The Silence of Pius XII: The Origins of the Black Legend

Giovanni Maria Vian 

The controversy of Pius XII’s silence during the second world war – mainly in the light of the horrendous, genocidal attempt of the Nazis to exterminate Europe’s Jews, one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century – is by now a part of history. A great deal has been written on the subject, and more still will be written, because of the subject’s indubitable relevance, because of the passionate interest it provokes even beyond the narrow sphere of specialists in the field, and because of its undeniable exploitable potential, which is closely linked to the introduction of the cause of this pope’s canonization. 

It is above all this exploitation that has led to the creation of a full-blown black legend that goes far beyond the possible judgement of the pope’s behaviour during those tragic conflict years. The goal of this essay is to recall the origins of the accusations which were made against this pope, which are often forgotten, and which were first and foremost expressed by Catholics and then expanded, even as early as during the war years themselves, by Soviet and then Communist propaganda. 

The first person to wonder about “the silence of Pius XII” was Emmanuel Mounier. This was only a few weeks after the election as pope of the cardinal secretary of state Eugenio Pacelli on 2 March 1939. The questions arose a propos the aggression shown by Italy towards Albania in April of that year, and the absence of a condemnation on the part of the new pope. 

In an article written just after this, the French Catholic intellectual pointed out that although it would be “ridiculous for a believer to challenge the papal conscience”, nevertheless “the scandal of this silence” had entered “thousands of hearts”. And he went on to say that “I am not in a position to judge whether this wasn’t the inevitable price of successful diplomacy […]. I only asked for a few words. So that the Word may bring life”. 

The problem of words not spoken, pointed out so early on by Mounier, would come to torment the pope’s conscience during the long and terrible six years of war, which broke out only a few months after the invasion of Poland by the national socialist Germans and their soviet Russian allies. It was in this context, the Jesuit historian Burkhart Schneider wrote, that “the pope was criticised for his apparent silence, which seemed to indicate indifference in the face of unspeakable suffering”. These criticisms came above all from “Polish communities in exile”, and thus again from Catholics. 

The political and diplomatic line of the Holy See in the preceding decades and more importantly during the frightful war of 1914-1918 had been attempt, without too much support from amongst Catholics, at keeping a sort of neutral impartiality between the conflicting sides. This line had included a condemnation from pope Benedict XV of the “useless slaughter” and an honest-to-goodness “diplomacy of assistance”, which in Germany was centred on Pacelli himself, who was then the nuncio of Munich. 

During this new tragic war – caused by the totalitarianism of the Nazis and Soviets which the Holy See had condemned in 1937 with the encyclicals “Mit Brennender Sorge” and “Divini Redemptoris” – Pius XII intended to follow that same policy. But in reality, with his actions the pope made some choices that cannot be considered neutral. 

And so the pope made an unprecedented decision: during the first months of the conflict, between the autumn of 1939 and the spring of 1940, he supported the soon-to-be aborted attempt by some German military groups colluding with the British to overthrow Hitler’s regime. And after Germany’s attack of the Soviet Union in the middle of 1941, Pius XII fist of all refused to side the Holy See with what was being pitched as a crusade against communism, and then set about to temper the opposition that many American Catholics were posing to the alliance between the United States and Stalin’s Russia. 

However, this definitely did not make the pope and his closest advisors change their minds about communism. They would always have a radically negative opinion of it, as was made clear in 1943, and culminating in the condemnation published by the Holy Office in 1949. The idea of Pius XII being “in the pay of the Americans”, an image spread and supported by the Soviets due to the pope’s indubitable anti-communist attitude – is totally without historic evidence. 

This controversial debate was the fruit of soviet and communist propaganda in general, and was soon picked up by members of the Russian Orthodox Church. After 1944, this polemic, compounded with Mounier’s earlier questions which by now had filtered their way to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, was further stoked by accusations against Pope Pacelli and the Vatican with regard to the Nazi policy of Jewish extermination. 

After the war, relations between the two victorious blocs grew progressively colder and more distant, leading to a soviet hegemony being imposed on nearly all of the countries of eastern and central Europe, and eventually to the cold war. In this context, Pius XII was accused of having supported Nazi Germany and Fascism, of having forgiven them, of having hidden German war crimes, of not having condemned Hitler’s barbarianisms, of having been silent and of having sided with the capitalist west. 

The pope had already responded to these accusations during the war, on 13 June 1943: “that the pope wanted war, that a pope keeps a war going and provides money for it to carry on, that a pope does nothing for peace… More horrific and absurd slander than this has perhaps never been heard”. 

After the war, on 24 December 1946, Pius XII explicitly alluded to the propaganda against the Holy See: “We know very well that all of our words, all of our intentions, can be misinterpreted and twisted through political propaganda”. 

In 1951, the questions that Mounier had raised a dozen years earlier on the subject of the Italian aggression towards Albania was turned into a harsh reproach of Pius XII for not having condemned the monstrous persecution of Jews. This was in the words of a different French Catholic intellectual, François Mauriac, who in the following year would go on to be awarded the Nobel prize for literature. 

In the introduction to “Bréviaire de la haine. Le IIIe Reich et les Juifs” by Léon Poliakov, Mauriac emphasises that the book is first and foremost directed at Germans, and then writes : 

“This breviary has also been written for us French, whose traditional anti-Semitism has survived the excesses of horror in which Vichy played its own shy and ignoble part. Above all, to us French Catholics; if we have salvaged any of our honour, without a doubt we owe it to the heroism and charity that many bishops, priests and religious showed towards the hounded Jews. But we never had the comfort of hearing the successor of Galilee, Simon Peter, use clear and precise words, rather than diplomatic allusions, to condemn the countless crucifixions of the ‘brothers of the Lord’. During the occupation, one day I asked the venerable cardinal Suhard, who from the shadows of the other side had done so much for the persecuted: ‘Your Eminence, command us to pray for the Jews’. His only answer was to raise his arms heavenwards. Of course, the occupying powers had ways of pressurising people that could not be resisted, and the silence of the pope and the upper echelons of the hierarchy were no more than a disgusting duty to avoid even worse disasters. But this does not excuse the wide-spread crime of all those who bore witness but did not speak out, whatever the reasons for their silence were”. 

The tone of the Jew Poliakov is less strict. On the subject of the anti-Semitic tradition and Pius XII’s attitude, and just before elaborating on some arguments on the “antichristian essence of anti-Semitism”, he expresses the following, softer opinion: 

“It does not fall to an Israelite writer to express judgement on the century-old dogmas of another religion, but in view of the immense consequences, it is impossible not to be deeply disturbed. The sense of our perturbation should not be misunderstood. We are not saying that there was even a trace of anti-Semitism in the pope’s thoughts. If, unlike many French bishops, he did not make his voice heard, it was certainly because his jurisdiction extends to all of Europe, and he had to consider not only the grave threats hanging over the Church, but also the spiritual conditions of his faithful in all countries”, who were influenced by the anti-Jewish tradition of Christianity. 

This was the context when it came to the turning point of the question of Pius XII’s silence, when the pope had been dead (9 October 1958) for more than four years. 

The turning point was triggered by the play “Der Stellvertreter [The Vicar]” by Rolf Hochhuth, which was performed for the first time in Berlin on 20 February 1963. Due to its extreme anti-pope Pacelli opinion and the strong debates it immediately provoked, it had an enormous influence on the imagine of Pius XII and the Holy See both in the public opinion and in the historical debate itself. 

In the immediate flaring up of the debate, the testimony in defence of the pope by Giovanni Battista Montini, one of his closest advisors, was especially significant. Montini had been archbishop of Milan since the end of 1954, and was then made cardinal by John XXIII in 1958. 

Montini’s statement came in the form of an article in defence of Pius XII, published in the English Catholic magazine “The Tablet” in the issue published on 11 May 1963. Amongst other things, it underlined the similarity between Hochhuth’s play and a “communist publication” on the Vatican and the second world war. 

In a letter that reached “The Tablet” on the same day as he was elected pope, on 21 June 1963, when he took the name Paul VI, the cardinal of Milan defended Pius XII’s behaviour in the face of the persecution and extermination of Jews by the Nazis. In Hochhuth’s opinion, the pope was partially to blame for these crimes because he failed to condemn them. 

“This attitude of condemnation and protest, for the absence of which the pope is being reproached, would not only have been futile, it would also have been dangerous. That’s all,” writes, amongst other things, the former advisor of pope Pacelli. He concludes: 

“Subjects like these and historic people we know should not be played with through the creative imagination of playwrights, who are lacking in historic discernment and, God help us, human honesty. Otherwise, just like in the present case, the drama would be another: that of someone trying to offload the horrible crimes of German nazism onto a pope who was extremely conscientious in his duties and aware of history, and who in the opinion of more than one friend was certainly impartial, but also very loyal to the German people. Equally, Pius XII had the merit of having been a ‘Vicar’ of Christ who tried to fulfil his mission as best he could with courage and integrity. Could the same thing be said of this theatrical injustice, in the context of culture and art?”. 

Similar tones and points of criticism against the propaganda-like theories of the German playwright were found about two years later in an article by the historian Giovanni Spadolini. It was published on 18 February 1965 after the first two performances of Hochhuth’s play in Rome, which was immediately banned and unleashed bitter polemics. 

The article by the authoritative intellectual and lay politician began with a direct attack on the position of the left-wing parties, especially the communists. “The very party that champions dialogue with Catholics has proclaimed a sort of crusade for freedom of thought on the basis of this libellous anticlerical defamation and nationalist self-defence”. 

Spadolini recalled Montini’s defence of Pius XII, first in 1963 when he had just been elected pope, and then again in January 1964 during his historic journey to the Holy Land, and so again pointed out the elements of political propaganda in the play that had just been shown in Rome. He said that the then-cardinal of Milan “had stood up, with the loyalty of an advisor and disciple who does not forget, against the absurd and unjust indictments of a political propaganda thinly disguised as moralism”. And when “Paul VI laid foot on Israeli ground in what was the most significant and revolutionary step of his Palestinian mission, everyone could tell that the pope wanted to respond to the systematic attacks from the communist world, which had managed to find complicity or indulgence even in Catholic hearts – or at least some Catholics who were known even in Italy”. 

In Spadolini’s article, the perceived origins of the accusations against pope Pacelli are clear: firstly, between 1939 and 1951, there are the two French Catholic intellectuals Mounier and Mauriac; then there is the soviet propaganda of the war years, and more generally the communist propaganda in the post-war period and during the cold war. 

The debate was accentuated after the death of Pius XII and during the very different pontificate of John XXIII, and then exploded definitively during the time of Paul VI. It then became linked with the contrasting Pacelli and Roncalli pontificates, which, amongst other factors, in 1965 led to pope Montini introducing the causes for beatification for this two predecessors simultaneously: 

“In this way, the wish that was expressed for both of theses by so many voices shall be fulfilled; in this way, their spiritual patrimony shall be kept safe for history; in this way, it will be ensured that these authentic and dear characters will not be reinterpreted and will only be remembered through the cult of true sanctity and thus the glory of God, for our veneration and for that of future generations”. 

With the passing of time, the question of Pius XII’s silence has become increasingly complicated, because the repeated accusations against pope Pacelli have turned into a “black legend”. This has certainly not helped the new, positive relations between the Catholic Church and Judaism. In the meantime, the origins of the accusations – born in Catholic circles and promoted above all through soviet and communist propaganda and those who have a sense of nostalgia for it, and will not forgive Pius XII for his anticommunism.

The link to the magazine of the faculty of ecclesiastic history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in which this article by Giovanni Maria Vian was published is: 

Archivum Historiae Pontificiae

The piece by Fr Giovanni Sale came out in “La Civiltà Cattolica” of 4 June 2005, pages 419-432, under the title “Pio XII e la fine della seconda guerra mondiale [Pius XII and the end of the second world war]”: 

La Civiltà Cattolica