Pope Pius XII in the Second World War

By Mary Ball Martinez

Since the 1960s, it has been increasingly fashionable to condemn Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) -- who was Pope from 1939 until 1958 -- for his alleged indifference to the fate of Europe's Jews during the Second World War. Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles, for example, recently declared: "... Pope Pius XII sat on the throne of St. Peter in stony silence, as the trains carrying millions of unsuspecting victims criss-crossed Europe en route to the gas chambers... Not once did the Pope lift his voice in unequivocal terms to protest the deportations and murder of the Jews ..."

To be sure, the Vatican is not the only target of such criticism. The wartime leaders of the United States, Britain and other countries have come under similar, and growing, attack in recent years for their alleged indifference to the wartime persecution of Europe's Jews. In fact, as Dr. Arthur Butz has pointed out, Pope Pius XII -- along with the Allied governments and even the major international Jewish organizations -- did not act as if they seriously believed wartime stories of mass extermination of Jews. (See: A. Butz, The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, Appendix E and Supplement B.)

Criticism like Rabbi Hier's shows cruel ingratitude for the Vatican's extensive help to persecuted Jews during the war years. In a 1967 book, Three Popes and the Jews, Jewish historican and Israeli government official Pinchas Lapide strongly defends the Vatican's record. "The Catholic Church, under the pontificate of Pius XII, was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews," writes Lapide.

In the following essay, a seasoned Vatican observer takes a strikingly different view of the wartime role of the Holy See. Contrary to widely-held perception, she argues that Pius XII strongly opposed National Socialist Germany, did everything in his power to aid Europe's persecuted Jews, and actively aided the Allied cause during the war.

- The Editor


The persistent myth of the Vatican's indifference to the fate of Europe's Jews during the Second World War had its origin in the 1960s, and particularly in "The Deputy," a play by German Protestant Rolf Hochhuth, and in a book by Jewish historian Saul Friedlander.

Responding to these accusations, Pope Paul VI opened the wartime records in the Vatican archives to study by four Jesuit historians, permitting them to select documents for publication. The American among them, Robert A. Graham, sorted out a great number that were eventually published in a series of volumes. These weighty documents clearly show that well before the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Secretary of State Pacelli, the future Pope, was deeply involved in promoting the welfare of Europe's Jews.

Adolf Hitler had been Chancellor of Germany less than half a year when Cardinal Pacelli was urging Pope Pius XI to give hospitality inside Vatican City to prominent Jews who requested it. In 1937, as he arrived in New York harbor aboard the Italian liner Conte di Savoia, he asked the ship's captain to run up an improvised banner with the six-pointed star of the future State of Israel in honor, he said, of six hundred German Jews on board. A year later, citizens of Munich were astonished to see the Torah and other ritual objects being removed "for safe-keeping" from the city's chief synagogue in the limousine of the Archbishop, and to learn that the transfer had been ordered by Cardinal Pacelli in Rome. One of his last acts before becoming Pope in 1939 was to notify American and Canadian bishops of his displeasure at the reluctance of Catholic universities in their countries to accept more European Jewish scholars and scientists on their staffs, and he looked to the bishops to remedy this situation.

Support for Zionism

As Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli understood early on the importance of Palestine to the Jewish soul. In 1939, as soon as news reached Rome of the German advance into Poland, he telegraphed Nuncio Paccini in Warsaw to "try to organize Polish Jews for a passage to Palestine." Meanwhile Pius XII ordered Nuncio Angelo Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) in Istanbul to prepare thousands of baptismal certificates for arriving Jews in the hopethese papers would cause the British police in Palestine to let them enter the country.

Roncalli protested. "Surely," he wrote to the Pope, "an attempt to revive the ancient Kingdoms of Judea and Israel is utopian. Will it not expose the Vatican to accusations of support for Zionism?"

The Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione, was hardly less troubled. "How," he asked the Pope, "can you justify historically a criterion of bringing back a people to Palestine, a territory they left 19 centuries ago? Surely there are more suitable places for the Jews to settle."

Not Neutral

Midway into his project, Father Graham told The Washington Post: "I was stupefied at what I was reading. How could one explain actions so contrary to the principle of neutrality?" During the first months of the war, Graham found, the new Pope himself was personally authoring the intensely anti-German texts beamed around the world by Vatican Radio. Although Pius XII's personal involvement was not known at the time, these statements were so strongly worded and partisan that they prompted vigorous protests from the German Ambassador to the Holy See, and even from Polish bishops. As a result, the broadcasts were suspended, much to the chagrin of the British government, which lost what Father Graham calls "a formidable source of propaganda."

Pius XII also set up a Catholic refugee committee in Rome, which he placed under charge of his secretary, Father Leiber, and his housekeeper, young Mother Pasqualina. In his book, Pie XII avant l'Histoire, Monsignor Georges Roche reports that this committee enabled thousands of European Jews to enter the United States as "Catholics," providing them with efficient documentation service, including baptismal certificates, financial aid and other trans-national arrangements. The French historian estimates that by 1942 more than one million Jews were being housed, on Vatican orders, in convents and monasteries throughout Europe. British historian Derek Holmes reports that Jews as well as Italian partisans of underground guerrilla movements were dressed as monks and nuns, and taught to sing Gregorian chants.

The Pope himself set an example by taking care of some 15,000 Jews and Italian dissidents at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, as well as several thousand at Vatican City. Among those so helped was the Italian Socialist leader, Pietro Nenni, who needed a hiding place after his return from war-torn Spain, where he had served as a commissar with the International Brigades.

Meanwhile in France, under the very nose of the so-called Vichy government, Cardinal Tisserant worked with the Joint Distribution Committee in facilitating Jewish emigration. His secretary, Msgr. Roche, has described an underground printing press at Nice, protected by the mayor of the city and the archbishop, where 1,915 false identity cards, 136 false work permits, 1,230 false birth certificates, 480 false demobilization cards and 950 false baptismal certificates were produced before the operation was discovered.

In Hungary, Father Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Paul VI, was working with authorities on a scheme that would guarantee safety to the country's 800,000 Jews on condition they submit to baptism.

Plot Against Hitler

To their astonishment, the four Jesuit historians came upon records documenting the personal involvement of Pius XII in a plot to overthrow Hitler. In January 1940 he was approached by the agent of a certain clique of German generals, who asked him to tell the British government that they would undertake to "remove" Hitler if they were given assurances that the British would come to terms with a moderate German regime. Pius XII promptly passed along this message to Sir D'Arcy Osborne, Britain's envoy to the Holy See. The offer was turned down.

The Soviet Factor

Papal preference for the Allied side became more difficult to defend after June 1941, when this became the Soviet side. By that time Hitler's "Fortress Europe" was overwhelmingly Catholic. Germany itself then included the predominantly Catholic regions of Austria, the Saarland, and the Sudetenland, as well as Alsace-Lorraine and Luxembourg. Moreover, the German-allied countries of Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia and Croatia were entirely Catholic, and Hungary was mainly so. France -- including both the German-occupied northern zone and the Vichy-run south -- cooperated with Germany. Similarly, Catholic Spain and Portugal were sympathetic.

A Catholic priest, Josef Tiso, had been elected president of the German-backed Republic of Slovakia. In France, which adopted the Axis ban on Freemasonry, crucifixes went up on all public buildings, and on French coins the old official motto of the French Revolution, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," was replaced with "Family, Fatherland, Work."

Thus, Pope Pius XII found himself in the awkward position of siding with atheistic Soviet Russia, overwhelmingly Protestant Britain (with its vast, mainly non-Christian Empire), and the predominantly Protestant United States of America, against the largely Catholic "Fortress Europe." His predicament reached a climax following the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and America's full entry into the world war. Most Catholic Americans -- including those of Italian, Irish, German, Hungarian, Slovenian, Croatian and Slovakian descent -- had regarded themselves as "isolationists." Furthermore, Communist atrocities against priests, nuns and churches during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) were fresh in their minds.

Skilled diplomat that he was, Pius XII met the challenge. He appointed the dynamic young Auxiliary Bishop of Cleveland, Michael Ready, to head a campaign to "reinterpret" Divini Redemptoris, the anti-Marxist encyclical of the previous Pope, Pius XI, and to put out the word that Soviet dictator Stalin was opening the way to religious freedom in the USSR.

The Pope's Wartime Silence

That it cost something for the head of the Catholic Church to face so many millions of European Catholics as an enthusiastic supporter of their enemies is evident from a poignant letter Pacelli wrote to Myron C. Taylor, who had been his host in New York and was now Roosevelt's envoy to the Holy See. In part, "at the request of President Roosevelt, the Vatican has ceased all mention of the Communist regime. But this silence that weighs heavily on our conscience, is misunderstood by the Soviet leaders who continue the persecution against churches and faithful. God grant that the free world will not one day regret my silence." There was indeed a "silence of Pius XII," but it was not the silence invented by Hochhuth and Friedlander.

Vatican-Communist Cooperation

Still the strivings of the Pope continued. When it became certain that German troops would occupy Rome, he ordered the papal seal to be carved on the entrance gate of Rome's Great Synagogue, and in July 1944 he authorized a meeting between his right-hand man, Msgr. Montini, and the undisputed leader of Italian Communism, Palmiro Togliatti, who had recently returned from 18 years in the Soviet Union.

According to document JR1022, released a few years ago by the successors of the US wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS)

... the discussion between Msgr. Montini and Togliatti was the first direct contact between a high prelate of the Vatican and a leader of Communism. After having examined the situation, they acknowledged the potential possibility of a contingent alliance between Catholics and Communists in Italy which would give the three parties -- Christian Democrats, Socialists and Communists -- an absolute majority, thereby enabling them to dominate any political situation. A tentative plan was drafted to forge the basis on which the agreement between the three parties could be made.

That "tentative plan," forged 49 years ago, became the foundation for the unholy alliance that de-Christianized large sections of the Italian population, brought several decades of bloody turmoil into the schools and factories, and opened the nation to the Mafia, climaxing today in the national demand for sweeping social-political reform that is dubbed "Mani Puliti," Clean Hands.

'Crusade' Rejected

In his first major address after the war, the Pope defended the one-sided attitude he had maintained throughout the conflict. He told the College of Cardinals, "We as head of the Church refused to call Christians to a crusade." He was referring to the wartime visit to Rome of the French Cardinal, Boudrillat, to ask a papal blessing for the volunteer regiments of Frenchmen, Spaniards, Italians, Croatians, Hungarians, Slovenians -- Catholics nearly to a man -- who were setting out with the armed forces of Germany and her allies to conquer the Soviet Union or, as the Cardinal put it, "to free the Russian people." Along with the "crusaders" was to go a sizeable contingent of Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking priests, young graduates of the Russicum, Rome's Russian seminary, who hoped to open long-closed churches on the way.

The Cardinal's expectations were speedily dashed when the Pope demanded an immediate withdrawal of the request for a blessing. In addition, Boudrillat was to have no contact whatsoever with the press.

As the war dragged on, more pressure was put on Pius XII to resist advancing Marxism. Nuncio Roncalli wrote from Turkey to express "panic" at the Soviet offensive. He had tried in vain, he reported, to find out from his recent visitor, Cardinal Spellman of New York, how much Roosevelt had promised Stalin. From Bern, the Nuncio Bernardini reported that the Swiss press, "up to now preoccupied with German hegemony, has suddenly begun to take account of a far greater, a mortal danger, that of Germany falling into Soviet hands." Pleading on behalf of the Catholic majorities in Poland and Hungary, he begged the Pope to back any reasonable peace initiative.

In March 1944, Secretary of State Maglione -- without, it must be assumed, the Pope's knowledge -- was urging Britain's envoy to the Holy See to try to convince Churchill that the Empire needed a non-Communist Germany in a stable Europe. Finally, in April, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Dr. Kallay, came to Rome with a desperate plea to Pius XII to put himself "at the head of a peace initiative capable of halting the Soviet advance that was about to engulf the Christian peoples of Europe."

Pius XII, as he would boast in 1946 to the College of Cardinals, resisted every pressure and rejected every plea, and he gave his reason: "National Socialism has had a more ominous effect on the German people than has Marxism on the Russians, so that only a total reversal of German policies, particularly of those relating to the Jews, could make any move on the part of the Holy See possible."

"... particularly those relating to the Jews." Therein must lie the answer to the question posed by Robert Graham during the Washington Post interview, "How could one explain actions so contrary to the principle of neutrality?"


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer Sept.- Oct. 1993 (Vol. 13, No. 5), pages 26 ff. This essay has been adapted by Mary Ball Martinez from a section of her 200-page book, The Undermining of the Catholic Church.

About the Author

Mary Ball Martinez was an accredited member of the Vatican press corps from 1973 to 1988, reporting for National Review, The American Spectator and The Wanderer.