The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII by Joseph Bottum and David G Dalin (Ed) - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Papal Fallacies

The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII


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The war regarding the reputation of Eugenio Pacelli, who in 1939 became Pope Pius XII, commenced five years after his death when, in 1963, the left-wing German playwright Rolf Hochhuth staged his tendentious The Deputy, which was influenced heavily by KGB malignancy towards this pope of the Cold War era. Hochhuth went on to accuse Churchill of assassinating Poland’s General Sikorski, in a play that similarly floated free of the historical record. He is known nowadays, if at all, for wishing the British to vacate their Wilhelmstrasse embassy (to make way for a museum devoted to the history of bombing), and for his admiration for his ‘old friend’ David Irving, who he thinks should have been the guest of honour at this February’s sixtieth anniversary commemoration of the fire-bombing of Dresden, according to an interview published last month in an extreme-right German newspaper. The Deputy was recently turned into a rather bad film called Amen by the left-wing director Costa-Gavras, who is perhaps unaware of Hochhuth’s stranger enthusiasms, and of the fact that the main character, a Catholic priest who elects to go to Auschwitz after failing to move the ‘silent’ Pope to speak out, never existed.

During the 1960s, academic critics of Pius XI1 confined themselves to discussing the charge that the Pope and the Catholic Church had remained ‘silent’ during what was not then customarily called the Holocaust. Important books by, among others, Saul Friedländer and Guenter Lewy observed such scholarly proprieties as supporting their arguments with scrupulous attention to the limited number of available records. Between 1965 and 1981 these sources grew exponentially as a team of four Jesuits issued twelve volumes of the Vatican’s wartime records, in a deviation from the rule that material in the papacy’s archives be released only after a 75-year delay, a custom that reflects the lack of staff available to catalogue millions of papers. Scholars can currently study records generated before 1922 (that is, up to the commencement of the pontificate of Pius XI), and, exceptionally, they can now also access documents concerning Germany before the accession in 1939 of Pius XII.

Since the 1990s there has been a flood of books from major commercial publishers, either by dissident Catholics (such as John Cornwell or James Carroll) or by American Jews (such as David Kertzer and Daniel Goldhagen), using Pius XI1 to indict the Roman Catholic Church, and sometimes Christianity in general, for what had by then become firmly entrenched in the public mind as the Holocaust – in their eyes the dominant event of the Second World War. Kertzer accused virtually all of Pius XII’s predecessors, notably Pius XI, who was a well-known critic of every form of racism; Goldhagen – fresh from asserting that the German people were mass murderers – had the effrontery to demand that over 400 ‘supersessionary’ passages be expunged from the Gospels.

None of these sloppy and prejudiced books (which are cited as supposedly authoritative in other literatures) mentions that the Nazis were the quintessential protest party of disgruntled Lutherans; that liberal Protestant theology licensed their view of entities like nations and races as God’s creation; or that so many leading Protestant theologians were highly anti-Semitic in ways that had no Catholic equivalent, thanks largely to the ‘authoritarianism’ critics decry in the papacy.

Several of these books had covers showing ‘Pius XII’ exiting a building in Berlin between two soldiers and what seems (in a deliberately blurred photo) to be a saluting policeman, but turns out to be the nuncio’s chauffeur. The implication was that ‘Hitler’s Pope’ had just had an audience with the Führer. In fact, Cardinal Pacelli, then merely nuncio to Germany, had been photographed in 1927 leaving a reception to celebrate the eightieth birthday of Weimar’s President Hindenburg. Pacelli never met Hitler, who did not become Chancellor until six years later. Similarly, Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning (2002), which grew out of the longest essay ever published in the New Republic, ran into difficulties over misleading illustrations. In Germany the book had to be recalled and reset after a lawsuit. One illustration was supposed to show Munich’s cardinal, Michael von Faulhaber, attending ‘an SA rally’ in Munich. In fact, it showed Cesare Orsenigo, the papal nuncio to Germany, at a May Day parade in Berlin, which he attended in his capacity as the doyen of the diplomatic corps, whose members were all present.

Then there are the matters of intentionally misinterpreting documents, making deliberate omissions, and putting forward outrageous claims that Jews who praised Pius XI1 before and after 1945 were somehow naive or seeking his support for the Zionist project. Take the 1919 letter Pacelli signed off on for he did not write it – in which his assistant, Schioppa, recorded being roughly treated by members of the Munich Soviet, some of whom were Jewish, radical, and female. Even readers who do not have Italian will appreciate that ‘gruppe femminile’ is not best translated as ‘female Jewish rabble’, although that is precisely the phrase used in one of the books attacking Pius’s reputation. By contrast, there is no mention of, say, a 1923 letter in which Pacelli denounced Nazi racism (and anti-Catholicism), or of his collected speeches from the Weimar era, in which he repeatedly attacked Nazism. The detestation was mutual. Nazi publications during the 1930s were filled with vicious attacks on the Catholic Church and its clergy, and on the man we are being persuaded was ‘Hitler’s Pope’. If he was such. then it is rather difficult to explain why in 1940 he personally made the connection between the British government and conservative German generals who were plotting to kill Hitler, and why, at some risk, in May of that year, he personally tipped off the Belgians, Dutch and Luxembourgeois that they were about to be invaded.

Although many of the critics of Pius are not capable of reading the principal languages of papal diplomacy, this has not stopped them claiming that there were sinister omissions from the twelve volumes of published wartime records which they routinely fail to cite. In 1999 this resulted in the convening of a six-person Catholic-Jewish historical commission, which broke up amidst some acrimony a few years ago, after some of its members tried to use the press to blackmail the Vatican, in breach of all known etiquette.

This is the background to this outstanding new collection of defences of Pius by scholars whose own work on the subject has until now appeared in obscure journals or monographs issued by small publishers, notably the legal scholar Ronald J Rychlak’s excellent Hitler, the War, and thePope. As Joseph Bottum remarks in his fine introduction, the defenders have won the battle, in the sense that they have demolished most of the charges against Pius simply by marshalling superior historical evidence, but they have lost the public-relations war, for it is an article of faith that Pius was either culpably silent or ‘wicked’, and people remain ignorant of earlier Stalinist smear campaigns against the Cold War pope, and of the multiple agendas of his contemporary critics. While The Pius War does not deal with how Soviet propaganda influenced Hochhuth’s The Deputy, Rabbi David Dalin has an excellent piece bringing to light the fact that the books attacking Pius prove really to be ‘about the direction of the Church today, with the Holocaust simply the biggest club available for liberal Catholics to use against traditionalists’. Dalin also has no patience for Jewish critics of Pius, many of whom would find anti-Semitism alive on Mars if they could, pointing out that in 1955 the State of Israel paid for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to play Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the Vatican to honour Pius for the help he had given Jews during their time of peril. Indeed the Pope’s critics are forced into the sinister stance of denying the testimony of many Jewish Holocaust survivors who heaped praise on the Church for saving upwards of 800,000 lives in that period, not to mention the testimony of so many Catholic clergy who said that Pius had inspired their rescue efforts. Interestingly, the best historian of those who rescued Jews in the war, Britain’s Sir Martin Gilbert. has no time for critics of either Pius or the Catholic Church in general, who, he points out, were not responsible for the Nazi Holocaust.

While Bottum and Dalin have done an excellent job in assembling such incisive essays, the prize must go to William Doino for a vast -80,000 words – critical bibliography of almost everything ever written or said about Pius XII, including the praise heaped upon him by, inter alia, the Jewish Chronicle and the New York Times before, during and after the Holocaust. Anyone wishing to know, for example, about the 1933 Concordat with Germany (a measure this lawyer-diplomat pope deemed essential to monitoring Nazi persecution of Catholics), or the Pope’s interventions in wartime Croatia or Slovakia, will find exhaustive references, whose net effect is quietly devastating for Pius’s critics. Perhaps Doino will one day write the authoritative biography of Pius that is so desperatelv needed.

In January 2005 the critics were at it again, claiming that a 1946 ‘Vatican’ document ordered Catholic clergy not to return Jewish children they had rescued to their parents. In fact, as the Nazi-hunter and Holocaust-survivor Serge Klarsfeld has reported, there is not a single case where the Church did anything of the sort, having been scrupulous in reuniting Jewish families. There is, however, a 1946 letter from Pius XI1 explicitly instructing a Polish Catholic woman to return a Jewish girl she had rescued to the surviving father. But where mud is thrown, it invariably sticks. Just as the established US media rushed to broadcast and print faked records of George W Bush’s time in the Texas National Guard without subjecting them to elementary forensic tests, so they seem eager to publicise any old rubbish against Pius XII. And unlike Dan Rather no one is going to be edged out or fired for slandering a great pope who died fifty years ago.

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