The Devil's Advocate 


As Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli was the most controversial of modern Popes. Regarded during his lifetime as truly a prince among men, since his death he has been subject to endless debate, criticism, and defense, especially for his alleged “silence” during the Nazi genocide against the Jews. One interesting feature of the attacks on Pius is that, by and large, they have emanated from non-Jewish sources. Significantly, an impressive list of quotations from contemporary Jewish sources may be adduced praising Pacelli’s work in saving Jews during the war.

As Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli was the most controversial of modern Popes. Regarded during his lifetime as truly a prince among men, since his death he has been subject to endless debate, criticism, and defense, especially for his alleged “silence” during the Nazi genocide against the Jews. With limited exceptions, this criticism dates only from the 1960s: The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth’s celebrated play of 1963, appeared five years after the death of Pius XII in 1958.

The depiction of Pacelli in The Deputy as a heartless, cold cynic who is deaf to any entreaties about the Nazi death camps is remarkably similar to those that have been advanced since. Although John Cornwell’s portrayal of Pius is more complex than Hochhuth’s, it is clearly written in a similar spirit. On the other hand, Pius has also had many scholarly defenders, especially the distinguished Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick (Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, 1986) and the Israeli Pinchas E. Lapide (Three Popes and the Jews, 1967).

One interesting feature of the attacks on Pius is that, by and large, they have emanated from non-Jewish sources. Significantly, an impressive list of quotations from contemporary Jewish sources may be adduced praising Pacelli’s work in saving Jews during the war. Dr. Raffael Cantoni, head of the Italian Jewish community’s wartime Jewish Assistance Committee, stated that “six million of my coreligionists have been murdered by the Nazis, but there could have been many more victims had it not been for the efficacious intervention of Pius XII.” Moshe Sharett, later Israel’s second Prime Minister, met with Pius in the closing stages of the war and said, “I told [him] that my first duty was to thank him, and through him the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Jewish public for all they had done in the various countries to rescue Jews. . . . We are deeply grateful to the Catholic Church.” At Pius’ death, there was a serious move in Israel to dedicate a forest in his honor, while Golda Meir, Israel’s Foreign Minister, eulogized that “when fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.”

This ought to be clearly understood in considering Hitler’s Pope. The author, a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, has written some well-known books on the recent Catholic Church, including A Thief in the Night: The Death of Pope John Paul I. Cornwell states that he originally intended to write a biography of Pius XII that “vindicated” him. Given full access to Vatican sources, however, he experienced the “moral shock” of having to write “a wider indictment” of Pacelli’s life. His verdict is scathing: Pacelli was “the ideal Pope for Hitler’s unspeakable plan. He was Hitler’s pawn. He was Hitler’s Pope.”

Cornwell’s book received considerable prepublication publicity in Britain, and my initial instinct was to suppose that, behind the exaggeration suggested by the title, there was a core of truth in the author’s indictment. Now that I have read the book I can only say that Hitler’s Pope is a malign exercise in defamation and character assassination. The author has, in my view, consistently misread and misunderstood both Pacelli’s actions and the context in which they occurred.

The Pope’s views concerning the Jewish people have to be understood in light of Catholic thought at the time. The Roman Catholic attitude towards the Jews in interwar continental Europe varied from place to place but was generally of a piece. Most Catholic intellectuals and priests thought that there were simply too many Jews in the heavily Catholic countries of Europe and that, because they were largely unassimilable, they stood as enemies of the national aspirations of these countries. Jews, according to this line of Catholic thought, had too much economic influence, were disproportionately involved in Marxism and Freemasonry, and were in general, as bearers of destructive cultural modernism, enemies of Catholic stability and conservative values. Most such critics wanted the majority of Jews to emigrate and some were therefore keen Zionists, although most Catholic leaders opposed Jewish control of the Holy Land. (There were, obviously, exceptions to all these views.)

At the same time, Catholic leaders also shared a number of other attitudes towards Jews, attitudes frequently overlooked by historians of anti-Semitism. They regularly drew a distinction between “good Jews” — those they knew at first hand — and “bad Jews,” who generally lived elsewhere. Whatever their prejudices, they virtually always opposed violence or pogroms against defenseless Jews. In interwar Poland, for example, a land of intense anti-Semitism, even the most anti-Jewish elements of the Catholic press almost invariably condemned violence of the sort found in Nazi Germany or among extremist nationalist elements in Poland. Maly Dziennik, an anti-Semitic Catholic paper, offered this typical comment in June 1935: “We should lead the struggle against the Jewish flood in a Christian way, without hatred and without committing outrages.” The effect of Catholic thought in continental Europe was thus indirectly to foment hostility toward Jews but sincerely to deplore violence against them, a dichotomy generally consistent with Catholic attitudes towards the Jews going back to the Middle Ages.

In the atmosphere of murderous racial anti-Semitism created by the rise of Nazi Germany, Catholic teaching on and practice toward the Jews, as deplorable at first glance as it now seems, actually deterred and diminished violence against the Jews, and almost always encouraged efforts at saving lives. Before and during the Second World War, clericalist-dominated regimes regularly enacted anti-Semitic legislation, but nearly always drew the line at genocide. No such regime would willingly have participated in the actual mass murder of the Jews had it any choice in the matter, although of course there were many individuals in the governments and the bureaucracies of these regimes who directly took part in the Final Solution.

This Catholic reluctance to facilitate genocide lies at the root of the fact — one particularly relevant to a consideration of Hitler’s Pope — that the survival rates for Jews in Catholic countries were almost invariably higher than for Jews who found themselves under Nazi occupation elsewhere. Probably the most striking example of this may be found in a comparison of Jewish losses in Catholic Belgium as compared with the largely Protestant Netherlands. In the Netherlands, approximately 104,000 of 140,000 Jews living there in 1939 perished, the highest percentage of any Jewish community in Western Europe. In adjacent Belgium, it seems probable that “only” about 28,000 of 90,000 Jews perished. In other words, 31 percent of Belgian Jewry perished, compared with 74 percent in the Netherlands, despite the latter’s justified reputation as a bastion of liberalism and tolerance. In France, despite the viciousness of the Vichy regime, it is usually estimated that about 78,000 of 300,000 Jews (26 percent) perished, nearly all state less or foreign Jews who had come to France as refugees. In Italy, there were no deportations at all until the German invasion of September 1943. About 7,700 of Italy’s Jewish population of 44,500 (17 percent) perished in the Holocaust.

This pattern may be found almost everywhere. The great exception is Catholic Poland, where probably 2.5 million of 3.2 million Jews perished. But this occurred not because of the actions of Poland’s Catholics but because, unlike elsewhere, Nazi Germany ruled Poland directly rather than through a puppet government. The SS played the predominant role in dealing with Jews. In Nazi eyes, the Poles were barely one up from the Jews, an inferior helot people who could not enjoy even a quisling government of their own. It is also worth noting that, despite the endemic anti-Semitism of the Poles as of 1939, up to 100,000 Polish Jews were given shelter by Catholic Poles during the war.

The dramatically higher survival rate for Jews in Catholic Europe brings us to the central question in evaluating Pius XII and his response to the Holocaust. Can it be that, with all its frustrations, inadequacies, and apparent failures, the policy of “silence” pursued by Pacelli was actually the most effective possible, given Hitler’s obsessive and overriding intention to kill every Jew in Europe? A thought experiment may help here. Suppose that Pacelli had done everything that Cornwell would wish — made visible and vocal statements condemning Nazism, excommunicated all Catholic Nazis, even died a martyr’s death in a concentration camp. What then? Almost certainly, more Jews would have perished than was actually the case.

Cornwell documents the fact that in September 1943 Hitler was at the point of kidnapping Pius XII and taking him to Germany or to neutral Liechtenstein (a fact very much at odds with the insinuation of the book’s title). It is well-known that many in the SS were eager to launch an all-out offensive against the so-called “Black International.” With Pacelli out of the way, is it not more likely that a weak and leaderless Church would have been less able to protect and save Jews than it was? Would not individual clergymen and religious institutions have had vastly more difficulty in hiding and sheltering Jews than they actually did?

Cornwell singles out two aspects of Pacelli’s response to the Holocaust for special condemnation: his alleged inertia during the deportation of over 2,000 Jews of Rome to Auschwitz in September-October 1943, and his alleged lack of resolute action over the mass deportation of Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz in May-July 1944, the last great act of Nazi genocide. The actions of Pacelli appear very different, however, if considered in more detail.

There were 12,800 Jews in Rome in 1938 and still about 12,000 in early 1943. By September many had fled, leaving about 8,000. Roughly 1,000 were rounded up in September 1943 and another 1,000 a month later. Cornwell states that “an unspecified number of Rome’s remaining Jews escaped arrest because they went into hiding in the Vatican-protected ‘extraterritorial’ religious institutions in Rome, including Vatican City itself.” The number is actually well-known: about 5,000 of the 8,000 Jews of Rome found shelter in this manner. In other words, it would appear that five-sixths of Rome’s prewar Jewish population managed to survive, chiefly because of Catholic assistance.

In Hungary, several hundred thousand Jews were deported to their deaths in an incredibly brief period of time, May 15 to July 8, 1944. This final notable instance of genocide was organized with conveyor-belt precision by Adolf Eichmann. Although Cornwell concedes that “Pacelli’s initiatives in Hungary and elsewhere no doubt contributed to Catholic rescue efforts,” nevertheless “his protest was too late to prevent the nearly half-million Jews being deported from the provinces” (i.e., from rural Hungary; the Jews of Budapest were not deported).

The truth, however, is rather different. In the first place, Cornwell mistakenly says that Hungary’s ruler, Admiral Miklos Horthy (1868-1957), was a Catholic; in fact he was Calvinist. Needless to say, Horthy thus did not regard the Pope as Christ’s vicar on earth. Secondly, Pacelli did in deed appeal to Horthy to stop the deportations, on June 25, 1944. Horthy agreed to Hitler’s direct demand for deportation of the Jews under the impression that they were being used as laborers in German factories. A long list of foreign and Hungarian sources, however, repeatedly made the truth known to him between March and July 1944 and urged him to end the deportations. Some of these urgings came before Pacelli’s, some after. If the Pope’s protest was “too late,” even later were those of Franklin Roosevelt, the International Red Cross, King Gustaf of Sweden, and the Jewish Agency in Palestine (headed by David Ben-Gurion). Horthy finally ended the deportations on July 8.

Most importantly, it is almost certainly the case that had Horthy acted earlier, the Nazis would simply have ignored his decision and staged a coup, installing a pro-Nazi extremist in his place. Indeed, the Germans did orchestrate just such a coup in mid-October, when Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross, became Prime Minister. It is exceedingly difficult to see what Pacelli could conceivably have done to alter this terrible course of events. It is also the fact, as Cornwell grudgingly admits, that Catholic representatives in Hungary, especially Angelo Rotta, the Papal Nuncio, were extremely active on behalf of the Jews.

The point to be emphasized is this: the power of the Pope, or Roosevelt, or anybody else to deter Hitler from genocide was extraordinarily limited, given his hegemony over the continent. To concentrate on the actions of the Pope or the Allies is to overlook the central moral fact that it was Hitler and the Nazis who carried out the Holocaust and who bear full and complete responsibility for everything that happened. For too many historians, the Nazis appear in accounts of the Holocaust as some inexplicable force of nature whose destructive powers it is pointless to question, while criticism focuses on the alleged inadequacies of those who could not prevent the slaughter. That this is utterly unfair should be evident, yet library shelves are filled with works on the “failures” of the Allies, as they are with works critical of Pacelli. At the very best such books deflect attention from the real criminals; at worst they imply a moral equivalency between mass murderers and those who tried, whether effectively or not, to stop them.

The part of the book not concerned with the Holocaust consists of a highly tendentious account of Pacelli’s life. Space prohibits more than one or two examples of Cornwell’s biases. Not only did Pacelli acquiesce in the Holocaust, it also seems, according to the author, that he virtually started World War I as well. In case this achievement had passed you by, Pacelli is culpable because of the Serbian Concordat that he was chiefly responsible for negotiating in the months of 1914 just prior to the war. Under this treaty, Serbia granted control of the Catholic religion in new areas of the Balkans it had acquired in the Balkan wars directly to the Vatican, rather than (as Austria-Hungary wished) granting Austria extraterritorial control within Serbia over Catholic interests. According to Cornwell, this inflamed Austrian nationalists and “represented a contribution to the tensions that led the Austrian government to overplay its hand” in the summer of 1914.

There are two points to be made here. First, if the Concordat had met Austrian demands for extraterritorial powers in Serbia, would this not have inflamed Serbian nationalists? And surely a neutral guardian of Catholic rights in Serbia like the Vatican represented a progressive, international solution to this dilemma. Secondly, the causes of the outbreak of the First World War were manifold, stretching back to the origins of the alliance system thirty years earlier. A regional conflict escalated into a worldwide catastrophe because of ambitions and misperceptions among all of the nations of Europe. It is, to put it mildly, extremely doubtful that the Serbian Concordat had a significant role in the outbreak of the war. One wonders, for instance, if Britain’s leaders even so much as heard of the Serbian Concordat. Cornwell’s view of the role of the Concordat is simply absurd. Most of the other charges he levels at Pacelli are similar: seemingly damaging, but almost always taken out of context and exaggerated. It is as if Cornwell were playing the devil’s advocate in the campaign against Pacelli’s canonization. He is anything but evenhanded and has written a most unbalanced account of the man’s life.

It seems clear from the last chapters of the book that Hitler’s Pope is, as much as anything else, an attack upon the conservative trends within the Catholic Church today, those trends of which Pacelli was probably the foremost exemplar in this century. Thus, much of the last chapters consists of tittle-tattle aimed at demonstrating Pacelli’s “eccentricity,” “narrow[ness] . . . in outlook,” “hypochondria,” and other weaknesses. Even if these strictures do indeed contain a measure of truth, what do they all add up to? Similar charges could very likely be made about John Cornwell. Of course, to be sure, he is not a candidate for sainthood.


Rubinstein, William D. “The Devil’s Advocate.” First Things 99 (January, 2000): 39-43.

Reprinted with permission of FIRST THINGS: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life, 156 Fifth Avenue, Suite 400, New York, NY 10010. To subscribe to FIRST THINGS call 1-800-783-4903.


William D. Rubinstein is Professor of Modern History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and author of The Myth of Rescue (Routledge).

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