Inside the Vatican of Pius XII:
The Memoir of an American Diplomat During World War II
By Harold H. Tittmann, Jr.
Image. 224 pp. $13.95
Critics of Pius XII have long claimed that the Allies were bitterly frustrated by the pontiff’s official neutrality during World War II. Among the evidence for this they cite some of the official dispatches of Harold H. Tittmann, Jr., who from 1940 to 1946 was chief assistant to Myron Taylor, Franklin Roosevelt’s personal representative to the Vatican. In works from Saul Friedlander’s 1966 Pius XII and the Third Reich to John Cornwell’s 1999 Hitler’s Pope, the occasional criticisms expressed in Tittmann’s dispatches have been quoted against Pius. Now we have the dispassionate postwar reflections of Tittmann himself, which paint a very different picture.
Although Tittmann lived until 1980, he rarely spoke about Pius XII. Instead, he quietly worked on his memoirs, which his son, Harold III (who lived with his father in the Vatican during the German occupation of Rome) has now edited and published under the title Inside the Vatican of Pius XII. Given Tittmann’s importance in the debate about the papacy during the war, these memoirs may be the most important document to be published on Pius XII in over twenty years. And they prove to be, far from an indictment, an overwhelming defense of the Pope and the Catholic Church.
Tittmann, an Episcopalian, was an impressive man. As a pilot in Eddie Rickenbacker’s 94th Squadron during World War I, he sustained an attack by five German fighter planes and survived the resultant crash landing, though he lost his right leg, one kidney, and half of a lung, and was, his son writes, “reputed to be the most severely wounded-in-action American to have survived in the First World War.” After recovering, Tittmann went to work for the foreign service, filling various posts before joining Taylor’s Vatican mission in 1940.
There are at least half a dozen major revelations in this memoir. Perhaps the most interesting comes when Tittmann relates his discussions with Joseph Mueller, the anti-Nazi Bavarian lawyer who served as a middle-man between Pius and the German resistance. “Dr. Mueller said that during the war his anti-Nazi organization in Germany had always been very insistent that the Pope should refrain from making any public statement singling out the Nazis and specifically condemning them and had recommended that the Pope’s remarks should be confined to generalities only,” Tittmann writes. To have this testimony from a leading member of the anti-Nazi resistance means that Pius XII’s conduct during the war was not due solely to his personal instincts but also to the explicit advice of the anti-Nazi resistance.
Other revelations include the Vatican’s maintenance of “special accounts in New York banks” operated by Archbishop Spellman, as well as a “personal and secret account” for Pius XII (“about which Spellman knew nothing”), which the Pope “used exclusively for charitable purposes” during the war. Pius revealed the accounts to Tittmann in a “strictly confidential” meeting, after Roosevelt issued an executive order freezing American assets of hostile European countries. How much of this papal money was distributed to those persecuted by the Nazis is unknown, but Tittmann at least strengthens the testimony of Fr. Robert Leiber, Pius’ longtime aide, who told Look magazine in 1966: “The Pope sided very unequivocally with the Jews at the time. He spent his entire private fortune on their behalf.”
Tittmann provides, as well, new details of the Vatican’s anxiety over written documents that might expose the Pope’s anti-Nazi activities and collaboration with the Allies. “It was only rarely that records were kept by the Vatican officials of conversations the Pope had with his intimate collaborators or even with important visitors from the outside, such as ministers, ambassadors, or private individuals offering information or suggestions,” Tittmann writes. When the German occupation of Rome began on September 10, 1943, Nazi surveillance increased dramatically, and Pius’ secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione, quickly recommended that any compromising documents be destroyed. Tittmann notes: “At a meeting on September 14, the Allied diplomats decided to follow the cardinal’s advice by destroying all documents that might possibly be of use to the enemy. Osborne [British minister to the Holy See] and I had already finished our burning, and the others completed theirs without exception by September 23, when I reported to the State Department.” As a result, even the many official diplomatic documents which survive the war years represent merely a fraction of Pius XII’s activities.
Even readers who have not been intensely concerned with the debates over the papacy during World War II will find this book to be a good read. Tittmann recounts, for instance, the moment he found himself caught in an elevator with the ambassadors of Japan and Germany: “As the narrow, old-fashioned elevator proceeded upwards slowly to its destination, all we could do at first in this embarrassing situation was to try to ignore each other by looking the other way.” When the door finally opened, there was a long, awkward pause: no one knew who should move first. “After much bowing and scraping by all three of us, the two ambassadors decided that I should be the lucky one. So contrary to established protocol, out went the charg8E d’affaires of the United States ahead of the ambassadors of his country’s worst enemies.”
As editor of the text, Tittmann’s son Harold III has added passages from his own journal, written as a fifteen-year-old boy, many of them remarkably observant. For instance, on the retreating Germans leaving Rome: “They looked terribly depressed. Some stopped right below me and sat down on some grass. Others bought some filthy lemonade from a little stand, also right below me. I must say that the Romans were very kind to them, although they were immensely relieved to see them leaving. They gave the Germans drinks and cigarettes. It is in the character of Romans to be kind to everyone in trouble.”
Both father and son speak of the broad Vatican network that provided assistance to persecuted Jews and Allied prisoners of war. In his commentary, interspersed throughout the memoir, Tittmann’s son provides new details about the activities of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, the charismatic Irish priest who directed an anti-Nazi ring within the Vatican. Tittmann himself assisted many, helped by such men as Fr. Joseph McGeogh of the North American College in Rome and Monsignor Heriss8E, a French canon of Saint Peter’s. The latter, according to Tittmann’s son, “did not hide his complete support for the Allied cause. We ran into him one day. . . . One piece of news we brought up was the sinking of a German troopship by a British submarine, resulting in the deaths of several hundred German soldiers. Heriss8E, in an un-Christian outburst, said: ‘Pas assez! (Not enough!)’ Heriss8E and another pro-Allied French priest, Monsignor Fontenelle [chief biographer of Pius XI], were particularly active in clandestine operations.”
Discussing the charge that Pius went easy on Nazism because of his fears of Soviet communism, Tittmann insists that the Pope “detested the Nazi ideology and everything it stood for,” and he describes in fresh detail Pius’ intervention for an extension of America’s lend-lease policy to Russia, persuading the American Catholic hierarchy to soften its stand against the Soviet Union in order to serve a greater, and more immediate, cause—the defeat of Nazi Germany. “Thus Pius XII himself had joined the President,” Tittmann says, “in admitting that Hitlerism was an enemy of the Church more dangerous than Stalinism and that the only way to overcome the former was an Allied victory, even if this meant assistance from Soviet Russia.”
Although a strong admirer of President Roosevelt, Tittmann does not flinch from criticizing the Allies’ carpet-bombing of Italian cities and religious institutions (including the attack on Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope was sheltering thousands of refugees). Tittmann also reveals how Roosevelt, anxious to secure American Catholic support for the lend-lease program to Russia and eager for the Pope to intervene for him with the American bishops, wrote Pius a letter claiming that “churches in Russia are open”—and asserting his putative belief that there was “a real possibility that Russia may, as a result of the present conflict, recognize freedom of religion.” Obviously embarrassed by this, Tittmann quotes another State Department official who had been stationed in Moscow as saying “he could not understand how such a letter as the President’s could ever have been written in the first place in view of all the contrary information that was on file in the State Department.”
Critics often charge Pius with refusing to speak out against the Third Reich publicly and explicitly. Besides being inaccurate—the Vatican had excoriated Nazism long before Hitler came to power—the criticism is simplistic. As Tittmann points out, soon after World War II began, Pius XII authorized Vatican Radio to specifically condemn Nazi war crimes in Poland, naming the Nazis as the perpetrators, and Catholics and Jews as their victims. “However,” writes Tittmann, “the Polish bishops hastened to notify the Vatican that after each broadcast had come over the air, the various local populations suffered ‘terrible’ reprisals. The thought that there were those paying with their lives for the information publicized by Vatican Radio made the continuation of these broadcasts impossible.” Pius XII had tried the route of “explicit” condemnation—and it failed.
Toward the end of 1942, when reports of Nazi atrocities were increasing, Allied diplomats asked Pius to brand the Nazis by name. Despite his concern for ongoing reprisals, which had wrought havoc the previous July in Holland, Pius agreed—on the condition that he name the Soviets and condemn their war crimes as well; he reasoned that as universal pope, he could not condemn one totalitarian regime and wholly refrain from mentioning another whose principles were strikingly similar. But when the Allies learned that Pius XII intended to include the Soviet Union in his condemnation, they dropped their request immediately, lest Stalin become enraged.
Tittmann concedes that the Pope had the better of the argument: “It was difficult for us to argue these points effectively with the Pope and in the end we were obliged to resign ourselves to the failure of our attempts.” The debate may have been unnecessary, for as Pius himself told Tittmann shortly before his 1942 Christmas address, “I have already stated in three consecutive Christmas broadcasts that antireligious, totalitarian principles are iniquitous. These are the principles of the Nazis as any child can see.”
As to whether there would have been fewer victims had Pius been more outspoken, Tittmann says: “There can be no final answer. Personally, I cannot help but feel that the Holy Father chose the better path by not speaking out and thereby saved many lives. Who can say what the Nazis would have done in their ruthless furor had they been further inflamed by public denunciations coming from the Holy See? It should also be remembered that the Nazi authorities were gradually realizing that they were destined to lose the war and the psychological effect of such blighted hopes could easily have caused them to react even more violently to outside pressure. To the wealth of information in the archives on similar situations garnered by the Vatican over the centuries, and to the help of expert historians using these archives, Pope Pius XII was able to add his unusual personal knowledge of the Nazi and German character. There was much inside information available to the Pontiff from secret sources. Who could have been more qualified than this Pope to decide under the circumstances?”
Tittmann’s final assessment of Pius is persuasive and, indeed, moving: “With his diplomatic background, he was inclined to see both sides of a question, and this may have given others the impression that he was sometimes timid and reluctant to make decisions, especially in foreign affairs. In reality this was not the case. He was, in fact, decisive. . . . I do not for one moment overlook his great spiritual qualities. Whether near him or away from him, one was always conscious of them. To me, he was definitely a spiritual man. . . . Very possibly the future will rate him a saint.”
William Doino, Jr. is a contributor to The Pius War (Lexington Books), edited by Joseph Bottum and David G. Dalin. Joseph Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard and poetry editor of First Things.