Pope and Devil: the Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich

August 19, 2010

The Vatican's dealings with Nazi Germany have been a major source of controversy for decades. From the first staging of Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Representative, in 1963 to the publication in 1999 of John Cornwell's book, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII and beyond, debate over Pius XII's response to the Holocaust and other Fascist genocides in the Second World War has been passionate and sometimes bitter. Until the Vatican archives for the war years are opened up, there can be no resolution.

The Vatican's dealings with the Third Reich during the reign of Pius XII's predecessor, Pius XI (1922-1939), have received rather less attention. But since the archives for that pontificate were opened in 2006, our understanding has increased enormously. Herbert Wolf's book contributes greatly to that understanding.

Using the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly the Holy Inquisition) and the Secretariat of State, in particular the notes that Eugenio Pacelli (later Pius XII), cardinal secretary of state from 1930 to 1939, kept of his audiences with Pius XI, Wolf has re-examined several key moments and issues in the Vatican's relations with Hitler from his appointment as Reichskanzler in January 1933 until Pius XI's death in February 1939.

Wolf shows that the Jews and anti-Semitism were important issues in the Vatican before the Nazi seizure of power. The strange case of the condemnation in 19 of the Amici d'Israele, a pro-Jewish association of high-ranking prelates, clergy and laypeople, illustrates the dilemma that anti-Semitism posed for the papacy.

On the one hand, Pius XI rejected pleas to abandon the reference to "perfidious Jews" in the liturgy of Good Friday. Removing the offending reference would, of course, have signalled a massive change in the Roman Catholic Church's attitude towards the Jews. The Amici were condemned by the Holy Office for their temerity in suggesting such a major liturgical-theological change, and for being too close to the Jews. Similar "ecumenical tendencies", this time towards Protestants, were condemned a year later in Pius XI's encyclical Mortalium Animos.

On the other hand, the condemnation was combined with an attack on anti-Semitism. This confirms the sense one has reading these documents that the Vatican already had an eye to future criticism of its position: in one account of a 1933 audience with the Pope, when the subject of discussion was possible responses to appeals from prominent German Jews about Nazi persecution, Pacelli wrote: "A time may come when one will be able to say that something was done: this is in the best tradition of the Holy See."

The most important issues on which Wolf sheds new light are those surrounding the negotiation of the Reichskonkordat between Hitler's government and the Vatican in spring 1933. Wolf conclusively disproves claims by the German historian Klaus Scholder, and repeated by Cornwell, that the Vatican instructed the German hierarchy to abandon its condemnation of Nazism and forced the German Catholic party, the Zentrum, to dissolve itself, as the price for Pacelli's long-desired concordat with the German Reich. Indeed, he argues convincingly that the dissolution of the Zentrum removed a strong bargaining card from the Vatican hand.

Wolf also concludes that the Reichskonkordat was essential in protecting the Catholic Church from the Nazis: "It served as a defensive wall, albeit one that the National Socialists steadily chipped away over the next 12 years of the regime. In contrast to the Protestant churches, in which the so-called 'Germanic Christians' were installed as National Socialist bridgeheads, the Brownshirts barely penetrated the interior space of the Catholic Church."

The documents relating to the Reichskonkordat demonstrate that Pacelli did not have the final say in the negotiations, as others have suggested. The cardinal secretary of state was obliged to submit every last dot and comma to the scrutiny of Pius XI, a formidably demanding pontiff who took all the major decisions.

Undoubtedly, Pius XI's reign was one of missed opportunities as far as taking a stand on racial anti-Semitism was concerned. In his March 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, a denunciation of Nazi violations of the Reichskonkordat, Pius XI condemned Nazi racial theory, but not its rabid anti-Semitism. Nor was papal condemnation forthcoming for Kristallnacht in November 1938, although the cardinal archbishops of Malines, Milan and Paris did speak out.

Even when Pius XI commissioned the American Jesuit John LaFarge to write an encyclical condemning Nazi racial anti-Semitism, LaFarge's masterly denunciation was compromised by the insertion into the draft of the standard condemnation of the Jews for their rejection of Christ. In any case, Pius XI died before the encyclical, Humani Generis Unitas, could be published: Pacelli, in charge of the Vatican during the interregnum, had the document quietly buried. One wonders what impact a papal denunciation of Nazi racialism at this stage might have had on the subsequent course of history.

Pope and Devil: the Vatican's Archives and the Third Reich

By Herbert Wolf, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Harvard University Press. 336pp, £22.95. ISBN 9780674050815. Published 24 June 2010

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