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In the fourth year of the Second World War, Dec. 24, 1942, Pope Pius XII, speaking on the radio, delivered his annual Christmas message. Known for being verbose, the pope gave a speech that many found to be tedious and of “exorbitant” length. On page 24 of his text, the pope attempted to speak out on the subject of Nazi persecution. The pope deplored the fate of “hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own and solely because of their nation or their race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.”
Those few words exposed Pius XII to criticism for failing to provide leadership and moral clarity. The ambassador from the Polish government in exile was disappointed that the pope spoke in generalities, without specifying the Polish Catholic and Jewish victims.
Pius XII’s pronouncements, like the Christmas statement, invariably expressed sympathy for those suffering. But while he deplored the crime, he failed to identify either the perpetrators of the crime or its victims. As exemplified in the passage above, the pope could not bring himself to utter the word “Nazi” or “Jew.” A frustrated Polish ambassador indicated that Pius XII, by nature and experience, was far too detached from the harsh realities facing his listeners. But is that saying enough? New and not-so-new evidence from the Vatican archives may provide a more nuanced explanation of the pope’s words.
On Sept. 27, 2023, I presented my book Intimate Strangers: A History of Jews and Catholics in the City of Rome to Pope Francis at a general audience. At that time, I was able to speak briefly with Father Norbert Hofmann, secretary of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. He was hopeful that with the publication of all of Pope Pius’ papers concerning World War II, a more sympathetic picture of the pope would be revealed.
Father Hofmann was referring to the fact that on March 2, 2020, the Vatican allowed researchers to investigate the full archive documenting Pope Pius XII’s war years. Discoveries from that archive have recently been published by David Kertzer in several articles as well as a book, The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler.
On Sept. 16 of this year, a further discovery was announced by Vatican archivist Giovanni Coco of a previously unknown letter dated Dec. 14, 1942, written by Rev. Lothar König, a German anti-Nazi Jesuit, to Pope Pius’ personal secretary, Rev. Robert Leiber. The purpose of the letter was to report to the pope concerning the persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany. An appendix to the letter provided the pope with the number of priests imprisoned in Dachau. The letter also informed the pope that 6,000 Jews and Poles were being murdered daily at Belzec, a camp southeast of Lublin in Poland. Finally—and perhaps most importantly for understanding the pope’s response—the letter requested that the Vatican be cautious in making the information provided public because, if it emerged that such information came from the German Church, the persecution of the Church in Germany would become even fiercer than it already was.
The Dec. 14, 1942, letter found by Coco is not the only letter documenting the Holocaust from eyewitnesses that Pius received in 1942. Seven months earlier, Abbot Pirro Scavizzi wrote directly to Pius from Poland saying:
The struggle against the Jews is implacable and constantly intensifying with deportations and mass executions. The massacre of the Jews in Ukraine is by now complete. In Poland and Germany they want to complete it also, with a system of mass murders.
A similar letter was written to the pope in August of 1942 by the archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Andrea Szeptzycky. He wrote: “The number of Jews killed in our little area has certainly exceeded two hundred thousand. ... At Kiev, in just a few days, as many as a hundred and thirty thousand men, women and children were executed.” And Abbot Scavizzi reported that when he followed up his letter with a face-to-face visit with the pope, Pius XII cried “like a child.”
There can be little doubt then, that the pope was aware of the genocide taking place in Europe as early as 1942, both in general terms and also in many of its specifics. Nonetheless, he remained silent. He was woefully ambiguous in the Christmas message, and two months earlier, in an exchange of memos with Myron Taylor, the American special envoy to the Vatican, he refused to verify the reports he had already heard.
Pope Pius’ image was that of a spiritual man. To look at him, it would appear that his devotion to the religious life had left him spare and gaunt. Yet when faced with the Holocaust, he appeared more diminished than devout. Given the state of the evidence, the task for historians is not to justify his response but to explain it.
One explanation might be found in the advice he was being given in the fall and winter of 1942. The letter newly discovered by Coco, dated Dec. 14, 1942, concluded with a plea not to disclose the source of the horrific details related to the pope for fear of reprisals from the Nazis. Ten days later, Pius delivered his cautious and obscure Christmas message.
It is possible that the cryptic nature of the pope’s statement on the Holocaust was an attempt to honor Father König’s request. Also, his choice not to confirm what he had been told about the Nazi death camps to the American special envoy may have similarly been an attempt to protect his sources: If the Americans had publicized the pope’s confirmation of mass murder, those sources would have been jeopardized.
Furthermore, at roughly the same time, the pope was also receiving advice from Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, a confidant who had little sympathy for the plight of Europe’s Jews. Dell’Acqua did not want the pope to compromise his neutrality, which would anger Hitler, and likely echoed the pope’s concerns about what the Americans might do if he confirmed their suspicions about the Nazi genocide in Europe.
The pope’s vague statements and his silence appear to be part of a chosen policy rather than the outcome of personal timidity. A clear statement of this Vatican policy was made later, toward the end of the war. After Mussolini was deposed on July 25, 1943, the new Italian government kept him confined near Rome for a short time, and then imprisoned him in the Gran Sasso mountains farther to the northeast. On Sept. 12, 1943, the Germans mounted a successful rescue mission. Mussolini was briefly taken to Germany and then installed as a puppet of the Reich in the city of Salò in Lombardy on the banks of Lake Garda. He became the feckless head of state for the Republic of Salò, (Repubblica Sociale Italiana), also known as “RSI,” which accomplished little besides the persecution of Jews. Even the studiously neutral Vatican had no intention of recognizing the legitimacy of this degraded regime.
Nonetheless, on Oct. 15, 1943, Monsignor Ambrogio Marchioni, a Vatican diplomat, met with Mussolini’s general, Rodolfo Graziani, who was attempting to gain papal support for Italy’s much-reduced dictator. The general asked that the monsignor side with the RSI. Marchioni demurred. The Church, he said, and certainly the Vatican, was neutral and had to remain neutral. It was not a priest’s role to support one belligerent or another, but rather to “instill calm, tranquility, order so as to ensure that ill-advised actions do not produce serious reprisals against so many innocent people or the entire population.”
The monsignor’s answer was almost as vague and noncommittal as Pius’ Christmas message. But while Pius had only expressed his dismay, Marchioni was delivering a diplomatic message. The Vatican had a policy. The Church was to remain neutral and take no “ill-advised” actions. Furthermore, its claimed neutrality had a purpose: to avoid incurring reprisals that would be aimed at the innocent. The fact that the most severe and bloody reprisals always originated from Fascist or Nazi forces was left unsaid, probably to avoid the very reprisals the monsignor feared.
Whether or not such a policy was in the best interests of Catholics and Jews under Nazi domination inside Italy is not a question with an easy answer. However, it is certain that the pope’s silence did no damage to the Nazis.
What is clear, however, is that Nazi reprisals in Italy and elsewhere were brutal. For the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office, the SS wiped out the Czech town of Lidice. On June 9, 1942, 173 men and boys were gunned down, while the women and children of the town were deported to concentration and death camps. Eighty children were gassed, most likely at Chelmno, and 53 women died, probably at Ravensbruck. On March 24, 1944, in Rome, 10 Italians were murdered for each SS officer killed in an ambush carried out by the Resistance in the center of the city. On June 10, 1944, a Waffen-SS reprisal razed the town of Ouradour-sur Glane in France, killing 642 villagers. The Nazi reprisals in central Italy, at Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Monte Sole, only two of many such Nazi massacres, resulted in over 1,200 civilian deaths, most of them women and children. Thus, it seems clear that papal policy, while frustrating and perhaps morally reprehensible, had a solid grounding in reality.
But the monsignor could not stop himself from saying one more thing to the Fascist general: The Church “does not, and cannot, remain neutral between good and evil.” Again, the monsignor chose silence instead of identifying who was good and who was evil (even if, in a face-to-face meeting between a Vatican emissary and a representative of Mussolini, that is not a realistic expectation). But at the same time, the monsignor’s statement can be read as a veiled threat by the Vatican to a Fascist official: The pope would not countenance bloody retaliations against civilians.
Was this threat an empty one? In hindsight, we know that it was. The pope had few resources at his disposal to back up such threats. Accordingly, a policy of silence, or even of veiled threats, could only be based on the hope that someone else, not the pope and not the Vatican, would step up to alleviate the suffering of Jews and other innocents.
Nevertheless, if the pope believed he could not take concrete action to save lives, individual priests found a way. At many (but not all) churches, convents, and monasteries throughout Rome and Italy, churchmen and churchwomen did not “remain neutral between good and evil.” And thousands of innocent and Jewish lives were saved.
Was any of that intended by the pope’s statements or Monsignor Marchioni’s threat? It is difficult to know. When the policy is silence, the intent of the policy cannot be certain. What we are left with is an uncertainty that may accurately reflect a flawed yet deliberate response to an excruciating dilemma.
Fredric Brandfon, formerly an archaeologist at Beersheba, Tel Michal, Tel Gerisa, and Jaffa, Israel, currently practices law in Los Angeles.