Blessed Pius XII? But First of All, Get Him Right
The rabbi of Haifa protests, and “La Civiltà Cattolica” bridles. But the beatification of Pope Eugenio Pacelli continues to draw near. And history will also have to do him justice, according to Paolo Mieli, a secular Jew, in “L’Osservatore Romano”
by Sandro Magister
ROMA, October 10, 2008 – Celebrating the Mass for the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pius XII yesterday at St. Peter’s, Pope Joseph Ratzinger invited all to pray “that his beatification cause may proceed smoothly.”
It was Paul VI himself, in the hall of Vatican Council II, who proposed the beatification of Pius XII, together with that of John XXIIII. It was November 8, 1965, and Pope Eugenio Pacelli was already the target of mounting accusations that he had collaborated, through his silence, in the Nazi extermination of the Jews: these accusations achieved worldwide prominence through the play “The Vicar” by Rolf Hochhuth, performed for the first time two years earlier in Berlin.
Since then, the beatification cause of Pius XII has crossed paths with the controversy over his silence. On May 8, 2007, the Vatican congregation for the causes of saints voted unanimously in approval of “the heroic virtue” of Pope Pacelli, the last step before the beatification process properly speaking. But so far, Benedict XVI has not signed the decree. A study commission has been charged with making further investigations, also on the basis of documents held in the Vatican archives but not yet accessible to the public.
Opposition to the beatification of Pius XII has been expressed repeatedly in recent years by some representatives of Judaism. These include the current chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni.
In a surprise move, they were joined last October 6 by the chief rabbi of Haifa, Shear Yashuv Cohen.
This was surprising because Rabbi Cohen spoke out against the beatification of Pius XII immediately after speaking before the assembly of the synod of bishops, to which he had been invited as a special guest, entering the hall with full honors, at the side of Benedict XVI, for the first time in the history of the synods.
And there, as well at the end of his speech, he issued a veiled accusation against Pope Pacelli, saying:
“We cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise a voice in the effort to save our brethren, but chose to keep silent and help secretly.”
At the secretariat of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and foreign minister Dominique Mamberti were rather irritated with the snap from the rabbi, and even more so with the decision to invite him, when there are many prominent Jewish leaders who have great respect for Pius XII.
The Vatican authorities, naturally, do not accept outside interference in their decisions, like the proclamation of saints and blesseds, which belongs exclusively to the Church. But the most insidious opposition to the beatification of Pius XII comes from inside the Catholic camp, not from outside of it.
Some of this opposition was to be taken for granted, like the frontal opposition from the scholars of the “school of Bologna,” whose exaltation of John XXIII goes hand-in-hand with their rejection of Pius XII.
But other forms of opposition are more subtle, and invested with authority. This is the case of “La Civiltà Cattolica,” the magazine of the Rome Jesuits that is printed after review by the secretariat of state.
Last September 18, the same day on which Benedict XVI was defending the heroic virtues of Pius XII in speaking to a group of Jews from the Pave the Way Foundation, “La Civiltà Cattolica” published an article by its historian, Fr. Giovanni Sale, highly critical of the diplomatic caution with which Pacelli, as secretary of state, reacted to the anti-Jewish racial laws promulgated in Italy in 1938.
The article – republished in several languages on http://www.chiesa – prompted an uproar at the Vatican. Some accuse the Jesuits of “La Civiltà Cattolica” of working for a boycott, while others accuse the secretariat of state of failing to exercise proper supervision.
Cardinal Bertone has tried to settle things down by giving great emphasis, in the October 8 edition of “L’Osservatore Romano,” to his preface to a book in staunch defense of Pius XII, “The Truth Will Set You Free,” written by an American sister, Margherita Marchione, and released that day by Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
But another backlash in the quarrel provoked by “La Civiltà Cattolica” could be found in “L’Osservatore Romano” on the following day, in a question from an interview about Pope Pacelli.
“La Civiltà Cattolica has written that Pius XII failed to speak with a prophetic voice. Isn’t that a somewhat anachronistic judgment?”
The interview is with Paolo Mieli, a student of the great historian of fascism Renzo De Felice, and the director of the leading Italian newspaper, “Corriere della Sera.” Mieli is of Jewish family, with relatives who died in the Nazi concentration camps.
And on an entire page of “the pope’s newspaper,” Mieli absolutely dismantles the “black legend” weighing against Pius XII, whom he calls “the most important pope of the twentieth century.”
The interview was conducted by Maurizio Fontana, who signed the article, and by the director of “L’Osservatore Romano”, Giovanni Maria Vian. It was published on October 9, the same day on which, at the Mass for the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pius XII, Benedict XVI said this of him in the homily:
“He often worked in a secret and silent way precisely because, in the light of the concrete situations of that complex historical moment, he intuited that this was the only way to prevent the worst from happening, and to save the largest possible number of Jews.”
Here is the interview, in its entirety:
History will do justice to Pius XII
An interview with Paolo Mieli
Q: There is often talk about the play by Rolf Hochhuth “The Vicar,” performed for the first time on February 20, 1963, at the Freie Volksbühne in Berlin. But the criticism of Pope Pacelli’s attitudes dates back to long before this. When did the “Pius XII problem” truly emerge?
A: The watershed was without question the performance of “The Vicar,” but some of the accusations, even if they were not of the same kind as those of Hochhuth, go back even before the beginning of the second world war. The first to speak of the reticence of Pius XII was, in fact, Emmanuel Mounier, who in May of 1939 courteously objected to a silence that brought embarrassment to many: that of Pius XII concerning Italian aggression against Albania.
The same kind of accusation was then lodged against him by another French Catholic intellectual, François Mauriac, who in 1951 lamented, in the preface to a book by Léon Poliakov, that the persecuted Jews had not had the comfort of hearing the pope condemn in clear and distinct terms “the crucifixion of countless brothers in the Lord.” But it should also be recalled that this same book – one of the first important texts on anti-Semitism – presented justifications for this silence. In essence, Poliakov, himself a Jew, wrote that the pope had been silent in order to avoid compromising the safety of the Jews to a much greater extent than had already been done.
Q: So, the first statement on this topic by a Jewish scholar was very cautious?
A: I would go even further. Except for Poliakov, the first assessments of the Jewish community all over the world were not only cautious, they were very favorable toward Pius XII.
Q: Could one reason for this caution be the fact that the real accusations against the pope began to come, already during the war, from the Soviets?
A: Pius XII was certainly a pope who was also – and I emphasize “also” – anti-communist. And during these decades of controversy, he has often been criticized for being swayed by this view. We recall, for example, two famous speeches he delivered before becoming pope, during his trip to France (1937) and to Hungary (1938), in which he emphasized the persecutions of the communist regime rather than those of the Nazi regime.
But a premise must be noted in this regard: the thematization of the Holocaust as we know it today came many decades after the end of the second world war. I remember that during the 1950’s and ’60’s, one still spoke roughly of deportees in the concentration camps. It was known that the Jews had suffered the worst fate, but full awareness of the Holocaust came later. During the 1930’s, very few had any idea about what could happen to the Jews. Of course, in Germany, there had been the “night of broken glass.” But it is obviously much easier to interpret and understand the facts today, in hindsight. And the Jews who escaped from Germany were not welcomed with open arms in any part of the world, not even in the United States. In short, it was a complex problem. The Western world, the civil world, apart from a few exceptions, did not understand, did not realize what was happening. For this reason, when we talk about a pope at the end of the 1930’s, we can understand why he would be more sensitive to anti-Christian persecution in the Soviet Union then to what was emerging in the Nazi world. This does not mean that he was secretly a Nazi.
Q: The 1930’s: controversy is often directed at Pius XI as well . . .
A: One of the criticisms of Cardinal Pacelli, who was secretary of state for Pius XI, is that he softened the condemnations of National Socialism. Among the many accusations – which I do not believe are entirely justified – against Pacelli was that he moderated the tone of the encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge.” In reality, examining Pope Pacelli’s activities from an historical standpoint, I would recall a few details. When the war began, he criticized the apathy of the French Church under Nazi domination in Vichy France; he then criticized the flagrant anti-Semitism of Slovakian Monsignor Josef Tiso; he extended – as documented in a book by Renato Moro, “La Chiesa e lo sterminio degli ebrei [The Church and the extermination of the Jews],” published by Il Mulino – his own willingness, and even assistance, with highly risky decisiveness, to some of those who plotted against Hitler between 1939 and 1940. I continue: when in June of 1941, the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, there was a certain resistance in the Western world to making pacts with those who until that moment had fought on the side of Nazi Germany. Pius XII instead exerted himself greatly to facilitate an alliance between Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.
And finally, there is the most important chapter: during the Nazi occupation of Rome – as recounted, for example, in two books, the famous volume by Enzo Forcella (“La resistenza in convento [The resistance in the convent],” published by Einaudi) and one just recently released by Andrea Riccardi (“L’inverno più lungo [The longest winter],” Laterza) – the Church made all of its resources available: almost every basilica, every church, every seminary, every convent accommodated and helped the Jews. So much so that in Rome, in comparison with two thousand deported Jews, ten thousand were able to save themselves. Now, I don’t mean to say that all of those ten thousand were saved by the Church of Pius XII, but without a doubt the Church contributed to saving most of them. And it would have been impossible for the pope to be unaware of what his priests and sisters were doing. The result was that for years, for years and years – dozens of examples could be given – extremely important figures in the Jewish world acknowledged this contribution, attributing it explicitly to Pius XII.
Now, almost any trace of these witnesses has been lost. This was the subject, for example, of a wonderful book by Andrea Tornielli (“Pio XII il papa degli ebrei [Pius XII, the pope of the Jews],” Piemme). It is an extremely vast literature, of which I would like to provide just a sample. In 1944, the grand rabbi of Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog, said: “The people of Israel will never forget what Pius XII and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion that are at the basis of authentic civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history. This is living proof of divine providence in this world.”
That same year, Sergeant Major Joseph Vancover wrote: “I would like to tell you about Jewish Rome, about the great miracle of finding thousands of Jews here. The churches, the convents, the monks and nuns, and above all the pontiff, ran to the aid and rescue of the Jews, snatching them from the clutches of the Nazis and of their fascist Italian collaborators. These great efforts, not without their dangers, were undertaken to conceal and feed the Jews during the months of the German occupation. Some religious paid with their lives for this rescue operation. The entire Church was mobilized for this purpose, working with great dedication. The Vatican was at the center of every activity of assistance and rescue, under the given circumstances an under Nazi domination.”
I also cite a letter from the Italian front, by the soldier Eliyahu Lubisky, a member of the socialist kibbutz Bet Alfa. It was published in the weekly “Hashavua” on August 4, 1944: “All of the refugees are talking about how helpful the Vatican was. Priests put their lives in danger to conceal and save Jews. The pontiff himself participated in the work to rescue the Jews.”
Again, October 15, 1944. We note the address given by the extraordinary commissioner of the Jewish community in Rome, Silvio Ottolenghi: “Thousands of our brothers were saved in the convents, in the churches, in the extraterritorial buildings. On July 23. I was summoned to meet with His Holiness, to whom I communicated the thanks of the community of Rome for the heroic and affectionate assistance extended to us by the clergy through the convents and colleges . . . I told His Holiness about the desire of my fellow Jews in Rome to go en masse to thank him. But this kind of demonstration was not possible, except at the end of the war, in order to avoid compromising all of those in the north who still needed to be protected.”
Q: This was while the war was still going on. Let’s come to today . . .
A: Today, unfortunately, attention to Pius XII is so strong that even a normal historiographic discussion becomes heated.
Q: The issue is so incendiary that there is still the problem of the photograph of Pius XII at Yad Vashem, and its caption. This in spite of the mass of testimonies to which you have just referred. What happened?
A: What happened is that over the years, the black legend of Pius XII has been spread. We recall the books by John Cornwell (“Hitler’s Pope”) and by Daniel Goldhagen (“Hitlers willige Vollstrecker [Hitler’s willing executioners]”), in which these accusations are made more explicit. A common judgment was formed, according to which Pius XII was seen as a pontiff who was nothing less than an accomplice of the Nazi Führer. This is crazy! And just think that at Eichmann’s trial in 1961, a judgment about the pope was expressed that is worth rereading. The person speaking is Gideon Hausner, the state prosecutor in Jerusalem: “In Rome, on October 16, 1943, a vast round-up was organized in the old Jewish neighborhood. The Italian clergy participated in the rescue operation, the monasteries opened their doors to the Jews. The pontiff intervened personally in favor of the Jews arrested in Rome.”
Q: This was just two years before the performance of “The Vicar” . . .
A: And it was in 1963 that a twofold revision of Pius XII’s role began taking hold. One of these was malicious – inside the Church itself – and contrasted Pius XII with the figure of John XXIII. It was a devastating operation: John XXIII was treated as a pope who had demonstrated a sensitivity during the second world war that Pius XII had not. This is a very bizarre idea. And between the lines of the invective against Pacelli, it seems to emerge that the pontiff has been made to pay for his anti-communism. In reality, Pius XII was a pope in line with the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century. If one reads what he wrote or listens to the recordings of his speeches, one realizes how he also expressed, for example, criticism of liberalism. I mean that he was not at all a pawn of anti-communist Atlantism.
Q: This means that he wasn’t the chaplain of the West . . .
A: Absolutely not. The image of Pius XII as the chaplain of the great anti-communist offensive during the cold war is off track. Although, naturally, he was anti-communist. And for this anti-communism, he has been made to pay a very high price, which has distorted his image through theatrical performances, publications, and films. But anyone who has not taken a prejudicial attitude and has tried to understand Pacelli through the documents cannot help but be stunned by this black legend, which makes no sense. Pius XII was a great pope, able to meet the situation. It is as if today we were to blast Roosevelt for not speaking more clearly about the Jews. But how can one scrutinize a war, especially regarding an unarmed figure like the Pope? This speciousness of this offensive against Pius XII seems truly suspect to any person of good faith, and it is a speciousness that should be opposed. Sooner or later, someone will reinterpret the facts in the light of the testimonies to which I referred earlier.
Q: Are there differences between European, and in particular Italian, historiography on Pius XII, versus American?
A: I think so. We should not forget that this aversion toward Pius XII emerged in the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant world. It did not emerge from the Jewish world, which instead adapted itself over time in order to avoid being caught off guard by an international campaign. To put it in another way: if the pope is accused of letting anti-Semitism run free, obviously the Jewish world feels itself responsible for seeing things clearly. This brings us to the episode of the seventh hall of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where a photograph of the pope appears with a caption that describes his behavior as “ambiguous.” Or to the request, in 1998, by of the ambassador of Israel to the Holy See at the time, Aaron Lopez, to put a moratorium on the beatification of Pius XII. Now, I have nothing to do with this matter of the moratorium, because it is not an historiographical issue. But there is something excessively obstinate about attitudes toward this pope, and it stinks from a mile away.
It was in 1963 that the spotlight was focused on Pius XII, in an effort to find evidence of his guilt, and nothing emerged. On the contrary, the studies brought to light copious documentation attesting to how his Church gave crucial help to the Jews. I recall, in this regard, one beautiful gesture: in June of 1955, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra asked to be allowed to give a concert at the Vatican in honor of Pius XII, to express gratitude to this pope, and it played in the presence of the pope a movement from Beethoven’s seventh symphony. This was the atmosphere. And when the pope died, Golda Meir – Israel’s foreign minister, and future prime minister – said: “When the most appalling martyrdom ever struck our people during the ten years of the Nazi terror, the voice of the pontiff was raised in favor of the victims. We weep for the loss of this great servant of peace.” For some, the pontiff’s voice had not been raised, but they had heard it. Understand? Golda Meir had heard his voice. And William Zuckerman, director of the magazine “Jewish Newsletter,” wrote: “All the Jews of America pay homage and express their sorrow, because it is likely that no leader of this generation gave more substantial help to the Jews in the hour of tragedy. More than anyone else, we were able to benefit from the great and charitable goodness and magnanimity of the lamented pontiff during the years of persecution and terror.” This is how Pius XII was considered for years, for decades. Were they all crazy? No, they were the ones who had suffered the persecutions for which Pius XII is blamed as an accomplice. If we take this as a case of historiography, the black legend is crazy. But I think that, apart from some polemicists, any historian worthy of the name – even in the case of people like me who are not Catholic – will fight to reestablish the truth.
Q: What has emerged so far from Israeli historiography? Has there been an evolution in the judgment of historians? Is there still a debate about Pius XII?
A: I would say that Israeli historiography is very restrained. In reality, the case is still open because of the obstinance of another world, which is not the Jewish world. I think that three aspects must be considered. First of all, Pius XII has been made to pay for his anti-communism. Second: this pope knew Germany well, and had a pro-German attitude that, make no mistake, does not mean pro-Nazi. Finally, it must be said that the criticisms of Pius XII always come from circles that could be criticized ten times as much themselves. During the Holocaust, these circles were unable to demonstrate a presence anywhere near what they criticize Pius XII for not doing.
Q: Do you want to give us some examples?
A: I think about what happened in France, in Poland, but even in the United States. Let’s think about it: the idea of those who accuse Pius XII is that everyone knew, or that in any case it was possible to know. So I ask: whom do we remember, during the second world war, among the personalities of these circles who raised their voices in a way that the pope is criticized for not doing? I don’t know any.
Q: Are you also referring to the Italian anti-fascists?
A: Absolutely. But essentially: who can be pointed to as someone who did for the Jews something that the pope did not do? I don’t know anyone. There are individual cases, just as there were individual cases among Church authorities. At least this pope did everything he was able to do. He made it possible for ten thousand Jews in Rome – but this also happened in other parts of Italy – to save themselves, compared to the two thousand who were killed. I don’t understand what the terms of comparison should be. So I believe that it is possible to conjecture that these criticisms, these invectives, come from circles whose consciences are not at ease in regard to this problem.
Q: So the black legend is a case of a guilty conscience?
A: I would say so. it doesn’t make sense otherwise. The truth is that hatred for Pius XII emerged in a specific context, at the start of the cold war. We should remember that it was the pope who made possible the victory of Democrazia Cristiana in 1948. I am convinced that the accusations against him are the purging of a hatred that emerged in the second half of the 1940’s and during the 1950’s. The literature hostile to Pius XII came after the war. In Italy, it began after the collapse of the national unity government in 1947, and became more heated during the 1950’s. This entire depository of hatred and strong aversion emerged in later years. If it had come to light immediately, the Jews whose lives have been saved thanks to this Church would not have permitted the speaking and writing of what has been said and written. Because it came out twenty or thirty years later, all of the witnesses, all of those who were saved – we are talking about thousands of people – were gone, and the new generation of their children took in these accusations. And in fact, who was it who resisted the accusations? The historians.
Q: In addition to this, there were Catholic voices that have contrasted Pius XII and his successor, John XXIII.
A: In fact, I believe that the opening of the beatification causes of these two popes was not announced at the same time by accident. When Paul VI went to the Holy Land in 1964, and spoke in very warm terms about Pius XII, there were no great protests. No one protested. And operation “Vicar” had already begun. The accusations seemed incredible. After this, the landslide gradually gained force, as the generation of eyewitnesses disappeared. In any case, I think that historians will do justice to Pius XII.
Q: We have mentioned the Catholics. “La Civiltà Cattolica” has written that Pius XII failed to speak with a prophetic voice. Isn’t that a somewhat anachronistic judgment? Should the pontiff have gone to the ghetto on October 16, 1944, as he had gone to the bombed neighborhood of San Lorenzo a few weeks earlier?
A: Sincerely, the Jewish blood that runs through my veins makes me prefer a pope who helps my fellow Jews to survive, rather than one who performs a showy gesture. A pope who goes to a bombed neighborhood is a pope who weeps for the victims, he performs a gesture of warmth and affection for the city, while his presence in the ghetto might be controversial. Of course, in hindsight anything can be said, even – as has been written – that it would have been right for him to throw himself on the tracks to keep the trains from leaving. But I think that these are frivolous judgments. And also, in sincerity, criticizing another for not doing what none of your own people did is a bit risky. In fact, I don’t recall that any representatives of the anti-Nazi Roman resistance went to the ghetto, or threw themselves on the tracks. These discussions are truly lacking in moderation.
Q: About the controversy within Catholicism, Rabbi David Dalin has gone so far as to write that Pius XII is the biggest club that the progressives can use to attack the traditionalists . . .
A: The most inconvenient aspect, but to me it is evident (even if I am looking at it from the outside) is that this battle in the Catholic world that opposes the figures of John XXIII and Pius XII is not very courageous, because no one does it openly. There is no book or article from an authoritative representative of the Catholic world that says clearly, John XXIII yes and Pius XII no. It is a battle carried out between the lines, made up of subtleties. For me, the issue is clear: either one is truly convinced that Pius XII was a Nazi accomplice, or if instead things are the way they have been discussed in this interview, then certain people should realize that these arguments contributed only to perpetuating the black legend about this pope. It should be noted: I believe that this black legend is running out of time. Pius XII will not be a pope marked by a “damnatio memoriae.”
Q: Why do you say this?
A: Precisely from the historical point of view, the evidence in favor is so strong and extensive, and the lack of contrary evidence is so glaring, that this offensive against Pius XII is destined to exhaust itself.
Q: A final question about the attitude of Pius XII. How is it possible to reconstruct the nature of his silent work regarding the Holocaust?
A: I have often thought about Pius XII, trying to imagine what kind of personality he had. He has been compared to Benedict XV, the pope of the first world war. But the second world war was very different. Certainly Pacelli was a tormented man, one who had his doubts. He himself dwelt upon his own “silence” in 1941. He found himself at a horrible crossroads that brought some of his convictions into question. Then there was a long period after the war, until 1958, in which he continued to be a strong pope, present, important, decisive for the reconstruction of Italy in the period following the war. He may have been the most important pope the 20th century. He was certainly tormented by doubts. On the matter of his silence, as I have said, he questioned himself. But it is precisely this that gives me a sense of his greatness.
One thing has struck me above all. Once the war was over, if Pius XII had had a guilty conscience, he would have bragged about his work to save the Jews. But he never did this. He never said a word. He could have. He could have had it written about, had it said. He didn’t do it. For me, this is the proof of how substantial his character was. He was not a pope who felt the need to defend himself. Regarding judgment about Pius XII, I must say that there remains in my heart what Robert Kempner, a Jewish lawyer of German origin and the second prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial, wrote in 1964: “Any propagandistic statement of position by the Church against the government of Hitler would not only have been premeditated suicide, but would have accelerated the killing of a much greater number of Jews and priests.”
I conclude: for twenty years, the judgments about Pius XII were unanimous. In my opinion, therefore, there is something that doesn’t add up about the offensive against them. And anyone who ventures to study him with intellectual honesty must start from precisely this point. From these figures that don’t add up.
The “pope’s newspaper” in which the interview was published:
The homily by Benedict XVI at the Mass on October 9, 2008, at the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pius XII:
The article from http://www.chiesa, containing the critical article from “La Civiltà Cattolica”:
And an earlier article with an incisive profile of Pius XII, written by Professor Pietro De Marco:
The latest book published in Italy on this topic is the following, with a detailed summary of the controversy:
Alessandro Angelo Persico, “Il caso Pio XII. Mezzo secolo di dibattito su Eugenio Pacelli [The case of Pius XII. Half a century of debate about Eugenio Pacelli]”, Guerini e Associati, Milan, 2008, pp. 462, 28.00 euros.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.