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Pius XI and Pius XII

Elected at the fourteenth ballot, and then only to break a deadlock in the conclave, Pope Pius XI came as a considerable surprise. Achille Ratti was a sixty-five-year-old scholar, an expert on medieval paleography who had spent most of his working life as a librarian and much of his leisure time climbing mountains in the Alps. In 1919 Benedict XV had sent him as nuncio to Poland, which had, after 123 years, just regained its independence as a sovereign state. It was not a happy mission; Ratti was resented and mistrusted by the Polish hierarchy, which saw him simply as the agent of a pro-German pope. Within fourteen months of his arrival, however, the situation had changed dramatically. The Bolsheviks had invaded Poland and in the summer of 1920 had marched on Warsaw. Had they captured the city, there was nothing to stop them taking over the whole of Eastern Europe; no foreign observer would have given the Poles a chance against them. But somehow—and many both inside and outside the country considered it nothing short of a miracle—Marshal Józef Piłsudski managed to launch a massive counterattack and at the last moment turned the tide.

Ratti could easily have escaped back to Rome; instead, he had categorically refused to leave Warsaw. It was many centuries since a papal envoy had stood with the army of Christendom as it defended its frontier, and with the danger finally averted it was no wonder that his popularity soared. He himself never forgot the experience, which left him with the lifelong conviction that of all the enemies with which Christian Europe was faced, communism was by far the most terrible. In the spring of 1921 he returned to Italy to the cardinalate and in June to the archbishopric of Milan, but his life as an archbishop was short—only seven months later he was elected pope.

He started as he meant to go on. After informing the cardinals of his chosen name, his first act as Supreme Pontiff was to announce that he would give the traditional papal blessing, “Urbi et Orbi,” from the outside balcony of St. Peter’s. It would be for the first time since 1870, but there was no consultation, no seeking for advice; that, as his entourage quickly discovered, was not his way. Pius knew precisely what he wanted and was determined to get it.

His strength of character—one might almost say his ruthlessness—was soon amply demonstrated in his dealings with France. The restoration of friendly relations had begun with his predecessor, Benedict; the canonization of Joan of Arc had had a remarkable impact and had been attended by representatives of the French government as well as by no fewer than eighty parliamentary deputies from Paris. There was, however, a problem—in the shape of a dangerously popular right-wing movement and newspaper, pseudo-Catholic, monarchist, and deeply anti-Semitic, both known as Action Française. Their founder, a deeply unpleasant demagogue named Charles Maurras, had long since lost whatever faith he might once have possessed, but he saw the Church as a pillar of the reaction in which he fanatically believed and had no scruples in exploiting it for his own ends. Large numbers of French Catholics, including several bishops, read his newspaper and shared his views, which included a detestation of the French Republic. It thus became clear to Pope Pius that there could be no further improvement in relations with France while Maurras and Action Française continued to claim papal backing. In 1925 he put them both on the Index, and two years later he formally excommunicated all the movement’s supporters. When the eighty-one-year-old French Jesuit Cardinal Louis Billot subsequently wrote to the newspaper expressing his sympathy, the pope summoned him to an audience and obliged him to resign his red hat.1

A still greater challenge to the pope’s statesmanship, however, was the rise of Fascist Italy. At the end of October 1922, less than nine months after the papal election, Benito Mussolini staged his March on Rome and was accepted by King Victor Emmanuel as his prime minister. In the early days, before he became Il Duce, Mussolini might still have been overturned in a parliamentary election. The Socialists and Don Luigi Sturzo’s People’s Party together easily outnumbered the thirty-five Fascist deputies; had they formed an alliance, they might have ensured the survival of freedom in Italy. But Pius would have none of it. For him any association with socialism was out of the question; moreover, he was becoming increasingly concerned by certain distinctly left-wing tendencies of the People’s Party. Don Luigi was accordingly informed that His Holiness considered his political activities incompatible with his priesthood, and he obediently withdrew into exile, first in London and later in the United States (where, however, much to the Vatican’s irritation, he continued his political activity). In Italy his party, powerless without papal support, quietly faded away.

The Fascists, by contrast, were growing steadily stronger. In 1923 the Italian government passed the so-called Acerbo Law, which decreed that any party gaining 25 percent of the votes would have a two-thirds majority in Parliament. Its purpose was transparently to ensure this majority for the Fascists, and after the election of the following year there was no further obstacle to Mussolini’s imposing his dictatorship. By this time he had moderated his early antireligious attitude and was making conciliatory gestures to the Church: reintroducing religion into state schools, erecting crucifixes in the law courts, even, in 1927, himself undergoing a Roman Catholic baptism. That same year, he proposed a treaty and a concordat which, after endless argument and much hard bargaining, were eventually signed at the Lateran Palace by himself and by Pius’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, on February 11, 1929.

Under the Lateran Treaty the pope regained a vestige of his temporal power. Admittedly the land over which he was sovereign ruler amounted to a mere 109 acres—about a quarter the area of the Principality of Monaco—with a population of rather less than five hundred, but the Holy See was once again to rank among the nations of the world. Moreover, in return for his renunciation of his claim to the previous papal territories he was given a payment, in cash and Italian state securities, of 1.75 billion lire, which at that time amounted to some $100 million. Anticlerical laws passed by the Italian government since 1870, including the Law of Guarantees, were declared null and void. In return, the Vatican promised to remain neutral and not to involve itself in international politics or diplomacy.

The concordat dealt with the status of the Church in Italy. It declared Roman Catholicism to be the only recognized religion of the state, recognized canon law alongside state law, provided for Catholic religious teaching in state schools, and validated Catholic church marriages. The Roman catacombs were entrusted to the Holy See, on the understanding that it would allow archaeological excavation and exploration by the Italian government to continue. On the face of it, the Papacy had done remarkably well. It could not be denied, however, that it had given its implied approval to Fascism. The pope had even hailed Mussolini as “a man sent by Providence,” and in the 1929 elections most Catholics were encouraged by their priests to vote Fascist.

The honeymoon could not last. The rupture began with Catholic Action, a movement founded by Pius X which was really little more than a nationwide society dedicated, as the pope had put it, to “restoring Jesus Christ to his place in the family, in the school and in the community.” Mussolini, however, who instinctively mistrusted any national organization which he did not personally control, claimed that it was politically inspired, serving as a front for the People’s Party of the now-exiled Sturzo. The Catholic Scout movement aroused his anger even more; no one better than he understood the importance of early brainwashing. “Youth,” he declared, “shall be ours.” As these and similar bodies suffered increasing physical harassment from the Fascist thugs who came in force to break up their meetings or to seize and impound their records, the pope raised his voice in protest. His encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno of June 1931—drafted, significantly, in Italian—began by answering the Duce’s charges seriatim; as it continued, however, it turned into a general attack on fascism and all it stood for:

What is to be thought about the formula of the oath, which even little boys and girls are obliged to take, that they will execute orders without discussion from an authority which … can give orders against all truth and justice? … Takers of this oath must swear to serve with all their strength, even to the shedding of blood, the cause of a revolution which snatched the young from the Church and from Jesus Christ, and which inculcates in its own young people hatred, violence, and irreverence.… Such an oath is unlawful.…

We have not said that we wish to condemn the [Fascist] party as such.… It [recently] declared that “respect for the Catholic religion and for its Supreme Head is unchanged.” [But this] is the respect which has had its expression in vastly extended and hateful police measures, prepared in the deep silence of a conspiracy, and executed with lightning-like suddenness, on the very eve of our birthday.…

In the same context there is an allusion to “refuges and protections” given to the still-remaining opponents of the party; “the directors of the 9,000 groups of Fascists in Italy” are ordered to direct their attention to this situation.

[We have received] sad information about the effect of these remarks, these insinuations, and these orders, which have induced a new outbreak of hateful surveillance, of denunciations, and of intimidations.

Interestingly enough, the encyclical had a measure of success. It was widely read in Italy and abroad and caused Mussolini to relax his pressure on the Church appreciably. It must also have been very much on the mind of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who in February 1930 had succeeded Gasparri as Pius’s secretary of state. From the outset, Pacelli was fixated on Germany. He knew the country well, having served as nuncio in Munich for three years from 1917 and in Berlin throughout the 1920s. He loved the Germans and spoke their language perfectly, often in preference to Italian. He was also aware that in prewar days Germany had contributed more funds to the Holy See than all the other nations of the world combined. It was not, of course, technically a Catholic country—in 1930 the Catholics made up about a third of the population, although by 1940, after Hitler’s annexations of the Saar, the Sudetenland, and Austria, the proportion had increased to about a half—and neither Pacelli nor Pius had any delusions about the Nazis, whom they saw as little better than gangsters; but they nevertheless believed that National Socialism represented a firm bulwark against communism, in their eyes the far greater enemy.

And so, on July 20, 1933, the German Concordat was signed in Rome by Pacelli on behalf of Pope Pius XI and by Franz von Papen, vice chancellor of the Reich for Adolf Hitler. Generous privileges were granted to the Catholic clergy and to Catholic schools in Germany in return for the withdrawal by the Catholic Church, with its many various associations and its newspapers, from all social and political action. This withdrawal involved, as it had in Italy, the loss of a political party. In the hope of an understanding with Mussolini, Pius had effectively sacrificed the Partito Populare; now, at Hitler’s insistence, Pacelli intimated that the Center Party—the second strongest in the Reichstag, which was also led by a priest, Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, and included the vast majority of German Catholics in its ranks—was, so far as the Vatican was concerned, dispensable. It was duly wound up, and Monsignor Kaas, who had by this time fallen completely under Pacelli’s spell and seldom left his side, was brought to Rome, where he was given charge of the physical maintenance of St. Peter’s.2

As did the Italian, the German Concordat came in for heavy international criticism. The Catholic Church could have set itself up in determined opposition to National Socialism; instead, by agreeing to the abdication of all its political rights and morally obliging all German Catholics to obey their Nazi leaders, Pacelli and Pius had together cleared the way for the unobstructed advance of Nazism—and of its treatment of the Jews. In the minutes of a cabinet meeting held on July 14, 1933, Hitler is recorded as having boasted that “the Concordat gave Germany an opportunity and created an area of trust that was particularly significant in the developing struggle against international Jewry.”3 By the outside world the pope was accused of having given both regimes respectability and of increasing their prestige—which indeed, in the short term, he had. But he was soon to show still greater dissatisfaction with the Nazis than he had with the Fascists: in the first three years of their regime between 1933 and 1936, during which their oppression of the Church steadily increased, he was obliged to address no fewer than thirty-four separate notes of protest to the German government. It is worth noting, however, that no protest was made against the publication of the Nuremberg race laws of 1935.4

The final break came on Passion Sunday 1937, when the encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, having been smuggled into Germany, secretly printed there on twelve different presses, and distributed by bicycle or on foot, was read from every Catholic pulpit. It should have come at least three years earlier; even now it failed to condemn Hitler and National Socialism by name. But its meaning was clear enough, particularly since it had been written in German rather than the usual Latin. The government of the Reich, it declared, had “sown the tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny, of secret and open hostility to Christ and his Church, fed from a thousand different sources and making use of every available means.”

The eleventh paragraph of the encyclical is of particular interest because, though once again there is no specific condemnation of anti-Semitism, its target is clear. It stresses the value of the Jewish Old Testament, which it describes as being “exclusively the word of God and a substantial part of His revelation”:

Whoever wishes to see banished from church and school the Biblical history and the wise doctrines of the Old Testament, blasphemes the name of God, blasphemes the Almighty’s plan of salvation, and makes limited and narrow human thought the judge of God’s designs over the history of the world.

Non Abbiamo Bisogno and Mit Brennender Sorge together left no doubt in anyone’s mind about the pope’s opinions of the Fascist and National Socialist regimes, and no one was surprised that, when, in March 1938, the führer paid a state visit to Rome, Pius should deliberately slip away to Castel Gandolfo. But he was not yet finished: only five days after the second encyclical he published a third, for which he reverted to the traditional Latin. Divini Redemptoris was primarily directed against his greatest bugbear, communism.

This modern revolution … exceeds in amplitude and violence anything yet experienced in the preceding persecutions launched against the Church. Entire peoples find themselves in danger of falling back into a barbarism worse than that which oppressed the greater part of the world at the coming of the Redeemer.

This all too imminent danger … is bolshevistic and atheistic Communism, which aims at upsetting the social order and at undermining the very foundations of Christian civilization.…

Communism, moreover, strips man of his liberty, robs human personality of all its dignity, and removes all the moral restraints that check the eruptions of blind impulse.…

For the first time in history we are witnessing a struggle, cold-blooded in purpose and mapped out to the last detail, between man and “all that is called God.”

This hatred of communism was enough to ensure that when the Spanish Civil War broke out in July 1936 the pope immediately gave his support to General Francisco Franco, though after the Republican government’s brutal separation of Church and state in 1931, which had led to mob attacks on churches and monasteries and massacres of priests, monks and nuns, he could hardly have done otherwise. It was nonetheless embarrassing for him to see Franco’s victory being achieved on the backs of the two dictators—the more so when the Spanish Falangists began to emulate the worst characteristics of the Nazi and Fascist regimes that he had so frequently denounced.

But Pius’s pontificate, overshadowed as it was by the European dictatorships, was by no means exclusively political. It saw the number of Catholic missionaries more than doubled and at the same time a far greater degree of responsibility devolving on recently converted communities; as early as 1926 the pope personally consecrated the first six Chinese bishops, and the total of native priests in India and the Far East increased from 3,000 to more than 7,000. It was a considerable disappointment to him that his efforts toward a reunion of the Catholic and Orthodox churches met with so little response. (They might have had more success if he had not called the churches back to the fold quite so patronizingly, as lost sheep.)

Fortunately, he could always seek consolation in science and the arts. Pius was a genuine scholar, the first since Benedict XIV nearly two centuries before, and was not afraid to show it. He modernized and enlarged the Vatican Library, founded the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, built the Pinacoteca for the Vatican’s by now superb collection of pictures, and transferred the observatory from Rome to Castel Gandolfo. In 1931 he shocked many of the more old-fashioned faithful by installing a radio station and becoming the first pope to make regular broadcasts to the world. One of the most important of these transmissions was made at the time of the Munich crisis of September 1938, when the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to meet Hitler in a vain attempt to prevent the imminent world war. Pius had little respect for Chamberlain, who, as he instantly saw, was no match for his opponent, but he broadcast a moving appeal for peace which was heard across Europe.

Alas, he was by now a sick man and failing fast. Diabetes was rapidly taking hold, and both his legs were hideously ulcerated. On November 25, he suffered two heart attacks within a few hours of each other. He continued to give audiences—though now from his sickbed—and in January 1939 received Chamberlain and the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, in whom he did his best to instill a degree of courage and determination to resist Hitler’s demands. But he was unsuccessful, as he had known he would be: “Sono due limaccie,” he is said to have murmured as they left—“They’re a pair of slugs.”

By this time he was already working on what was to be his most vehement attack on the dictatorships, to be delivered at a meeting of all the Italian bishops on February 11, 1939. He implored his doctors to keep him alive long enough to make what he felt might be the most important speech of his life. Alas, they failed to do so; he died the day before the speech was due to be made. Almost immediately the rumor began to spread that he had been murdered on Fascist orders by one of the doctors, Francesco Petacci.5 What we know for a fact, on the authority of Mussolini’s son-in-law and foreign minister, Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, is that the Duce was later extremely anxious to find a copy of the speech and actually sent the Italian ambassador to the Holy See to Pacelli, now Pope Pius XII, to inquire about it. Pacelli assured him that it had been consigned to the secret archives, where it would remain a dead letter.

Pius XI had his faults. He was an autocrat through and through. In his concept of Christianity he was bigoted, reactionary, and inflexible: the Roman Catholic Church was right, everyone else was wrong. He had no time for the incipient ecumenical movement; so far as he was concerned, there could be no bargaining over God’s revealed truth. “The encyclical [Mortalium Annos, of 1928] made it clear that the ecumenical message of the Vatican for the other Churches was simple and uncompromising: ‘Come in slowly, with your hands above your head.’ ”6 In the earlier period of his pontificate his detestation of communism—which, let it never be forgotten, he had seen at first hand in Poland—made him more tolerant of the Fascists, and at first perhaps even of the Nazis, than he might otherwise have been; but in his last years his open and unflinching hostility to both earned him the respect and admiration of the free world.

POPE PIUS XI died on February 10, 1939; Pope Pius XII was elected on March 2—his sixty-third birthday—on the third ballot, on the very first day of the conclave. It was the shortest for three hundred years. According to his sister, Eugenio Pacelli had been “born a priest”; while still a child, he would dress up in cassock and surplice and act out the celebration of the Mass in his bedroom. As soon as he was old enough, he studied at the Gregorian University and the Capranica College in Rome, and he was still only twenty-three when he was ordained in 1899. Two years later he entered the papal service, after which he never looked back, serving as nuncio first in Munich and then in Berlin, becoming a cardinal in 1929, and in the following year succeeding Gasparri as secretary of state. In this capacity he had negotiated concordats with Austria and, in July 1933, with Nazi Germany. Although no secretary of state had been elected pope since Clement IX in 1667, Pacelli was by far the best-known, the most experienced, and the most intelligent member of the Sacred College. His predecessor had had a huge admiration for him and, as his own health had progressively collapsed, had entrusted to him more and more of the papal business. His election was, effectively, a foregone conclusion.

Cardinals are known as “Princes of the Church”; few in the last three centuries have been more princely than Pacelli. When, on May 18, 1917, he set off from Rome to Munich, his train included an additional sealed carriage, brought expressly from Zurich, containing sixty cases of food, in case the wartime rations of Germany should offend his notoriously delicate digestion. His private compartment, a luxury specifically forbidden during the war, had had to be specially requisitioned from the Italian State Railways, and all the stationmasters between Rome and the Swiss border were put on red alert. Six weeks later he traveled in similar state to Berlin, where he discussed Benedict’s peace plan first with the imperial chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, and subsequently with Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. Not surprisingly, the talks came to nothing; there could be no accommodation while each side believed it could win. Pacelli returned to Munich and devoted himself once again to war relief.

At this, it must be said, he worked hard—visiting prison camps, distributing food parcels to the prisoners, giving spiritual assistance whenever and wherever he could. One incident only strikes a sour note: when he dealt with a request to the pope by the chief rabbi of Munich to use his influence for the release of a consignment of Italian palm fronds, which his Jewish flock needed for the forthcoming celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. The fronds, it appeared, had already been purchased but were being held up in Como. Pacelli replied that although he had forwarded the request to Rome, he feared that thanks to wartime delays and the fact that the Holy See had no diplomatic relations with the Italian government, it was unlikely that anything could be done in time. He explained confidentially to Gasparri, however, that

it seemed to me that to go along with this would be to give the Jews special assistance not within the scope of practical, arm’s-length, purely civil or natural rights common to all human beings, but in a positive and direct way to assist them in the exercise of their Jewish cult.

In April 1919, in the confusion following the armistice of the previous November, a trio of Bolsheviks—Max Levien, Eugen Leviné, and Towia Axelrod—seized power in Bavaria. There followed a brief reign of terror, during which the foreign missions came under particular attack; the diplomatic corps consequently decided that it should send representatives to register a protest with Levien. Pacelli, then nuncio, reported to Gasparri:

Since it would have been totally undignified for me to appear in the presence of this aforesaid gentleman, I sent the uditore [a certain Monsignor Schioppa].…

The scene that presented itself at the palace was indescribable. The confusion totally chaotic, the filth completely nauseating … and in the midst of all this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanour and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien’s mistress, a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcée, who was in charge. And it was to her that the nunciature was obliged to pay homage in order to proceed.

This Levien is a young man, of about thirty or thirty-five, also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly. He deigned to receive the Monsignor Uditore in the corridor, surrounded by an armed escort, one of whom was an armed hunchback, his faithful bodyguard. With a hat on his head and smoking a cigarette, he listened to what Monsignor Schioppa told him, whining repeatedly that he was in a hurry and had more important things to do.7

Much was to be written in later years of Pius XII’s deep love and admiration of the Jewish people. The last two quotations suggest that such reports may have been somewhat exaggerated. On matters of color, on the other hand, there was no pretense. As early as 1920 Pacelli had complained to Gasparri that black soldiers in the French army were routinely raping German women and children in the Rhineland. To these accusations, which included no suggestion that white soldiers might be inclined to do the same, the army, not surprisingly, issued vehement denials, but Pacelli continued to believe the charges and to urge papal intervention. A quarter of a century later, as pope, he was to ask the British Foreign Office for assurances that “no Allied colored troops would be among the small number that might be garrisoned in Rome after the occupation.”

NAZI GERMANY HAD annexed Austria in March 1938. Exactly a year later, after the fiasco of the Munich Agreement, German troops were massing on the border of Czechoslovakia. Yet, on March 6, 1939, just four days after his election, Pope Pius XII could personally draft a letter to Hitler:

To the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler, Führer and Chancellor of the German Reich! Here at the beginning of Our Pontificate We desire to express the wish to remain united by the bonds of profound and benevolent friendship with the German people who are entrusted to your care.… We pray that Our great desire for the prosperity of the German people and for their progress in every domain may, with God’s help, come to full realization.

This letter was not only the first addressed by the new pope to any head of state; we have the word of Monsignor Alberto Giovanetti, one of the official historians of Pius XII, that “in length and in the sentiments it expresses, it differs totally from the other official letters sent by the Vatican at that time.”

On March 15, 1939, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. A week later Diego von Bergen, the German ambassador to the Vatican, reported to his government:

I learn from a well-informed source that urgent attempts have been made, especially on the French side, to prevail upon the pope to associate himself with the protests of the democratic states against the annexation of Bohemia and Moravia to the Reich. The pope has declined these requests very firmly. He has given those around him to understand that he sees no reason to interfere in historic processes in which, from the political point of view, the Church is not interested.

Even this was only the beginning. On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht marched into Catholic Poland, and two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. Over the next five weeks the Poles lost some 70,000 men. From the Vatican, however, despite repeated intervention by the British and French ambassadors, there came not a word of sympathy or regret, still less of denunciation. This deafening silence continued until the third week of October, when the pope published his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. In this, at long last, Poland received a mention:

The blood of countless human beings, noncombatants among them, has been shed and cries out to heaven, especially the blood of Poland, a nation very dear to us. Here is a people which has a right to the human and brotherly sympathy of the whole world, because of its devotion to the Church and by reason of the ardor that it has poured into the defense of Christian civilization, so that its titles are carved indelibly on the tablets of history.

Not altogether surprisingly, the encyclical was welcomed by the Allies; the French air force dropped 88,000 copies of it over Germany. The language was clear enough for the German Foreign Office; “Pius XII,” it informed its ambassador to the Holy See, “has ceased to be neutral.” It should be noted, however, that there is no mention anywhere in the text of Germany, Nazis, or Jews.

There was a curious incident in November 1939, when the pope was secretly approached by a group of German conspirators with a request for help. Their intention was to overthrow Hitler and to return Germany to democracy; but before they could do so they needed a guarantee that the Western powers would not take advantage of any period of chaos that might result and impose on Germany terms as humiliating as those imposed after the First World War at Versailles. Would the pope be prepared to act as go-between, seeking assurances that Britain and her allies would agree to an honorable peace?

Pius was fully aware that he was being asked to take part in a conspiracy. This obviously represented a huge risk. Had any intervention of his become known, Hitler would almost certainly have vented his anger on the Catholic Church in Germany; Mussolini, for his part, might have claimed a breach of the Lateran Treaty and invaded the Papal State, or at least cut off its water and electricity supplies. Not surprisingly, he asked for twenty-four hours to consider. He consulted none of his Curia, not even his secretary of state; the answer with which he returned the next day—that he was prepared to do all he could for the sake of peace—represented his own decision and no one else’s.

The decision, however, left him deeply uneasy. The British minister to the Holy See, Sir D’Arcy Osborne, had an audience with him shortly afterward, and reported:

He wished to pass the communication [from the German conspirators] on to me purely for information. He did not wish in the slightest degree to endorse or recommend it. After he had listened to my comments … he said that perhaps, after all, it was not worth proceeding with the matter and he would therefore ask me to regard his communication to me as not having been made. This, however, I promptly declined, as I said I refused to have the responsibilities of His Holiness’s conscience unloaded on to my own.

In the final event, the whole thing came to nothing. Neville Chamberlain’s government insisted on far more information than the conspirators were prepared to give and was anyway unimpressed by the thought of making any sort of peace while the German military machine remained intact. It insisted, too, on bringing in the French, which the conspirators were extremely reluctant to do. It may be that the latter lost their nerve; for whatever reason, the plot simply ran out of steam. It has seemed worth recording here simply as an indication of Pius’s basic anti-Nazi feelings, of his courage in making an exceptionally dangerous decision, and of his strange insecurity once that decision was made.

AND SO WE come to the mighty question mark that casts its shadow over the pontificate of Pope Pius XII: his attitude to the Holocaust. A strong vein of anti-Semitism had always run through Catholic thinking: had not the Jews murdered Christ? The Tridentine Mass, promulgated by the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century,8 contained a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of “the perfidious Jews,”9 and the right-wing Catholic parties in France, Germany, and Austria made no secret of their anti-Semitic feelings. It is hardly necessary to say that such views found no place in the official teaching of the Church; but the passages quoted earlier in this chapter make it clear that they were shared at least to some extent by the young Pacelli—and he is unlikely to have been alone.

“The Jews,” declared Hitler in a broadcast on February 9, 1942, “will be liquidated for at least a thousand years.” Within a month, active persecution was under way not only in Germany, Austria, and Poland but in Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, and Marshal Pétain’s unoccupied France. All this was well known in the Vatican; indeed, it was common knowledge throughout Europe. On April 21 Osborne wrote to his friend Bridget McEwen, “Yesterday being Hitler’s birthday, I wore a black tie in mourning for the millions he has massacred and tortured.” The pope could hardly have worn a black tie, but he could have spoken out against the continuing atrocities. Despite Osborne’s continued entreaties, he refused to do so. On July 31, Osborne wrote again to Mrs. McEwen:

It is very sad. The fact is that the moral authority of the Holy See, which Pius XI and his predecessors had built up into a world power, is now sadly reduced. I suspect that H.H. [His Holiness] hopes to play a great role as peacemaker and that it is partly at least for this reason that he tries to preserve a position of neutrality as between the belligerents. But, as you say, the German crimes have nothing to do with neutrality … and the fact is that the Pope’s silence is defeating its own purpose because it is destroying his prospects of contributing to peace.

By now the mass deportations had begun; before the end of the year 42,000 French Jews would be sent to Auschwitz alone. In September President Roosevelt sent a personal envoy to the pope to beg him to condemn the German war crimes, but still Pius refused. The papal secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione, would only repeat that the Holy See was doing all that it could.

It was not—if only because, as 1942 drew to its close, the Vatican clearly had something else on its mind. It was terrified that the Allies were going to bomb Rome. Poor Osborne was being summoned almost daily to the Secretariat of State and entreated to extract a firm undertaking from the British government that there would be no air raids on the Holy City. In vain he pointed out that Britain was at war and Rome was an enemy capital; and he well knew that, even if the city were not to be bombed, it was highly unlikely that the Italians would be given advance information of the fact. He wrote on December 13:

The more I think of it, the more I am revolted by Hitler’s massacre of the Jewish race on the one hand, and, on the other, the Vatican’s apparently exclusive preoccupation with the effects of the war on Italy and the possibilities of the bombardment of Rome. The whole outfit seems to have become Italian.

The following day he had another talk with Cardinal Maglione:

I urged that the Vatican, instead of thinking of nothing but the bombing of Rome, should consider their duties in respect of the unprecedented crime against humanity of Hitler’s campaign of extermination of the Jews, in which I said Italy was an accomplice as the partner and ally of Germany.

Finally, on Christmas Eve 1942, Pius XII made a broadcast to the world. It was long and, for the most part, stiflingly turgid. Only at the very end, when the majority of his listeners had probably switched off through sheer boredom, did he come, after a fashion, to the point, calling on men of goodwill to make a solemn vow “to bring back society to its center of gravity, which is the law of God.” He continued:

Mankind owes that vow to the countless dead who lie buried on the field of battle. The sacrifice of their lives in the fulfilment of their duty is a holocaust offered for a new and better social order. Mankind owes that vow to the innumerable sorrowing host ofmothers, widows, and orphans who have seen the light, the solace, and the support of their lives wrenched from them. Mankind owes that vow to those numberless exiles whom the hurricane of war has torn from their native land and scattered in the land of the stranger, who can make their own the lament of the Prophet: “Our inheritance is turned to aliens, our house to strangers.” Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds and thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.

That was it. Once again there was no mention of Jews, of Nazis, or even of Germany. The racial element of the Holocaust had been toned down by the addition of the two weasel words “sometimes only”; the two or three million victims—even by Christmas 1942—had been delicately reduced to “hundreds of thousands.” When Mussolini heard it, he said to Ciano, “This is a collection of platitudes which might better have been made by the parish priest of Predappio.”10 He was not far wrong.

UNTIL NOW, IN comparison with their Central European brethren, the Italian Jews had been relatively lucky. Although the 8,000-odd people who made up the Jewish community of Rome doubtless shared in full measure the general indignation at the pope’s apparent spinelessness, while the Duce continued in power they were left for the most part undisturbed. Mussolini had enacted a number of anti-Semitic laws, but they had been largely disregarded. Then, in July 1943, everything changed: the Allies invaded Sicily and bombed Rome; Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were shot and left hanging from the roof of a garage; and German troops poured into Italy. On September 11 Rome came under German occupation, and Marshal Albert Kesselring declared martial law. On October 18, the SS gave the order to round up the Jews.

There had been Jews in Rome before there had been Christians. The first Jewish settlers had arrived in 139 B.C. After the coming of Christianity the fortunes of their community had varied; several of its tribulations have been recorded in earlier chapters of this book. Never in all its history, however, had Italian Jews faced a threat such as this. Already at the end of September they had been compelled to collect fifty kilograms of gold within thirty-six hours; they had succeeded only through the generosity of their fellow citizens, Christian and Jewish alike, who had rallied with donations. (After several hours’ hesitation, the Vatican had offered a loan; it was politely rejected.) There was a general assumption that this gold had been the price of security; only when the long line of open army trucks took up its position in the ghetto in the early hours of October 16 did it become clear that it was nothing of the sort.

As the trucks threaded their way through the pelting rain to their gathering point at the Military College, from which their human cargo was to be transported to Auschwitz, powerful voices were raised to stop the operation. Several of those voices were German: one was that of Baron Ernst von Weizsäcker, the ambassador to the Holy See; another was that of Kesselring himself. Yet another objector was Albrecht von Kessel, the German consul in Rome. All three were convinced that if the deportations were allowed to go ahead, there might easily be a general rising against the occupying forces. What was needed now was for the pope to make a vehement protest against this new outrage that was taking place on his very doorstep. But nothing came. Weizsäcker himself wrote to his colleague Dr. Karl Ritter in Berlin:

Although pressed on all sides, the Pope did not allow himself to be drawn into any demonstration of reproof at the deportation of the Jews of Rome. The only sign of disapproval was a veiled allusion in Osservatore Romano on 25–28 October, in which only a restricted number of people could recognize a reference to the Jewish question.

And so the deportation went ahead.

How can we explain this contemptible silence on the part of Pius XII? It all goes back first to his innate anti-Semitism and then to his fear of communism—always, both to his predecessor and to himself, a far greater bugbear than Nazi Germany. As he himself put it in a conversation with the American representative at the Vatican, Harold Tittman, he believed that a protest would provoke a clash with the SS; he could have added—but did not—that such a clash might well have resulted in a German occupation of the Vatican and his own capture and imprisonment. That in turn would have played directly into the hands of the Communists. He himself had come up against them in Munich, and he was fully aware of the atrocities that they had committed against the Church in Russia, Mexico, and Spain. With Europe in its present state of chaos, a Communist takeover in Rome could not be discounted, and to avoid that, even the deportation of Roman Jewry would be a small price to pay.

This argument in itself seems hard enough to swallow, but even if we accept the papal silence to have been justified, another astonishing fact remains to be explained. After the end of the war Pius continued as pope for another thirteen years, during which time not one word of apology or regret, not a single requiem or Mass of Remembrance was held for the 1,989 Jewish deportees from Rome who had met their deaths at Auschwitz alone. There were many people, too, who wondered, in retrospect, why a pope who had thought nothing of excommunicating all members of the Communist Party throughout the world had never apparently considered doing the same to the Catholic Nazi war criminals, including Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, and Hitler himself.

No condemnation was expressed either for the last Nazi atrocity to take place in Rome before its liberation. It occurred on March 24, 1944, the day after a company of German soldiers was bombed as it marched down Via Rasella; thirty-three men died. On the following evening, on Hitler’s personal orders, 335 Italians, including some 70 Jews, were herded into the Ardeatine caves south of the city and massacred. Once again there was no protest from the Vatican, though two days later its newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, ran an article expressing sympathy with the German casualties and regretting “the 320 [sic] persons sacrificed for the guilty parties who escaped arrest.”

On the same day as the bombing, March 23, the Germans occupied Hungary; and Adolf Eichmann, Hitler’s “architect of the Holocaust,” began to apply the “final solution” to the country’s 750,000 Jews. Now at last the Vatican took note: the nuncio in Budapest, Monsignor Angelo Rotta, made official representations to the Hungarian government, the very first time such a thing had been done by a papal diplomatic representative. Even then, the phrasing was unexpected:

The office of the Apostolic Nuncio … requests the Hungarian Government once again not to continue its war against the Jews beyond the limits prescribed by the laws of nature and God’s commandments,11 and to avoid any action against which the Holy See and the conscience of the entire Christian world would feel obliged to protest.

It was not, however, till June 25 that the pope cabled the Hungarian president, Admiral Miklós Horthy, asking him to “use all possible influence to stop the suffering and torments which countless people are undergoing simply because of their nationality or their race.” There was still no mention of the Jews by name, though President Roosevelt, cabling on the following day, showed less delicacy and in fact threatened dire consequences.

At this point, it is only fair to record, the Catholic Church in Hungary stepped in firmly and efficiently. Vast numbers of hunted Jews were given refuge in monasteries, convents, and churches and often with private Catholic families. During the autumn and winter of 1944, we are told, “there was practically no Catholic Church institution in Budapest where persecuted Jews did not find refuge.” Countless lives were saved; nevertheless, the question remains: Eichmann started his loathsome work in March; could not the rescue operation have begun then, instead of four or five months later?

WITH THE COMING of peace in the spring of 1945, Pope Pius XII, who since the death of Cardinal Maglione the previous August had been acting as his own secretary of state, found himself once again confronted by his old archenemy, communism. The Italian Communist Party under its brilliant leader, Palmiro Togliatti, saw itself as the true conqueror of Fascism and thus the legitimate inheritor of power. It was fortunately counterbalanced by the glamour of America, whose forces had flooded the country with all the accoutrements of capitalist-consumerist society. Against both these extremes Pius urged a program of Catholic renewal which, unlike communism or capitalism, would be Italian through and through; if he had to choose, however, there was no doubt in his mind that American materialism was by far the lesser of the two evils. On July 2, 1949, he went so far as to publish a decree declaring that no Catholic could be a member of the Communist Party or advocate communism in any way; anyone found guilty of doing so would have the sacraments withheld. In the previous year he had violently opposed—as had the entire Curia—the foundation of the State of Israel. This surprised no one, for Pius, as for the Church down the ages, the Jews were the people who had murdered God.

By this time the pope was seventy-three. Physically, he was still strong, while his autocratic spirit and self-confidence were growing with every year that passed. The old anti-Semitism was still in evidence: to his dying day he was to refuse recognition to the State of Israel. And his vision was narrowing; he was tending more and more to entrench himself in the tried old orthodoxies and to close his mind to new theological ideas. On September 2, 1950, he issued an encyclical, Humani Generis, which paralyzed contemporary scholarship and categorically condemned any new or original Christian thinking. It went further still. Papal encyclicals had never been considered infallible; henceforth, they made it clear that they were settling a disputed matter once and for all: “It is obvious that that matter … cannot be any longer considered a question open to discussion among theologians.”

There followed something not unlike the reign of terror that had existed under Pius X. The American Jesuit Daniel Berrigan reported, “I saw at close hand intellectual excellence crushed in a wave of orthodoxy, like a big Stalinist purge.”12 One of the principal victims was the celebrated Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose work was denied publication and who was eventually exiled to the United States. Another casualty was the French worker-priest experiment, the most exciting and probably the most successful of all the attempts to bring Christianity to the world of heavy industry. Its members exchanged their clerical clothes for overalls and signed on as bargemen, miners, or factory hands; missionary work had never been like this before, and its success was dramatic. But for Pius it was too dangerous, an open invitation to communism. He showed more and more hostility toward it and finally in November 1953 dissolved it altogether.

For forward-looking Christian thinkers, this was a miserable time; it was in a way a reflection of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s America, where Reds were found under every bed. Nor was it improved by the pope’s ex cathedra proclamation, on November 1, 1950, of the doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary—in other words, that the Virgin’s body, instead of corrupting after her death, had been immediately assumed into Heaven. There was nothing new in this theory; the Assumption had long been one of the most popular subjects in Italian religious painting—one has only to think of Titian’s tremendous altarpiece in the Church of the Frari in Venice—and its feast day on August 15 one of the most important dates in the Catholic calendar. On the other hand it was unknown to the early Church and had no confirmation in the Scriptures, and the non-Catholic churches resented what they saw as the arrogance of the pope in claiming infallibility—for the first time since its definition at the First Vatican Council in 1870—when prescribing an article of faith in which they did not for a moment believe.

By the mid-1950s, Pope Pius’s health was giving cause for concern. Much of the deterioration seems to have been due to the ministrations of his oculist, Professor Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, who had taken over complete responsibility for his physical well-being and was generally considered, by everyone but Pius himself, to be a charlatan and a quack. Galeazzi-Lisi himself was bad enough, but he also introduced the fashionable Swiss doctor Paul Niehans, who claimed to have discovered the secret of eternal youth in the cells drawn from the fetuses of sheep and monkeys, and then a mad dentist who prescribed industrial quantities of chromic acid, a substance used in those days principally for the cleaning of brass musical instruments. It is thought to have been this which was responsible for the chronic hiccups which plagued the last years of the pope’s life.

He died in the early hours of the morning of Thursday, October 9, 1958. The funeral ceremony was long and impressive; the body was driven slowly through Rome in an open coffin to its lying in state in St. Peter’s. It was unfortunate indeed that the embalming had been left to Galeazzi-Lisi, who announced that he would be employing a new technique, similar to that used on Jesus Christ himself, “which would leave the body in its natural state.” This it singularly failed to do. From time to time appalling eructations were heard coming from the coffin, and during the lying in state the smell was such that one of the attendant Swiss Guards fainted. Meanwhile, the nose fell off. Finally, to the considerable relief of all those present, the lid was screwed down and Pope Pius XII was lowered into the grottoes beneath the basilica, to take up his final resting place only a few feet from the tomb of St. Peter.

It is painful to have to record that, on the orders of his successor, the process of his canonization has already begun. Suffice it to say here that the current fashion for canonizing all popes on principle will, if continued, make a mockery of sainthood.

1. “Support for Maurras was strong among the French Holy Ghost Fathers, one of whom was the rector of the French Seminary in Rome, where the students had a strong Action Française group. Pius sent for the ancient, bearded superior of the Order, and told him to sack the Rector. The old man replied, ‘Yes, Holy Father, I’ll see what I can do,’ upon which the Pope grabbed his beard and shouted ‘I didn’t say see what you can do, I said fire him’ ” (Duffy, Saints and Sinners, pp. 256–257).

2. It is to Monsignor Kaas that we owe the discovery of the ancient shrine now claimed to be that of St. Peter, revealed while he was reordering the crypt of St. Peter’s to accommodate Pius XI’s tomb.

3. Catholic priests in Germany were instructed—and in most cases seem willingly to have agreed—to provide the authorities, through the local registers of marriages and baptisms, with details of blood purity. The concordat also trapped the Church into accepting Hitler’s Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring, which was to result in the sterilization of some 350,000 people, in most cases without their own or their families’ consent.

4. Nor, incidentally, would there be a word of condemnation for Kristallnacht, the first major German pogrom of November 9–10, 1938, in which 91 Jews were killed and some 30,000 arrested and sent to concentration camps. More than two hundred synagogues were burned and thousands of homes and businesses ransacked.

5. Dr. Petacci’s daughter Claretta was, incidentally, the mistress of Mussolini and would be summarily hanged with him six years later.

6. Duffy, Saints and Sinners, p. 262.

7. For fuller versions of these two quotations, see J. Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope, pp. 70 and 74–75.

8. See chapter 20.

9. The phrase was later eliminated on the orders of John XXIII. See chapter 28.

10. The village of his birth.

11. Author’s italics.

12. Quoted in Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope.

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