After decades of controversy over Pope Pius XII’s failure to condemn the mass murder of Europe’s Jews during WWII—with his defenders claiming his help was generously given behind the scenes—the secret Vatican archives covering the pope’s 19-year tenure have just been opened to researchers.
Last week’s move was in part a result of sustained pressure on the Vatican from historians and Jewish groups to provide full transparency, before Holocaust survivors have completely faded from the scene. But it was also due to an effort by the Vatican to get the process of canonizing Pope Pius XII (declaring him a saint) back on track.
This process was derailed in the early 2000s after the pope’s image was badly tarnished by two widely acclaimed historical works, Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell and Under His Very Windows by Susan Zuccotti.
The books explore the “mystery” of the pope’s silence and inaction during the Holocaust and his so-called neutrality stance. Cornwell also scrutinizes the pope’s relationship with Hitler and Hitler’s ally, Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini.
From the very first days of the war, following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, the pope was under great pressure to speak out. Yet he refused to condemn the Germans for the invasion and throughout the war voiced no public criticism of Hitler.
In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews, wrote Cornwell in Hitler’s Pope. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz and reports about their mass murder reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing.
Defenders of Pius XII say that the Vatican’s shocking silence in the face of Nazi atrocities against the Jews, and in spite of the incessant pleas from the Jews for help, was merely tactical – designed to mislead the Nazis.
For example, In March 1998, the Vatican published Noi Ricordiamo: Una Riflessione Sulla Shoah, in which it claimed Pius XII had saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives, either by personal intervention or by delegating rescue initiatives to others.
Supporters point to the fact that about 400 Jews were hidden in the Vatican itself and thousands more found sanctuary in Rome’s many monasteries and convents. They cite the Vatican’s other forms of humanitarian aid to refugees during and after the Holocaust.
This image of the pope as benevolent and helpful to Jews behind the scenes is forcefully disputed by historian Zuccotti in the heavily documented Under His Very Windows. The author finds no evidence of papal instructions to church institutions to shelter Jews, and much evidence to suggest that the pope remained uninvolved, leaving church leaders to their own discretion.
Historians also point to the infamous “Reich Concordat” that Pius XII signed with Hitler in 1933, five years before the outbreak of war. The pact with Hitler was essentially a peace treaty in which the Roman Catholic church swore loyalty to the German government (later Hitler’s Third Reich) and agreed to abstain from all political opposition.
In return, the Nazi regime pledged it would allow the church a high degree of self-administration and freedom from government interference.
Historians say the pope’s pact with Hitler vastly enhanced his respectability in Germany and abroad, persuading millions of people to fall in line with Nazism.
In the months and years after the Concordant was signed, the Nazis brazenly violated the terms of the treaty, shutting down some Catholic organizations, confiscating church property, and imprisoning and murdering some members of the Catholic clergy.
Nevertheless, the Church upheld the Concordat throughout the duration of the Third Reich, even in the face of the worst Nazi excesses.
The 1935 Nuremberg Laws that stripped German Jews from all civil rights and the terrors of Kritallnacht in 1938 evoked no protest from the pope. Even as the Nazis launched World War II, slaughtering tens of thousands of Poles in the 1939 invasion of Poland, the church remained silent.
As Nazi persecutions escalated, the pope’s refusal to take a humanitarian stand facilitated the horrors of the Holocaust. Millions of citizens in Nazi-occupied lands felt they could remain faithful Christians even when colluding with the Germans, or remaining indifferent bystanders as the Jews were slaughtered.
With the opening of the Vatican archives last week, both critics and defenders hope to find support for their positions.
Historians also hope to learn about the church’s post-war activities, such as the role the Vatican played in helping Nazi war criminals escape to countries like Brazil and Argentina.
Few dispute that the so-called “ratline” that enabled these arch criminals to escape justice depended on Church institutions and high-ranking Catholic officials. But how did it operate? What did the pope himself know about it? Did anyone try to stop it?
Under the Guise of Neutrality
A practicing Catholic, Cornwell had originally set out to write a book about Pope Pius in order to clear the Vatican leader of mounting allegations that he had collaborated with Hitler under the guise of neutrality. Cornwell wanted to counteract the growing perception that the pope had acted from anti-Semitic tendencies, or from moral cowardice.
Granted unprecedented access to sealed Church archives in the late 1990s to assist him in his work, Cornwell stumbled across document after document that, as he expressed in the preface to his book, left him in “moral shock.”
“The material I had gathered,” he wrote, “amounted not to an exoneration, but to a scandalous indictment.”
The author discovered evidence that Pope Pius XII had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. The evidence also showed that the pope had consistently denied and trivialized the Holocaust as atrocities were taking place, despite having reliable knowledge of their true extent.
Although in the post-war years, the Church presented Pius as having boldly denounced the Nazi persecution of the Jews, both Cornwell, Zuccotti and Holocaust historian David Kertzer, (The Popes Against the Jews and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara), assert this is untrue. The pope, they maintain, remained tight-lipped and noncommittal about the Holocaust throughout the remainder of his papacy, until his death in 1958.
Vatican-authored articles today continue to paint the picture of an activist pope while citing no evidence to support those claims, Kertzer notes.
In the buildup to the Vatican’s imminent opening of the archives, major Italian newspapers carried full-page articles describing Pius XII’s “heroic efforts” to thwart the Nazis and protect the Jews.
“Vatican: Over Six Thousand Jews in Rome Saved Thanks to the Action of Pius XII,” declared a January 28 headline in Rome’s major daily paper, Il Messaggero. “Oddly, the article offered no evidence of any action taken by the pope to this effect,” writes Kertzer in Atlantic magazine.
Kertzer said that what he hopes to understand better from the unsealed Pius files is the role played by the church in demonizing Jews.
“The main purveyors of vilification of Jews for many decades was not the state, it was the church,” he says. “And it was vilifying Jews right up through the ‘30s and right up to the beginning of the Holocaust, if not into it, including Vatican-related publications.”
This, Kertzer says, is what the Vatican needs to come to terms with.
The Agony of the Jews of Rome
Pius XII maintained his silence even when Italy’s fascist regime conducted a merciless campaign against Italian Jewry. They hauled some two thousand people from their homes in the Quartiere Ebraico, the Jewish Quarter, as well as in other areas of Rome, and herded them all into waiting trucks.
The captured Jews, a great percentage of them women and children, were brought to a vacant military college where they huddled in terror for two days. Then they were taken to the train station and loaded onto cattle cars without food or water, for a journey that would last six days, ending in Auschwitz where the victims were gassed.
This savage roundup happened in full view of the Vatican, writes Susan Zuccotti in Under His Very Window. Scenes of frightened, weeping people, being abused and mistreated with no one coming to their aid… how did this not evoke a response?
The pope could have called publicly for their release. He could have sent a private petition to Hitler, pleading for their release. He did neither, wrote Zuccotti.
A poignant plaque on the Via Lungara, just a stone’s throw from the gates of Vatican City, commemorates this horrific crime: “On 16 October 1943, entire Jewish Roman families were ripped from their homes and brought to this place and then deported to concentration camps. Of more than 2,000 people, only 16 survived.”
Satimia Spezzichino was one of those torn from her home in the Jewish quarter, together with her mother, two sisters and a niece. After the war, she came back alone, one of only a handful who survived, as she was discovered alive in a heap of corpses.
“I lost my mother, two sisters and a brother,” Satimia testified almost 60 years later. “Pius XII could have warned us about what was going to happen…We might have escaped from Rome and joined the partisans. We were right under his window, but he never lifted his voice. Nobody came, not even to save a child.”
Walking through the area of the old Jewish ghetto today, one can find bronze plates embedded in the ground, memorializing the Jews who were deported. An artist from Cologne has laid 50,000 of these cobblestone plates, known in German as stolpersteine, throughout European lands once occupied by the Nazis.
In Rome, the stones have been set in the ground or street in front of the former homes of the deported Jews, each inscribed with the owner’s name, as well as his/her dates of birth, arrest and murder, a piercing reminder of lives viciously destroyed.
Pact with the Devil
As the pact between Pius XII and Hitler helped sweep the Nazis to the zenith of power, it also destroyed the one political force—the Catholic-based Center Party—which might have thwarted Hitler’s worst excesses, writes Cornwell.
Into the political vacuum created by the disbandment of the Catholic parties, Catholics in the millions joined the Nazi Party, believing that it had the support of the pope.
After the Reich Concordat was signed, the great German Catholic Church, at the insistence of the Vatican, fell silent. All forms of political protests against the policies of the Nazis were aborted.
Pius framed the Concordat as a huge victory for the Church. In an article in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican-controlled newspaper, he announced that the treaty indicated the total recognition and acceptance of the church’s law by the German state.
But Hitler had played the Vatican leader for a fool; it was the Nazi leader and his regime who were the true victors. On July 14, 1933, after the initialing of the Concordant, the Cabinet minutes record Hitler as saying that the Concordat would be “especially significant in the struggle against international Jewry.”
Hitler had good reason to gloat. He had succeeded in co-opting the Catholic Church into giving its blessing to the Third Reich and National Socialism. The Concordat immediately drew the German church into complicity with the Nazis, using German priests to disclose Jewish ancestry through the Church’s “attestation bureaucracy.”
Pope Pius XII, despite the immense power he now wielded, said and did nothing to prevent this crime. The “attestation machinery” would lead inexorably to the selection of millions destined for the death camps.
Christians in Good Standing
The fruits of the Concordat allowed millions of Christians to take part in the Holocaust without a pang of conscience. It allowed rank and file Nazis to carry out horrific acts of murder and torture and retain their bona fides as Christians in good standing.
One can’t fail to remember the last words of top Nazi henchmen who were executed at Nuremberg, and the final words of Adolph Eichmann who died on the gallows in Jerusalem. These human monsters who devoted six days a week to butchering Jews and then went to church on Sunday, invoked the name of their deity in their final moments.
“G-d protect Germany, G-d have mercy on my soul,” said Jochim Ribbentrop, Germany’s foreign minister, condemned to death for atrocities in Vichy France.
“To G-d’s eternal justice, I trustfully submit,” said Hans Frank, sentenced to the gallows for engineering the extermination of Polish Jewry, personally shooting Jewish children to death.
“I die believing in G-d,” said Adolf Eichmann, responsible for the deportation of millions of Jews to the death camps, including almost half a million Hungarian Jews.
Is there a greater testimony to the catastrophe of a religious world authority that allowed its adherents to remain in the “community of the faithful?” while committing the most heinous crimes against humanity?
No Response to the Auschwitz Protocols
For years, the Vatican defended Pius XII from charges of refusing to denounce the Nazi extermination of the Jews, claiming it was hard to establish the truth of what was going on.
But historian John Cornwell claims that throughout the war there was a stream of papal representatives and pilgrims who came to Rome bringing news of the situation in Europe.
And in 1942, Pius heard from the Jews themselves.
Gerhard Riegner, a German Jewish refugee working in Geneva, Switzerland, at the World Jewish Congress, sent a memo to Pope Pius XII called the Auschwitz Protocols, detailed reliable information about the deportations and mass killings of Jews in Catholic countries where the pope had influence. He pleaded with the pope to intervene. What was the Vatican response to his appeal?
According to Riegner, interviewed on “60 Minutes” fifteen years ago, “There was no response from the Vatican. The killing of six million Jews during World War II was not a concern of the Catholic church.”
Riegner, 87 at the time of the interview, acknowledged that Catholics saved the lives of thousands of Jews during the war, but he says these were people acting on their own conscience and not on the instructions of the pope.
Based on her research for Under His Very Windows, historian Zuccotti agrees, adding that Pius did help some Jews but never issued an order of resistance that would have rallied millions of Catholics to offer help and sanctuary to Jews in their midst.
A Megalomaniac Named Mussolini
Two years after his pact with Hitler, Pius XII forged an alliance with another megalomaniac fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, who came to power in Italy in 1922.
Mussolini had posters erected throughout Rome proclaiming Mussolini ha sempre ragione, “Mussolini is always right,” and insisted on being referred to in speech and writing as Il Duce (The Leader), as part of a cult-building campaign.
With the support of the Catholic church, Mussolini set out to re-establish Italy as a great world power, launching an invasion of Ethiopia in 1945 in order to colonize that country.
Italian planes dropped bombs with chemical weapons on Ethiopian villages, devastating the population and prompting the League of Nations to impose a boycott on Italy.
Not only did the Catholic church refrain from opposing Mussolini’s war of aggression, notes Kertzer in an interview with Fresh Air commentary, the pope actually had his cardinals around the world, including in the United States, lobby in support of Mussolini’s policies. Thanks to the influence of the cardinals, the U.S Congress voted not to join the boycott against Italy.
Day of the Wedding Ring
Italian-Americans took pride in an Italian leader who had put Italy on the map. To illustrate how far the Mussolini cult went, Italians in America and other countries took part in what was called the “Day of the Wedding Ring,” a bizarre scheme that called for all pro-Mussolini loyalists to give up their gold wedding rings. These were to be melted down to help offset the effects of the international boycott and help support the war.
Astoundingly, in many American cities with large Italian-American neighborhoods, thousands of people gave up their wedding rings to the Italian consul representing the Mussolini regime. Even more striking, in Italy itself, priests, bishops and cardinals had their gold crosses melted down to support Mussolini’s Ethiopian war of aggression, attested historian Kertzer in an interview.
Meanwhile, Italy’s increasing co-operation with Nazi Germany culminated in the 1939 Pact of Steel between the two countries. Influenced by Hitler, Mussolini began to introduce anti-Jewish legislation in Italy and as Germany’s ally, he declared war on Britain and France in June 1940.
Italy’s Fascist regime began to lose popular support after Italian forces suffered a series of defeats in Africa and the Balkans. The failure of the German-Italian offensive in Egypt in the summer and autumn of 1942 further undermined the regime’s legitimacy.
In July 1943, Allied troops landed in Sicily. Mussolini was overthrown and imprisoned by his former colleagues in the fascist government. In September, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies.
Hitler ordered his army to launch an occupation of Italy, and Mussolini was rescued by German commandos. He was installed as the leader of a new government, but had little power. As the Allies advanced northwards through Italy, Mussolini fled towards Switzerland. He was captured by Italian partisans and shot on 28 April 1945.
Historians note that the Catholic church’s support for Mussolini’s war of aggression against Ethiopia occupies little more than a footnote in the annals of church history, and represents a profound moral failure the church has yet to address.
Italian Jewry in the Holocaust
Eighty-five to ninety per cent of Italy’s 50,000 Jews (including refugees from other countries) survived the Holocaust, say historians. This extraordinary survival rate in a country that was solidly aligned with Hitler was due to several factors.
Despite Italy’s alliance with Germany, the fascist regime led by Benito Mussolini only partly complied with Hitler’s orders to first concentrate and then deport Italy’s 50,000 Jews to killing centers in German-occupied Poland.
Italian military authorities generally refused to participate in mass murder of Jews or to engage in wholesale deportations from Italy or Italian-occupied territory. Italian-occupied areas were therefore relatively safe for Jews. Between 1941 and 1943, thousands of Jews escaped from German-occupied territory to the Italian-occupied zones of France, Greece, and Yugoslavia.
The Italian authorities even evacuated some 4,000 Jewish refugees to the Italian mainland. Incarcerated in southern Italy, these Jewish refugees survived the war.
The 1943 German occupation of northern Italy, however, radically altered the situation of 43,000 Italian Jews living in the northern half of the country. The Nazis quickly established an SS and police apparatus, with the aim of deporting the Italian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In October and November 1943, German authorities rounded up Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Trieste, and other major cities in northern Italy, according to an historical overview by the U.S. Holocaust Museum. They established police transit camps at Fossoli di Carpi, and at Borgo San Dalmazzo, near the French border, to concentrate the Jews prior to deportation.
These operations were of limited scope, partly due to advance warning given to the Jews by humanitarian Italian authorities. In addition, many rank and file Italians refused to participate in mass murders and roundups.
In all, the Nazis deported 8,564 Jews from Italy, Italian-occupied France, and the islands of Rhodes and Kos, sending most of them to Auschwitz. In addition, the Germans shot 196 Jews in Italy proper, nearly half of these at a massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in March 1944. Another approximately 100 died in the police transit camps, in prisons or police custody across Italy.
More than 40,000 Jews survived.