Pius XII: Years of Praise Years of Blame

    The following is the full text of a lecture delivered at Theological College, The Catholic University of Americe, on October 10, 1989, by Rev. Robert A. Graham S.J., under the auspices of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. 
    Father Graham is an acknowledged expert on Vatican diplomacy during the Second World War. A former editor of America magazine, he is the author of several books, the best known being Vatican Diplomacy. He writes a regular column on the Vatican and Church affairs for Colombia magazine. He has devoted much of the past seventeen years to the monumental task of editing an 11-volume series containing the documents of the Vatican Secretariat of State during World War Il.

    It is over thirty years since the death, in 1958, of Pope Pius XII. That a Roman Pontiff so long dead should continue to arouse not merely interest but even continuing controversy is surprising. Perhaps general interest in World War II and its accompanying issues has much to do with this. In any case, the Vatican -- the Holy See, the Papacy -- and its wartime incumbent, Pius XII, have been "discovered." Evidently, what the Pope of Rome says, or does not say, does or does not do, can have significance even outside the circle of his own faithful.

    Believe me, it was not always so. In the days of rabid anti-clericalism on the Continent, or of "No Popery" in the Protestant world, the general public had little time for things Catholic, least of all in world affairs. There are those who interpret the current controversy as simply an up-dated expression of traditional antiCatholicism, with which we are all too familiar. I would like to believe, on the contrary, that the new- born preoccupation with the Vatican, and with Pius XII, reveals a totally fresh, revised attitude on the place of the Catholic Church in the modern world. There are many indications to suggest this. The development is positive, constructive, and signals the readiness of our contemporary culture to welcome and even solicit, not to say demand, the presence of the Catholic Church, through the Pope -- and the bishops, too -- as a contribution to the moral and human development of our times. Credit the Vatican Council II for this transformation, if you will. Or simply the effect of the passage of time. In any case, the shift is evident and may have been inevitable. It is in this spirit that we address ourselves to the present theme.

    "Pius XII: years of praise, years of blame." That is to say, there were years when Pius XII, born Eugenio Pacelli, pope since 1939, enjoyed a good press, as we say today, and others in which he had a bad press. His election on the eve of war was hailed with satisfaction by the Western democracies. He was in close contact with President Roosevelt. His pronouncements on the war were widely and positively publicized. When Rome was finally liberated in June 1944, officers and soldiers of all faiths crowded into the Vatican halls for a treasured papal audience. Jewish leaders, likewise, in visits to the Vatican, expressed their appreciation for all that the Holy Father had done for their afflicted people during the harrowing years of the war. At his death in 1958, world opinion -- not excepting Jewish leaders in Israel and out of it-was lavish with expressions of admiration.

     This benevolence evaporated in February 1963. In Berlin, a play was produced which berated the Pope for his "silence" in the face of the Nazi efforts to exterminate the Jews in their power. The play was entitled, DerStellvertreter ("The Deputy"). The playwright was a young German hitherto unknown, Rolf Hochhuth. He was a disciple of Erwin Piscator, founder of the drama school called the "Political Theatre," whose method was to put living politicians or others recently deceased on the stage, for either pillorying or praise. Rolf Hochhuth turned his guns on Pius XII. He painted the wartime Pope in the most unflattering light, describing him as inspired by the most unworthy motives. He did admit that, on the plane of action, the Pope had aided the Jews but faulted him for not having publicly flayed the Nazis. Pius XII, said Hochhuth, was a "war criminal" because of his "silence."

   This was strong medicine and provoked strong reactions pro and con. Surprisingly--or perhaps not surprisingly--the ripple spread beyond Berlin and soon hit the farthest shores, especially the United States. Pius XII became a villain overnight. You are right to ask why this complete aboutface, triggered by a play of no particular literary merit, apart from its provocative language. Nothing new had been discovered in archives, in the historical record, justifying any revision. One must search for psychological reasons, rather than historical grounds.

    One can suggest several hypotheses. The most important is the timing. The first session of the historic Second Vatican Council had terminated just a few months previously. A new vision dawned not only on the Catholic Church, but also on world opinion. This was also the time when America was deeply troubled in conscience, by the drama, the tragedy, of the Vietnam war. Also, just two years previously had taken place the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of the Hitlerian program for the extermination of Jewsin Nazi power. The surprise above all, was that suddenly all that Jewish leaders had said in tribute to Pius XII, during and immediately after the war, and at his death less than five years before the production of this play, was relegated to the ashbin, consigned to oblivion. The gratitude of the world Jewish leaders, for deeds to which their own archives are witness, was transformed after 1963 into totally negative commentary. The well-intentioned, informed witness of leaders of the world Jewish community was downgraded to "disgraceful testimonials of a few Jews" (New York Times, September 27, 1989, Letters). 
      But soon there were other developments in the opposite sense, equally surprising and equally unpredictable. Faced with the realization; that the Vatican's attitude had a genuine international dimension beyond confessional or sectarian concerns, world leaders and world opinion paid more attention to this hitherto ignored world force. By 1963, Pope John XXIII, the "papa buono," the "good Pope," was succeeded by Paul VI, who had been the close collaborator of his master, Pius XII. In the fall of 1965, he was invited by the United Nations Secretary General, Uthant, to address the UN General Assembly in New York. The spectacle of this frail white- clad figure at the UN rostrum, preaching peace to representatives of the world powers, was something that could not have been dreamed of in the time of the League of Nations, so systematically was the Holy See excluded from the world assizes. Something had changed; even the Soviet chief delegate Andrei Gromyko pressed forward to greet the Pope. Some years later, as we know, the U.S. Senate confirmed with hardly a dissenting voice the nomination of an American ambassador to the Holy See. This, too, was inconceivable before. In 1951, President Truman tried in vain to name General Mark Clark to the same post, to enormous protests. Today, on Massachusetts Avenue in the Capital city, the quondam "Apostolic Delegation" is now officially designated the "Vatican Embassy."

    All this has gone on over a period of more than a quarter-century. Has it even become "ancient history"? We need to draw some conclusions. As can be imagined, various misconceptions have arisen about the real conduct of Pope Pius XII during World War II. False or highly tendentious interpretations have insinuated themselves into the controversy. Some images, quite unfaithful to the reality, have taken shape in popular imagination. A few of these misconceptions, of these misleading images, can be briefly reviewed.

    1. That Pope Pius XII was 'mute' from 1939 on. This would be laughable were it not taken so seriously by the uninformed, or by those who do not want to know. Pius XII devoted himself to the Apostolate of the Word, and to good effect, in a world plunged into doubt, confusion and suffering. His public addresses on world problems were frequent, and many of them were printed in their entirety in, for example, The New York Times. His Christmas talks were especially treasured. The Allies in the West understood his language perfectly. As for the Nazis, the Popes addresses were ignored, by order of Propaganda Chief, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, who could not expect anything he couldwelcome or be thankful for. 
    2. That the Pope was 'neutral,' standoffish. Of course, the Holy See was not a belligerent. But it is to misread the record grievously to insinuate by this phrase that Pius XII had a sort of "plague- on-both-your-houses" policy. He was as neutral towards the Axis as President Roosevelt, who kept the U.S. Embassy in Berlin open as long as he could before Pearl Harbor. In early 1940, it was Pius XII who took the extremely risky and very unneutral step of acting as intermediary between the anti- Hitler conspirators and the British. Was he mad to have done this? What could have been the consequences, if Hitler, soon triumphant everywhere on the Continent, had discovered the "treason?" It was a conspiracy he learned of only in 1944 when the Pope was beyond his reach. 
    3. That the Pope was "pro-Nazi." This is based solely on the fact that Pius XII had spent many years in Germany and was an admirer of many of the qualities of the German people. That is, he was able and willing to see a difference between the Germans and their Nazi government. Was he wrong? It was a distinction that many in America were not ready to make during the war. We have changed our mind. The Federal Republic of Germany is one of the pillars of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Evidently, there are, and were, "good Germans" as well as "bad" Germans. Pius XII never had any doubt and acted accordingly. 
    4. That the Pope had an "obsession with the Communist danger This allegation is a favorite with those steeped in the literature of left-wing, Marxist writers. Usually it represents the only thing they know, or think they know, about Catholicism. Was he tormented so much with the threat from the East that he wanted the United States to join with Hitler in 1945 in a war against the Soviet Union? This is an absurdity without the slightest foundation in fact. Equally unfounded is the allegation that he considered Nazism -- paganized and persecuting as it was - to be an indispensable "bulwark" against Communism. Hitler disdained to ask the Vatican's moral support in his so-called "crusade" of 1941 against Soviet Russia. The Pope instead took certain steps in 1941 to enable President Roosevelt to overcome Isolationist objections to the extension of Lend-Lease military and economic aid to the Soviet Union. This gesture was hardly a sign of an anti-Soviet obsession. It is true that the Pope was concerned about the extension of Soviet power in Europe, for instance into Poland, and he warned the Americans, in the last months of the war, of the danger. In the end, with NATO, the United States had to avow that the Pope had been right. 
    5. That the Pope was 'silent' about the extermination of the Jews. This was the burthen of Hochhuth's play. To put this charge in perspective, it is important to insist that all during the war Pius XII was extending his help to victims of Hitler's anti-Semitism. Both individual harried Jews and world rescue organizations appealed regularly to the Pope for assistance, when his intervention offered some chances of success in an increasingly distressing situation. In the first years, the help turned on ways of assisting these Jews to emigrate. In the second phase, that of deportation, the help consisted in pressure put upon satellite governments, puppets of Hitler, who still had some freedom of action. For instance, in the spring of 1942, timely appeals to the Slovak governmen in Bratislava led to the suspension, at least partial, of planned deportations. At least, so the Jewish organizations believed and they did not hesitate to acknowledge it. The record shows countless cases of similar interventions, some of which were unsuccessful, and others consoling in their happy outcome. The famous telegram of the Pope to Admiral Horthy of Hungary, sent by ordinary channels in June 1944 was the first of the appeals that arrived from neutrals, resulting in Horthy's suspension of deportations. The pressure of Pius XII in 1943 on Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who had 70,000 foreign Jews in his power is another example. Himmler and Ribbentrop were pressing the Duce to turn them over to the Nazis. Among the factors that led Mussolini to refuse, surprisingly, was the Vatican's pressure. All of this passed, by the way, in "silence." A public protest by the Pope would almost certainly have precipitated the worst.

    These and a myriad of other papal interventions for Jews, undertaken either on appeals from the world Jewish rescue agencies--some of which now are among his detractors--or on the Pope's own initiative, are found in four of the 11 volumes on the war published by the Vatican some years ago laying out the record of papal work as the Good Samaritan, doing good without distinction of race, religion, or any other category. The Pope chose the secret way in preference to the supposedly "prophetic" way of public condemnations, of more than dubious probable effect. 
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    After more than a generation of unmecedented publicity--debates, trials, memoirs, researches, documentaries, novels, and poetry, etc.--we certainly know a lot more about what is variously called the Holocaust, Shoah, genocide, or simply the destruction or extinction of European Jews under Hitler. How much was really known--or understood--in the crucial years, say 1942-44, in Eastern Europe? The data are by no means satisfactory. The signs at hand are ambiguous, contradictory, and perplexing. What did the Allied governments know, or believe? How much were the world Jewish leaders themselves informed, or convinced? How much did the Vatican know, or believe?

    As far as the Vatican is concerned, one key is found in the audience that Pope Pius XII had with his old friend Don Pirro Scavizzi, a parish priest of Rome, war veteran, and chaplain on the hospital train sent by the Order of Malta to pick up wounded Italian soldiers on the Eastern front in 1942. The priest was able to tell the Pope about the mass slaughter of Jews by the Nazi police. This no doubt helped to establish in the Pope's mind the inhuman character of the Nazi occupation of Russia. But Don Pirro did not visit concentration camps and did not return to the East after 1943.

    The nuncio in Berlin reported that the "most macabre stories" circulated in the German capital about the fate of the Jewish deportees. Did the nuncio, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, know anything more? Was he perhaps afraid to commit to paper, vulnerable to interceptions, what was a State Secret? But already, in March 1942, the papal representative, a charge d'affaires, Msgr. Joseph Burzio, in Bratislava, (Slovakia), reporting with indignation the planned deportation of Jews, said the departure meant "certain death" for many. Was he referring to the conditions of the expulsions of so many old and sick persons and little children? Or did he know of the gas chambers that awaited them? The most disquieting sign, in this dark passage, was the total disappearance of the deportees. This aroused the greatest foreboding, without being definite. In the end of 1942, a French Capuchin priest, in close contact with community leaders, brought back their own description of what had happened in France. The French Jews did not know that their co-religionists had already been gassed. They only asked for "information." 

We have lost perspective, especially in relation to the attitude of Pope Pius XII.


  In these years much information about the Germans in Poland came to the Vatican from the Polish ambassador to the Holy See, Casimir Papee. The diplomat, informed from London, referred constantly to the dire plightof the Jews. But, again, in the light of what we learned later about Auschwitz, he told little. In March 1944, the Nazis took military control of their ally, Hungary. With this a halfmillion Jews who had hitherto enjoyed liberty and relative immunity fell into the Nazi maw. At this time the abovementioned Burzio, charge d'affaires in Slovakia, forwarded to Rome the famous "Auschwitz Protocol." This was put together by two young Slovak Jews who had escaped from the camp and had made their way back to their homeland. There they encountered at first disbelief and then acquiescence in the face of the facts. The first thing was to warn the Hungarians. The camp guards had been overheard saying, "Soon we shall have fat Hungarian sausages." The gas chambers were being enlarged and improved. As we know, soon 400,000 Jews, unwarned, were to perish in a shockingly brief space of time. Adolf Eichmann had done his work.

    Under date of June 26, 1944, Pius XII sent an open, that is a normal telegram to Admiral Horthy, Regent of Hungary. Reports had gotten out of the deportation "to an unknown destination" of Hungarian Jews. The Pope implored the Regent to give ear to the prayers of the unfortunates. The Pope's appeal was the first to reach Horthy, to be followed by like messages from the King of Sweden, and the International Red Cross. Horthy, using what limited authority he still held--and with the timely assistance of an Allied bombardment of the city--suspended the deportations.

    On what information did the Pope act? For a long time it was naturally supposed that the Auschwitz Protocol had occasioned the move. In fact, the diplomatic pouch containing the report of Msgr. Burzio was blocked en route, probably because of the Allied liberation of Rome in June, with the consequent interruption of air contacts with Switzerland and Spain. The document reached the Vatican only in late October. In this same month of October the gas chambers at Auschwitz were blown up. The Russians entered the camp in January 1945.

    Did the Pope "know" of the Auschwitz drama?  He did not know more than the Jews themselves, in America or Britain. But he knew as much as the governments. If that is any answer. The signs reaching the "outside" world were ambivalent. The official government propaganda was generic on this subject. In December 1 942, the six or seven exile governments in London issued a protest against Nazi war crimes. But the crimes in question were not the deportation and extermination of Jews. No other declaration of this kind was issued later. In October 1943, the Allied Foreign Ministers met in Moscow and there issued a statement on war crimes and their future punishment. Nothing was said of the extermination of the Jews, or about Jews in general. The War Crimes Commission set to work, with surprising results. The massacre of Jews at Auschwitz was practically ignored. The indictment issued right after the war reveals that those in charge knew nothing of the real drama of Auschwitz. Only a few years ago, one of the leading American figures in the Nuremberg trials, Telford Taylor, admitted that he himself had known nothing of Auschwitz. He added that he believed that none of his associates - many of them Jews - knew either. Yet this group had the official mission of gathering as much evidence as possible against the Nazi chiefs. They had access to intelligence sources, not available to others. Their intelligence advisers did not serve them very well. We find a document of the Office of  Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, (Research & Analysis, No. 3114) dated August 13,1945, and headed "Nazi plans for dominating Germany and Europe. The criminal conspiracy against the Jews. Draft for the War Crimes Staff." The incriminating evidence on Jews consisted of excerpts from speeches of Hitler and Goebbels. There was no mention of concentration camps and nothing about Auschwitz. The authors got their materials from the. New York Times and the Institute of Jewish Affairs.

     At the same time, the U.S. propaganda services were not keen on circulating, for home or foreign consumption, information that could possibly be construed as "atrocity stories." This lesson came home in the case of the above-mentioned Auschwitz Protocol. The U.S. War Refugee Board readied the text for publication in full in November, 1944. Before it could be published, the Board was exhorted, or pressured, not to release it. Elmer Davis, head of the Office of War Information (OWI), claimed that its publication would damage the credibility of his services. The document was released nevertheless and even appeared in the New York Times, but summarized in an emasculated form depriving it of its legitimate significance.

    Turning to the press in the United States we look in vain for satisfactory identification of the Auschwitz camp and its dead. The New York Times did indeed publish reports from neutral newspapers. But it did not vouch for them. TheNew York Times never offered editorials on Auschwitz. Once, in the beginning of 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote in theNew York Times Magazine a lament over the refusal of the public (American or British) to understand the tragedy of European Jewry. Yet he, so knowledgeable, revealed in the article how littie he himself really knew of Auschwitz and of the gas chambers. Be it added that in those days Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt was writing a syndicated column entitled, "My Day." These features have recently been gathered in book form. There we find no mention of Auschwitz, or anything near it. Were other columnists of the time (George Sokolsky, Walter Lippmann, Max Lerner) any more explicit or knowledgeable?

     As for the Jewish community itself, confusion and ambiguity reigned. Is it possible that even the top level knew 
nothing of Auschwitz? While emphatic in their expressions of doom, allusions to Auschwitz and to extermination camps were noteworthy for their vagueness. The only outspoken Jewish group of activists was a maverick Emergency Conference to Save the Jewish People of Europe, which was in conflict with the more prudent mainline Jewish organizations. The attitude of many American Jews was akin to that of Justice Frankfurter who told the Polish Emissary, Jan Karski, that he could not believe him. This may help to explain why Raul Hilberg, in the second edition of his Destruction of European Jewry, held that the Jews, especially in America, had no common intelligence system by which they could coordinate their information. In other words, the Jewish community never succeeded in understanding the real meaning of what they heard from their own people in Eastern Europe.

    The foregoing is simply a sketch to show how little the world of 1944 really knew about the drama of the Jews at Auschwitz in that year. Further details could be added. It is all the more astounding in that only today can we understand better, with the help of the passage of time, what the ambiguous signals were telling us. Few even knowledgeable people, in the government, in the press, in the Jewish leadership, gave evidence of knowing what was transpiring. What person of normal, decent sentiment could accept, comprehend, believe, a situation so unprecedented in history and so contrary to accepted standards even in wartime? We have lost perspective, especially in relation to the attitude of Pope Pius XII. Isn't it time to recognize this and call a halt to the intemperate and often cruel attacks on a venerable religious figure, one of the few friends of the Jews in the heart of Europe working consistently to be the good Samaritan to the afflicted traveller on the road to Jericho?

Supplement to the

Catholic League Newsletter 11

Vol. 16, No. 12

December, 1989