Question 184:

How do you evaluate the Vatican’s actions during the World War II? Did the Vatican agree with the extermination of the Jews?



Unlike Benedict XV, who had been sharply criticized for his calls for peace during World War I, Pius XII was applauded for his position during World War II (1939-1945) by almost everyone, even during his own lifetime. In 1963, however, a young German writer, Ralf Hochhut, wrote a play The Deputy, which quickly became famous, and in which he accuses Pius XII not to have publicly denounced the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. Bitter controversy followed. Had Pope Pius XII lacked in courage? Had he been a Nazi sympathizer? Had he not been informed about what was happening? The positive aspect of the Hochhut controversy was that it resulted in the publication of archived documents, which shed some light on the matter. As a diplomat and Secretary of State (1929 Cardinal; 1939 Secretary of State; 1939 Pope), Pius XII had been extremely well informed about the developments in Germany. In 1933 he signed the concordat with Hitler, and in 1937 he had played an active role in the writing of the encyclical With Deep Anxiety. Although he had absolutely no sympathy for the Nazis he preferred discrete diplomatic intervention to solemn declarations.

During the years 1939-1940 Pope Pius XII tried hard to prevent an escalation of the war; then he asked Mussolini to stay out of the conflict and requested the European powers to solve their problems through negotiations. During the whole of the war he stressed again and again in a large number of speeches and Christmas messages, admittedly in general words only, the uselessness of war, the advantages of negotiations and a just peace. He set up an office for information which was managed by Mgr. Montini (who later became Paul VI., 1963-78). This office published news about prisoners of war and those missing. Jews and others in danger were secretly hidden in papal buildings and monasteries. 1943-44, when Italy became a theatre of war, Pius XII tried to protect Rome by putting pressure on the Italian king to remove Mussolini, and by protesting against the bombardments. Like Pope Benedict XV (time of office 1914-1922) Pius XII wanted to remain neutral and above the dispute. Wasn’t bolshevism just as dangerous as National Socialism, if not more so?

While information about deportations and the extermination of Jews was not completely lacking, and reached the Vatican early on, this information was often vague. The madness of the information which exceeded everything imaginable, had the effect that it was not considered reliable. In the spring of 1943 Pius XII was fully informed about what happened in Hitler’s sphere of influence with regard to the extermination of the Jews. Initially he was dominated by a feeling being completely helpless. In two public speeches he referred to genocide, in his Christmas message of 1942 and in a speech to Cardinals of the Curia on 2nd June 1943. The allusions were kept at a very general level, and neither Jews nor the Germans were mentioned by name. Pius XII. spoke of his concerns that his interventions could cause difficulties for those he was trying to protect. On the other hand, he allowed the bishops to be the judges of their own initiatives and actions. The results were twofold. Some protests led to an increase in suppression and violence from the Germans. On the other hand, diplomatic intervention showed some effect in Slovakia, Croatia and Hungary, where deportations of Jews were stopped for a certain period of time. In Italy the Pope remained silent about the arrest of Jews on 16th October 1943, but his discrete intervention prevented further occurrences of this kind.

The Pope therefore said as little as possible and deliberately concentrated on diplomatic processes. After the war there were many who would have preferred a more prophetic stance from the Pope. In 1964, the Archbishop of Munich, Julius Cardinal Döpfner said: With hindsight it would be right to make the historic assessment that Pius XII should have protested more audibly. Be that as it may, under no circumstances are we entitled, nor do we have cause, to doubt the absolute sincerity of motives, of the authenticity of deepest thought and consideration displayed by Pius XII.(cf. J. Comby with D. MacCulloch, “How to Read Church History”, vol. 2 [From the Reformation to the present day]. London: SCM Press, 1989, S. 213-215.)

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