The Silence Was Deafening

The Vatican Archives from the decade leading up to World War II were finally opened to researchers several years ago. But to judge from this careful study by a German scholar who was among the first inside, the only explanation for the Church's lack of protest in the wake of the rise of Nazism is self-interest.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

Pope and Devil: The Vatican Archives and the Third Reich, by Hubert Wolf (translated from German by Kenneth Kronenberg ). Belknap Press of Harvard University, 336 pages, $29.95

Inquisition documents in the Vatican archivesCredit: AP

To this day, the Vatican Archives covering the critical war years of the papacy of Pius XII remain closed to scholars, as do all the other files from then down to the present. In 2003, however, in response to repeated pressure for access to the files from the period of the Holocaust, the Holy See began to make available all the records relating to the reign of Pius XI, who was pope from 1922 until his death 17 years later.

Researchers will reportedly have to wait several more years before they can examine the millions of files related to the war years themselves, but the records from the period leading up to World War II can give us great insight into the thinking and attitudes of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican's leading diplomat during that period and the man who became pope after the death of Pius XI on February 10, 1939.

One of the first scholars to gain access to the newly opened section of the archives was Hubert Wolf, a professor of Church history at the University of Muenster. His book, "Pope and Devil: The Vatican Archives and the Third Reich," first published in Germany in 2008, is therefore useful in helping us understand the reasons for the Vatican's consistent refusal to take a bold stand against Hitler and his policies in the years leading up to the war.

Generally Wolf, himself a priest, is very cautious about expressing any criticism of Church policy toward the Jews. Nevertheless, he writes: "Was there not, in fact, at least an indirect unholy alliance between the traditional anti-Judaism of the Church and modern racial anti-Semitism?" The question remains rhetorical, however: He provides no answer, even though on the same page, he goes on to speak about Pius XII's "alleged silence about the Holocaust." In truth, Pope Pius XII never pronounced the word "Jew" in public in any context, so his silence can hardly be referred to as "alleged."

The whole of Wolf's book is dominated by two figures: Achille Ratti, better known as Pope Pius XI, and his secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli, later Pius XII.

Pacelli, who was born in 1876 in Rome, began his diplomatic career in 1903, when Rafael Merry del Val was the Vatican's secretary of state (under Pius X ). It was Merry del Val who received Theodor Herzl in 1904 at the Vatican, telling him: "As long as the Jews deny the divinity of Christ, we certainly cannot make a declaration in their favor." Pacelli's immediate boss when he began his work at the Vatican was Umberto Benigni, a priest who was strongly anti-Semitic, a fact that Wolf does not mention, although it might have enlightened us on Pacelli's own inclinations.

In the summer of 1917, Pacelli arrived in Munich as nuncio (ambassador ) to Bavaria, ready to advance an initiative from the pope to end World War I. The initiative was not successful, and Wolf describes how Pacelli "subsequently rejected all calls for intervention in such conflicts."

Wolf thinks that this explains Pius XII's silence during the Holocaust. Pacelli, he says, had learned his lesson from the failure of the pope's peace initiative in 1917, namely that "the Holy See must remain strictly neutral in international conflicts."

Pacelli was successful, however, in concluding three new concordats, agreements between the Vatican and foreign governments on religious matters: with Bavaria in 1924, Prussia in 1929 and Baden in 1932. This was considered a great diplomatic victory for him.

For further reading:

A great divide, forever divided
Holocaust Studies / A picture worth six million names
Holocaust Studies / The final chapter

Wolf also deals with the relations of the nuncio with the Center (Catholic ) Party; in the 1920s the main preoccupation of the Vatican was to avoid a collaboration between the party and the Socialists because the latter were "in fundamental opposition to Christianity." In January 1927, Pacelli wrote that the likelihood of arriving at a beneficial concordat would be "greater through an alliance with the German National People's Party [the Nazis] than with the Socialists." From this, one can clearly understand that preference for dealing with the Nazis started at a very early stage.

It seems to me that Wolf lets Pacelli off easy. As the head of the Catholic Church, the pope had the moral obligation to intervene on an issue that was above all one of morality and humanity. Yet he chose not to do so. In March 1923, Pacelli did report to the Vatican about "a vulgar polemic against the Jesuits, who were accused of working together with the Jews and Jewish freemasonry in the war against Germany." His concern though was for the Jesuits alone, and Wolf stresses that Pacelli wasted not a single word on the persecution of Jews., In general, he writes; "The research to date indicates that anti-Semitism played only a minor role in Pacelli's nuncial reports."

The future pope employed some anti-Semitic stereotypes in his dispatches; he also mentioned the Jewish background of participants in the short-lived German revolution of 1918-19. Evidently the fact that there were some Jews among the revolutionaries was proof of the bond between Jews and Bolshevism.

It's in the speeches

If I and other scholars have charged the future Pius XII with remaining silent during the Holocaust and of having been indifferent to the genocide of the Jews, it is on the basis, at least in part, of his own speeches. But Wolf stresses that the Church had condemned anti-Semitism five years before Hitler's ascent to power in 1933. And he dedicates a full chapter, out of five, to the Friends of Israel, an association of Catholic clergymen that in 1928 appealed to Pius XI for a reform in the prayer said each year on Good Friday for the Jews, which referred to them as "Perfidious Jews." The ultimate purpose of this group was to convert Jews, in the name of a professed Jewish-Catholic reconciliation and rejection of anti-Semitism. But Rafael Merry del Val, head of the Holy Office, refused any reform of the liturgy, writing: "Hebraism continues perfidiously to oppose Christianity," just as it attempts "to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in opposition to Christ and his Church." Wolf writes that "Zionism, with its vision of a Jewish return to the Promised Land, settlement in the land of Israel, and a creation of a Jewish state, was to him [Merry del Val] deeply disturbing."

Following the request of Merry del Val, Pope Pius XI "concluded that [the Friends of Israel] should be dissolved." And indeed, on March 25, 1928, the papal decree disbanding the association was published. The announcement also included a repudiation of "modern anti-Semitism" though it was referring only to racial anti-Semitism, and not to the so-called "anti-Judaism" of the Church. Still, Wolf thinks this repudiation is noteworthy because neither the Nazis' seizure of power, nor the anti-Semitic nature of fascism could have been predicted at that time and it proves that Pius XI closely followed recent ideologies.

I disagree with Wolf on this point. Hitler's "Mein Kampf" (published in 1925 ) was clearly anti-Semitic, and there were already enough signs of anti-Semitism at that time, not only in the Nazi party or among the Fascists, but even within the Church itself. The Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica wrote in May 1928, for example, that "the danger emanating from the Jews" should never be underestimated. Where I do agree with Wolf is when he writes that even the inclusion of a "condemnation of modern anti-Semitism" in the 1928 decree of dissolution cannot defend the Church "against the accusation that it remained silent during the persecution and murder of the Jews." Wolf writes about the papal decree: "It is a mark of moral impoverishment because it is easy to condemn hatred of Jews in others while not changing one's own anti-Semitic conduct."

According to Wolf, "Pius XI wasted his big chance. It took decades and more than six million murdered Jews for the Church to summon the courage to cleanse its relationship with the Jews of anti-Semitism, even in the liturgy." But even this is too generous. Even after World War II, the only serious change in the Church's teaching on this question was the "Nostra Aetate" declaration of 1965, and even today, there are constant attacks on the State of Israel emanating from the Vatican. If anti-Semitism is no longer fashionable in the Vatican, anti-Israelism certainly is.

In the year 1929, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri signed a concordat with Fascist Italy. A short time later he was replaced as secretary of state by Eugenio Pacelli, who became a cardinal as well on his return to Rome from Germany to take up his new position.

Wolf tries to understand from Pacelli's personal notes just what impact pope Pius XI had on political affairs and what was decided directly by Pacelli. The pope was "impulsive and effervescent," while Pacelli was always "restrained and balanced."

Communism the greatest threat

On January 30, 1933, president Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Reich chancellor. Wolf rightly poses the question of whether there was a connection between the Center Party's consent to the Enabling Act (which gave Hitler's government the right to circumvent both the constitution and the legislature in adopting new laws ), the German bishops' retraction of their condemnation of Nazism, and the beginning of the negotiations for a concordat between the German government and the Vatican. He suggests, reasonably, that the well-known anti-communist stand of the Nazis made them good allies for the Vatican, since the Vatican viewed communism as its greatest threat. Wolf writes: "Although Pacelli remained skeptical of Hitler's attitudes toward the Church and Catholicism, [Hitler's] anti-Communism went a long way toward neutralizing those concerns."

Pacelli supported the stand according to which only the bishops in a given state, as opposed to the Vatican back in Rome, could make public declarations on political issues. Yet when German bishops expressed the view that Nazism was incompatible with Catholic faith, Pacelli found a way to overrule them.

When asked about a request from the German government, reported by Nuncio Orsenigo, that Rome intervene to abrogate the bishops' condemnations of Nazism, Pope Pius XI at first rejected any direct intervention by the Holy See. But such intervention was not really necessary once Cardinal Bertram had published, on March 28, 1933, a "proclamation by the German bishops" about Nazism that had the effect of retracting their earlier statement regarding the irreconcilability of National Socialism and Catholicism.

So the condemnation of Nazism was lifted, with "nothing given in return" by the Nazis, according to Wolf. Pacelli, however, could now claim to have received the blessing of the German bishops to rescind the condemnation of Nazism. Wolf thinks that Pacelli could have "dictated hard conditions for those concessions," and that he could have demanded the signature of a concordat, with all the guarantees that would have provided for Catholic institutions in Germany.

Not long after, a concordat was signed, on July 20, 1933, giving "Hitler's government its first agreement under international law and a not inconsiderable foreign policy success." Pacelli said to the British charge d'affaires, Ivone Kirkpatrick, that he had had no alternative and he had to choose "between an agreement on their lines [the Germans'] and the virtual elimination of the Catholic Church in the Reich." This interpretation seems to me very exaggerated and seems to be nothing more than a version tailored for the British. Wolf himself asks: "Why did the Vatican never abrogate the pact with the devil in order to defend the human rights of all those who were persecuted, even - and particularly - the Jews?"

The author provides no answer to his own question. To my mind the matter is rather simple: Pacelli wanted above all an agreement "under international law" with Hitler to save the Catholic Church in Germany. Evidently the Jews were expendable.

Wolf generally refrains from personal judgment; for him, simply asking nasty questions in the direction of the Vatican is already an act of courage.

A letter from Edith Stein

As early as April 1933, Jews could be removed from the civil service in Germany. Jews and non-Jews asked Pius XI to publicly condemn the persecution of the Jews. But the nuncio Cesare Orsenigo, from Berlin, warned that any intervention by the Holy See would be "tantamount to a protest against a legal act of the German state."

Some bishops advocated help for converted Jews, but Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, of Munich, generally perceived as one of the more outspoken Catholic clergy in terms of criticism of Hitler, explained to Pacelli why the bishops remained silent, "since the battle against the Jews could become a battle against the Catholics" and "the Jews are able to help themselves."

Edith Stein, who was born Jewish and became Catholic in 1921, wrote a letter to the pope in 1933 about the hatred of the Jews by the leaders of National Socialism. Wolf publishes the letter, in which she urged the pope to break his silence about the persecution of the Jews. The letter was the only one to be answered, and that's because it was introduced by Abbot Raphael Walzer. Pacelli responded to Walzer that he had "dutifully presented" Stein's letter to the Pope. Many other letters were sent to the Holy See on the same subject, but they were never answered.

Wolf writes: "The question of how beneficial in practice a public declaration by the pope would have been must at least be raised." I would suggest, however, that a calculation of risks versus gains on such a question is inappropriate: Even if the chances of being heard were slim, simple morality made it incumbent on the Church to issue a public protest. We cannot speculate what a strong protest by the Church could have achieved at such an early stage, when no Jew had been killed yet. It may well have convinced Catholics to help Jews who were in danger. But Orsenigo, the weak nuncio to Berlin, thought that "the Church could do nothing further about anti-Semitism" and "everything possible has already been done." In this way the Church escaped its moral duty and did not even attempt a public condemnation of anti-Semitic practice.

The Church did nothing to benefit the Jews, not so much as voicing a protest, even as, on April 26, 1933, during a conversation with Bishop Berning, Hitler announced his intention to exterminate the Jewish "vermin." From the newly opened archives, we learn that the issue of the German Jews was never addressed in the regular meetings between the pope and Pacelli. In March 1934 Pius XI decided not to receive Chaim Weizmann, a representative of the World Zionist Organization who had been received by Mussolini on February 17, because "we can not stand on the side of Zionism."

In September 1938, Italy barred all Jews from state schools and universities. Pius XI received a group of Belgian pilgrims, telling them that anti-Semitism was irreconcilable with the Catholic faith and added that, "spiritually we are Semites." It should be noted, however, that this statement did not appear in the official Vatican daily Osservatore Romano, but only in the French bulletin Documentation Catholique, and therefore can be understood as being of minor significance. In any event, it was not followed by a change in official Church policy.

In November 1938, on Kristallnacht, synagogues all over Germany were set afire and destroyed. Jewish citizens were beaten, and nearly 100 were murdered but, as Wolf notes, the persecution of the Jews played a "marginal role" in the eyes of the Vatican after 1933 and no public statement was made on this occasion.

'More spiritual than political'

The pope, who was already ill, spent the last days of his life writing a speech, but he died on the same day it was scheduled to be delivered, February 10, 1939. Only now can we read the text of this speech, which, in Wolf's judgment, was "more spiritual than political."

The death of Pius XI put an end to his project of writing an encyclical against racism. On this issue, we now see that he would have bypassed the entire curia,



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.
From $1 for the first month

Already signed up? LOG IN


בנימין נתניהו השקת ספר

Netanyahu’s Israel Is About to Slam the Door on the Diaspora

עדי שטרן

Head of Israel’s Top Art Academy Leads a Quiet Revolution

Charles Lindbergh addressing an America First Committee rally on October 3, 1941.

Ken Burns’ Brilliant ‘The U.S. and the Holocaust’ Has Only One Problem

Skyscrapers in Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.

Israel May Have Caught the Worst American Disease, New Research Shows

ג'אמיל דקוור

Why the Head of ACLU’s Human Rights Program Has Regrets About Emigrating From Israel


Netanyahu’s Election Win Dealt a Grievous Blow to Judaism