Following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, the then-head of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII, began receiving reports of the mass murder of Jews across Eastern Europe.
Multiple sources informed the pope of the destruction of Jewry – from a Catholic chaplain in Benito Mussolini’s army to an Italian businessman and a Ukrainian Catholic archbishop. Instead of protesting these atrocities, Pius kept silent after heeding the advice of a trusted counselor: Angelo Dell’Acqua, a staff member of the Vatican Secretariat of State.
Pius XII ultimately maintained a troubling silence when it came to denouncing Nazi war crimes, according to “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler” – a new book by acclaimed historian David Kertzer, based on his research into recently opened wartime Vatican archives.
“The Vatican was getting confirmation of the fact that the Germans were trying to exterminate, en masse, the Jews of Europe,” Kertzer says in an interview. “They’ve now opened the archives. We know that in response to President [Franklin D.] Roosevelt’s request in 1942 asking if the pope could provide any evidence confirming the Nazi slaughter of Europe’s Jews, the pope said no. What we now know from the archives is that his main adviser on Jewish matters advised him against acknowledging the evidence they had, saying that undoubtedly Roosevelt would use it for anti-German propaganda.”
Kertzer recognizes that it is a complex topic. The Vatican was surrounded by Mussolini’s Italy, and at the outset of World War II Pius felt that the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) would win. As the war turned in the Allies’ favor, he then feared the rise of communism.
“I say in my book that he’s one of the central figures in understanding the war,” Kertzer explains of the Roman Pontiff, who was born Eugenio Pacelli in 1876. “He doesn’t really get a lot of attention. … He thought that being neutral, as he said, he could play a role in a compromise peace. He made several inquiries to both sides for some kind of compromise peace. He never got any takers.”
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Overall, the book argues, what motivated Pius was a desire to preserve his church, not the lives of endangered Jews – and not even the lives of endangered Catholics in Nazi-occupied countries, notably Poland.
“Its Catholic priests were hotbeds of Polish nationalism,” Kertzer explains. “Large numbers of Catholic priests were sent to concentration camps … therefore, Poles, including churchmen of Poland, begged the pope to speak out and denounce this. He refused to do so.”
Destroyed papal letter
The author is well-placed to write about the subject. A professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, Providence, where he previously served as provost, in 2015 he penned a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Pius’ predecessor, “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI,” about the Pontiff who took a much more forceful stand against the Nazis at the end of his life.
Indeed, Pius XI was set to release a papal letter condemning racism and antisemitism, but died in February 1939, shortly before he was scheduled to do so – after which his successor ensured that hundreds of copies of the encyclical were destroyed.
Kertzer, 74, has a family link to wartime Italy: His late father, Lt. Morris Kertzer, was the Jewish chaplain with the Allied forces during the landing at Anzio in January 1944. It was there that Rabbi Kertzer celebrated Passover in a wine cellar later that year. After Rome was liberated, he co-led Shabbat services at the Tempio Maggiore (Grand Temple) with the chief rabbi of the Eternal City.
Although Pius XII received praise from some of Israel’s early leaders, including prime ministers Moshe Sharett and Golda Meir, Kertzer faults the pope for his silence, corroborated by what he found in the Vatican’s Pius archive (which Pope Francis opened in March 2020).
Kertzer also conducted research in five other countries, but says the Vatican archive “was kind of the last piece, but a very important piece: To be able to research, on a day-by-day basis, what actually happened in the Vatican during World War II – the decisions [Pius] made, why he made them, the advice he was getting.”
He cites two findings as particularly noteworthy. Shortly after becoming pope in March 1939, Pius began meeting clandestinely with an envoy of Hitler – a German nobleman, Prince Philipp von Hessen, who was also the son-in-law of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. The pope relied on a junior prelate to record these conversations. Kertzer found the actual transcripts of what he described as a cloak-and-dagger affair.
The other discovery related to the German occupation of Rome in 1943, which followed the Allied landings in Sicily that summer. Although Mussolini’s antisemitic Racial Laws had already been in force since 1938, the Germans began a much more aggressive persecution of Italian Jews, rounding them up and sending them to Auschwitz. A particularly notorious roundup of 1,259 Jews took place in Rome on October 16, 1943.
Kertzer found a memo urging the pope to lodge a private protest to the German ambassador to the Holy See. Yet his adviser, Dell’Acqua, persuaded him not to do so.
“It becomes clear in the archives,” Kertzer says, that Pius’ “main expert on what he should do during World War II with regard to the Jews – a man who subsequently becomes the cardinal vicar of Rome – was Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua. What’s never been seen before the opening of these archives is a detailed, vehemently antisemitic memo written [by Dell’Acqua] to advise the pope not to say anything as Italy’s Jews were being rounded up and sent to their death.”
On the rare occasions when Pius did speak up, it was often in favor of Jews who had been baptized – which was reflected when the Vatican successfully lobbied for such converts to be released from the Rome roundup.
“This is central,” Kertzer says. “Part of the rationale apologists of the pope give for his silence in the Holocaust is that he was more effective helping Jews without calling attention to it, behind the scenes.”
Yet, he adds, “when you actually look at it, the overwhelming majority of people who he helped were not Jews at all: they were Catholics who had been Jews or were descended from Jews.”
Clearly, “the pope was not happy to see Jews murdered,” Kertzer continues. “It was not something that could be supported by the Vatican and the church. But he remained silent as the Italian fascist government, and to some extent the Nazis, kept justifying their actions against the Jews by saying they were simply taking action that had long been urged by the popes and the church in protecting healthy Christian society from the threat posed by Jews. It’s part of understanding what was going on at the time [with] the murdering of little children … you first have to demonize them. The church historically played a major role in this.”
To Kertzer, the pope was “playing a double game as bishop of Rome, and so in effect as primate of the Italian church. The Italian Catholic Church, under him, called on all good citizens to do their patriotic duty and fight for the Axis cause during the war. The pope was neutral, but the Italian Church took the Axis side, as did the clergy in Germany.”
Another finding from the Vatican archives reflects the fact that Catholic Church policy at the time did not favor a Jewish homeland in British Mandatory Palestine. It also shows that there were churchmen who wished to take more decisive steps on behalf of Jews. In the spring of 1943, Angelo Roncalli – the future Pope John XXIII, who was at the time a papal official in Istanbul – called upon Pius to help Slovakian Jewish children flee there, to no avail.
“Of course, Jews in Central and Eastern Europe were especially seeking to find a place to flee,” Kertzer says. “Few other countries were available. Palestine became a lifeline.”
He adds, “It was an awkward position. On the one hand, [Pius] thought it would look bad, given the plight of the Jews, if he was seen as standing in the way, keeping them from avoiding certain death. On the other hand, he was opposed to having more Jews settle in Palestine, which might lead to the creation of a Jewish state, to the dream being realized. Throughout the war, the Vatican did what it could to discourage migration of Jews to Palestine.”
One thing that discourages Kertzer today is the Vatican’s response to his book, including a denunciation in its official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano: “Unsatisfactory use of sources and various other problems (omissions and a sometimes inaccurate critical method) do not, therefore, make this volume, moreover written in fluent fictional prose, the definitive Thule of research on Pius XII,” it summed up in its review of “The Pope at War.”
“I find it sad,” Kertzer responds. “There was some hope with Pope Francis’ call for opening and confronting history without prejudice that finally the Vatican was willing to start coming to terms with its history.”
“The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler,” by David Kertzer, is published by Random House and is out now, priced $37.50