The Pope made his German guest the proposal of a “armistice”. He emphasized: “I am sure that when peace between church and state is restored, everyone will be content. The German people are united by their love for their fatherland. Once we have peace, Catholics will be more loyal than anyone else.”
Pius XII uttered these sentences half a year after the “Reichskristallnacht” and a few months after the Wehrmacht marched into Prague. The fate of the Jews, peace in Europe – these were not topics for him. He was concerned with the welfare of his church and nothing else.
He promised not to get involved in “party politics” if the Nazis left the Catholics alone and emphasized: “We are happy when Germany is big and powerful.” this notion of “party politics”.
He was not an anti-Semite himself, although hostility towards the Jews was widespread in his area. Something else came up in that first conversation. In Germany at that time there were repeated trials against Catholic priests. Hundreds of clergymen were tried at the time on charges of committing sex crimes and sexual abuse of young people.
Until now, historians have assumed that these were false allegations and expressions of homophobia, with which the National Socialists wanted to discredit the Catholic Church.
But David Kertzer has now found evidence that these allegations were by no means invented, but at least partly corresponded to the facts. Pius XII knew that very well. He tried to appease Prince Philipp and remarked: “Such cases happen everywhere. Some remain secret, others are exploited. When such cases are reported to us, we take immediate action.”
In fact, he deliberately let them cover it up. In the Vatican archives, Kertzer found a folder from the papal secretariat’s holdings, dating from 1938 with the inscription “Vienna: Order to burn all archive material on cases of immorality by monks and priests”.
Cardinal Pacelli was head of the secretariat at the time, and the current Pope Pius XII. The documents on the destruction of these incriminating reports were deliberately kept secret by the Vatican for decades, as were those on the talks with Prince Philip.
Hitler was satisfied for the time being after Prince Philipp had reported to him. On May 25, the German press was ordered to stop attacking the Catholic religion and priests. Now, on the contrary, they should write well about them. However, the hatred of many National Socialists for the church was so great that the order was not followed everywhere.
Another meeting of the pope and the prince took place on August 26 – three days after the sensational Hitler-Stalin pact and a few days before the German invasion of Poland. Hitler let Pius know that he could well imagine concluding a concordat, but unfortunately he was very busy at the moment. The Pope understood.
On October 24, just as the brutal conquest of Poland by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army was over, they met again. Kertzer: “The quasi transcript of the German-language conversation between the Pope and Philip of Hesse makes it clear that the Pope tried to reach an understanding with Hitler even after the invasion.”
On March 11, 1940, even Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop made a secret visit to Rome to meet Pius. The “armistice” campaigned for by both sides did not go as far as hoped because courageous Catholic priests in Germany continued to preach against the Nazis. And so Ribbentrop demanded that the Catholic clergy finally stop their attacks on the German government.
During this conversation, Pius also expressed his concern about the current situation of the Church in Poland, especially because of the extreme restrictions imposed on bishops and priests. He was not concerned with the situation of the people who suffered under the brutal rule of the Germans, or at least he apparently did not mention it.
The Pope’s talks with Philip continued for another year, until the spring of 1941. Then the thread of the conversation broke. “There is no indication that the Pope ever addressed the Nazi campaign against Europe’s Jews,” Kertzer said.
He had other priorities and they were saving his church as an organization. “If the only aim was to protect the well-being of the institutional church, his efforts could well be counted as a success,” the historian judges.
But after examining the files that the Vatican has deliberately withheld from the public so far, he comes to a devastating conclusion: “But for those who see the papacy as a position of great moral leadership, the revelations about the secret negotiations of Pius XII. be a big disappointment with Hitler.
In the years that followed, the pope did not change his deliberate reticence. His Christmas message of 1942 is often cited by his apologists as exoneration.
At that time spoke of “hundreds of thousands of people who would be killed through no fault of their own and only because of their nation or their race”. But that was just one sentence in a 24-page speech. And the words “Jews” and “National Socialists” were not mentioned.
David Kertzer has also found hitherto unknown evidence for another failure of the Pope. When 1,259 Italian Jews were rounded up near the Vatican in 1943 to be transported to an extermination camp, he didn’t lift a finger for the vast majority, although he knew exactly what would happen to them, because at that point he had clear and irrefutable information about the death camps of the Germans.
He only spoke up for a significantly smaller proportion of the captured Jews – for those who had converted to the Catholic faith and were baptized. The documents about the desperate search of the relatives for these baptismal certificates can be found in abundance in the Vatican archives.
Pope Pius XII incurred a moral guilt by not caring about the fate of the Jews. There were ordinary Catholic priests in Germany who were braver and risked their freedom or even their lives because they did not want to remain silent. But Pius said nothing.
This silence was easier than rebelling against the murder of millions. But it was also deadly, for it effectively aided the Nazis’ machinery of extermination.