Amid the flood of tributes to Pope Pius XII following his death on October 9, 1958, those of Jewish leaders were especially warm. “During the ten years of Nazi terror,” said Golda Meir, then Israeli representative to the United Nations and later Prime Minister of Israel, “the Pope raised his voice to condemn the persecutors and to commiserate with their victims.” Elio Toaff, who as Rome’s Chief Rabbi would one day welcome another pope to his synagogue, said that Italian Jews “more than anyone else . . . had the opportunity to appreciate the great kindness, filled with compassion and magnanimity, that the Pope displayed during the terrible years of persecution and terror.” The tributes of major rabbis in New York alone were so numerous that it took three issues of the New York Times to report them all. Praise came also from the Jewish press. “There was probably not a single ruler of our generation,” wrote the Winnipeg Jewish Post, “who did more to help the Jews in their hour of greatest tragedy . . . than the late Pope.”
The triumphal car got off to a good start. But vengeance came limping after in the form of the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth. His play The Deputy , first performed and published in 1963, portrayed Pius XII as indifferent to the Holocaust, concerned chiefly to preserve the financial interests of the institution over which he presided in imperial isolation. Born in 1931, Hochhuth was too young to have experienced the events of which he wrote. But his play captured the imagination of a generation starting to protest against authority in all forms. Ever since, the wartime Pontiff has been the antihero of a Black Legend. He has been cast as the one wartime leader who might have stopped the slaughter of six million Jews, but who failed to do so out of cowardice, cynicism, indifference, and even (in the recently expanded version of the indictment) anti“Semitism.
Acceptance of this legend is now so widespread that the Pope’s supposed “silence” during the Holocaust was the starting point for all media comment on John Paul II’s prayer for forgiveness of Catholic sins in March of this year and his subsequent visit to Israel. There are even Catholics willing to propagate the myth of Pius XII’s silence. Mercy Sister Carmel McEnroy, who holds professorships at a Catholic college and seminary, wrote in an article replete with feminist anger in the National Catholic Reporter : “It would have been nice if [John Paul II] had denounced the Holocaust and Rome’s silent acquiescence in it.”
Ronald J. Rychlak, a professor and dean at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law, claims that he had never heard of the Black Legend until a few years ago, when a friend of his “accused Pope Pius XII of having been a Nazi.” Suspecting that his friend might be onto something, Rychlak began to investigate. This book is the result. Starting in the 1920s and concluding with Pius XII’s death, Rychlak presents the judgment of the Pope’s contemporaries in rich detail. A concluding chapter analyzes the charges against the Pontiff in the form of ten questions and finds them without foundation.
“It is not true that contemporaries misjudge a man,” George Santayana wrote. “Contemporaries judge him much better than posterity, which is composed of critics no less egotistical, and obliged to rely exclusively on documents easily misinterpreted.” The New York Times is in the forefront today of those propagating the myth of Pius XII’s “silence.” As the story unfolded, however, the “newspaper of record” saw things differently:
· “NAZIS WARNED IN LOURDES”: reporting the protest in 1935 of then Cardinal Pacelli against “superstitions of race and blood.” When Pacelli was elected Pope on March 2, 1939, the Times reported “nearly general applause around the world,” except in Germany.
· “POPE CONDEMNS DICTATORS, TREATY VIOLATORS, RACISM”: three“column front“page headline reporting the Pope’s first encyclical, October 28, 1939.
· “VATICAN DENOUNCES ATROCITIES IN POLAND; GERMANS CALLED EVEN WORSE THAN RUSSIANS” (January 23, 1940).
· “JEWS’ RIGHTS DEFENDED”: reporting the Pope’s “burning words to [Nazi Foreign Minister] Ribbentrop in defense of the Jews in Germany and Poland” (March 14, 1940).
· “Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas . . . . The Pope put himself squarely against Nazism” (December 25, 1941).
· “The papacy is throwing the whole weight of its publicizing facilities into an exposé” of Nazi atrocities (through Vatican radio): January 24, 1942.
· “POPE IS SAID TO PLEAD FOR JEWS LISTED FOR REMOVAL FROM FRANCE” (August 6, 1942). And on August 27: “VICHY SEIZES JEWS; POPE PIUS IGNORED.”
· “This Christmas  more than ever [the Pope] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent”: editorial on the Pope’s reference to “the hundreds of thousands who, . . . solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.”
· On August 21, 1944, Pulitzer Prize laureate Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote in the Times that the Pope had given “first priority” to saving Jews.
· “Under the Pope’s direction the Holy See did an exemplary job of sheltering and championing the victims of the Nazi“Fascist regime . . . . None [in Rome] doubts that the general feeling of the Roman Curia was anti“Fascist and very strongly anti“Nazi”: Times reporter Herbert L. Matthews, October 15, 1944.
Expressions of thanks by Jewish leaders, throughout the war and at its conclusion, were effusive. “The people of Israel will never forget what His Holiness is doing for us,” Chief Rabbi Herzog of Palestine wrote in one of his many wartime communications to the Holy See. On October 11, 1945, the New York Times reported a gift to the Vatican of $20,000 from the World Jewish Congress “in recognition of the work of the Holy See in rescuing Jews from Fascist and Nazi persecution.”
The perception of Pius XII’s contemporaries, documented by Rychlak in far greater detail than can be summarized here, is virtually un known today. When adverted to, it is dismissed as irrelevant, or simply wrong. Why? Hochhuth’s play may have occasioned the change; it cannot have caused it. Hochhuth’s indictment of the Pope came, as already noted, just as the rebellion against authority was getting underway in Western democracies. The demonization of an authority figure revered by millions was welcome to an age proclaiming the death of God and rejecting the pretensions of those claiming to speak in His name.
In the epilogue to his book, Rychlak deals with the most recent statement of the case against Pius XII, the one made by John Cornwell in his book Hitler’s Pope, which appeared when Rychlak’s manuscript was substantially complete. Rychlak cites abundant evidence contradicting Cornwell’s claim that his original intention was to defend Pius XII against the calumny of the Black Legend, but that “previously unseen material” which Cornwell studied “for months on end” in the secret Vatican archives reduced him to the “state of moral shock” that resulted in Hitler’s Pope . In reality, Cornwell spent only three weeks doing research in the Vatican archives, during which time he did not even make daily visits. None of the material he cites was “previously unseen.”
A 1919 letter Pacelli wrote when he was nuncio in Munich, which Cornwell calls “a ticking time bomb” and proof of anti“Semitism, appeared in print several years before Cornwell started his research. The letter reports an attack on the Munich nunciature by a band of Communist thugs led by “a young Russian Jew: pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.” In truth, this description was made by an aide, not by Pacelli”who did not witness the incident. Though this language has been criminalized by today’s guardians of political correctness, it was hardly remarkable eighty years ago. Moreover, it correctly states the facts. It no more proves Pacelli’s lifelong anti“Semitism than do certain incidents from his early schooling, which Rychlak shows that Cornwell has either misunderstood or misinterpreted.
Rychlak also demonstrates that Cornwell misrepresents Pacelli’s role as papal Secretary of State and his motives in negotiating the Holy See’s Concordat with Hitler in July 1933. Cornwell’s source is the German Protestant Klaus Scholder, whose work is available in English translation and whom Cornwell calls “unchallenged in German scholarship.” In fact, Scholder’s work has been decisively refuted by two German Catholic historians whose works remain untranslated: the late Ludwig Volk, S.J., and Konrad Repgen. (Cornwell appears to have used no German sources at all.)
The initiative for the Concordat came not from Rome (as Cornwell, following Scholder, claims) but from Hitler. Far from weakening the resistance of German Catholics to Hitler, as Cornwell contends, the treaty contained protections for the Church that were eagerly desired at the time by the German bishops. Moreover, Pacelli was more realistic about the value of Hitler’s promises than most political leaders, telling the British Minister to the Holy See that while he expected Hitler to violate some of the Concordat’s provisions, he probably would not violate all of them at the same time.
Cornwell makes much of Pius XII’s supposed indifference to the Nazi roundup of Roman Jews on October 16, 1943, shown (he contends) by the Pope’s failure to mention it in a conversation with the American official Harold Titt mann the very next day. Though Titt mann’s published re port is dated Oc tober 17, this is clearly erroneous. The Vatican rec ords show that the conversation took place October 14; thus, Ry chlak writes, “The Pope did not mention the roundup of Jews be cause it had not yet happened.” In fact, thousands of Roman Jews were saved by the Pope. When Ro bert Katz (another star witness for Cornwell) claimed otherwise after Pius XII’s death, the Pope’s niece won an action for libel from the Italian Supreme Court. Cornwell falsely claims that the verdict was “inconclusive.”
Similarly skewed is Cornwell’s account of papal policy toward the wartime Ustashi regime in Croatia, which cooperated with Nazi persecution of Jews. Far from approving of the regime, the Holy See refused to recognize it and mounted feverish efforts to help Jews in Croatia. To make his point, Cornwell repeats postwar charges by the Yugoslav Communist government that the Croatian Archbishop Stepinac supported the Ustashi regime. But Stepinac’s approval was short“lived. After learning of the regime’s brutality and receiving instructions from Rome, he vigorously condemned the regime and worked to save its victims. Following Stepinac’s postwar conviction by a Communist court, widely recognized even then as a frame“up, the American Jewish leader Louis Braier defended Stepinac, calling him “a great man of the Church . . . who spoke openly and fearlessly against the racial law. After His Holiness Pius XII, he was the greatest defender of the Jews in persecuted Europe.”
While Rychlak’s refutation of the Black Legend is impressive, it is unlikely to change many minds. The myth of Pius XII’s silence and inactivity serves a function similar to that of the myths in classical antiquity: it gives an explanation for what would otherwise be unintelligible. Moreover, deeply held beliefs seldom yield to facts. Already an Israeli member of the panel charged with evaluating the twelve published volumes of wartime documents from the Vatican archives has called Pius XII “complicit in German policy.”
In the face of six million dead, no one can claim that enough was done. To claim, however, that nothing was done”or that the failure to do more was the result of cynicism or indifference”is a grave falsification of history. When the victim of this falsification is a person of demonstrable moral greatness, it is shameful.
John Jay Hughes is a priest of the St. Louis archdiocese and a church historian.