At the end of the Second World War, when the Nuremberg prosecutors were gathering evidence for the upcoming trials, one of the many people they turned to for assistance was Pope Pius XII. They were not disappointed. The Holy See sent on massive documentation, recounting Nazi criminality, and the material given proved to be of great value. Pius XII made it a point to meet with chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, and also announced: “Not only do we approve of the trial, but we desire that the guilty be punished as quickly as possible, and without exception.”
It is a measure of the misinformation that still surrounds Pius XII that almost no one knows about this today. Instead, many people believe his papacy turned a blind eye to Nazi war crimes.
Such misconceptions caused Father Robert Graham, the foremost authority on the wartime papacy, to caution:
Among the many legends about the Vatican inherited from World War II is the allegation that Pope Pius XII knowingly and willingly assisted hunted Nazi war criminals to escape from justice by taking flight overseas—particularly to Latin America. He is supposed to have regarded these ex-SS men as an elite to be preserved, for the ultimate world struggle against Communism. It is never asked why the Pope should lift a finger for a group of men who had apostasized from their religion and who were the chosen instruments of Hitler to ‘crush the Church underfoot like a toad.’ This is a way of thinking that comes naturally to a certain type of mind steeped in the literature of left-wing writers, according to which all Vatican policy is explicable by an ‘obsession’ with Communism.
But it’s not just the Left that has been misled. The Wall Street Journal recently endorsed a PBS documentary (“Elusive Justice”) which continued the charge; Max Hastings otherwise excellent new history of the War, Inferno, repeats it; and in its December issue Commentary magazine published an egregious piece entitled, “How the Catholic Church Sheltered Nazi War Criminals.”
The article is written by Kevin Madigan, a Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard. Employing just the kind of narrative Graham warned against, Madigan depicts a grand conspiracy within the post-War Church, whereby the Vatican allegedly set up a network to recruit, fund, and protect fleeing Nazi war criminals.
The accusations are presented as new and explosive, when in fact they are staples of anti-papal literature, in circulation for decades.
Despite efforts to portray this all as a labyrinthine Vatican plot, the truth is much more mundane. At the end of the War, there were literally millions of displaced people in post-War Europe, in desperate need of aid. In response, Pius XII created the Pontifical Commission for Assistance (PCA), a humanitarian relief organization which helped displaced refugees. There were also several dozen separate Catholic agencies, usually for designated national groups, which operated on their own responsibility, though the pope tried to help each out as best he could, with the intention of helping the innocent and the good. Countless decent people were helped, but because of the chaotic post-War situation, a number of suspected or known war criminals exploited the system, and were abetted by a number of collaborationist clerics. Among the most notorious were Bishop Alois Hudal, head of the Austro-German Church and seminary in Rome; and the Croatian priest, Krunoslav Draganović. Neither were “Vatican officials” (as has often been claimed), and Graham described how they betrayed their faith, and flagrantly violated the pope’s commands.
For anti-papal ideologues, however, it is essential that they link Pius XII to these guilty priests, since exposing the sins of renegade clerics just doesn’t have the cache of a full-throated j’accuse against the papacy. The problem is that “there is simply no evidence against Pius XII,” as Guy Walters, an investigative authority, has recently written.
Still, Madigan tries. He outrageously writes that “the PCA viewed itself as a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists.” Hudal, we are told, was “someone dedicated to extending papal charity to ‘so-called’ war criminals,” but Hudal spoke of Christian charity, not papal directives; and while the two frequently and emphatically disagreed on how to implement it, Hudal and Pius XII did see eye to eye on one occasion—when they both rescued Jews during the German occupation of Rome, a fact Madigan leaves unmentioned.
As for Draganović and his fascist friends in Croatia, the gulf between their views and Pius XII’s can be seen in the Vatican’s repeated interventions for Croatia’s persecuted Jewish community, an effort amply praised by the Chief Rabbi of Zagreb.
In his effort to recycle discredited charges, Madigan relies upon two books, David Cymet’s History vs. Apologetics and Gerald Steinacher’s Nazis on the Run. The first might be charitably called a mix of history and anti-Catholic fables; the second, a pseudo-scholarly mess.
Cymet claims that when Pius was serving as papal nuncio to Germany, before becoming pope, he was so impressed with Hitler’s anti-Communist zeal that he personally gave the future dictator a contribution, blessing him with the words, “Go, quell the devil’s works.” This sounds like something out of piece of lurid fiction, and sure enough, it is. The two never met. Cymet accuses the pope of refusing to return Jewish children, rescued by Catholics during the Holocaust, to their rightful Jewish guardians—a hoax that was exposed many years ago, but which Madigan repeats as fact. Following Cymet, Madigan also rails against Pius XII for allegedly seeking “pardons” for condemned Nazi war criminals—as if he wanted them to go free—when, in reality, what the pope did was ask they be spared the death penalty (while remaining locked-down in prison), just as he appealed for the Rosenbergs, when they, too, faced execution. Pius believed in tempering justice with mercy, even for the worst criminals, be they Nazis or Communists, knowing God would have the final say, for eternity. That is not a universally accepted view, but it is certainly a Christian one.
Though less polemical than Cymet, Steinacher is no less misinformed. Nazis on the Run posits a close friendship between Hudal and Pius XII, missing entirely Pius’s call for Hudal’s censor, even before he became pope. Steinacher also peddles the image of Pius as a blind anti-Communist, ignoring the pope’s intervention for American lend-lease to Russia, and his numerous statements calling Nazism an even graver threat than Bolshevism. Given his cynical, secular views, it’s not surprising to find Steinacher also mocking baptism, repentance and conversion, depicting them as mere techniques to foster Pius’s supposed political agenda. But nothing Steinacher says about Pius XII equals his treatment of Giovanni Battista Montini, Pius’s wartime assistant and the future Pope Paul VI.
Evidently unaware that Paul VI oversaw Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate –the most important declaration on Catholic-Jewish relations in the history of the Church—Steinacher insinuates Montini was an anti-Semite, a caricature Madigan faithfully relays: “For his part, Montini simply lacked sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. He had, Steinacher tells us, no interest in Christian-Jewish reconciliation. And ‘he even seemed to have expressed doubts about the extent of the genocide.’”
Put aside, for the moment Steinacher and Madigan’s outrageous views about Paul VI. How could the editors of Commentary—who presumably know something about interfaith relations—have allowed the pope who promulgated Nostra Aetate to be depicted as hostile to Catholic-Jewish reconciliation?
As for the notion that Paul VI had doubts about the magnitude of the Holocaust, that doesn’t quite square with Paul’s 1964 visit to the Holy Land, when his delegation “lit six candles in memory of the six million killed, expressing on behalf of the Pope ‘our sympathy and participation in the anguish and sorrow at the terrible destruction wrought on the people of Israel.’”
That description comes from none other than the American Jewish Committee, the original publisher of Commentary magazine.
Not content with attacking Pius XII, Madigan attempts to disparage his defenders, endorsing Cymet’s claim that they are “cousins of Holocaust-deniers.” The charge is as offensive as it is inaccurate (modern historiography is moving in favor, not against Pius); and a man in a position to know—Robert M.W. Kempner, who helped convict the guilty at Nuremberg—has said that it is Pius XII’s opponents, not his defenders, who traffic in toxic revisionism.
At a key point in his polemic, Madigan tries to employ Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld in the campaign against Pius XII. Klarsfeld, however, has emerged as one of the wartime pope’s principled defenders, telling the French journal Le Point, “Pius XII had a decisive role against Hitler, but also in the fight against Communism in Eastern Europe.” Noting how the pope helped save thousands of Jews in Rome, Klarsfeld remarked: “There is no reason why Pius XII should not become a saint.”
In the end, an article purporting to be about truth and justice is undone by its own falsehoods and prosecutorial misconduct.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.
The Nuernberg Trial by Nicholas Doman, Bulletin of American Association of University Professors, Spring, 1946.
The Holy See’s Declaration on Nazi Refugees after World War II (Vatican Information Service, February 14, 1992).
“The Roman ‘non possumus’ and the Attitude of Bishop Alois Hudal Towards the National Socialist Ideological Aberrations,” by Johan Ickx, in Religion Under Siege: The Roman Catholic Church in Occupied Europe (1939-1950) edited by L. Gevers and Jan Bank (Peeters, 2007), pp. 315-344.
The Truth About Pius and the Nazi “Ratlines” by Guy Walters (The Catholic Herald, August 14, 2009).
Serge Klarsfeld. “Il n’ya a acune raison pour que Pie XII ne devienne pas saint.” Le Point, December 24, 2009.
Mission in Croatia on Behalf of Pius XII, L’Osservatore Romano, August 10, 2011.
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