The Myth of Hitler’s Pope
By Rabbi David G Dalin
256pp | Regnery Publishing | ISBN 0895260344 | US$27.95 | 2005
History in the short term can be fickle with the reputations of good men. Until 1963, Pope Pius XII was always regarded as a defender, even a champion, of the Jews during the Fascist period. Then, in 1963, Rolf Hochhuth, a German playwright, wrote “Der Stellvertreter” (“The Deputy”), a play attacking Pius for his alleged “silence” when the Jewish Holocaust was taking place. Other writers have followed suit, not least John Cornwell to whose recent, much-publicised book, Hitler’s Pope, the title of this volume alludes.
The author, an ordained rabbi, is a professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University, Florida. His book, which is robust, polemical and argumentative, deploys much documentation to show that the notion of the Holy Father being a Nazi sympathiser and anti-Semite is at best grotesque, at worst deliberately false and mendacious. Given the wealth of evidence he assembles to the contrary, it seems strange that such a fantastic notion should ever have been taken seriously. Rabbi Dalin argues persuasively that it has been used by Western liberals to further their own hidden agenda: an attack on Judaeo-Christian civilisation itself and in particular the bastion of this civilisation, the Catholic Church.
Professor Eamon Duffy, medieval Church historian at Cambridge, has referred to the “repellently illiberal” stance of “angry liberals”. In their attacks on the reputation of Pius XII the ugliness and illiberal nature of this stance is revealed in all its twisted rhetoric and selective evidence. For example, the notorious jacket cover to Cornwell’s book seems to show Pius XII grandly sweeping out of Hitler’s chancellery and being saluted by Nazi guards; in fact the photo was taken in 1927, during the Weimar Republic, when the Pope was papal nuncio; it was deliberately selected by Cornwell for its malign subliminal “message” and the caption given the wrong date of 1939.
Dalin begins by giving an historical survey of the Papacy’s attitude towards the Jews. Compared with the often lamentable record of other Christians, the Popes through the ages appear to have been philo-Semites. Beginning with Gregory the Great in the seventh century, successive Popes promoted enlightened attitudes towards Jews, so that Cecil Roth, the Jewish historian, was to write: “Only Rome… is free from having been a place of Jewish tragedy.” Indeed, Alexander Borgia, better known for his moral laxity, created the first chair of Hebrew at the University of Rome and during his tenure of office the Jewish population of Rome almost doubled. It was also the Popes who consistently defended the Jews from the scurrilous accusations of ritual murder. In more modern times, Pope Pius X observed: “As far as charity is concerned, the best Christians are the Jews”. In 1916 Pope Benedict XV published a condemnation of anti-Semitism, which was drafted by Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pius XII. Pius XI, who succeeded Benedict, studied Hebrew with a local rabbi. It was he who made the famous remark: “Spiritually we are all Semites”. John XXIII (1958-63) blessed Jews leaving a Rome synagogue; John Paul II visited Rome’s chief synagogue -– the first Pope ever to do so — and made a moving pilgrimage to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2000. On his first foreign visit as Pope, in August, Benedict XVI visited a synagogue in Cologne. On inauguration he greeted his “brothers and sisters of the Jewish people.”
Nazi fear of Pius XII
These, then, are the gestures and attitudes of Pius XII’s papal forbears and successors. What of the life and pontificate of this deeply controversial figure of the modern liberal establishment? He, too, studied Hebrew and had many Jewish friends, notably the conductor Bruno Walter, whom he met in 1917 when he was Papal Nuncio to Bavaria. Of 44 speeches he made as Papal Nuncio between 1917 and 1929, forty denounced some aspect of the emerging Nazi ideology. Indeed, the Nazis viewed Pacelli as a “Jew-loving” cardinal. Heydrich, the Nazi SS commander, wrote that “in the long run the Pope in Rome is a greater enemy of National Socialism than Churchill or Roosevelt”. There is evidence of a Nazi plot to kidnap the pontiff, only frustrated by Wolff, the German commander in Rome.
When Pacelli was elected Pope in 1939, Dalin cites a huge amount of evidence for his implacable opposition to Hitler, National Socialism and the anti-Semitic attitude of the Nazi party. The Nazis, the Pope said, were “diabolical” and of Hitler he commented, “This man is capable of trampling on corpses”. When Mussolini’s Fascist laws forbade Jews to teach in Italian schools or universities, Pius XII promptly appointed several Jewish scholars to posts in the Vatican library. The Times newspaper of London commented on the Pope on 1 October 1942: “He condemns… the persecution of the Jewish race” and the New York Times described the Pope’s Christmas address of 1941 “a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe”.
Notwithstanding this, the overwhelming historical record of the Pope’s concern for the Jews comes from Jews themselves. It is perverse how who those who perpetuate the “myth” ignore the overwhelming documentation in Pius XII’s favour by the very people he is supposed to have despised.
Setting the record straight
Rabbi Dalin puts the record straight. His best-known source is Three Popes and the Jews by the Jewish diplomat and historian, Pinchas Lapide, which was published in 1967. Weighing all the evidence at his disposal, Lapide calculated that “Pius saved at least 700,000 but possibly 860,000 Jews from death” -– more than all the other relief agencies put together. This enormous effort was achieved largely through the Church’s own religious houses in Italy and through the Papal nunciatures in other European countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria.
Both Archbishop Roncalli, later to become Pope John XXIII, and Archbishop Montini, later to become Pope Paul VI, were charged by Pius to do what they could to save Jewish lives. The theologian Henri de Lubac SJ, was similarly directed, as were countless other priests and senior members of the Church’s hierarchy. Convents, monasteries and presbyteries all over Europe opened their doors to Jewish fugitives; more than 1,000 found asylum at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and hundreds were hidden in the Vatican itself. It is estimated that more than 80 per cent of Rome’s Jews were saved by the intervention of the Pope.
Albert Einstein paid tribute to Pius XII as early as 1940, saying that in Germany “only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth”. When Pius died in 1958 he was deeply mourned by the Jews. Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, wrote to the Vatican: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.” One telling detail is omitted from this well-researched book: after the war the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism; in a personal tribute to the Holy Father, he took “Eugenio” as his baptismal name.
So how could the slur of Pius’s “silence” ever gain the slightest credibility? Although the Pope was not silent in his actions, in his directives to Church personnel and in his communications with Allied diplomats, he deliberately refrained from making public statements attacking Hitler during the war. Was this silence culpable? His reason, heavily influenced by Jewish and diplomatic advice, was that not only would a public protest not help the Jews but that it would actually increase their persecution.
The former chief rabbi of Denmark, Marcus Melchior, a Holocaust survivor, argued that “it is an error to think that Pius XII could have had any influence whatsoever. If the Pope had spoken out, Hitler would have massacred more than six million Jews.” When the Dutch bishops did courageously protest against the rounding up of Dutch Jews, the Nazis instantly retaliated by harsher measures. To have excommunicated Hitler -– a former Catholic -– would, as historical examples demonstrate, have had a similar effect. Such an imposed silence must have caused the Holy Father great inner agony.
His critics have further attacked the Holy See’s 1933 concordat with Nazi Germany, not accepting, as the author indicates, that is was “a morally defensible diplomatic measure to protect German Catholics… against a dangerous regime”. It was in no way an endorsement of National Socialism. During the negotiations preceding the concordat, Hitler arrested 92 priests and closed down nine Catholic publications. As the British ambassador to the Vatican, Ivone Kirkpatrick, commented, “A pistol… had been pointed to his [Cardinal Pacelli’s] head.” Reporting to the Foreign Office on 19 August 1933, Kirkpatrick reported that the Cardinal “deplored the action of the German government at home, their persecution of the Jews…”
Nazi links with Muslim extremists
Dalin has done an excellent job in defending the wartime record of Pius XII. But perhaps the most interesting and significant section of his book is the evidence he produces for a quite different and sinister scenario: the close relationship between Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1922, and Hitler’s Nazi party. He suggests that Pius’s critics have deliberately deflected blame from pro-Nazi Islamic fundamentalists onto Pius XII. Certainly this thread of the argument was news to me and, I suspect, to many others, but Dalin produces disturbing evidence to support his case. Hajj Amin al-Husseini was known to have met Hitler privately on a number of occasions. He was a friend of Adolf Eichmann and visited Auschwitz. An implacable enemy of the Jews, he supported the destruction of European Jewry and did all he could to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. He made frequent broadcasts on German radio, displaying virulent anti-Semitism with statements such as that the Jews “live as parasites among the nations, suck out their blood, embezzle their property…” Most telling of all in this disturbing and little-known aspect of history: in Egypt in 1946 Hajj Amin al-Husseini met the young Yasser Arafat, who became his protégé and who later went on to lead Palestinian terrorists in the PLO for 40 years.
The cause for Pius XII’s canonisation is under way. It has been held up by unsubstantiated and malicious accusations over his wartime record. According to Rabbi Dalin, the Pope should be honoured as a “righteous Gentile”, the term given to Christians who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Holocaust. Because of the author’s scholarly research it is to be hoped that history in the long term will be kinder to the reputation of a great and good -– and much-maligned — man.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.