Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII
If any person serves as an illustration of history as a battleground in the interpretation of a legacy then it surely must be the figure of Eugenio Pacelli, the twelfth Pope to bear the name Pius and the 260th in the line of apostolic succession from St. Peter. During the 1950s, in the aftermath of the allied victory of the Second World War, he had stood triumphant; at the head of a church at the height of its influence and prestige.
Pius was a steely but saintly man who it was argued had kept the church together and enabled it to survive one of its darkest hours. To many, even to some beyond the flock of Catholic jurisdiction, the stick-thinned, bespectacled pontiff was after his death often referred to as l’ultimo Papa: the last pope.
But the image of piety, of magnificent grace and holy inspired wisdom is not now one shared by many. Beginning in the 1960s, after a play by Rolf Hochhuth entitled The Deputy, Pacelli’s personality and policies have been dissected, scrutinized and subjected in certain quarters to devastating criticism.
The main charge against Pacelli is that during the war, he failed to denounce the Nazi programme of extermination against the Jews and that this failure was guided by his personal antipathy towards Jewry.
It is quite a severe judgement. But it is a judgement which even if were to be accepted, would nonetheless be an incomplete one. This is because amid the tumult of the war and the brutal inflictions of death and suffering, people other than Jews who would have expected the vehement and disapproving voice of the pope did not hear him speak out on their behalf. These include the Serbian victims of Croatian death squads and the Ethiopians slaughtered by the Italian military through the use of poisoned gas.
Why was Pacelli, the Prince of the Church, reluctant to speak up for these and other victims in the face of overwhelming evidence which he had at hand of the brutality meted out against them? The answer lies both within the complex construct of Pacelli’s character as well as in understanding the parameters within which he considered himself bound to operate. It is only after a consideration of these matters that references to Pacelli being ‘Hitler’s Pope’ or the ‘Hound of Hitler’ can be appreciated to be oversimplifications of a hugely difficult matter.
Pacelli was Pope from 1939 to 1958. Prior to this, he had served as the Secretary of State for the Vatican during the reign of his predecessor Pius XI, and, before that, was the Papal Nuncio to Munich and Berlin in the 1920s. These positions including the one he started with; that of the legally trained priest entrusted with the responsibility of helping to draft a consolidating Code of Canon Law meant that he was at the very heart of the Catholic Church and the policies it followed for six decades.
Right from the outset, Pacelli rigorously followed a path which was consistent with his ‘Grand Design’. This was a policy which aimed to extend the church’s spiritual dominion to a truly global level under which the laity would be governed by Canon Law. It also involved a geo-political strategy aimed at containing the spread of communism. But such state of affairs had to co-exist with temporal governments with whom Pacelli favoured the entering of concordats.
It is with regard to these settlements that many problems arose. The Concordant made with Serbia through which the Roman Catholic Church hoped to spread its influence in Eastern Europe; the heartland of Eastern Orthodoxy, would be held to have contributed to the conditions that led to the First World War.
Similarly, the Reich Concordat which he negotiated with Hitler’s government by which the Church foreswore to withdraw from political life in return for the imposition of the Code of Canon Law and freedom in running Catholic education institutions, had a negative effect on the capacity of the church to oppose the future policies of the newly formed Nazi government.
This is a crucial point. That the Catholic Church could have provided a formidable obstacle to the Nazi machine is clear from the manner in which German Catholics successfully neutralised the anti-Church edicts imposed during the Bismarkian era of the Kulturkampf as well as the actions of ordinary Catholics in curbing the programme of killing the congenitally infirm inaugurated by the Nazis. The concordat thus pacified a huge segment of the German population and after the incorporation of Austria by the anchluss, a still larger segment of the Greater Reich.
The concordat as well as Pacelli’s policy of neutrality during the ensuing war, on the eve of which he was elected pope, affected his actions, or more accurately, inactions in regard to various atrocities committed during the war.
The relationship between Pacelli and Adolf Hitler is critical and deserving of clarification. For it is the case that among the uninitiated there has been a tendency to believe that both men purposely acted in concert with each other. One recent example from an article in the newsletter of a proselytizing sect of Christians, has a ‘photograph’ depicting a meeting between both men who appear to be standing on a balcony and absorbing the cheers of a crowd of the adoring masses.
The image is a doctored one; the scene is a figment of the imagination. They never met under such circumstances, and except for the recollections of Pacelli’s faithful and powerful housekeeper, Sister Pasqualina Lehnert, a German nun, of a brief meeting at Pacelli’s official residence when papal nuncio in 1920s Munich, the world would have had to be content with the fact that they had not met.
The private meeting came at the instigation of the rabble rousing Austrian ex-army corporal and was set up under the auspices of Field Marshall Ludendorff who wrote a letter of introduction on his behalf. Hitler’s purpose was to solicit funds from Pacelli to help fight the radical left; a proposition to which Pacelli acceded. The cause of fighting the spread of ‘godless communism’ was one of which Pacelli, as his church, was passionately in favour.
It is a cause which led the church to make accommodations or otherwise give full support to a litany of fascistic regimes such as that of Generalissimo Franco whose nationalist forces purported to fight a ‘holy crusade’ against communism and other social and ideological ‘ills’ of the modern world.
But a conclusion that Pacelli was ‘Hitler’s pope’ is wide of the mark. The truth is more complicated. In reality the Church was Hitler’s mortal enemy –an enemy, he had explained in Mein Kampf, to whom he would turn his full attention after the war was settled in his favour.
Part of the irony of course was that many top Nazi’s were raised in the Catholic faith. Heinrich Himmler, the Chief of the SS, was the son of a Catholic school master. Josef Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister and Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s deputy, were also brought up in the faith as indeed had Hitler. Yet, all were committed to the extirpation of Catholicism and other vestiges of religion in the ‘Thousand Year Reich’.
It is not hard to understand the extreme wariness held by the leadership of a totalitarian system towards a religion at the head of which stood a supreme figure who could compete for the allegiance of almost half the German population and about forty per cent of the German armed forces. But the full potential of catholic anti-Nazi action was never unleashed either before or during the war.
While it is true that Pacelli and his church shared a loathing of communism with Hitler and his party, questions have always been asked as to whether such mutuality in antipathy extended to the Jews. And if so, whether this played a part in his failure to categorically denounce the Jewish holocaust while it was happening.
Like Pacelli, Hitler had his own ‘Grand Design’ which involved the political and economic re-unification of all German peoples and the conquest of ‘living space’, Lebensraum, in the east at the expense of the indigenous Slavic peoples who would be reduced to the level, at best, of colonised serfs, and at worst, to a class of slaves. As for the fate of the Jews, he was in no doubt: he required first their disenfranchisement and then removal from the European continent. But if, he warned in a speech before the Reichstag in 1939, they were to plunge the European people into a war, it would not lead to what he termed the “Bolshevisation of Europe” and “thereby a victory for Jewry”, but to the “destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.”
Biographers have noted that Pacelli, who had a particularly virulent anti-Semite as a school teacher, was on record as having expressed anti-Jewish sentiments on a number of occasions. In an official letter to the Vatican while serving as the Papal Nuncio in Munich at the time of the attempted seizure of power in Bavaria by communists, his recollection of dealing with a group of agitators who invaded his official residence included his unflattering descriptions of a male and a female protagonist in stereotypical terms which drew upon the supposed moral and physical characteristics of Jews.
The letter also appeared to mention Jews as being synonymous with Bolshevism. It was in Pacelli’s time not uncommon to view Jews as been at the helm of the fomenting of socialist revolution. Prominent leaders of the Bolshevik party who were of Jewish origin included Trotski, Grigory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev and Karl Radek. In Hungary there was Bela Kun and in Germany, the leaders of the Sparticist Uprising, Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Leibknecht.
Consideration of Pacelli’s attitudes must also take into account the historical policies of the Catholic Church towards Jews which the scholar-author David Kertzer holds to be responsible for laying the foundations of modern anti-Semitism. In 1897, a writer for the Vatican Newspaper, Osservatore Romano, referred to Jews as a race wandering throughout the world while bringing with them “the pestiferous breath of treason”.
The church, from the earliest times and as the pillar of Christendom, held Jews to be responsible for the death of Christ –a responsibility which it believed would be inherited by future generations. It was because of their deicide that they were to be in some mysterious way to remain a cursed people for so long as they continued to ‘hold out against’ belief in Christ.
It was a well-established ritual for newly invested popes to play out a ceremony right on the street where Pacelli was born. The pope would halt his procession in order to receive a copy of the Pentateuch from the head Roman Rabbi. His gathered people would look on as the pope handed it back upside down along with twenty pieces of gold.
This humiliation was the Church’s retribution for what was termed the “hard-heartedness” of the Jews who, inherently obstinate or blind to reason, refused conversion. The persecutions against Jews by the church included their being forced to live within enclosed communities known as ghettos, the wearing of yellow Star of David badges and forced conversions, of which the case of Edgardo Mortara, a 6-year-old Jewish boy of Bologna kidnapped by the local inquisitor and handed to the pope known as Pio Nono, was a notorious example in modern times.
Thus the historical teachings and the practices of the Catholic Church have been taken to task, although there are modern attempts by the church aimed at rationalizing such past policies and distancing itself from allegations of being the harbingers of modern anti-Semitism by making a distinction between on the one hand what is termed anti-Judaism; actions against the religion of the Jews to which it admits, and on the other, anti-Semitism, which it denies.
Pacelli has also been cited for alleged anti-black racism by his biographer, John Cornwell, who referred to his sympathy for German protests about the use of Senegalese troops by the French during the occupation of the Rhineland after the First World War. This historical episode, bitterly recounted by Hitler in Mein Kampf and by Joseph Goebbels in his diaries, became known as Die Schwarze Schmach which translates as ‘The Black Shame’.
For Hitler and Goebbels, it was the “greatest humiliation” in history that a nation of whites had had to endure. Letters petitioning men and institutions of influence to persuade France to withdraw its African troops were dispatched and came to the attention of Pacelli. Apart from the anger caused by the co-mingling between the soldiers and local German women, some of who bore mixed race children, many letters alleged that troops were raping women and children.
It was a matter investigated by the United States House of Representatives who found the allegations to be unfounded. But this finding apparently did not assuage Pacelli who fully supported the calls to withdraw the troops.
Pacelli’s recollections of ‘The Black Shame’ campaign convinced him that black troops were more likely to rape than white ones. Two decades later, when Rome was occupied by allied forces, Pacelli specifically requested that no black troops be garrisoned in Rome.
While historians have largely focused on happenings within the European theatre of war, a less researched area and even an often times forgotten one is that concerning the invasion and occupation of the East African nation of Ethiopia by Italian forces, who were blessed by Catholic priests on embarkation to their presumed ‘holy mission’ of conquest.
Pacelli failed to restrain or rebuke the Bishop of Terracina, who declared: “O Duce! Today Italy is Fascist and the hearts of all Italians beat at one with yours. The nation is ready for any sacrifice to ensure the triumph of peace and of Roman and Christian civilizations. God Bless you O Duce!”
Although the Ethiopians in 1896 under the leadership of King Menelik had famously defeated the Italian army at the Battle of Adowa, Haile Sallassie’s forces were routed in 1935 and the inhabitants subjected to a prolonged ‘scorched earth’ policy which involved the widespread use of poison gas and chemicals. These barbaric methods failed to induce any form of protest from Pacelli.
Neither were there any protests against the atrocities of the Croatian Ustashe against Orthodox Christian Serbs who were brazenly aided and abetted by Franciscan priests. The Nezavisna Drzava Hrvatska i.e. the Independent State of Croatia, aided in its creation by Nazi Germany, was virulently anti-Jewish and promulgated laws which sanctioned discrimination against Jews, Gypsies and Orthodox Serbs. In all, over half a million people are estimated to have been killed between 1941 and 1945. Pacelli, despite the reports by the likes of Cardinal Tisserant continued to warmly receive delegations from the Croatian state.
Tisserant, a French cardinal, was one of Pacelli’s sternest critics who continued to voice the opinion that Pacelli was not suited to be the pope during a period of war. Tisserant believed that Pacelli was a ditherer and an appeaser. Pacelli’s predecessor, Pius XI, though restrained by the terms of the Reich Concordat, had been more forthright in his dealings with the Nazis and gave an indication before his passing that he would have taken a firmer hand had he lived.
Gravely ill, on the eve of the start of the war, Pius XI had composed a final encyclical entitled Humanis Generis Unitas, ‘The Unity of the Human Race’ in which he specifically referred to the ill treatment of Germany’s Jews. The message was permanently shelved after his death, which Tisserant always believed had been engineered by his personal physician, the father of Mussolini’s mistress Clara Petachi.
Against this backdrop, it must be said that Pacelli and the Church were responsible for saving the lives of a great many persons including Jews. His refusal to condemn the specific killing of Jews was rooted in his belief that in doing so he was actually saving lives. He wholeheartedly believed, and not without a measure of justification, that speaking out forcefully would incur the wrath of Hitler who would point out that he was breaching his avowed policy of neutrality and effect even more brutal measures in reprisal.
It was in anticipation of a stronger form of denunciation by Pacelli when the Nazis began the round up of the Jews of Rome, that Hitler hatched a plot to invade the Vatican, loot its treasures, capture and assassinate members of the Curia and kidnap Pacelli who would be imprisoned in a castle either in Liechtenstein or in Germany. Round ups of Rome’s Jews occurred even after they had paid a ransom levied in gold but most of those who escaped were granted shelter within the environs of the Holy See.
For these and other humanitarian acts, Pacelli would be praised after the war by Jewish leaders such as Golda Meir. And his role in regard to the saving of Roman Jews led to the Chief Rabbi of Rome converting to the Catholic faith.
In the contest of wits between Pacelli, the Vicar of Christ and Hitler, the Anti-Christ, he weakly allowed himself to be blackmailed by latent and other times specific threats by the Nazis if he spoke out. It appeared that Pacelli was not aware of how fearful Hitler was about his capacity to unleash a destabilising and potentially fateful blow against his leadership of the German people through his status as the leader of Catholics and instead treaded far too carefully.
Instead, he held himself strictly bound by the Concordat and a pledge of neutrality. Alas it was a pattern he followed not only in regard to the systematic murder of European Jews, the Italian genocide against Ethiopia and the Croatian massacres of Serbs.
His silence was palpable after the German atrocity in wiping out the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. He was timid in his pronouncements in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Catholic Poland and irritated the British by his refusal to condemn the Nazi aerial onslaught against British civilians during the Blitz.
It was a trait which continued after the war when Pacelli failed to bring a band of criminally inclined Franciscan friars in Sicily to justice –even though a local who personally reported to Pacelli about the goings on was assassinated on his return to the island.
Tales of dealings with the mafia, of monks carrying large quantities of money and sub-machine guns under their robes and even of the man’s account of how he had seen a monk cut off the head of a man on a table failed to spur him into action. No action would be taken against the friars until the reign of Pacelli’s successor.
Yet he was a man who could get things done when not consumed by bouts of dithering and indecision. When President Roosevelt needed his help in silencing the widely-listened to radio broadcasts by Father Charles Coughlin, a former supporter of Roosevelt’s New Deal policies who had turned against the president and who railed against the Jews, communists and ‘godless capitalists’ for the woes of America and the world, Pacelli was able to facilitate his removal from the airwaves.
He was instrumental in supporting Bishop Francis Joseph Spellman’s elevation to Arch-Bishop of New York where Spellman turned around the fortunes of a previously bankrupt diocese into an enormously rich one and by extension greatly increased the financial well-being of the Vatican. Also, with Spellman’s influence, Pacelli played a part in neutralising sabotage on the eastern docks of the United States with the help of US mafia. Mob boss, Frank Costello happened to regularly attend the mass over which Spellman presided.
Pacelli’s documented successes in the actual saving of lives through the tentacles of the Church do not convince those who fault his over reliance on treaties in dealing with dictators, in particular, the Reich Concordat which over the course of time began to look like something akin to a Faustian bargain.
His stance of neutrality failed in many ways by shackling his voice when it was needed and also was irrelevant so far as his aspiration to be the arbiter of a final peace was concerned given that the Anglo-Saxon powers, the United States and Britain, arguably would not have been keen to award such glory to the primate of the Catholic Church.
In the final analysis, through no design of ill-will or lack of physical courage, he permitted a great many evils to pass by without fulsome denunciation by allowing himself to be shackled by rigid adherence to notions of his Grand Design as well as his stance on neutrality.
It is no surprise therefore that in the final analysis, Eugenio Pacelli, Pius the Twelfth, the great compromiser has become greatly compromised in history.
(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2009)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.
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