The Record of Pius XII's Opposition to Hitler
Below is a chronology of Eugenio Pacelli's efforts against the Nazis and their regime (1933-1945).
During his years as Nuncio to Germany, 1917 to 1929, he began the Church's opposition, and as Cardinal Secretary of State under Pope Pius XI, from 1929-39, he intensified the Church's battle against the Nazis. After assuming the Chair of Peter as Pius XII in 1939, his became the world's single most important moral voice speaking against Hitler and his murderous regime.
Pacelli's prominence in combating Nazi evil was plainly and dramatically acknowledged in 1937 by the then reigning pontiff, Pius XI. Before a group of German bishops in Rome to thank him for his anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge ("With Burning Anxiety"), the Pope pointed directly at Cardinal Pacelli and said: "Thank him! He has done everything: he will [continue to] deal with everything." Pacelli was first and last a priest and man of peace who worked constantly to relieve the sufferings and save the lives of millions.
Not unexpectedly, his heroic labor of love was cursed by the Nazis for some 20 years.
Less understandable is the scorn heaped upon him and his work in recent years.
There is, however, one haunting similarity between Pius XII’s fascist accusers of 60 years ago and today’s detractors, that may offer an answer to why such seemingly different critics seek to totally discredit this Pope.
Both the Nazis of 60 years ago and today’s accusers have one common goal—to destroy the moral authority of the Papacy. Because Pius was such a strong Pope, destroying his good name would weaken the confidence of many Catholics and increase hostility to the Church everywhere. Scripture describes the cruel logic of Pius’s detractors in a single sentence: Strike down the shepherd and the flock will be scattered. (Mark 14: 27)
Here are some of Pacelli’s words and deeds from the early 1920’s to 1946, together with comments and related statements by others.
1917-25 From the day of his arrival in Munich as nuncio to Bavaria in 1917, Eugenio Pacelli sets a pattern of conduct that he will follow throughout his entire priesthood—he helps the poor and suffering, opposes the violent, enunciates clear Christian principles, attempts to settle differences with the tyrannies of the right and left by patient negotiations, and seeks protection for the Church in her mission of spreading God's word. The post-war years in Germany are a time of hunger, poverty, armed radical groups, revolution, confusion, a time of madness. Pacelli stocks the Nuncio's residence with food and clothing for the poor, especially for the children. He visits prisoners of war, engages in endless discussions, is crippled by the flu, and attacked by revolutionaries. His attackers are members of a Communist movement called Spartakus, which wins control of Bavaria in 1919. The revolutionaries rake the Nuncio's residence with gun fire, and insult and threaten its occupants. After a frightening confrontation, Pacelli persuades them to leave without any blood being shed.
In the early 20’s the Nazis are just one of several violent fringe groups, but by 1923 they are able to gather more than 2,000 armed fanatics and attempt to seize control in Bavaria by force. They are unsuccessful, but their bloody putsch gives them martyrs and attracts more desperate men to their ranks.
By 1925 their potential for violence is clear to Pacelli, particularly after he reads Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is published that year. Though hatred of Jews dominates Nazi rhetoric, hatred of the Church is not far behind. A few Nazis claim that the long-term threat of the Church makes it their most dangerous enemy. Pacelli tells friends in diplomatic circles that a "new manifestation" of the anti-Christ has arisen, and calls Hitler "obsessed," violent, ready "to walk over corpses" and destroy anything in his way. Naturally, he also says this to Rome.
1928 On March 28, in response to the concern of Pius XI and Pacelli, the Vatican's Holy Office issues a decree condemning Nazi racial hatred of Jews: "Moved by Christian charity, the Holy See is obligated to protect the Jewish people against unjust vexations and, just as it reprobates all rancor and conflicts between peoples, it particularly condemns unreservedly hatred against the people once chosen by God, the hatred that commonly goes by the name of anti-Semitism."
This decree is remembered and quoted at key moments in the coming years.
1929 Pacelli is appointed Papal Secretary of State.
1930 Cardinal Pacelli assumes new duties. L'Osservatore Romano, which speaks the mind of the Holy Father and Church, runs a series of articles from the office of Cardinal Secretary of State severely criticizing Nazism. The October 11, 1930 article declares: "Belonging to the National Socialist Party of Hitler is irreconcilable with the Catholic Conscience." These pieces are reprinted in diocesan newspapers around the world, especially in Germany, where bishops and priests emphasize that the teaching is official Church teaching.
1932 In the 1932 German elections Catholics overwhelmingly reject Hitler with less than 15% of Catholics voting for him. But with strong support from other constituencies in Germany, this election makes the Nazis a major party and leads directly to Hitler assuming total power.
1933 January 30, Hitler becomes Chancellor, and Germany is irrevocably changed.
The Concordat: "Damned if you do, damned if you don't." Under intense pressure from Hitler, including terrorizing members of the Catholic Center Party, Pacelli agrees to negotiate a legal agreement between Germany and the Holy See. The agreement, called a concordat, is a clever propaganda stunt by Hitler. Simply by asking the Church to negotiate, Hitler makes himself look good. Pacelli does not trust Hitler, but wants a legal basis on which to protest. Without a concordat there will be no legal grounds to appeal Nazi encroachments on the Church's freedom. The concordat defines Church rights within the greater rights of the State. Despite misgivings the concordat seems wise at the time. Cardinal Faulhaber of Munich comments: "With the concordat we are hanged, without the concordat we are hanged, drawn and quartered."
Back in Rome, Pacelli tells the British ambassador: "I had to choose between an agreement and the virtual elimination of the Catholic Church in the Reich." He says a pistol had been held to his head, and that he felt he was negotiating "with the devil himself."
Pacelli begins to make numerous formal protests against the extreme anti-Semitism of Nazism. According to Jewish scholar and historian Jeno Levai, while Secretary of State, Pacelli oversees "the dispatch of sixty notes in which the Vatican protested to Hitler against the persecution of the Jews up to the outbreak of war."
1934 Violations of the Concordat begin almost immediately after its signing, but by 1934 the attempt to bring about the "virtual elimination of the Catholic Church" is clearly underway. Dr. Erich Klausener, leader of German Catholic Action is murdered in the wild June 30, 1934 Nazi purge within and outside of the party. The harassment, arrest, and imprisonment of priests and active Catholics increases. The Nazis close some 200 Catholic publications in Germany, take over Church schools, and coerce the young into joining "Hitler Youth."
1935 Lourdes, France, at a Eucharistic Triduum Cardinal Pacelli tells an estimated 325,000 pilgrims, including many Germans, that "the Church will never come to terms with Nazis as long as they persist in their racial philosophy." He scorns Nazis theories of "race and blood" as superstitious and "contrary to the Christian faith." With such a philosophy, he declares, "the Church does not consent to form a pact at any price."
In Germany, Hermann Goering gives the rationale for crushing the Church: "Catholic believers carry away but one impression from attendance at divine services and that is that the Catholic Church rejects the institutions of the Nationalist State."
In Rome, Pacelli tells French Ambassador that Hitler is "diabolical."
1936 The cruel and oppressive anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws are passed in Germany. In repeated broadcasts Vatican Radio condemns the injustice and inhumanity of these new laws.
1937 Cardinal Pacelli drafts the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, issued in March by Pope Pius XI. It condemns Nazi racism and worship of the state in the Church's most authoritative form of teaching. It infuriates the Nazis, who respond with more persecution of Catholics.
In Dresden, Jewish intellectual Victor Klemperer records in his diary for May 22 the observation that "the papal pastoral," although banned in Germany, is being passed around by hand like a chain letter. Everyone seems to be reading it, he notes. Count Claus von Stauffenberg (a Catholic who will be executed because of his role in a 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler) reads the encyclical and finds his doubts about Nazism confirmed.
1938 In a formal state visit to Italy, Hitler comes to Rome. Pius XI expresses sorrow and outrage at Mussolini's invitation. "To honor a cross [the swastika] which is not Christ's in the Eternal City" the Pope says, is an unhappy sign of Mussolini's "old anticlericalism." He refuses to meet Hitler.
Martin Bormann, a Hitler favorite and top Nazi, gives a speech: "We Germans are the first to be appointed by destiny to break with Christianity. It will be an honor for us. A thousand ties link us to the Christian faith, they will be broken at a single blow. Our intention is not to raze the cathedrals to the ground, but to fill them with a new ideology and with proclamations of a new faith."
1939 January 9, 1939. Cardinal Pacelli sends messages to the archbishops of the world asking them to try to persuade their governments to throw open their doors to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who are seeking to escape from German persecution. The next day he writes to American Cardinals asking them to intercede for exiled Jewish professors and scientists.
March 2, 1939. Cardinal Pacelli is elected Pope. He prays that he will be the Pope of Peace and calls on nations to avoid war at all costs. Calls for a peace conference at the Vatican to prevent war. The major powers are not willing to attend.
August 22. Foreign Minister Ribbentrop goes to Russia to sign the German-Russian "Non-Aggression Pact" which would lead on September I to the beginning of World War II. Hitler summons Nazi leaders and all his army commanders to inform them what to expect after the Polish army is destroyed: "Things will then happen which would not be to the taste of the German generals—the destruction of the Polish intelligentsia, in particular the priesthood, by the SS."
October 20. Pius XII issues his first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, concerned with the oneness of human beings. In paragraph 48, dealing with the Church's openness to all, it describes St. Paul's vision of "the new man who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of Him that created him. Where there is neither Gentile nor Jew." The Nazis are furious.
The French are so pleased that they print 70,000 copies and have them dropped over Germany.
October 28. The New York Times sums it up in a headline, "Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism: Urges Restoring of Poland."
1940 January 23, New York Times headline reads: "Vatican Denounces Atrocities in Poland; Germans Called Even Worse Than Russians."
January 24. Manchester Guardian says "Tortured Poland has found a powerful advocate in Rome" and notes that the broadcasts of Vatican Radio warn "all who care for civilization that Europe is in mortal danger."
A group of high German officers opposed to Hitler plot to overthrow him and end the war. They secretly approach Pius XII and ask for help. The Pope, in an act that could cost him his life if discovered, agrees to contact the British and relay the desire of the Germans to open discussions which could lead to peace and prevent millions of deaths. The Pope contacts the British, but they are not interested in talking with any Germans, even Hitler opponents.
Pius XII orders publication of a large volume (565 pages). The Persecution of the Catholic Church in the Third Reich, in London (by Burns and Oates). It is a translation from the German of eye-witness accounts of the merciless Nazi program to crush the Church. It contains pastoral letters by many German bishops, and also reveals close cooperation between Catholics and Jews. On March 11, 1940 Pius confronts Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, concerning Nazi crimes in Poland against Poles and Jews. This heated confrontation is reported in the New York Times of March 14, 1940 under the headline: "Pope Is Emphatic About Just Peace: Jews' Rights Defended"
After Germany defeats France, additional thousands of Jews face seizure and deportation by Nazis. Pius XII sends a secret letter to Catholic bishops of Europe entitled Opere et Caritate ("By Work and by Love"). It instructs bishops to help all who are suffering racial discrimination at the hands of the Nazis. They are told to read the letter in their churches to remind their faithful that racism is "incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church."
Throughout 1940 the New York Times quotes Vatican Radio's repeated broadcasts about barbarous Nazi acts.
Christmas 1940, the Pope's Christmas Eve allocution to the Cardinals condemns the war as one of the most horrible in human history, pleads for help for those suffering and a quick peace to end the suffering.
1941 From the beginning of the war Vatican Radio has been regarded by the Nazis as anti-German, and Germans have been forbidden to listen to it. Now the order to arrest, imprison, even execute, anyone caught listening to it is more vigorously enforced.
On March 30 and 31, Vatican radio begins special broadcasts to France and Spain, speaking of "the wickedness of Hitler" and denounces Nazi racial theories and lies, "which have reached scandalous proportions."
Rabbi Chaim Lipschitz, after a 13-year study of Spanish aid, concludes (1984) that "Spain's generous acts should be engraved in gold letters." Some researchers estimate that the number of Jews the Franco government allowed to enter Spain from France to be as high as 250,000.
On April 30, in an Easter message, the Pope condemns "atrocious forms of fighting and mistreatment of prisoners and civilians."
December 25, New York Times editorial: "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas." Pius, according to the Times, has "placed himself squarely against Hitlerism."
1942 January 20, 1942, at Wannsee, Germany: the decision for "the Final Solution" (the "extermination" of Jews) is announced at a meeting of key Nazi leaders.
March 9, 1942—a Vatican official in Slovakia warns of "an atrocious plan" to deport 80,000 Jews. Cardinal Maglione, Secretary of State, sends a strong note of protest. Slovak officials ignore the protest, saying the Jews are being sent "to work."
August 6, New York Times headline: "Pope is Said to Plead for Jews Listed for Removal from France."
Also in August, in Toulouse, France, Archbishop Jules Gerard Saliege's pastoral letter, which French police know about and demand that he withdraw, is sent to and read in all churches in his dioceses: "There is a Christian morality that confers rights and imposes duties: frightful things are taking place. The Jews are our brothers. They belong to mankind. No Christian can dare to forget that!"
The BBC broadcasts news of this. L’Osservatore Romano praises Saliege as a hero of religious courage. Vatican Radio broadcasts the letter and comments for four successive days. (As soon as the war is over. Pope Pius makes Saliege a Cardinal.)
In June in the diocese of Montauban Bishop Pierre-Marie Theas reminds Catholics: "I express the outrage of my Christian conscience. The present anti-Semitic measures mock human dignity and violate the most sacred rights of the human person and family."
In July, Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard of Paris and all the cardinals and bishops of France sign a joint protest to the Vichy government against the deportations.
Under direct instructions from the Pope, L'Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio give full reports on all such actions.
In Holland and Belgium, bishops, "acting in consort with the Holy Father," denounce the "barbarous deportation of Jews." Results are tragic, especially in Holland. In Amsterdam, after 18,000 workers walk off their jobs to protest Nazi persecution, the Germans declare martial law and enforce it so brutally that the strike is crushed in three days.
There are more protests by Dutch bishops than anywhere else in Western Europe, yet a larger percentage of Jews in Holland are lost than anywhere else in the West. Some 100,000, or 80% of the entire Jewish population in the country, were killed by the Nazis.
August 27, New York Times: "Vichy Seizes Jews: Pope Pius Ignored."
Developments in France, Belgium and Holland produce a massive and scornful counter action from Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry. Ten million copies of a pamphlet attacking "the present pro-Jewish Pope," whose actions have caused "a lack of confidence in him in the Catholic world," were published and distributed by the Nazi Propaganda Minister.
October 11, Times of London editorial reports: "A study of the words which Pope Pius XII has addressed since his accession leaves no room for doubt. He condemns the worship of force and its concrete manifestation in the suppression of national liberties and the persecution of the Jewish race."
Christmas 1942. In his annual broadcast to the world Pius again warns against the evil of worshipping the state, the crime of forced labor, and the unspeakable horror of "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."
In Germany's Reich Main Security Office, the SS control center, a careful analysis of the message is filed: "The Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order. His speech is one long attack on everything we stand for. God, he says, regards all peoples and races as worthy of the same consideration. Here he is clearly speaking in behalf of the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals."
1943 On February 19, Vatican Radio condemns deportations and forced labor, saying "the curse of God" will fall on those who do these things to human beings.
June 2, 1943, Pope addresses the College of Cardinals: "our soul reacts with particular emotion and pressing concern to the prayers of those who turn to us with anxious eyes of pleading, in travail because of their nationality or their race, before greater catastrophes and ever more acute and serious sorrows, and destined without any fault of their own, to exterminating harassments." He regularly uses the Latin word for race, stirps, a term commonly used to refer to those of Jewish descent. L’Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio, as usual, give full coverage to the talk. German and Italian newspapers report the talk but omit the Pope's reference to race.
June, 1943: Vatican Radio in a broadcast to France: "He who distinguishes between Jews and other men is unfaithful to God and is in conflict with God's command."
On June 21 it broadcasts to Germany on the rights of Jews under natural law. A few days later it broadcasts to Germany a defense of Yugoslav Jews: "Every man bears the stamp of God."
Pius asks Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, Nuncio to Germany, to try to talk directly with Hitler about the persecution of Jews. After delays, Orsenigo is summoned to Berchtesgaden where Hitler receives him. The meeting observes the diplomatic amenities until Orsenigo brings up "the Jewish question." Hitler immediately turns his back, grabs a glass from the table and smashes it on the floor.
October 16. The Gestapo seizes 1007 Jews in Rome. Pius vigorously protests to German authorities. The Germans refuse to release those already seized, but stop additional mass round-ups. Approximately eighty-five percent of Roman Jews escape the Nazis, many finding refuge in Church buildings Pius had ordered opened to shelter them.
October 17, New York Times headline: "Pope Said to Help in Ransoming Jews."
December 4, New York Times headline: "Vatican Scores Germans: Denounces Decision to Intern and Strip All Jews in Italy."
1944 June 25, Pope sends open telegram to leader of Hungary pleading with him not to allow deportation of Jews.
July 21, the World Jewish Congress writes to the Pope "gratefully conscious" of his "aid on behalf of sorely afflicted and menaced Jews in Hungary, which have been followed by offer of the Regent to secure release of certain categories of Jews particularly children. His Holiness' efforts bring us new hope at the eleventh hour of saving from death the surviving remnants of decimated European Jewry."
The situation in Slovakia is similar to that in Hungary but in Slovakia the puppet ruler, Tiso, presents an added pain to the Pope. Tiso had been a priest in good standing. The Pope has this message sent to the Vatican's representative in Slovakia: "Go at once to President Tiso and, informing him of the profound distress of His Holiness for the sufferings to which so many persons are subjected against the laws of humanity and justice— because of their nationality or race. Let him know also that these injustices committed under his Government damage the prestige of his country and that the adversary exploits them to discredit the clergy and the Church in the whole world."
August. Worried about Jewish captives in the hands of Germans in Northern Italy the Pope speaks: "For centuries they have been most unjustly treated and despised. It is time they were treated with justice and humanity. God wills it and the Church wills it. St. Paul tells us that the Jews are our brothers. Instead of being treated as strangers they should be welcomed as friends."
September 1944. Even as total destruction is engulfing the Third Reich, fanatical Nazis continue to teach their children hatred of Christianity. On September 12, in Munich Gerda Bormann writes to her husband in Berlin—he is now probably the second most powerful Nazi in Germany— about her evening conversation with her children: "Through Charlemagne Christianity got a foothold in our regions. (Ten minutes ago another alert sounded in Munich.) I explained all this to Eike and Gertrud. Let's hope they grasped it."
1945 March 19. Pius declares the unspeakable carnage of the war is from "the spirit of evil which sets itself in opposition to the Spirit of God. For those who have allowed themselves to be seduced by the advocates of violence, there is but one road to salvation: to repudiate immediately and forever the idolatry of absolute nationalism, pride of origin, race and blood."
May 9, following the suicide of Hitler and the surrender of Germany, the Pope offers a short meditation: "Kneeling in spirit before the graves and rivers red with blood where lie those who fell fighting, and the victims of indiscriminate murder, starvation, or deprivation—we remember them in our prayers."
1946 August 3 In speaking with a delegation from the Supreme Council of the Arab People of Palestine desiring his support in their struggle with Jews, the Holy Father said: "It is superfluous for me to tell you that we disapprove of all recourse to force and violence, from wheresoever it comes, just as we condemned on various occasions in the past that fanatical anti-Semitism inflicted on the Hebrew people."
The following were consulted in preparing the chronology: Pierre Blet, Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican, New York, 1999: Lucy Dawidowitz, The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, New York. 1945: Robert A. Graham, Pius XII's Defense of the Jews, Milwaukee, 1987: Richard Hamilton, Who Voted for Hitler, Princeton, 1982; Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, New York, 1998: Pinchas Lapide, Three Popes and the Jews, New York, 1967: Vincent A. Lapomarda, The Jesuits and the Third Reich, New York, 1989: Jeno Levai, Hungarian Jewry and the Papacy, London, 1968: Joseph Lichten, A Question of Judgment: Pius XII and the Jews, Washington, D.C.. 1963: Chaim Lipschitz, Franco Spain and the Jews, New York. 1984: Oscar Halecki and James Murray, Eugenio Pacelli: Pope of Peace, New York, 1951: Michael O'Carroll. Pius XII: Greatness Dishonored, Dublin, 1980: Charles Pichon (Jean Misrahi, trans.). The Vatican and Its Role in World Affairs, New York, 1950: Anthony Rhodes, The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, New York. 1973.
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