The Holocaust Pope

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Eugenio Pacelli Pius XII


     Those of us who studied history with the late Professor Selig Adler were repeatedly warned not to write “instant history”.  Dr. Adler meant that the media and others sit in judgment on current or recent events and adjudicate these occurrences on the basis of insufficient knowledge and the emotions of the moment.

     This failure to consider the circumstances and conditions under which actions were taken in the past, together with a failure to understand the culture of the time and place in which events progressed, leads to misunderstandings and false interpretations of historical events. Furthermore, it needs to be recognized that many major historical upheavals have been analyzed again and again by historians living later and later; an event like the French revolution is given quite a different meaning now than was true in the days of its actual occurrence (1789) or in 1889 or in 1909 or in 1989.

     Therefore the current dispute concerning the role of Pius XII with reference to the Holocaust and the persecution and murder of our six million martyrs can probably not be understood until many years from now, when historians can gain insight into these events in the light of unemotional analysis. Nevertheless, we need to give this matter some attention now because the Pope, Benedict XVI, is going to visit Israel in May. That proposed visit has led to an investigation of the role of Pius XII with reference to the murder of the Jews of that time, particularly as Benedict XVI has announced that he will not visit an exhibit at Yad Vashem relative to Pius XII which claims he did nothing or not enough to help the Jews brutalized by the Nazi killers.

    A considerable literature has developed around the position of Pius XII concerning the Jews of his day. This began when the German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth, produced a play called Der Stellvertreter - Eine Christliche Tradgödie or The Deputy - A Christian Tragedy. Here Hochhuth denounced Pius XII as a Nazi collaborator who did nothing to help the Jews rounded up “under his window” in the Vatican. This play became suspect almost at once, not only because Hochhuth sought to blame the Pope and Catholics in general for the Holocaust because he sought to relieve his Protestant coreligionists and his relatives of responsibility, but also because he was evidently influenced by the East German Communist regime, who wanted to blame the West German democracy as inheritors of the Nazi mentality.

     In addition, it is noteworthy that Hochhuth defended the Holocaust denier David Irving, who had been convicted in a British court of defaming Jews and Jewish authors and who became the literal “poster boy” for other Holocaust deniers in Europe and among the Arabs.

     After the attack of Hochhuth on Pius XII, it became popular to denounce Pius XII with such labels as “Hitler’s Pope”, so that the heat of the excitement made it difficult to deal with the facts. Therefore I present these facts and leave it to your judgment to decide what we can say about Pope Pius XII so far. I am convinced that in future years the picture of Pius XII will change, alone because it takes so long to gather all the evidence. Moreover, it is absolutely impossible to really understand the circumstance of that time and place.

     No one who has not lived in Nazi land can really comprehend that utter abandonment of all human decency in Germany at that time. Hate, force, cruelty and murder were the conditions of daily life and so much brutality was experienced by Germans and later all of Europe that every action at that time needs to be seen in the light of these truly abnormal circumstances.

    Here are some facts concerning the actions of Pius XII on behalf of the Jews.

    Contrary to the argument that the Pope remained silent in view of the persecutions, we find that he wrote an “Encyclical” in 1937 called “Mit brennender Sorge” or “With burning anxiety”. This was read in all German Catholic Churches on Palm Sunday, 1937. The letter condemned racism and the idolatry practiced by followers of Hitler. He also told Catholics that “anti-Semitism” is incompatible with Christianity (read it yourself). The encyclical called Hitler “insane and arrogant”. No other church had at that time said one word against Hitler. This letter led the Nazis to send thousands of priests to concentration camps and resulted in the murder of 2,500 Catholic priests in Poland. In the Dachau camp, a Priester Block was established, including 2,600 priest prisoners. The letter also led Dutch Catholic bishops to protest the deportation of Jews, leading to additional attacks on Dutch bishops and murders.

     In 1939, the Pope appointed two Jews to the Vatican Academy of Science. Both had been dismissed from teaching at the University of Rome by Mussolini's anti-Jewish legislation.

     The pope also gave numerous public speeches condemning National Socialism (Nazism) so that the Nazi government called him ”the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”

     When Germany occupied Italy and then Rome, the pope ordered Catholic institutions such as monasteries, convents, churches, and others, to hide Jews within their walls, and thereby saved the lives of 4,715 Jews in Rome. In fact, 80% of Roman Jews were saved from deportation. In addition, Israeli scholars report that 850,000 Jews were saved throughout Europe by Catholic clergy through fake baptismal certificates and other methods.

      In sum, the argument that Pius XII did nothing to help the persecuted Jews is patently false.

      This brings us to the question of whether the Pope did enough to help the persecuted. There is no doubt that the pope remained silent in view of numerous Nazi banalities, including the persecution and murder of Christian Poles. It is of course possible that had someone else been pope, more might have been done to save Jews and others. Perhaps Hitler should have been excommunicated, as Hitler was himself a Catholic, at least by birth and education. The problem here is that we cannot know what others might have done or how more aggressive actions might have saved more Jews from these horrors. Indeed, Hitler needed the Catholic community in Germany to fight in his armies. If the pope had threatened to excommunicate any Catholic who fought in the invasion of Poland, things might have had a different outcome.

     There is a book by John Cornwall called Hitler’s Pope in which he blamed the pope for all kinds of sins of omission if not commission. Yet today Cornwall says that he cannot really judge the pope’s motives.

     There is one more issue to be presented here. We who teach criminology insist that the crime is the fault and responsibility of the criminal. The killers of Jews are the criminals. The murderers are the criminals. The responsibility for six million murdered Jews and five million murdered non-Jews lies with those who did the killing and not Pope Pius XII or anyone else. The trouble with the effort to blame the Pope or others is that it detracts from the fact that the inhuman monsters who murdered so many innocent people are overlooked in the dispute about Pius XII. However one may look at the pope’s career and conduct, ask yourself this question: “What would I have done had I been pope?”

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Women & Social Change in America (2009).

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