In his exhaustive history The Papacy in the Age of Totalitarianism, 1914 to 1958, Cambridge University historian John Pollard expresses doubt whether the argument over Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust is “a genuine historiographical controversy”--that is, whether it concerns matters of demonstrable historical fact--and concludes instead that it is “a highly political dispute.” Coming from Pollard, no great fan of Pius, that is a telling comment.
It would be unrealistic, then, to suppose next year’s opening of the Vatican archives for the pontificate of Pius XII will finally settle the argument about Pius XII and the Jews. Too many people have too much reputation invested in criticizing the Pope for that to happen.
But the news that the “secret” archives for 1939 to 1958 will finally be available to scholars is welcome just the same. This will move the dispute from the realm of “What if…” and “Suppose that…” at least partly toward matters of documented fact: what was actually said and done.
In announcing the forthcoming opening of the archives last month on the 80th anniversary of Pius XII’s election, Pope Francis undoubtedly got it right when he said the mass of documentation would provide grounds for praising Pius together with evidence of “tormented decisions…human and Christian prudence, which to some could look like reticence.”
The public claim that the Pope failed to oppose the Holocaust traces its beginning to a 1963 play, The Deputy, by a left-wing German writer named Rolf Hochhuth depicting Pius as a greedy hypocrite. Since then, the same sort of criticism has been repeated by many others.
Some hold that the anti-Pius efforts in part reflected a Soviet disinformation effort undertaken as payback for his successful efforts to prevent a communist takeover in the Italian elections of 1948 and 1950. Still, there are legitimate questions here. Pius XII’s most substantial wartime public comment about the agony of the Jews came in his radio message to the world at Christmas 1942. There he spoke on behalf of “the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death.”
The anti-Pius response is that he should have said more and said it more often. But the Nazis knew they had been targeted. Hitler said he would “deal with” the Pope, and there was even talk of having him kidnapped. The bishops of Holland, taking their cue from Pius, strongly denounced the Nazis. The result was a step-up in Nazi persecution of Dutch Jews.
As for the Pope and the Vatican, their efforts focused on diplomacy and steps to shelter and protect Jews. It added up, in Pope Francis’ words, to “keeping alight the small flame of humanitarian initiatives” at a time of “maximum darkness and cruelty.” While no one can be certain just how many Jews were helped, the number clearly was in the upper thousands.
A different pope in the same position, Pius XI or John Paul II--might well have responded very differently, with very different results, for the Jews and the papacy alike. But would those results have been any better or perhaps a great deal worse? Who knows? Pius XII did what he believed was right, and Jewish leaders after the war praised him lavishly for it, while the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, upon converting to Catholicism in February, 1945, took the baptismal name Eugenio.
That was in honor of Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII’s name before he was pope.
Russell Shaw lives in Silver Spring, Maryland and is the author of more than 20 books and numerous articles and commentaries. He was information director of the NCCB/USCC (1967-1987) and the Knights of Columbus (1987-1997).