Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust

Did this (in)famous Pope really turn a blind eye towards the Holocaust, or is that a myth?

This is really more of a great debate than a GQ. His critics say that if Pius had actively spoken out against the Holocaust, he could have raised international awareness of it and put enough pressure on the Germans to make them stop it or slow it down.

The more extreme of his critics say that he knew it was happening and just didn’t care because he didn’t like Jews, admired Nazism and hoped that it would destroy Communism, which he did think was a threat.

His defenders say that he did take action to save the Jews of Rome and that speaking out against it wouldn’t have had any effect except to put Catholics in Germany and in German occupied territories in danger, and that a lot of other world leaders, like Churchhill and Roosevelt, should have spoken up also, but didn’t.

Some things he did (correctly) do:

[ul][li]Write the Encyclical (issued by his prdecessor, Pius XI) Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Sorrow) that was proclaimed in German churches in 1938, condemning the racism inherent in the Nazi philosoiphy. [/li][li]When approached by several right-wing bishops of France who asked him to call for a Crusade against the godless communists of the Soviet Union (in which the armies of the countries that Germany had conquered would be recruited to join the Germans in their attack on the U.S.S.R.), ordered the bishops to be silent and declared that the Nazis were a far worse evil than the Marxists. (This is more notable considering his overt efforts to condemn the Soviets in the years following WWII.)[/li][li]Wrote an explicit condemnation of the Nazis to be published following the proclamation of a joint declaration by the Dutch Catholic and Protestant churches. The Dutch Protestants failed to make the proclamation; the Dutch Catholics went ahead and made it; the Nazis swept all the Dutch Catholic religious institutions, hauling anyone with a “Jewish” name off to concentration camps; the pope then destroyed his proclamation so as to prevent further reprisals.[/li][li]Offered to provide the Jewish community of Rome with about 1/3 the amount of gold necessary for a German extortion demand.[/li][li]Issued several proclamations condemning the actions of the Nazis throughout the war–including the Christmas speech of 1942 that the New York Times noted (then) as the only voice in Europe speaking out against the Nazis.[/li][li]Had the Vatican issue false passports to many Jews to allow them to flee Europe.[/ul][/li]
Some things he failed to do or did poorly:

[ul][li]Shelved an Encyclical that Pius the XI had had drafted, (but which Pius XI died before he could issue), condemning racism throughout the world. (Pius XII later issued the document, but only after the war and not as an encyclical.)[/li][li]Couched his condemnations of the Nazis in general terms, not actually naming the Germans, the Nazis, or Hitler.[/li][li]Allowed bureaucrats in the Vatican to cancel many of the false visas when they protested that the Jews were not actually converting to Catholicism.[/ul][/li]
My analysis is that Pius XII was, unlike his fiery predecessor, too reticent to step outside the formal diplomatic positions traditionally (i.e., since the dissolution of the Papal States) expressed by the popes. His Christmas message of 1942, hailed at the time as the only voice against Hitler in Europe, is now criticized for being too bland.

I think he should have done more, however, he certainly did more than any of the other religious leaders in Europe, so it is interesting that he is the one who comes in for the significant criticism.

The more recent issues that have called attention to the matter have been the joint investigation by a mixed group of Catholics and Jews. In the early 1990s, a commission was formed to investigate the connection between the Vatican and the Holocaust. A lot of information was turned up (both favorable and unfavorable to the Vatican). However, when the commission reached a certain point, the Vatican declared that there was nothing left to examine, while several of the participants have claimed that there is still more work to be done. I am not knowledgeable on all the background politics behind the claims and counter-claims, so I am not sure whether the ones who want to continue are simply digging for dirt that may, indeed, be irrelevant or whether some Vatican official simply thinks too much negative information has already been released. (I lean toward the latter theory, but the I suspect there may be some of the former, as well.)

The following essays are all from the Jewish Virtual Library:

A Question of Judgment: Pius XII & the Jews
How to Manufacture a Legend: The Controversy over the Alleged Silence of Pope Pius XII in World War II
860,000 Lives Saved - The Truth About Pius XII and the Jews
Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust


regarding the Dutch Bishop’s proclamation:

didn’t he, or Vatican PR, after the fact exaggerate the numbers of Dutch “Jewish” Catholics deported to the death camps to 600, from something like actual numbers of 19?

I’m referencing Robert Katz’ chapter in “What If 2” for those numbers.

Basically not being able to see into the mind of the man we’ll never know, but if he did exagerate the numbers as Katz claims he would seem to be rationalizing his inaction, and I would assume therefore harbouring a guilty conscience.

The only statement I have ever seen attributed to him on the incident in the Netherlands was supposed to have been uttered to his secretary the night of the sweeps, when he could not have known whether the round-up was going to include two people or 20,000. Based on that smidgeon of data, it does not seem to have been post facto rationalization. (This does not preclude the possibility of the secretary’s story being created, later, to cover his boss, but I have seen no documentation to support that.)

One thing for people who want to portray any/all of Pius XII’s statements as self-serving rationalizations: The Deputy was not produced until after his death. At the time of his death, he was still considered to have been a champion of the Jews (although one who was constrained by actually living in Fascist and Nazi lands from achieving very much). The nation of Israel planted an entire section of forest in the Negev desert, dedicated to him for his efforts on the behalf of Jews during WWII.

While he may have done too little (either because he did not feel called to do so or because of fear), it is unlikely that he would have spent any efforts to rationalize his behavior when he never felt that he was under attack for his actions.

The one libel that I think get promulgated is that his love of the German people caused him to restrain himself. He was, indeed, known to have an affection for the Germans from his time serving among them. However, his authorship of Mit Brennender Sorge and the manner in which he refused to call for the Crusade against the Soviets would seem to argue against that position. (Interestingly, neo-Nazi authors frequently allude to his refusal to support the Crusade as “evidence” that he was actually a closet Communist trying to destroy the “good” Nazis. The guy just can’t win.)

I was unaware of the forest planted in his honor, that is very interesting.

I actually only recently have read anything specifically on Pius XII, I was aware of a general criticism of the Vatican’s inaction to prevent (or at least attempt to ameliorate) the Holocaust, but was unaware specifically of the charges laid at the Pope at the time.

I suppose I assumed that the majority of criticism of his inaction was leveled by the Jewish community, but if he is in fact celbrated in Israel, from where does the bulk of the criticism originate?

I ask because I wonder if the motives of the attack may give more of a clue as to the intentions of the man (Pius).

The majority of current criticism does, indeed, frequently originate within the Jewish community. The forest planting occurred while he was alive and before people began to reconsider his efforts (or lack). The Jewish community is not the only group seeking answers, of course.

I am not prepared to claim either that the critics have ulterior motives or that they have no basis for criticism. I do have a bit of a question as to why some of them make a point of seeking to tear down the one person who did stand up to Hitler, however ineffectively, but the questions that are asked regarding the involvement of the Vatican in either hindering aid to Jewish refugees (as in the revocation of passports) or in rumored, but not yet substantiated, active aid to the Nazis is a legitimate pursuit of historians.
(One reason that may prompt reanalysis would, in fact, be such events as the forest planting or the proclamations by David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir praising the pope. It is probably rather important to people that the praise be deserved. If it is not deserved, history needs to be corrected.)

I hope we’re still safely on topic here, but based on the little I have read, including your links above it would seem that with the benefit of hindsight Pius XII did not do ‘enough’ in defense of the victims, but the same charge could be leveled at all of the allied leaders.

I suppose the questions arise in two areas: first, with the beautification. Even if Pius did in fact do ‘enough’ he almost certainly did not do anything exceptional, or super-natural that would justify this apparent first step to sainthood.

And secondly, in the supposedly edited portion of official Vatican documents released during his administration (reign?). I hate to take a Ashcroftian tact, but if there is nothing to hide, what are they hiding? If the charges of Papal collaboration with the Nazis are unfounded why not release the documents? Though I suppose the Vatican has always claied that they have already released all of the pertinant documents?

And just about all (if not all) of the national religious leaders of Europe in the same period.

The Vatican, like any large and ancient bureaucracy, only grudgingly reveals any of its secrets. Whether it is no more than that or whether there is more to it, I have no idea. A Google on International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission will turn up lots of speculation with a little bit of fact.

There is no requirement for supernatural events during the life of the would-be saint.

  • Rick

Another question-what about Monseignor O’Flaherty? (Hugh O’Flaherty, known as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican, who was hiding Allied spies in the Vatican and working with the resistance. I saw a movie about him with Gregory Peck.)

Did he work to help hide the Jews in the Vatican?