Pius XII’s Heroic Struggle Against the Nazis

In 1963, the premiere of German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy was met equally with praise and protest. The play’s non-controversial condemnation of Nazism came at the expense of Pope Pius XII, who in the opening act is denounced by a fictitious cardinal as “a criminal.” Pius is cast as a cold-hearted politician whose failure to denounce Nazi atrocities is motivated by personal ambition and antisemitism. This portrayal has influenced some contemporary historians whose criticisms of Pius and the Catholic Church as anti-Semitic are ahistorical. Pius deserves to be remembered as the tactful and discerning spiritual leader he proved himself to be in the face of Nazi anti-Catholicism.

It is commonly said that the Holocaust was made possible by the world’s collective indifference, but European Catholics were among the few who sheltered Jewish refugees at great personal risk. Susan Zuccotti contends, however, that Pius’s own resistance to Nazism has been overrepresented. While individual Catholics played an admirable role in aiding Jews, Zuccotti alleges that Pius only sought to aid the Jews within Rome who were Christian converts. For Zuccotti, the “benevolent ignorance” with which supporters of Pius defend him results from the misconception that the papacy sanctioned all Catholic relief and resistance efforts. She suggests that Jews during the postwar years were reluctant to criticize the Church out of fear they would reignite medieval Christian antisemitism. Public declarations of gratitude by Jews towards Pius were thus made under duress.

John Cornwell is equally critical of Pius but provides a far less charitable view of Catholicism in Hitler’s Pope. Cornwell claims Pius’s failure to denounce the Holocaust was “more than a personal failure, it was a failure of the papal office itself and the prevailing culture of Catholicism.” Cornwell’s allegation of Church-wide antisemitism is echoed in A Moral Reckoning, in which Daniel Goldhagen provides a “moral evaluation” of the Catholic faith in an attempt to persuade the Church that it owes the Jewish community restitution. Goldhagen recommends a “change in self-conception and in fundamental doctrine,” the implication being that the Catholic faith is inherently anti-Semitic and in need of reform.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

All three of these works express outrage at Pius’s failure to denounce Nazism, and the latter two argue that this failure resulted from a culture of antisemitism which is inherently Catholic. The Church, however, should not be unduly criticized for the Vatican’s diplomacy during a time of chaotic uncertainty. When speaking about Nazism, Pius chose his words carefully, and not only out of concern for violent retribution against Catholics in Nazi-occupied Europe and against Vatican City: when Dutch bishops spoke out loudly against Nazi persecution, that persecution only intensified. That is how Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (a.k.a. Edith Stein) earned her martyr’s crown.

Pius feared that in denouncing Hitler he would aggravate the pitiless campaign of anti-Catholicism which had followed the invasion of Poland. In 1939, Nazi-occupied Poland was divided into the Greater Reich and the General Government. Ten million Christians and two million Jews were driven into the General Government by force to allow the Greater Reich to be resettled by German nationals. Polish Catholics were relocated during the winter, and many succumbed to exposure and exhaustion, accounting for a significant portion of the three million Catholic Poles who died during the war. To annihilate Poland, Hitler believed he needed to destroy the Jewish population as well as the largely Catholic intelligentsia. Catholic priests were targeted to prevent them from mobilizing a resistance force of religious Polish nationalists. Of Poland’s 14,000 Catholic priests, approximately 2,600 were incarcerated at Dachau. Many more were executed by Nazi Einzatzgruppen by the end of 1942, at which point the majority of Polish churches and seminaries had been forcibly closed. Marriages between Catholic Poles and Germans were annulled, sacraments were outlawed, and demeaning propaganda circulated, denouncing Catholics as minderwertig, a subhuman race.

The brutalization of Poland’s Catholics should not have come as a surprise given Germany’s history of anti-Catholicism. In 1870, Otto von Bismarck instituted the Kulturkampf, a series of discriminatory policies which prevented Catholics from openly practicing their faith. Bismarck was concerned that the Vatican would influence Catholics—nearly one third of Germany’s population—and lessen support for the Kaiser. Hundreds of clergy and lay Catholics were imprisoned and exiled for their refusal to surrender their religious freedom. Hitler’s own desire to replace Christianity with a pseudo-religious Nazi church fueled anti-Catholic policy some years later. The “National Reich Church” was to replace all Christian denominations. The Bible would be replaced with Mein Kampf, while the swastika would be used in place of the cross. A pamphlet detailing these plans was illegally circulated in West Germany by Jesuit priests, who eventually sent copies to the Vatican. Among numerous other objectives, the pamphlet detailed Hitler’s plan to eradicate all elements of “imported” Christianity which had been “imposed” on the German people.

Volksdeutsch Catholics living in Germany received marginally better treatment than Poles, mainly because no systemic deportation or killing occurred. However, the rights of both lay Catholics and the Church itself were severely curtailed. The Catholic Centre Party had tried to prevent any such discrimination by ratifying the Enabling Act in March 1933 which granted Hitler dictatorial power in Germany. Hitler had agreed to a number of conditions of limitation to the act which included that the “existing rights of Christian confessions… were to be maintained.” Four months later the Vatican signed the Reichskonkordat which dissolved the Catholic Centre Party—the last surviving opposition to the NSDAP. Through sacrificing political influence in the Reich, the Vatican believed it could prevent Catholicism from being systemically destroyed. In 1934, Hitler used his newfound power to implement a campaign which would remove churches from the public sphere. Within Germany, the Church’s institutional credibility was revoked. Nazi gauleiters were given control of church budgets; parishioners and clergy were not permitted to interact in public; and beginning in 1935 numerous church officials were routinely arrested without cause. A series of show trials followed in which ninety-seven church officials were charged with violating Germany’s foreign currency regulations. Trials in the early 1930s which had accused Jewish intelligentsia of similar economic crimes had successfully perpetuated theories of Jewish greed and thrift. So, too, the Nazis desired to alienate the laity from the clergy by promoting theories of widespread corruption.

Pius feared that an aggressive anti-Nazi stance would worsen the already poor treatment of Catholics. Formed in 1933, the Hitler Youth demonstrates why Pius’s concerns were reasonable. The Hitler Youth was an intensely anti-religious organization which taught its members to reject Christianity. Meetings, training, and activities were scheduled to prevent children from attending Sunday Mass; their content promoted nationalism and the perception of Hitler as a Christ-figure. Many Catholic parents prevented their children from joining. They were denounced as traitors and threatened until 1939 when Hitler Youth membership was made compulsory. If Catholics resisted they could expect their children to be forcibly assimilated into the regime. The persistent targeting of youth was a source of anxiety for the Vatican, which feared that an entire generation would be manipulated into abandoning the Faith.

Many clergymen, such as Bishop Carl Maria Splett, wrote to Pius, begging him to respond with caution. Splett wrote that numerous priests and teachers had been arrested, executed, deported, and tortured in Danzig in retaliation against a cardinal who spoke against Jewish discrimination. An impassioned declaration from the pope would have inspired more severe retribution than the sermon of a single cardinal. After the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge was published in 1937, Hitler warned clergy there would be consequences for political activism. The encyclical claimed that “whoever exalts race. . . to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God.” Hitler was prompted to address German bishops at a rally in Berlin by saying that the Church would be pushed back into their “proper spiritual activity” if any more subversive writing occurred. The very same year, 170 Franciscan monks were prosecuted for the alleged “corruption of youth,” and 1,000 German priests stood trial in Berlin. In 1940, Pius denounced the invasion of Poland in Vatican Radio broadcasts which detailed the deportation and seclusion of Jews in ghettos. Hitler responded with menacing ambiguity; his threat of “physical destruction” to the Vatican coincided with air raids over Britain. Pius could not risk subjecting the Vatican to the Luftwaffe any more than he could risk emboldening Nazi mistreatment of German and Polish Catholics.

In May 1942, Pius responded to the British and German air raid campaigns, urging the protection of civilians. Later that year in the annual Papal Christmas Address, Pius called for aid for “the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction,” an unambiguous reference to the Daily Telegraph’s report of 700,000 murdered Jews. When Mussolini was overthrown weeks later in 1943, Hitler threatened to invade and occupy Rome. He stated that he would not spare the Vatican and that he intended to depose the pope. Germany’s foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, assured the Vatican that Germany would respect its sovereignty in exchange for its cooperation. Rome’s Jews were rounded up and deported on October 16, 1943. Pius had been forced into silence. Future public addresses from the Pope were absent of suggestive phrases hinting at Nazi atrocities. At every turn when the Church had attempted to express dissent, the Nazis responded by abusing the Catholics under their control, and by threatening to lay waste to Vatican City.

Pope Pius XII had an obligation to speak out against Nazi atrocities. He also had an obligation to protect European Catholics and the Vatican. There is no way of knowing what would have happened had Pius condemned Hitler by name. Would more Jews have been saved? Would he have inspired the allied nations to liberate concentration camps? It is unlikely. As early as 1942 the world knew about the Holocaust; no nation can claim that they entered the war to stop it. This apparent insensitivity and apathy are confounding, and we like to think that we would do better. If we have learned anything from the Holocaust, perhaps we will. Passions flare when historians discuss Pope Pius XII, and generally when historians are passionate about what they write, the quality of historiography is greater for it. In the case of some histories which examine the relationship of the Church to Nazi Germany, however, this passion has muddled historical accuracy. As a student of history, I believe that we should engage critically with our past. The men who came before us were flawed, as we are, and “great man” histories which ignore this fact are anti-intellectual. The vitriol with which Pius has been attacked, however, is a symptom of a bigger problem, namely a prevailing culture of anti-Catholicism that is prevalent among academics who ironically style themselves as harbingers of tolerance and civility.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images


  • Calum Anderson

    Calum Anderson is a JD Candidate at Queen’s University. He holds a Bachelor of Education from Western University and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and History from Trent University. He can be reached at [email protected].

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...