Historical Questions


Pius XII and the Holocaust

by Anthony Schratz


During the last three years of the Second World War some 6 million of Europe's 8-9 million Jews were executed by Germany's Nazi regime under Adolph Hitler. The name commonly attributed to this genocide is the Holocaust.

The Pope during that period was Plus XII. In the years following the war he was praised by many Jewish leaders for all that he had done to save European Jews during the War.

However, in 1963 a play was published (The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth) which maintained that Pius XII remained silent during the War. It implied that Pius XII was anti-Semitic, that he was afraid of the Nazis and was not courageous enough to take a stand against the genocide, and that he feared that the Vatican's investments would be seized by the Nazis should he dare to take a stand against them. Since 1963 the debate has raged over the alleged Silence of Pius XII.

The issue of the Holocaust and the Church raises many questions. Did Pius XII remain silent, and if so, why? What was the reaction of the Catholic Hierarchy to the Holocaust in the countries of Europe. How did lay Catholics react? How was it possible for Christian Europe to acquiesce in the genocide of a people? To what extent did the treatment of the Jews by the medieval Church lay the groundwork for the Holocaust?

No year goes by without several books on these questions being published. These range from passionate defenses of Pius XII and the Church to outright denunciations of both. In this short article we can do no more than to have a brief look at the first question. Let us review the facts.

Germany and the Rise of Hitler

Germany had been defeated in the First World War and in 1918 humiliating peace terms had been imposed on it by the allies, who blamed Germany for the war. Germans, however, did not feel that they were responsible for the First World War and they believed the peace terms to be harsh and unfair. Those terms were meant to have the Germans pay for the War and to keep them down. This caused a serious depression in Germany which was ripe for a nationalistic leader. Germany wanted revenge.

Hitler and the National Socialists came to power in Germany 1933. They was elected with a plurality and not a majority and failed to obtain a majority in almost any of the Catholic regions of Germany. In 1933 there were approximately 35 million Catholics in Germany, equivalent to a little over 40% of the German population.

Long before he came to power Hitler had clearly set out in writing what his program was to be. It called for the internal consolidation and rearmament of Germany followed by treaties with Britain and Italy. He would then make war on France and, after defeating France, he would make war with Russia in order to obtain living space for the German people.

Hitler was strongly anti-Semitic. He had spent some years in Vienna where he was influenced by the radical racist and nationalist theories that were popular at the time. His views on the Jews were formed in this atmosphere.

He saw the Jews as a race and not as a religion. For him they were a foreign race in Germany. His program called for their civil rights to be removed. They were to be ineligible to hold public office. They were to be pressured into emigrating and, if that failed, they were to be deported. However, genocide is nowhere mentioned in Hitler's pre-war writings.

In his view the Jews stood for everything that he opposed. They were internationalists and he was a German nationalist. Influenced by Nietzsche’s theories he believed the best should rule and the Jews promoted democracy. He believed in militarism and the Jews were pacifists. He saw them as responsible for the Russian Revolution, for the League of Nations, for financing the war effort of Germany's enemies during the First World War and so responsible for her defeat. He believed that they had no culture of their own. He considered them parasites who produced nothing of their own but lived off the efforts of other nations.

As soon as he came to power Hitler began to implement this program by enacting legislation against the Jews. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 forbade inter-marriage between Jews and others; Jews were forbidden to own businesses and their citizenship was revoked. By these laws he hoped to pressure them into emigrating. In 1938 even harsher laws were enacted, including forced emigration, forced labor in concentration camps and expulsion from schools.

As a result of these laws, the majority of Germany's Jews did try to emigrate. This, however, was not easy, for in order to emigrate one needed to find a country that would accept one as an immigrant. The British would neither accept them or allow them into Palestine, which was at that time under British rule. The U. S. and Canada did not want to be saddled with thousands of Jewish refugees.

Hitler also attempted to implement the rest of his program. He re-armed Germany. He bullied Austria and Czechoslovakia into succumbing to him. He then made a treaty with Russia in 1939 and, on September 1, Germany and Russia invaded Poland. In the Spring of 1940 he attacked and defeated France. In June of 1942 he attacked Russia.

Pius XII

Who was Pius XII? He was an Italian by the name of Eugenio Pacelli. He was born in 1876 and ordained to the priesthood in 1899 at the age of 23. He was a brilliant student who knew Latin, Greek, English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew and Aramaic. His talent was spotted by Pope Leo XIII and he entered the diplomatic service. During the First World War he was given special assignments by Pope Benedict XV to try to obtain a peace settlement.

Pacelli became a bishop in 1917. His first assignment was as Nuncio to Bavaria in Germany. At that time the Church had separate concordats with different German regions since the German federal government after unification had refused to sign a concordat. He stayed in Bavaria until 1925. From 1925 to 1929 he was Nuncio in Berlin. In 1929 he became the secretary of state of Pope Pius XI. He was elected Pope in 1939 just before the War started.

National Socialism and Communism

Although it was the Nazis who would be the first to sweep victoriously across Europe, Pacelli and all Catholics were looking apprehensively at the rise of Communism in Russia.

By 1939 Lenin and Stalin had killed 15 million Russians in concentration camps, had killed over 5 million Ukrainians through a forced policy of starvation and had killed some 8 million peasants in the war against the kulaks. The Catholic Church in Ukraine and Lithuania had to go underground. Catholic priests were killed wherever they were found.

Hitler was also anti-clerical and had plans to eliminate the Catholic Church in Germany. But when the war began, he had signed a concordat with Plus XI and his intentions to liquidate the Jews were still unknown and had quite possibly not even been hatched yet. He was violating the concordat, but he was not systematically killing priests. He was like the other anti-clerical dictators with whom the Church had been dealing throughout Europe since the French Revolution.

Hitler did see the Catholic Church as his enemy and intended to destroy it once he had achieved victory in the War. Until then he felt that he could not risk alienating Germany's Catholics by a wholesale onslaught against the Church. However, he did go as far as he dared in lessening the Church's influence. He closed Catholic schools and seminaries, closed down Catholic publications, arrested some priests, closed down monasteries and deported the monks, expropriated some Church lands, etc.

Hitler was quite correct, of course, in seeing the Catholic Church as an enemy, for National Socialism involved a neo-paganism that was incompatible with Christianity.

Vatican Diplomacy

During the First World War Pope Benedict XV had remained neutral and impartial. He denounced cruelty and war but did not take sides. It was this model that Pius XI followed in the various conflicts that raged in Europe between the two World Wars and that Pius XII followed during the War.

For example, during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Republican side was dominated by fiercely anti-Catholic Communists and Anarchists who executed many thousands of Catholic priests and nuns, some of whom have been canonized as martyrs. The slaughter also included many Catholic laity who refused to deny their faith. It was consequently assumed that Pope Pius XI and the Vatican favored the Nationalist side in that conflict. However, an October 21, 1937 article in the Osservatore Romano expressly denied this, stating "The Church does not belong to any political or social camp. It is not a combatant but a martyr. The various national states in the world can take one side or the other; but religion stands above the conflict, something public opinion has never understood."

Here indeed lies the answer to the puzzle of the position taken by Pius XII during the Second World War. He was essentially following the perennial policy of the Holy See, which is to remain impartial in the hope of being able to contribute to the end of the conflict in question by acting as a mediator or arbiter.

In the first half of the 20th Century the Vatican had to work with anti clerical regimes in many European countries, including Spain, France, Italy, Russia and Germany. Since the Church's first concern is with the salvation of souls, it has to work with whatever regime happens to be in power in a given country in order to obtain the best possible terms for Catholics in that country. This often means making the best of a bad situation. Indeed, Pius XI had once said that in order to help souls he would be ready to negotiate with the Devil himself if necessary.

In order to implement this policy, the Vatican seeks to remain neutral and impartial in the face of politics and conflicts, limiting its declarations to generic condemnations of injustice, cruelty, war, etc. and always remaining at the level of principle. It does not publicly condemn any country nor declare any war as just or unjust. It will not censor specific individuals or countries.

It follows this policy for several reasons. As Christ stated, his Kingdom is not of this world and he was not called to be a judge on temporal matters (cf. Luke 12: 14). The Church's mission is the salvation of souls. Her role on earth is to welcome sinners into her bosom in order to convert and save them. She must never be seen as espousing a particular political cause nor as favoring one nation over another. She must remain open to all, a sign and safeguard of the transcendent character of the human person.

In addition, the Church wishes to be available to help make peace and can only do this by remaining technically neutral and impartial, refraining from any specific condemnation. It does not want to alienate any given state nor, by a specific denunciation, risk reprisals against Catholics in that state. It does not see its role as taking sides in partisan political issues but must stand above the fray, denouncing injustice in a generic way so that injustices committed by either side in a conflict will be included in the condemnation. In the specific case of the Second World War, there was an additional reason. Pius XII had good reasons for believing that a condemnation of the Nazis would have been imprudent in that it would have entailed serious reprisals against both Catholics and Jews.

Interestingly enough, this was well understood at the time. The New York Times, in its Christmas editorial in 1942 after the defeat of Poland and France by Germany stated the following: In these circumstances no one would expect the Pope to speak as a political leader, or a war leader, or in any other role than in that of a preacher ordained to stand above the battle, tied impartially, as he says, to all people and willing to collaborate in any new order which will bring a just peace.

But, one may well ask, how can one remain impartial when a terrible genocide is going on? The answer is that impartiality never means to condone evil actions. By virtue of her mission, the Church is called upon to condemn injustice, war, genocide, unjust aggression, etc. But if the Church were ever to be drawn into a conflict as one more party thereto she would lose the unique position that she is called by Christ to adopt: that of an independent observer who stands above temporal questions, reminding all parties concerned of the great moral principles they are bound to follow and raising the alarm when they fail to do so. She will, however, always perform this latter action in a generic way without specifically condemning any country, political party or person. To take sides is to alienate one side long after the conflict is over.

Pius XII and Nazi Germany

We are used to thinking of Hitler's war as unjust. The anti-Semitism and genocide obviously were. However, most Germans saw the war as a national effort to fight off those enemies who had humiliated Germany and had imposed an unjust peace on her.

When the allies asked the Pope to condemn Germany and the Nazis by name, he always answered that he could not do so without also condemning the atrocities committed by Communist Russia and the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets by the allies.

Having spent 12 years in Germany, Pacelli knew the Germans well and liked them. However, he was not pro-Nazi. On the contrary, he saw the anti-clericalism from the beginning and as early as 1933 he was on record as expressing alarm at the Nazis' treatment of the Church, of the Jews and of their political opponents. For example, in speaking about the Nazis in 1935 he said that possessed by superstitions of race and blood, their philosophy is essentially opposed to the Christian Faith.

The Nazis also knew him for an enemy. Before his election in 1939, the German Ambassador to the Holy See warned the Cardinals against electing him. The Nazi press was against him. And an internal memorandum found after the War and written just after his election states that his election as Pope is problematic since he was opposed to the Nazi regime.

The Holy See under Pius XI had signed a Concordat with Nazi Germany in July 1933. As stated above, even though it was clear that the regime was anti-clerical and anti-Semitic, the Church believed that its main responsibility was to secure the best possible deal for Germany's Catholics so that they would be free to practice their religion and to run Catholic schools, institutions, newspapers, etc.

Because of violations of the Concordat, in 1937 Pius XI issued an encyclical letter entitled in German Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Anxiety). It was the only encyclical ever to be written in German. It condemned the attacks on the Church by the German government and amounted to a wholesale condemnation of the National Socialist ideology though without specifically mentioning it. It was read from the pulpits of all the Catholic churches in Germany on Palm Sunday, March 12, 1937. It is now known that the encyclical was written mainly by German bishops and given its final form by Pacelli.

The Final Solution

The Final Solution is the term given to Hitler's plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. This plan was experimented with in 1941, formally adopted in January of 1942 and put into effect in the summer of 1942. It was secret. Very few people even in the upper ranks of the government knew about this. No written order on this subject has ever been found. It is only known by the testimony given at the Nuremberg trials and by other testimonies of prisoners who survived.

It took place in Poland and in remote areas in Eastern Germany, out of sight of the German population. Even though some historians have maintained the contrary, it is clear that secrecy was imposed because it was thought that public opinion in Germany would not tolerate genocide.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews had already been settled in ghettos and concentration camps over the previous years. Beginning in 1942 death camps were set up. Jews were transported there, gassed to death and their bodies burnt.

Despite the secrecy, early on some prisoners escaped from Auschwitz and spoke of the genocide that was being perpetrated. In spite of this, right to the end of the war there was some doubt as to the exact fate of the deported Jews. A letter of Pius XII written in late 1944 expresses fear that many of the Jews who had been transported to prison camps would be put into forced labor under inhuman conditions that would imply death for many. This shows that even at that late date, though he was aware that the deportations meant likely death for many Jews, he was unaware of the systematic genocide that was being carried out.

Why were the escaped prisoners disbelieved? During the First World War both sides in the conflict had engaged in massive efforts of disinformation concerning atrocities committed by the other side. In the propaganda battle atrocities perpetrated by the other side were invented or grossly exaggerated. After the War all this became known. People were consequently leery about believing any story of a systematic genocide, the like of which had never been seen before.

Faced with his fears for the safety of the Jews, Plus XII had two choices. On the one hand he could issue a public denunciation of the Nazi regime and excommunicate those of the Nazi leaders who were baptized Catholics, even though by embracing National Socialism they had already de facto left the Church. The other choice was to encourage the local hierarchy (national or more local) to do whatever they could on behalf of the Jews who were being persecuted.

He used a combination of both public denunciations and clandestine aid to the Jews.

Public Denunciations

In his Christmas message of 1942, the Pope spoke about the hundreds of thousands of persons who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nationality or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.

This is the kind of diplomatic language one finds in the Pope's war time messages. They contain a general condemnation which could be applicable to both sides, even though it was obvious that it was directed at the Nazi regime in particular. Why had he not issued such a condemnation before? Because the Final Solution only began in 1942 and because he was trying to find a way to act as a peacemaker or mediator among the warring parties. The allies wanted him to condemn Germany by name, but this he would not do. They would have been upset had he jointly condemned Russia and the allied bombing of civilian targets.

The Nazis reacted with rage to the broadcast even though they largely prevented it from reaching Germany and many other parts of Europe. It was evident to the Nazis that they were being targeted. The German Ambassador to the Holy See was told to threaten the Pope and the Church. In his report he said that the Pope was not the slightest bit afraid of the threats and threatened back that if it came to war between the Nazis and the Church the result would inevitably be a Church victory, as history shows. The Nazis admired his personal courage. At the time the Vatican was entirely at the mercy of the Germans, who could have taken the Pope prisoner without meeting any serious opposition.

There were several other such messages throughout the War disseminated by the Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio. The Pope's effort was appreciated at the time. A New York Times Editorial described it as follows: The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe. He is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all.

The effect of these public denunciations, however, was invariably to engender reprisals. The most famous example of this was in 1942 in Holland. Up until that time Dutch Jews who had converted to Christianity had been spared arrest. The Catholic and Protestant hierarchies decided to read a protest against the deportation of the Jews in the churches on July 26, 1942. The Nazis learned of the protest beforehand and warned both the Catholic and Protestant hierarchy that there would be reprisals if they dared to ahead with it. The Protestant Churches backed down but the Catholic hierarchy had the protest read. As a result, on August 2, 1942, all Catholic Jews were rounded up and deported, including Saint Edith Stein. In fact, in Holland 90% of all Jews were killed, the highest percentage of any country in Europe.

Efforts to Save Jewish Lives

As a result of this and similar events, Pius XII decided to leave it up to the local bishops to decide what to do in each case, in order to avoid as much as possible the suffering and death of the Jews. He instructed the Catholic hierarchy everywhere to do everything possible to save Jewish lives, but left it up to local initiative to decide on the best course of action in each case. He pointed out that each word had to be weighed in order to avoid reprisals and so doing more harm than good.

Pius XII was not afraid for himself. It would have been very easy for him to make a grandiose public denunciation, excommunicating Germany's leaders, thereby bringing on his own martyrdom. Had he done that, he would have been blamed for an imprudent gesture which led to hundreds of thousands more victims of the Nazi genocide. In such a case instead of debating the Silence of Pius XII we would today be debating the Imprudence of Pius XII .

The Nazis did not want a public denunciation. They feared that this would cause doubts in the ranks of their own Catholic soldiers, most of whom did not know about the Final Solution, and most of whom felt they were fighting a just war against their nation's enemies.

But if a public denunciation had been made, they would have reacted brutally. They would not have caved in. This was made clear by testimony in the Nuremberg trials. Oddly enough, even though the denunciation would not have helped, the threat of a denunciation saved many thousands of lives.

The Red Cross came to exactly the same conclusion. When they learned about the Final Solution they discussed whether to issue a condemnation. They decided that doing so would be counter productive. They would be prevented from continuing their work on behalf of the victims of the war. Other organizations took the same line.

Over the past 25 years all the important documentation of the Holy See having to do with the Second World War has been edited and published by the Vatican in 12 thick volumes. This documentation is evidence of the enormous efforts of the Vatican to save Jewish lives and the lives of prisoners of war. After the war, when bishops and nuncios were thanked for all they had done to save Jewish lives, they all said they were only obeying the instructions of Pius XII.

During the period where Jewish emigration was permitted, most countries refused to accept them as immigrants. Working through the nuncios and the local hierarchy, Pius XII was able to obtain thousands of visas for Jews to travel to South America, putting pressure on the governments of those countries to accept them. He managed to convince the government of Spain to accept any Jew who could show Spanish ancestry (many Jews were descendants of those who had been expelled from Spain in the 15th Century). The Vatican spent huge sums on all this, paying for transport, etc.

The Pope used many other means to save Jewish lives. He had false Vatican Passports issued to Jews. He gave teaching positions in pontifical universities to Hebrew scholars. He made frequent protests to the Nazi regime about its treatment of the Jews. He had false baptismal certificates issued. He ordered monasteries, churches and other Catholic institutions to provide sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Nazi persecution.

In Italy the Jews were persecuted but not deported until Italy was occupied by Germany in 1944. At the request of Pius XII a great mobilization then took place to save as many Jews as possible from the inevitable roundup that would take place. Some 7,000 Jews were hidden for a year in the Vatican and in 180 other places such as Churches, convents, hospitals, schools, etc. Convents of cloistered nuns were ordered to allow sanctuary to married couples.

There were 50,000 Jews in Italy in 1939 and another 16,000 Jewish refugees arrived during the war. Of all these, only 8,000 were captured and deported, thanks to the efforts of Pius XII and the Catholic Church.

The Nazis knew that many were being hid, but they did not want to risk breaking with the Vatican. There is evidence that the Jewish community in Rome specifically asked the Pope not to issue any public condemnation for fear that this would generate reprisals resulting in the violation and search of the many places of sanctuary where the Jews were hiding.

At one point the Germans demanded 50 kilos of gold from the Jewish community of Rome within 24 hours, failing which the whole community would be deported. Plus XII offered to make up what was missing, using sacred vessels of the Vatican. In recognition the Jewish community in Rome wanted to place a stone with an inscription in the Synagogue in honor of the Holy Father.

At the end of the war, the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, converted to Catholicism and took the baptismal name Eugene in gratitude to the Pope for all that he had done to save Jewish lives.

There is abundant internal Nazi documentation to the effect that the propaganda of the Church against the persecution of the Jews was hurting their cause. From all the countries where deportations were taking place there are complaints of Nazi officials that the Church was turning public opinion against them.

Pinchas Lapide in his book The Last Three Popes and the Jews estimates that the Holy See directly saved some 820,000 Jewish lives during the war. He is a Jewish historian who is no friend of the Catholic Church. Indeed his book begins with a bitter critique of the way the Catholic Church has treated the Jews throughout its history. He fought in the British Army during the war and had first hand knowledge of the efforts of Pius XII to save Jewish lives.

Jewish Reactions to the Efforts of Pius XII and the Church

When the war ended there was a great outpouring of gratitude to Pius XII from the international Jewish community and this was renewed on his death. He was considered a hero who had saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. A few examples of these plaudits will suffice to measure the extent of the gratitude that the international Jewish community felt for Pius XII.

Golda Meir: When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of the Nazi terror, the voice of the pope was raised for its victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.

Dr. Joseph Nathan representing the Hebrew Commission: We thank Pius XII and the religious men and women who, executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognized the persecuted as their brothers and, with great abnegation, hastened to help them, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed.

Albert Einstein: When all others had abdicated their responsibility, only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign. The Church alone has the courage and persistence to stand for moral freedom.

As an expression of this gratitude, on May 26, 1955 the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra went to Rome to play for the Pope. The chief rabbis of Zagreb and Bucharest each wrote emotional letters of gratitude to the Pope in which they state that the survival of the Jewish communities of those cities is owed to the intervention of the Catholic hierarchy.

So how do we explain the critiques of Pius XII which have arisen since his death?

The author of the play, The Deputy, is one of those armchair communists with no love for the Church. His accusations that Pius XII was anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi are the work of his imagination and are entirely without foundation. There is abundant documentary evidence available disproving such allegations and today no serious historian accepts them.

The real question comes down to this. Did Pius XII make an error in judgment by not issuing a public statement excommunicating the German leaders and specifically condemning the Nazi regime by name? Should he not have been more forceful and less diplomatic? Did not the gravity of the situation call for a setting aside of the usual Vatican practice of limiting itself to generic condemnations? Is it not possible that such a denunciation would have led to a refusal to fight by Hitler's Catholic soldiers? Would it not have alerted the Jews of Europe to what was happening and allowed many more of them to escape? And even if it did not, would it not have been better to issue such a condemnation at least for appearances sake so that it could never be said that the Church had not taken a firm stand against the Nazi ideology?

The short answer to all this is that, on the one hand, the Nazis were powerful enough to prevent any such denunciation from reaching many people. They had shown this by the way they had prevented Pius XII's Christmas message of 1942 from being heard in many places in Europe. But more importantly we know that the Nazis would have reacted to a specific, public condemnation by an even greater attack on the Jews and on Catholics as well. This was made clear at Nuremberg and had been shown by their reaction to local denunciations, as in the case of Holland and St. Edith Stein. If Pius XII had made a public condemnation he would have been blamed after the War for imprudence which would have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives. As for a denunciation for appearances sake, the Pope was clearly not going to risk the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews simply to increase the prestige of the papacy in the eyes of the world.

In summary, during the War Pope Pius XII did issue condemnations of the genocide being perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany, but did so following the perennial policy of the Holy See, which is to avoid denouncing any country, political party or individual specifically by name so as not to risk permanently alienating any country long after the conflict has been resolved. This was well understood and appreciated at the time, but has been called into question by some in our own day who, not having lived through the War, are unaware of the increased persecution that such a denunciation would have entailed. These people also fail to understand the nature of the Church and its role in the world and so cannot appreciate the need for the Holy See to remain above partisan politics and international conflicts.

There are many excellent books on this subject. The reader who wishes to pursue this further would do well to begin with the following two:

Pius XII and the Second World War by Pierre Blet, S.J. (Paulist Press, 1997). The author is a member of the team that was asked to edit and make public the Vatican archives having to do with the War. These were published in a 12 volume edition. Here he has written a one-volume history based on those archives.

Hitler, the War and the Pope by Ronald J. Rychlak (Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 2000).

Anthony Schratz
The Catholic Legate
April 2, 2004