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The ongoing debate about Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) and his actions (or lack of actions) in response to the Holocaust has gained intensity over the past few years. Books defending the pontiff by Ronald J. Rychlak, Pierre Blet, Margherita Marchione, and Ralph McInerny have been matched by others that seek to castigate him. Susan Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy is an unremitting attack on Pius, while John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope, Garry Wills’ Papal Sin, and James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword go further—to treat Pius’ supposed failings as an indication of the pathologies that permeate the Catholic Church as a whole. In the anti-papal diatribe he published in the January 21, 2002 issue of the New Republic (“What Would Jesus Have Done?”), Daniel Jonah Goldhagen took this strategy to a new level, seamlessly weaving together vicious attacks on the Pope and blatant anti-Catholicism (see Rychlak’s reply to Goldhagen in FT, June/July 2002).

In their new books, Jose M. Sanchez and Justus George Lawler adopt a more moderate approach to Pius, seeking to understand and explain the enduring controversy surrounding him rather than to defend or defame him. In Pius XII and the Holocaust , Sanchez critically examines Pius’ behavior during the Holocaust and compares it to the charges leveled against him by his many critics. For his part, Lawler devotes some of Popes and Politics to a thoughtful and nuanced critique of many of Pius’ liberal critics, effectively responding to the charges of (among others) Cornwell, Wills, Carroll, and Zuccotti. The latter, in particular, comes in for devastating criticism. Having greatly admired her earlier The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews (1993), Lawler was surprised and disappointed to discover that, instead of providing a fair and neutral alternative to the “obviously eulogistic defenders of Pius,” Zuccotti had become an “ideological denigrator” of the Pope. Indeed, Lawler effectively demonstrates how some of her allegations in Under His Very Windows (2001) directly contradict the arguments and documentation contained in her earlier work.

Sanchez’s careful and meticulously researched study provides a useful counterweight to the vicious attacks of Cornwell and others. Rich in its historical insight and judicious in most of its interpretation and analysis, the Sanchez volume constitutes an important addition to our scholarly—as opposed to polemical—literature on the role of the papacy during the Holocaust.

In balanced and measured tones, Sanchez persuasively refutes the allegations of the critics of Pius who have accused him of moral cowardice and “silence” in the face of growing Nazi atrocities. As Sanchez’s study indicates, Eugenio Pacelli publicly and privately warned of the dangers of Nazism both before and after he became pope; he denounced the deportations and persecution of Europe’s Jews and was almost universally recognized, including by the Nazis themselves, as an unrelenting opponent of the National Socialist regime. Indeed, throughout the 1930s, Pacelli was widely lampooned in the Nazi press as Pius XI’s “Jew-loving” cardinal. After his fair and thorough examination of the historical evidence, Sanchez concludes that Pius XII, far from being “silent,” was a persistent critic of Hitler and the Nazi regime.

Critics of Pius XII have long used the Holy See’s 1933 Concordat with Germany to attack him, since Pacelli himself played a major role in negotiating it during the time he served as Pius XI’s Secretary of State. The critics claim that the Concordat silenced German Catholics who otherwise would have opposed Hitler and might have held him in check. But as Sanchez convincingly shows, the Concordat was in fact a largely pragmatic and morally defensible diplomatic measure to protect Catholics within Germany and to ensure the continuity and freedom of the German Catholic Church. “The Germans had proposed the Concordat,” he reminds us, and for the Vatican “to have rejected it out of hand would have been prejudicial to the rights of Catholics in Germany.” From the vantage point of German Jews, it was morally defensible as well, since it was signed in July 1933, well before Hitler had begun to enact any of his anti-Semitic legislation or decrees.

Moreover, contrary to what many of Pacelli’s critics have alleged, the Concordat did not precipitate the collapse of Germany’s Catholic Center Party. The Center Party had been founded during the pontificate of Pius IX in the nineteenth century to defend Catholics against Bismarck’s campaign against them. The Pope had given it his blessing, and it had become increasingly influential in the decades that followed, serving as a vehicle for lay Catholic participation in German party politics and for the protection of Catholic political and religious interests in German public life. However, its influence had steadily declined during the last years of the Weimar Republic and, as Rychlak has shown, it was almost eliminated by the Nazis in March 1933. Then, on July 5, 1933, two weeks before the Concordat was signed, the party decided to dissolve itself voluntarily. It was thus not Pacelli and his negotiation of the Concordat that caused the party’s political decline and ultimate demise. On the contrary, as even so vociferous a critic as Carroll has conceded, “even before the Concordat was formally signed, the Center Party had ceased to exist.”

While the question of the Vatican’s role in the demise of the party remains contested, Sanchez rightly notes that numerous respected historians—including the Germans Heinz Hurten, Ludwig Volk, and Konrad Repgen, and the American Stewart Stehlin—have marshaled considerable historical evidence in defense of the Concordat and of Pacelli’s role in negotiating it. Unfortunately, their work has gone largely uncited and undiscussed by most of the Pope’s most vociferous critics.

Sanchez and Lawler identify many other examples of the selective use of evidence. On the hotly debated issue of whether or not Pius played a role in sheltering Jews in German-occupied Rome, Sanchez points out that Zuccotti ignored significant evidence that the Pope issued directives to help the Jews. For instance, Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing and other Catholic priest-rescuers who worked closely with Pius in Rome have testified that he gave direct and explicit instructions to rescue and shelter Jews. The well-documented firsthand testimony of Carroll-Abbing, which Zuccotti never cites or discusses, is especially compelling. In his memoir But for the Grace of God (ü1965), Carroll-Abbing provides extensive details about Pius’ rescue efforts on behalf of the Jews of Rome and elsewhere. “It does seem,” Sanchez writes, “that despite the absence of written documentation, such a large-scale rescue could not have been attempted without implied papal approval.”

Lawler points to even more substantial flaws in Zuccotti’s work. He notes, for example, that in Under His Very Windows she ignores the important and well-known memoir Christian Resistance to Anti-Semitism by the French Jesuit theologian, priest-rescuer, and defender of Pius XII, Henri de Lubac. And this despite the fact that in her earlier work on The Holocaust, The French, and the Jews , Zuccotti noted and praised de Lubac’s efforts (recounted in his memoir) to rescue and aid French Jews. These efforts, de Lubac makes clear, were directly inspired by Pius XII.

Zuccotti, it should be noted, falsely contrasts the alleged inaction of Pius XII with the work of Father Marie Benoît, the French Capuchin monk who coordinated the provision of food, shelter, and new identities for thousands of French and Italian Jews. Zuccotti’s discussion of Fr. Benoît completely ignores his clear statements praising Pius for his direct encouragement and support of Benoît’s rescue efforts.

Zuccotti also ignores the important personal testimony of Fr. Benoît’s chief collaborator in rescuing Jews, Fernande Leboucher, who, in her book The Incredible Mission of Father Benoît (1969), attests to the direct support and assistance they received from Pius XII. While Zuccotti claimed that whatever assistance Pius may have given Benoît “must be regarded as exceedingly sparse,” Leboucher states unequivocally that “the Vatican offered to supply whatever funds would be needed for Fr. Benoît’s work. It is estimated that a total of some four million dollars was thus channeled from the Vatican to . . . Benoît’s rescue organization—much of which came from the American Catholic Refugees Committee, an official Catholic collection and distribution agency whose funds were at the disposal of Pope Pius XII.” Leboucher’s memoir is never mentioned by Zuccotti in her apparent effort to deny Pius XII’s connection to Benoît’s rescue work.

And then there is the issue of Pius sheltering Jews in his summer residence at Castel Gandalfo, which Sanchez mentions briefly and which Lawler does not discuss at all. This is a crucial issue that one wishes both authors would have discussed in some detail. It has been estimated that anywhere between a few hundred and three thousand Jews found refuge at the residence and thus escaped deportation to German death camps through the Pope’s direct personal intervention. Kosher food was even provided for the Jews hidden at the residence, where, as George Weigel has noted, Jewish children were born in the Pope’s private apartments, which served as a temporary obstetrical ward.

Unfortunately, this is not the only oversight to be found in the studies of Sanchez and Lawler. For instance, Sanchez seems to uncritically accept the argument that the Pope knew beforehand about the Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jews on October 16, 1943, which led to the deportation and transportation of over a thousand to Auschwitz. Zuccotti has argued that Pius deliberately failed to alert Rome’s Jewish community about the Nazi plans. This charge, drawn from Robert Katz’s polemical book Black Sabbath (1969), has been reproduced by many of Pius’ recent critics, despite the fact that it is based on thirdhand information that has never been verified by historians. Katz’s accusation referred to statements of German diplomat Eitel Mollhausen, who, after learning of the planned roundup, supposedly “passed it along to [Germany’s Vatican Ambassador Ernst von] Weizsacker’s embassy, which in turn enlightened the Vatican.”

There is considerable reason to doubt this version of the story. In his memoirs, and throughout his life, Weizsacker never claimed to have alerted “the Vatican,” much less Pius XII personally, about the roundup before it occurred, and no Vatican officials have ever come forth to say that they were told of the roundup beforehand, let alone that they passed on such information to the Pope. Moreover, the firsthand testimony of Princess Enza Pignatelli Aragona, who visited the Vatican and personally informed Pius of the roundup on the morning of October 16—and who has described Pius’ reaction as one of shock and anger—flatly contradicts the currently accepted view.

Finally, and perhaps most regrettably, Sanchez and Lawler both fail to critically discuss and analyze the unprecedented tributes that Pius received from Jewish leaders, who, throughout the 1940s and 1950s, praised him for his role in saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Those tributes have been too casually dismissed by the Pope’s detractors. No pope in history had been so universally acclaimed by Jewish leaders throughout the world: the renowned Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein; Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first President; Moshe Sharett, who would become Israel’s first Foreign Minister and second Prime Minister; Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the Chief Rabbi of Israel—all of these figures showered Pius with praise for his actions in defense of the Jews.

Today, more than fifty years after the Holocaust, many of us need to be reminded that Pope Pius XII saved more Jewish lives than any other person, including Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler—men who are often, and rightly, treated as heroes for their efforts. Pius XII was by no stretch of the imagination or the historical record “Hitler’s Pope.” He was a true friend to the Jews when such friendship mattered most.

David G. Dalin is the author or coauthor of several books, most recently The Presidents of the United States and the Jews.

Image by Av Alexander Voronzow, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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