A proof of papal fallibility

Hitler's Pope
October 15, 1999

Paul Preston reviews a life of the century's most controversial pontiff.

The austere visage of Pius XII peered down at me for most days of my childhood.

Tall, painfully thin, with exquisite hands, he was on the wall at home and on the walls at school. The way in which he was spoken about by my family, by my teachers and by the priests in our parish was entirely at one with "the benignity, calm and sanctity" noted by James Lees-Milne, a commentator who "immediately fell head over heels in love with him". As a young man, I did not give a lot of thought to Pius XII until the furore in 1963 over Rolf Hochhuth's play The Representative . Its portrayal of Eugenio Pacelli as a greedy cynic indifferent to the Holocaust could be easily dismissed, but the publication of Saul Friedlander's Pius XII and the Third Reich had, for me, as for many others, a far more profound impact. Accordingly, when I was doing research for my doctoral thesis, it came as little surprise to find that in 1936, as Vatican secretary of state, Pacelli had tried to browbeat a delegation of the Catholic Basque Nationalist Party into joining a nationwide rightwing coalition in the famous Popular Front elections. When the Basques refused, they were devastated to be declined an audience with Pope Pius XI.

To say that the politician and the saint in Pacelli were in contradiction is a gross understatement. On the one hand, there is a body of serious scholarship that has portrayed the Vatican as supine in the face of Nazi atrocities. On the other, there is the view of millions of the Catholic faithful that Pacelli was a saint. For Evelyn Waugh, Pius XII was "the combination of human genius and Divine Grace". Thirty years ago, the Vatican began the complex process of beatification and canonisation. Even leaving to one side the Holocaust, the issues raised by Pacelli's papacy are complex. His popular image is of a spiritual, ethereal being, yet his worldly interventions in political matters were considerable. After the second world war, his obsession with communism saw him put the full financial and moral weight of the Catholic Church behind the Christian Democrats throughout Europe despite his distrust of democracy. His favourite political system was Franco's movimiento , "organic democracy". In church matters, he was authoritarian and traditionalist. He crushed the new theology associated with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Henri de Lubac, punished the French Dominicans for their espousal of the worker-priest movement and filled the vacuum created thereby with a series of Marian devotions.

As pope, Pacelli was always dignified, austere and pious. He was regularly to be found praying at dead of night among the tombs of the popes. He was especially devoted to the cult of the Virgin Mary and in particular of Our Lady of Fatima. There can be no doubt that he was loved by millions of Catholics in a way replicated by none of his predecessors and only by John XXIII among his successors. It was in an attempt to reconcile the contradictions between his spirituality and his affinities with Franco, Salazar, Mussolini and Hitler that John Cornwell, as a Catholic, decided to write the full story, which he originally believed would vindicate the pope. Because of his "good" intentions, Cornwell was devastated to find, as his research progressed, that he was inadvertently assembling a powerful case for the prosecution of a man who exercised a "fatal and culpable influence over the history of this century".

His painful conclusion could not be more fairminded: he sees the centre of his story as "a fatal combination of high spiritual aspirations in conflict with soaring ambition for power and control". This important and disturbing book is far from portraying evil but builds rather a picture of a lethal moral dislocation in which papal authority became separated from Christian love. In Cornwell's account, the temporal priorities of the Vatican, together with elements of anti-communism and anti-Semitism, led to collusion with tyranny and its atrocities.

Although not producing a full-scale biography of Pacelli, Cornwell convincingly relates his early life, albeit more in intellectual than in psychological terms. He was born in Rome on March 2 1876 into a family of lay Vatican lawyers, in the period in which the papacy was attempting to adjust to the loss of its temporal powers. The most notable initiative in that regard was Pio Nono's decree of papal infallibility, of July 18 1870, passed just before the remnants of the papal domains were overrun by Vittorio Emanuele's troops.

Pacelli's father, a senior canon lawyer in the Vatican's service, and his wife were deeply pious and nurtured in their children an intense sense of grievance for the Italian confiscation of the worldly power of the papacy. Pacelli passed through adolescence as the Italian state pursued a policy of secularisation and Bismarck carried out his Kulturkampf against the church.

A delicate child, Eugenio demonstrated considerable intellectual powers and a talent for both music and languages. He was always solitary, reading even during family meals. His favourite diversion was to play at saying mass. Of his decision to become a priest at the age of 18, his sister commented: "As far as we were concerned, he had been born a priest." Because of his frail constitution, he was given special permission to live at home during his theological studies, thereby escaping the frictions and rewards of communal life. It also consolidated the reciprocal devotion between him and his mother.

He was ordained on April 2 1899. His studies were particularly influenced by the Jes- uits who were active in the campaign against Alfred Dreyfus. As Cornwell demonstrates, anti-Semitism was not unusual in the church. As Eugenio was completing his theological studies in the 1890s, references to the Jewish responsibility for the death of Christ and scaremongering stories about Jews kidnapping, torturing and sacrificing Christian children abounded in important Jesuit publications in Rome.

In 1901, Pacelli was recruited into the Vatican bureaucracy, headhunted by Monsignor Pietro Gasparri, the under-secretary in the Vatican's foreign service, who persuaded him to turn his back on pastoral work and join instead the battle against secularism and liberalism. He would collaborate with Gasparri for 30 years and eventually succeed him. He came to prominence as part of the team that drafted the code of canon law, which was intended to impose conformity, centralisation and discipline on the Catholic Church. His promotion was rapid - he was well connected, able, phenomenally hardworking and discreet.

He developed a special expertise in issues of church-state relations. Cornwell makes a subtle case to the effect that Pacelli's obsession with consolidating papal power without concern for the wider context was regularly to have damaging consequences. In 1913, by now under-secretary in the department of extraordinary affairs, Pacelli played a decisive role in the negotiation of the concordat between Serbia and the Holy See signed on June 24 1914, just four days before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. By transferring various rights and privileges, including the nomination of bishops, from Vienna to Rome, the concordat threatened Austria- Hungary's traditional role of protector of Catholics within the Balkan states.

The outrage it provoked seems to have contributed to the uncompromising terms made by Austria-Hungary after the assassination and thus, argues Cornwell, to the outbreak of the first world war.

When Pius X died in August 1914, his successor, Benedict XV, appointed Pacelli's patron Gasparri as cardinal secretary of state and he, in turn, promoted Pacelli to secretary in the department of extraordinary affairs. In May 1917, thanks to the fortuitous demise of the papal nuncio in Munich,Pacelli was made archbishop of Sardi, a token dioceses, and appointed nuncio in Bavaria, where he worked on a vain peace initiative. He was in Munich when the war ended and witnessed the revolutionary events in the city that fostered a contempt for what he regarded as Jewish bolshevism. His hatred of communists was intensified when gun-toting revolutionaries requisitioned his beloved official limousine. During this period, his anti-communism and his Germanophilia were intensified. It was in the Vatican's interests to see Germany rebuilt after Versailles because before 1914 Germany had contributed more to the Vatican than the rest of the world put together. In the 1923 crisis, Pacelli supported Germany against France. One of his principal concerns was to make all German Catholics submit to papal authority and, throughout the 1920s, as papal nuncio in Germany, he tried to impose his authoritarian vision of papal power through concordats first with Bavaria and then with Prussia. In November 1929, on the retirement of Cardinal Gasparri, Pacelli was made a cardinal in order to succeed him as Vatican secretary of state. In his early fifties, he now held the most powerful position in the church after the pope himself. His main concern was what was known as the "red triangle" - the USSR, Mexico and Spain. Perhaps for this reason, he was attracted by the anti-communism of Adolf Hitler.

It is no mean feat to make gripping reading of the detail of church-state relations, yet Cornwell manages to do so in his account of Pacelli's relations with Hitler. The Führer , whose secret agenda was to "eradicate" Christianity from Germany, negotiated with the church in order to subjugate the immensely powerful Catholic church and the Zentrumspartei .

It was a natural ambition - there were 23 million Catholics in Germany (35 per cent of the population) and 400 Catholic daily newspapers, with 15 per cent of national readership. Hitler's aims in this respect could have been deduced from his reaction to the signing of the Lateran Pacts in February 1929 in Italy, as a result of which the Partito Popolare had been disbanded. He wrote in the Völkische Beobachter that "the fact that the Curia is now making its peace with Fascism shows that the Vatican trusts the new political realities far more than the former liberal democracy with which it could not come to terms". Pacelli was so keen for a similar arrangement with the German Reich that in August 1931 he recommended Heinrich Bruning to form a rightwing coalition with Hitler if it would help overcome opposition to a Reich concordat. In early 1932, he appointed Konrad Gröber, known as the "brown bishop" because of his links with the Nazis, in order to further the cause of a concordat with Baden. In the elections of March 1933, it became clear to Hitler as chancellor that the Catholic Centre Party remained an important obstacle. He therefore sought to emulate the Lateran Pact's neutralisation of political Catholicism. Then, while persecution of Jews and, to a lesser extent, Catholics, was taking place, Pacelli and Hitler, with their different agendas, negotiated a concordat in indecent haste. The Vatican insisted on the dissolution of the Zentrum , which took place on July 4. The one-sided concordat was signed on July 8. It effectively granted papal approval of Nazi policies in exchange for enormous privileges. A guarantee of non-intervention was welcomed by Hitler as leaving him free to resolve the Jewish question and by Pacelli as a triumph for the church, since it meant that the Nazi state had recognised the church's authority over all German Catholics. It is Cornwell's contention that Pacelli's concordat with Hitler neutralised the ability to resist the Third Reich of those 34 million Catholics in Germany and Austria who might have been inclined to do so.

By imposing upon Catholics the moral duty to obey their Nazi rulers, it certainly deprived Catholics of the right to protest against measures such as sterilisation and euthanasia. On the other hand, the Nazis did not feel constrained in their persecution of Catholic groups. The church was not even able to protect Catholics of Jewish descent. At every turn, even as Nazi persecution intensified, Pacelli pursued a policy of appeasement.

Even when, on the Night of the Long Knives, June 30 1934, a number of Catholic critics of the regime were murdered, including the head of Catholic Action, Pacelli prevented the German bishops from protesting. At the 34th International Eucharistic Congress, which took place in Budapest as the premier Bela Imredy was introducing savage anti-Semitic legislation,Pacelli declared that all nations had to follow their own destinies and, with a whiff of anti-Semitism, criticised "those foes of Jesus who had cried out to his face 'Crucify him!'" On February 10 1939, Pius XI died. Given the international context, with the Spanish civil war drawing to a close and both Hitler and Mussolini restless for more conquests, the subsequent conclave of March 1-2 1939, which elected Pacelli as Pius XII, could not have had greater significance. Four days later, Pacelli sent a fulsome letter to Hitler assuring him of his devotion "to the spiritual welfare of the German people entrusted to your leadership". He did not condemn Hitler's attack on Czechoslovakia on March 15 and, four days later,he sent his blessing to General Franco. He did not criticise Mussolini's April 7 invasion of Albania and, on April 16, he broadcast on Vatican Radio an apostolic blessing to the military rebels in Spain recording his "immense joy" at their victory, praising "the most noble and Christian sentiments" of the caudillo .

As pontiff, his line was that he was the "pope of peace", but his initiatives consistently favoured the fascist powers. When Hitler demanded a Polish corridor to Danzig, Pacelli put himself forward as mediator between Berlin and Warsaw and insinuated that Britain was making things difficult by its guarantee to Poland. His eagerness to get Catholic Poland to capitulate to German demands led the British Foreign Office to wonder if he was acting on behalf of Mussolini. Certainly, the papal nuncio in Poland was instructed accordingly - using words suggested by Mussolini. After the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, he did broadcast a condemnation and a plea for peace. On September 1, Poland was attacked from the west by the Germans and from the east by the Russians. Pacelli did not denounce the invasions, and it was not until October 20 that he published his encyclical Summi Pontificatus , a generalised denunciation of the war. In the course of the war, six million Catholic Poles were to die. On the other hand, he did agree - rather half heartedly - to take the tremendous risk of acting as go-between for anti Hitler plotters led by General Ludwig Beck, who wanted assurances that the democracies would not take advantage of the subsequent civil war. Nothing came of it and perhaps Cornwell makes too much of it.

After the invasion of the Low Countries, Pacelli's secretary for extraordinary affairs, Domenico Tardini, drafted a condemnation of this breach of international law but Pacelli refused to provoke the Germans and merely sent telegrams to the sovereigns of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. In contrast, he rapidly recognised on May 18 1941 an independent Croatia, created as a result of the German invasion of Yugoslavia. In the name of Croatian nationalism, Ante Pavelic carried out a massive programme of ethnic cleansing against Serbs, Jews and gypsies with the active encouragement of the Croatian church. Perhaps influenced by the forced conversion of nearly two million orthodox Christian Serbs, Pacelli showed regular signs of favour to visiting Croatian delegations.

Treasure looted from the Croatian victims was safeguarded at the Vatican and Father Krunoslav Dragonovic, Pavelic's close adviser, was permitted by Pacelli to stay in Rome after the war. Pacelli had mixed feelings about the German invasion of Russia, harbouring naive hopes that it might bring about a massive evangelisation of eastern Europe and real fears that, if Hitler failed, the invasion of western Europe by communist hordes. In fact,Hitler himself made it clear that there was no possibility of evangelisation. A month after the invasion of the USSR, Hitler declared: "Christianity is the hardest blow that ever hit humanity. Bolshevism is the bastard son of Christianity; both are the monstrous issue of the Jews."

Regarding the Holocaust, Cornwell's account is measured and delicate. He portrays a pope with a complex agenda within which reaction to the daily developments of the war was merely a subordinate part. Pacelli worked at being a saint; he was obsessed with the need to consolidate the power of the papacy.

Thus, his life was solitary, meditative and austere. He was determined to make a major scholarly contribution to interpretation of scripture. For Cornwell, this might not have been an evasion but, in its dwelling on the shedding of blood for mankind, a subconscious meditation on the bloodshed of the war. On the other hand, Pacelli's document Mystici Corporis seemed to define the people of God as only those who are in communion with the pope. His failure to make other than anodyne comments on the Holocaust may have derived from distrust of the information, timidity, residual anti-Semitism and fear of the consequences of alienating the fascist powers. Cornwell suggests that it may also have indicated a lack of concern for those who were not part of the people of God.

Pacelli had received much reliable information in the course of 1942. The diplomatic corps concluded that he was either betting on an Axis victory or else thought it safer to antagonise the democracies than the Axis powers.

Although the Vatican was informed of deportations of Jews from Vichy France, Pacelli refrained from comment and praised Petain.

It is with real sadness that Cornwell concludes that the papacy and Catholicism were unable to respond to the enormity of the Holocaust. His failure, for whatever reasons, to feel pity and anger, made Pacelli the perfect foil to Hitler. In the narrow context of this relationship with the Third Reich, his failure to act to help the Jews of the Rome ghetto in October 1943 is understandable yet even more incomprehensible in the wider moral context. Ernst von Weizsacker, the German ambassador to the Holy See,made it clear that a papal protest could easily provoke a Italy-wide uprising of Catholics.

Weizsacker offered recognition of the extra territoriality of the Vatican and its properties around Rome in return for silence on Nazi activities. As Cornwell says, what happened had already taken place all over Europe, but the difference in Rome was that here was a man who could make even Hitler think twice.

The complexities of Pacelli are calmly exposed by Cornwell. Vatican officials took telephone calls from him on their knees. He lectured dentists, gynaecologists, psychiatrists and plastic surgeons on technical aspects of their subjects and went to considerable lengths in the preparation of a talk on gas central heating. When he met Orson Welles, he spent 45 minutes probing him for hot Hollywood gossip. The accumulated evidence creates a picture of an isolated, unworldly man whose ignorance of the political context in which he functioned had tragic consequences because of the power that he wielded or failed to wield. His other-worldliness may have lain behind his request to the Americans that no black troops be included among the forces liberating Rome, but his denunciation of partisan attacks on Germans could not easily be forgiven by Italians. Against the political indictment, Cornwell demonstrates with enormous sensitivity the appeal of Pacelli - his affability with interviewees, his appeal to children, his elegance, his refusal to speak ill of people, his solitude. He writes, too, with an acute sense of the papal burden, the moral responsibility for a whole world. Along with the awesome responsibility came even more awesome power, unhindered by contradiction or even exposure to the real world. There is some superb writing here, most notably in the description of Pacelli's sumptuous coronation. John Cornwell has produced a book of intelligence, moral power and elegant prose that has finally explained to me who exactly looked down on me from the walls all those years ago.

Paul Preston is professor of international history, London School of Economics.

Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII

Author - John Cornwell
ISBN - 0 670 87620 8
Publisher - Viking
Price - £20.00
Pages - 384

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments