They attack the Pope because he was anti-Communist!
Sandro Magister, the Italian professor, columnist and expert on the Catholic Church posts an interview today with a historian on the subject of the pending Beatification of Pope Pius XII. Pius, with his "army" of 150, has been blamed by people who were not there for not doing what nobody else did in World World War II against the Nazis. Except that he did do many things. Read the whole interview with Magister's comments here.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Q: Do you want to give us some examples?
A: I think about what happened in
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
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
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
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
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
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.