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Hitler, the War and the Pope

Hitler, the War and the Pope

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by Ronald J. Rychlak

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Perhaps no modern-day leader of the Roman Catholic Church has sparked as much controversy as Pope Pius XII, the Bishop of Rome during World War II. Was he a Nazi sympathizer? Or did he vehemently oppose Hitler's regime? The conflicting opinions about Pius XII's wartime performance indicate not only the complexities of the man, the former Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, but


Perhaps no modern-day leader of the Roman Catholic Church has sparked as much controversy as Pope Pius XII, the Bishop of Rome during World War II. Was he a Nazi sympathizer? Or did he vehemently oppose Hitler's regime? The conflicting opinions about Pius XII's wartime performance indicate not only the complexities of the man, the former Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, but also the difficulty in understanding the Hitler era and the inherent conflict between political posturing and pastoral actions.

With exacting scholarship, Professor Ron Rychlak gives a full exploration of the background facts, including discussions of history, religion, politics, diplomacy, and military tactics. Then come ten fundamental questions concerning Pope Pius XII and the Nazis which are answered with legal analysis and authoritative citation. The epilogue provides a critical examination of John Cornwell's recent book on the same topic, Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.

Readers will come away from this book with a new appreciation for the difficulties, challenges, and choices faced by the Bishop of Rome during a time of almost unfathomable horror.

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Chapter One

The Papacy and the World

The heart of the Roman Catholic Church is at the Vatican, the smallest sovereign state in the world. Vatican City is on the west bank of the Tiber River, lying within the Italian capital city of Rome, and almost completely surrounded by walls which were built in the 16th century. The city covers about 108 acres, but most of the sights can be seen in a comfortable hour-long walk. The Vatican also has extraterritorial jurisdiction over Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence near Rome, and thirteen churches and other buildings in Rome.

    The Vatican's population consists primarily of employees of the Holy See, the central government of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican flies its own flag, mints its own currency, maintains a police force, a court system, two jails, a fire department, and provides mail services. The Vatican also has its own newspaper, railway station, telephone system, five radio stations, and a bank with financial resources in Italy and abroad. At one time, the Vatican had an army of warriors, but Pope Paul disbanded the Noble Guard and the Palatine Guard in 1970 (true military might had disappeared long before that). Today, about ninety members of the Swiss Guard are a largely ceremonial remnant of earlier military prowess.

    The leader of the Catholic Church is the Pope, the bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus Christ conferred the position of primacy in the Church upon the apostle Peter and on him alone. In defining this doctrine, the First Vatican Council cited threeNewTestament passages, called the "Petrine" texts:

Matthew 16:18-19: I for my part declare to you, you are "Rock," and on this rock I will build my Church, and the jaws of death shall not prevail against it. I will entrust to you the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Luke 22:32: But I have prayed for you [Peter] that your faith may never fail. You in your turn must strengthen your brothers.

John 21:17: [A] third time Jesus asked him, "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because he had asked a third time, "Do you love me?" So he said to him: "Lord, you know everything. You know well that I love you." Jesus said to him, "Feed my sheep."

According to Catholic teaching, these texts signify that Christ himself named Peter as head of the Church, with the authority to pronounce infallibly on matters of faith or morals. The Pope is the successor of Peter, and the powers that were conferred on Peter pass down in perpetuity to his papal successors. The Pope is aided by the cardinals and a bureaucracy known as the Roman Curia. When the cardinals are called together to deal with questions of major importance, they are referred to as the College of Cardinals. Upon the death of the Pope, the cardinals who are under eighty years of age elect his successor.

    When elected, each new Pope inherits his many official titles: Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of St. Peter, Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Patriarch of the West, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, and Servant of the Servants of God. His ministry is to serve, and his role of authority is to teach and govern in the name of Christ.

    In addition to being the head of the Church, the Pope is also a head of state. The Holy See signs treaties and makes international agreements with other countries. Papal nuncios (ambassadors) are sent to most countries, and elsewhere Apostolic Delegates (who do not have formal diplomatic functions) watch over and inform the Pope of the state of the Church in their assigned regions. The Vatican has its own Secretary of State, and though not a permanent member of the United Nations, the Holy See has an observer in this body.

    In terms of international relations, most Popes have had similar goals for the Vatican. Perhaps the most controversial Popes of the twentieth century—at least in terms of world politics—were the Naziera Popes, Pius XI and Pius XII. Because of the official neutrality of the Vatican during the war, and a clear concern on the part of the Holy See about the spread of Communism across Europe, some historians have argued that Pope Pius XII, in particular, failed to provide the moral guidance that was needed at this time of great crisis. Others have even suggested that he wanted the Germans to win.

    Several questions must be addressed in order to evaluate Pius XII's role in World War II. They include: Was he anti-Semitic? Was he blinded by a hatred of Communism? Did he come under the influence of Adolf Hitler? Would a statement by him have diminished Jewish suffering? These are complicated questions which demand careful answers.

    The best way to analyze the wartime performance of Pius XII is by viewing the world from the perspective of the Vatican during that era. In particular, one must evaluate the situation in Europe during the 1920s and 1930s; the personal history of the key figures involved; international developments throughout World War II; and the perception of those closest to the situation, especially the Jewish victims of the Nazis. Once these factors have been studied, the picture of the Vatican and its wartime leader becomes much more clear, and the difficult questions concerning the role played by the Pope in World War II can be answered with a fair degree of certainty.

* * *

Pope Pius XII, the Church's 262nd Pope, was born in Rome on March 2, 1876, as Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli. Two days after his birth, he was baptized into the Catholic faith by his grand-uncle, Monsignor Giuseppe Pacelli. According to one report, another priest, family friend Monsignor Iacobacci, held the baby in his arms and said: "Sixty-three years from today the people in St. Peter's and all Rome will loudly praise this bambino." (Pacelli was elected Pope on his sixty-third birthday.)

    The Pacelli family had been supplying the Holy See with lawyers since the early years of the 19th century. Eugenio's grandfather, Marcantonio Pacelli, moved to Rome in 1819 to enter the service of the Holy See. He was promoted by Pius IX to Under Secretary of the Interior in the papal state, and he held that post until 1870. While at the Vatican, Marcantonio helped to establish the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano.

    Eugenio's father, Filippo Pacelli, was a distinguished Vatican lawyer. He served as a counselor to the Holy See, particularly in financial matters when he headed the Bank of Rome. He was made Dean of the Consistorial College, which was composed of twelve lawyers who contributed outstanding service to the Church. He also belonged to the so-called "Black Nobility." Members of this group stood by the Church and defended the rights and honor of the Pope during the time of the "Roman Question," when the Vatican was in conflict with Italy (1870-1929). Eugenio's brother, Francesco Pacelli, also a lawyer, was right-hand man to the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, during the negotiations with Benito Mussolini that led to the historic Lateran Treaty and the end of the Roman Question.

    Eugenio's mother, Virginia Pacelli, was a very religious woman who taught her son the importance of prayer as soon as he could talk. He became a devout child, but not without the typical interests of all children. He learned to play the violin and continued to love music throughout his life. He also enjoyed having stories told to him. Many of the stories, of course, were religiously oriented. One day, his uncle told him the story of a missionary priest who was persecuted and ultimately crucified by his tormentors. Eugenio told his uncle that he too would like to be a martyr, "but—without the nails."

    It was thought that Eugenio might follow family tradition and become a lawyer, but his religious influence was stronger. At the age of eighteen, he attended a four-day Church retreat. When he came home, his mind was made up. Eugenio Pacelli would be a priest.

    Eugenio was accepted into a prestigious seminary near the Pantheon in Rome, the Capranica. Within a very short time, he distinguished himself as one of the best students in his class. He particularly excelled in languages, eventually becoming fluent in Latin, Greek, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Eugenio took additional courses at another great seminary, the Gregoriana or Gregorian University. This intense program of studies, the dankness of the old buildings, his meager diet, and the demanding schedule caused Eugenio's health to suffer seriously. He developed a hacking cough, and the family doctor warned that he was on the brink of tuberculosis.

    These health problems nearly ended Eugenio's study and his religious career, but he had been noticed by Pope Leo XIII who permitted young Pacelli to live at home while completing his courses. This was a rare, if not unprecedented, dispensation. Frail health, however, still plagued Eugenio and prevented his participation in the school's graduation ceremony. Instead, he was ordained on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1899, by Francesco Paola Cassetta, auxiliary bishop of Rome, in the bishop's private chapel.

    The new, twenty-three-year-old priest celebrated his first Mass the next day in the Church of St. Mary Major, the largest Marian shrine in the world. Fr. Pacelli was then assigned to the parish of the Chiesa Nuova, where he had previously served as an altar boy. He did not, however, abandon his studies; he followed family tradition and studied law. He already possessed a doctorate in theology, and in 1902 he would be awarded a doctorate in canon and civil law.

    Pope Leo XIII had a program for training exceptional young clerics to serve in the Vatican diplomatic service, and two years after Pacelli was ordained, Cardinal Gasparri, Secretary of the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (and future Vatican Secretary of State), invited Pacelli into this program. Leo died in 1903, but the next year, the new Pope Pius X named Pacelli a monsignor and assigned him to a team which was charged with codifying Church canon law.

    For the next decade and a half, Msgr. Pacelli served as a research aide in the office of the Congregation of Ecclesiastical Affairs, helping with the codification project. He also served as the Pope's Minutante, editing and correcting the Pope's speeches and minutes, and as a personal envoy from the Pope to the Austrian Emperor. At the same time, he continued to say Mass, hear confessions, and instruct underprivileged children in religious matters.

    In 1914, Pope Pius X named Cardinal Gasparri the new Vatican Secretary of State, and Pacelli was promoted to the post Gasparri vacated, Secretary of the Congregation of Ecclesiastical Affairs. Pope Pius X died later this same year and was replaced by Pope Benedict XV. When World War I broke out, the Vatican became a relief station for suffering victims of war. Pacelli and Gasparri were charged with maintaining liaison with the hierarchies on both sides of the conflict, answering appeals for aid from all over Europe, and organizing a war relief program. Together, they helped 30,000 French and German prisoners return to their homes.

    In the summer of 1917, the papal nuncio to Bavaria, Archbishop Giuseppe Aversa, passed away. With Germany at the center of a war that affected most of Europe, this post was too important to leave vacant for long. The Pope needed to send a replacement immediately. Pacelli was already well known to both the Secretary of State and the Pope, and he was Benedict's choice to represent the Holy See in Munich.

    Before undertaking his new position, Pacelli was consecrated as bishop by Pope Benedict in a special ceremony in the Sistine Chapel. He was at the same time elevated to the rank of Archbishop. He was then sent off to Munich and into a very difficult situation. The British envoy to the Holy See, Sir Henry Howard, wrote in his diary that this move "will be a dreadful loss for our British mission to the Vatican for he is the one man who can be trusted implicitly; however, it is also consoling that there should be such an honest man at Munich at present."

    As nuncio to Bavaria, Pacelli's job was to try to ease the suffering, stop the fighting, work on a new concordat with the German state of Bavaria, and establish diplomatic relations with the rest of Germany. To these ends, in June 1917, Pacelli went to Berlin to introduce himself to Reich Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. While there, Pacelli visited many other German officials, including Kaiser Wilhelm II.

    Earlier Popes had acted as arbiters in wars, and Benedict XV wanted to do so now. Without taking sides, he put out an appeal to the governments to end the "useless slaughter." He laid out a plan to be presented to German leaders by Pacelli (who had helped draft the plan), but the new nuncio's efforts did not bring an end to the fighting. Kaiser Wilhelm II spent most of the meeting lecturing Pacelli on how the Vatican should deploy its soldiers in the event of an attack. All that Pacelli could accomplish was to convince the Kaiser to end the practice of bringing Belgians to Germany as semi-slave laborers. Pope Benedict's proposal did, however, prepare the way for Woodrow Wilson's settlement plan a year later.

    For the remainder of the war, Pacelli concentrated on carrying out Benedict's humanitarian efforts. (He has been credited with helping 65,000 prisoners of war return home.) Pacelli soon became a common sight in the streets of Munich, handing out food to those who were impoverished. Benedict emptied the Vatican treasury as he carried out his efforts to alleviate suffering. He spent so much of the Church's money that at the time of his death in 1922, there was not even enough money to cover the expenses related to his funeral and the ensuing conclave.

    War ended only when it became obvious that Germany would have to seek a treaty, and the German people demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm II do so. Inspired by the Communists in Russia, revolutionaries staged uprisings throughout Germany in November 1918. In Pacelli's home region of Bavaria, a short-lived Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed. Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands that same month. Germany seemed to be on the verge of a Communist take-over, but the Social Democrats and other more moderate parties were able to establish a parliamentary republic which negotiated an armistice. The terms specified that the German army would immediately evacuate all occupied territory; surrender great quantities of war material, including all submarines; and intern all other surface warships as directed by the Allies.

    The Paris Peace Conference was organized by the victors at the end of the war. In attendance were seventy delegates, representing twenty-seven victorious Allied powers. Despite his humanitarian efforts, Pope Benedict was excluded from the post-war Versailles Peace Conference due to the Vatican's official neutrality. Neither Germany nor any other defeated power was permitted to attend. Because the victorious nations often had conflicting proposals, the sessions were tumultuous and the final proposals were controversial. The four major powers, Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, dominated the proceedings.

    American President Woodrow Wilson proposed a conciliatory settlement based on fourteen points, many of which had been in Pope Benedict's plan a year earlier. Wilson warned of the consequences of imposing harsh terms on the losing side:

Victory would mean peace forced upon the loser, a victor's terms imposed upon the vanquished. It would be accepted in humiliation, under duress, at an intolerable sacrifice, and would leave a sting, a resentment, a bitter memory, upon which terms of peace would not rest, not permanently, but only as upon quicksand.

He continued: "Only a peace between equals can last; only a peace the very principle of which is equality and a common participation in a common benefit." Not all of the nations were as willing to permit survival of a strong Germany.

    After three and one-half months of argument, the Allied leaders finally reached agreement. The Versailles proposal called for Germany to admit guilt, give up territory, and disarm its military. Germany's Saar and Rhineland districts were to be placed under Allied occupation for fifteen years, and they were to remain perpetually demilitarized, as was a belt of territory thirty miles deep along the Rhine. All of Germany's overseas possessions were to be occupied by the Allies and organized as "mandates," under the supervision and control of a newly-formed League of Nations. The former emperor and other German war leaders were also to be tried as war criminals (this provision was never enforced).

    A number of other provisions were designed to insure the rest of the world against possible future German aggression. The new League of Nations was organized to make the peace secure, administer former colonies of the defeated powers, and foster general disarmament. The German army was limited to 100,000 men and was not to possess any heavy artillery; the general staff was abolished, and the navy was to be reduced. The new Austrian republic was reduced to its essential Germanic core, leaving it only one-quarter of its former size. Germany was prohibited from uniting with Austria, even by means of a customs union. No German air force would be permitted, and the production of military planes was forbidden.

    The Germans would also have to pay for the damages caused by the war. In fact, the Allies demanded reparations in excess of what Germany could realistically pay. In addition to providing compensation for all civilian damages caused during the war, Germans had to pay reparations of great quantities of industrial goods, merchant shipping, and raw materials. This burden, it was thought, would prevent Germany from being able to finance any major military buildup. What it actually accomplished was to provide Adolf Hitler with an issue that would unify his supporters throughout the next two decades.

    The German delegation denounced the plan, claiming it was in violation of the armistice negotiations and that the economic provisions would be impossible to fulfill. They argued that the Allies had proposed one set of terms to end the fighting, but now a completely different set of demands was being made. Nevertheless, they were over a barrel. The German army was unable to regroup. (Despite Hitler's later claims to the contrary, the German army did not want to continue fighting at this time.) The German delegation took the proposal back to Berlin where it was also denounced by Chancellor Philipp Scheidemann.

    The Allies maintained a naval blockade of Germany, and it soon became obvious that Germany would have to sign the treaty. The Socialist Republican leaders resigned rather than sign the treaty. (They had problems at home and had been forced to use the military to maintain order and suppress several revolts.) Shortly thereafter, a freely elected constituent assembly met in Weimar to write a constitution that would give governing power to the German Reichstag. On July 31, 1919, the Weimar Republic was established, and Germany was organized into a federal republic consisting of seventeen separate states.

    The new German Chancellor, Gustav Bauer, sent another delegation to Versailles. After informing the Allies that Germany was accepting the treaty only because of the need to alleviate the hardships on its people caused by the "inhuman" blockade, the Germans signed the proposal. Hitler would later argue that this capitulation to foreign demands invalidated the Weimar Republic's claim to represent Germany. When National Socialism swept across Germany, Weimar's leaders (particularly the Social Democrats) came to be called the "November Criminals."

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Hitler, the War, and the Pope 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
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A refreshing and much needed examination of primary source material too often overlooked by sensationalists out to advance a deconstructionist ideology, this elegantly written work contributes a great deal to an otherwise vociferously debated subject. Mastering a subject requiring a cool head, a willingness to scour the primary source material and an ability to objectively place the material in an historical context that is complex and challenging, Rychlak is impressive, persuasive and enjoyable. If it is documented fact upon documented fact upon documented fact you want, this is the book.