The Black Legend of Pius XII Was Invented by a Catholic: Mounier
And with him, another important Catholic: Mauriac.

Sandro Magister

It wasn’t just communist propaganda that created the image of pope Pacelli as a Nazi-lover. Two pieces in two influential magazines have thrown new light on the origins of this image

ROMA, 20 June 2005 – In the latest issue of “La Civiltà Cattolica”, the Jesuit historian Giovanni Sale reconstructs the birth about the “black legend” of Pius XII as being pro-Hitler. 

“La Civiltà Cattolica” is the magazine of Rome’s Jesuits whose articles are read and authorized by the Vatican’s secretariat of state before publication. 

According to Fr Sale’s reconstruction, it was the international communist press, led by Moscow, that generated the black legend after the end of the second world war. 

In the same period, in the latest issue of "Archivum Historiae Pontificiae", the annual magazine published by the faculty of ecclesiastic history at the Pontifical Gregorian University, also run by Jesuits, an article appeared by the historian Giovanni Maria Vian presenting a different reconstruction of the original of the black legend of Pius XII. 

According to Vian, the accusations against Pius XII’s “silence” were brought about not only by soviet propaganda, but also French and Polish Catholics, especially two important intellectuals, Emmanuel Mounier and François Mauriac. 


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Fr Sale draws our attention to the first important speech given by Pius XII after the end of the second world war: the message to the cardinals, given on 2 June 1945. 

In this speech, pope Eugenio Pacelli strongly condemns “the ruinous and relentless applications of the national socialist doctrine which went as far as using the latest scientific methods to torture and suppress often innocent people”. 

These words by the pope follow almost to the letter a suggestion made to him a few days previously by the then-ambassador of France to the Holy See, the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Both in Maritain’s suggestion and in the pope’s speech, Jews were not explicitly mentioned, but Fr Sale sees in this a clear “allusion to the final solution against the Jews ordered by the nazi hierarchy”. 

Immediately after this, in his speech, Pius XII recalls the killing of thousands of Catholic priests in the nazi concentration camps, with “Polish priests first in line in terms of number and the harshness of their treatment”. 

Pius XII’s speech had a vast echo in the world. Referring to the comments in the international press, Fr Sale notes that “the pope’s words were interpreted along the lines of the ideological and political orientations of the various countries at the beginning of the cold war”. 

What dictated the line of the communist press in the whole world was a comment on Radio Moscow on 7 June 1945, in which Fr Sale sees “already the development of several motifs which were too become central in the successive decades of the anti-Pacelli polemic”. 

Radio Moscow accused Pius XII of coming forward to late and dishonestly with his opposition to nazism, because he had been “silent when the German death machines were running, when the chimneys of the cremating ovens were smoking”. In this comment, Radio Moscow did not mention the Jews by name either. Any way, Fr Sale writes that this is where “the black legend began which in some way has continued all the way down to the present day, the legend that presents Pius XII as a friend and ally of the Nazis”. 

In the conclusion of his piece Fr Sale points out that five months after that speech Pius XII “had the opportunity to feel the full horror of the nazi atrocities, when on 29 November 1945 he received a delegation of Jewish refugees who had come to thank him for the work the Catholic Church did for them during the second world war”. And he adds: 

“In any case, at that time the exact perception (psychological, cultural and historic awareness) of what had happened to the Jews in the heart of Europe during the final years of the war did not yet exist […]. The concept of the Holocaust and the uniqueness of the Shoah had not yet been established, not even in Jewish circles”. 

In "Archivum Historiae Pontificiae", Vian doesn’t contradict Fr Sale’s reconstruction. However, he does integrated it with criticisms of the pope’s “silence” that in those years had come from French and Polish Catholics. Criticisms of which Pius XII was aware, as is demonstrated in the passage quoted above from the speech from 2 June 1945. 

Here follows Vian’s article, as it appeared in "Archivum Historiae Pontificiae", number 42, 2004, pages 223-229. The article (here without the bibliographical notes) reconstructs the birth and development of the black legend of Pius XII from 1939 to the beginning of Paul VI’s pontificate. The author is a lecturer in patristic philology at Rome’s La Sapienza University, and a member of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences.