On Hitler, the Holy See and the Jews (Part 2)

Interview With Historian Father Giovanni Sale

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ROME, JUNE 13, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Pope Pius XI's 1937 encyclical against Nazism commanded world attention and was widely seen as a heroic denunciation of Hitler's regime, says a historian.



Father Giovanni Sale, a professor of history at the Gregorian University, in Part 1 of this interview clarified the position of the Holy See and of German Catholics in regard to the rise of Hitler's movement.

In Part II, the historian-priest clarifies the position of Pius XI and Pius XII vis-à-vis Nazism. Father Sale is author of the recently published "Hitler, la Santa Sede e gli Ebrei" (Hitler, the Holy See, and the Jews), Jaca Book publishers.

Q: The encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge" and the fact that Hitler was not able to visit the Vatican show the Holy See's hostility to the Nazi regime. What is your opinion about Pius XI's conduct toward the Nazi regime?

Father Sale: The recent opening of the Vatican Archives relating to the nunciatures of Munich and Berlin shed new light on Hitler's truncated visit to the Vatican -- during his state visit to Rome in 1938 -- as well as on the writing and dissemination in Germany of the encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge," that is, Pius XI's encyclical against Nazism.

The new available Vatican documentation informs us in an amazingly detailed manner on the vicissitudes linked to the reception of this encyclical by the states and the realms of international diplomacy.

The sources show that the encyclical was interpreted at that time, by the majority of Western countries not linked to Germany, as a courageous act of denunciation of Nazism, of racist doctrines, and of the idolatry of the state that it professed, as well as of its violent methods of social discipline.

"Mit Brennender Sorge" [...] had truly worldwide resonance. Especially for political reasons, it was one of the first papal acts that went beyond the frontiers of the Catholic world: It was read by believers and nonbelievers, by Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, for the first time the latter gave public recognition to a papal document, something which shortly before was unthinkable.

According to a prestigious Dutch Protestant newspaper, the encyclical "would be valid" also for Christians of the Reformation, "as in it the Pope does not limit himself to defend the rights of Catholics, but also those of religious freedom in general."

Of course, "Mit Brennender Sorge" was received in different ways, according to the sensibility and political culture of many of the people who read it.

The fact is, as we have already stated, that it was interpreted generally not only as an act of protest of the Holy See because of the continuous violations of the Concordat by the German government, or as a doctrinal repudiation of the errors of National Socialism, but above all as an act of denunciation of Nazism itself and of its "Führer." And this was understood immediately by the leaders of the Reich.

It is true, as those who have commented on the encyclical have stressed, that it never mentions either National Socialism or Hitler. But if one goes beyond the "letter" of the document, it is easy to perceive behind every page, every phrase a genuine accusation against the Hitlerite system and against its racist and neo-pagan theories.

This was understood by the great majority of the readers of the papal document. That is why it became one of the most important and most courageous denunciations of Nazi barbarism, pronounced in an authoritative manner by the Bishop of Rome, when a great part of the European political world still regarded Hitler with a mixture of admiration, surprise and fear.

Q: Another great debate is that of Pius XII and the Holocaust. What have you concluded after your historical research? What did Pope Pacelli do in face of the persecution of Jews?

Father Sale: In regard to the Jews deported to territories occupied by the Reich, the action taken in their favor by the Holy See's diplomacy was oriented in the direction of the governments of countries allied to Germany, where there was a Catholic majority and a "combative" episcopate.

A note of April 1, 1943, from the Secretariat of State said: "To avoid the mass deportation of Jews, which is taking place in many countries of Europe, the Holy See has requested the attention of the nuncio of Italy, of the chargé d'affaires of Slovakia, and of the Holy See's charge in Croatia."

Using the Vatican diplomatic channels, he did all he could to obtain something -- often, unfortunately, very little -- in favor of the Jews from those governments. It is known, moreover, that he exhorted the local episcopate, in particular the German, to strongly denounce the horrors committed by the Nazis against Catholics and Jews.

It should be recalled that the greater part of papal interventions had as their principal objective to defend Catholic Jews and to guarantee the indissolubility of marriages between Jews and Catholics, based on the concordats stipulated with these states. Really, the Holy See could not ask or do more through the official diplomatic channels.

After the occupation of Poland, Germany had answered the Holy See that it was requesting the application of the German Concordat to all Polish territories "included" in the Reich. In fact, it was not even applied in the German territory.

The archives of the Reich's Foreign Ministry are full of periodic addresses of the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, on the Jews. However, the dispatches he sent to the Secretariat of State show how difficult his situation was.

One of them, of October 19, 1942, says: "Despite the precautions, I have tried to talk with the Foreign Minister but, as usual, especially when it is a question of people who are not Aryan, he replied, 'There is nothing to do.' Any issue on the Jews is systematically rejected or ignored."

In this connection, one often perceives a sense of impotence and discouragement in the words of the Vatican diplomats. The diplomatic activity of the Holy See in favor of the Jews was not, however, as some say, totally useless and ineffective. Sometimes it succeeded in "slowing down" the deportation operations or, when it could do nothing else, in excluding some categories of persons from it.

Part of recent historiography, especially of the United States, ignores this activity carried out by the Holy See in favor of the Jews. It denounces the "silence" of Pius XII, considering it "culpable." According to them, the Pope had the duty to denounce what was happening in Europe, even if he had to endanger his own life.

The truth is that this not only would have exposed the Pope's life to Nazi reprisal -- which on several occasions he said he was willing to accept -- but that of all bishops, priests, men and women religious, who lived in the Occupied Territories, as well as the security of millions of Catholics.

On the so-called Final Solution, from the sources I have consulted, some of them kept in our archive of Civiltà Cattolica, it is clear that the Pope did not have sufficient and accurate information. Basing himself on nebulous and at times contradictory news, he knew that very many Jews, without any culpability and only because of their race, were killed by Nazis in different ways. In fact, shortly before, the same had happened to many Polish Catholics, for the sole reason of their nationality.

But he knew nothing about the Final Solution. Until 1944, the Vatican was not even aware of the existence of Auschwitz. Allied propaganda itself, despite the fact that it described German atrocities, savage reprisals and other things, said nothing about the extermination camps.

The first certain news was had with the famous Auschwitz Protocol, in which two young Jews, who fled from the Auschwitz concentration camp in the spring of 1944, denounced to the world the extermination of their brothers in the gas chambers. The text, known in part already in June of the same year, was not fully published until the month of November.

What did the Allies know about the Final Solution? Certainly more than the Pope. According to historian Richard Breitman, both Roosevelt and Churchill knew much about the systematic extermination of Jews, as their secret services deciphered the SS' coded communications.

According to Breitman, a strong denunciation of the crimes by the Allies would have constituted a serious obstacle to the implementation of the Final Solution, but it did not take place.

Q: In your book, you dedicate two chapters to Pius XII's 1942 radio message. Can you explain to us why that radio-message is so important?

Father Sale: Pius XII's 1942 Christmas radio message, dedicated to the pacification of states, presenting the moral and natural law as criteria for the re-establishment of a new order among nations, is one of the most significant and at the same time most controversial acts of Pope Eugenio Pacelli's pontificate.

When it was pronounced, it had an enormous echo in all the continents and was heard and appreciated even outside the Catholic world. Newspapers and magazines of different cultural and political orientation published ample passages and commentaries, benevolent in the majority of cases.

Very different was the reception given the papal message by governments and the world of diplomacy. It was received with open hostility by the Axis powers, in particular by Germany, and with open indifference by the Allied powers, in particular by the English.

In it, the Pope not only repudiated the new "European order" that National Socialism sought to establish, but it condemned explicitly the atrocities of the war, both the blanket bombings carried out by the Allies on German cities, as well as the atrocities carried out by the Germans against innocent civilians.

In particular, the Pope denounced the extermination of European Jews. "This desire for peace," the Pope said, "humanity owes to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, for no fault at all, at times only for reasons of nationality or race, are destined to death or are left to died gradually."

If this passage of the radio message was practically ignored in the international press, this was not the case of the attentive National Socialist censorship.

Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich's Foreign Minister, immediately ordered the German ambassador to the Holy See to inform the Pope on the position of the German government: "There is an impression that the Vatican is prepared to abandon its normal attitude of neutrality and to take positions against Germany. It is your responsibility to inform it that in such a case Germany is not lacking in means of reprisal."

Q: What did the Pope himself think of the content of that year's Christmas message? Was he convinced that he had denounced to the world the horrors of war, of deportation, and of the massacre of innocent peoples, such as the Jews?

Father Sale: From the reports of the ambassadors of Allied countries it would seem that he did: The Pope was completely convinced of having fulfilled to the end his duty before God and before the tribunal of history.

In a letter of April 30, addressed to Archbishop K. von Preysing of Berlin, he wrote with a serene tone that "he has said a word on what is being done at present against those who are not Aryans in the territories under German authority. It was a brief mention but it was well understood."

Also with the director of Civiltà Cattolica, Pius XII made reference to the Christmas message, in which he evidently unburdened his pastor's heart and conscience. "The Holy Father spoke first of all of his recent Christmas message, which seems to have been well received in general, despite the fact that it was certainly rather strong," Father Martegani said.

The Pope, therefore, was "subjectively" convinced of having denounced before the world what was happening to those who were not Aryan in the territories under German authority, of having spoken out "strongly" against the horrors of the war and, in particular, against the Nazi crimes.

Some historians maintain, however, that this denunciation was insufficient, dictated by reasons of political-diplomatic prudence and not so much by human sentiments. In any case, according to these interpreters, it was "objectively" inadequate to the great tragedy that was taking place in the heart of Europe.

The attitude of "prudence" before the belligerents for which the Holy See opted during the war was revealed inadequate above all at that moment, the historians comment, insufficient to respond to the grave needs of the moment.

According to them, the civil world expected from the Pope, the supreme moral and spiritual figure of the Christian West, not so much "prudent," "balanced," and even just words, but rather "words of fire" when it came to denouncing the violations of human rights, despite the fact that this might put in danger the lives of innumerable Catholics, both clergy and laity, who lived in territories of the Reich. In this way, the Pope would have fulfilled his high prophetic mission.

From my point of view, this historical judgment on Pius XII's action is extremely simplistic at the level of historical facts, and unjust from the subjective point of view.

It does not take into account the real difficulties of the historical moment in which the Pontiff's work was carried out and, at the same time, completely dispenses with Pope Pacelli's sensibility and culture.

Some historians speak of the Pope and the papacy in an abstract, ideological manner, without considering the fact that the Petrine ministry is made concrete at the historical level in the person of particular individuals, with their virtues and human limitations, and that in her concrete action, the Church like all institutions with a long tradition, looks to the past and at the same time to the future, as well as the present needs and urgencies.

I have tried to demonstrate that Pius XII was "subjectively" convinced of having spoken out "strongly." He believed that the way he had expressed his denunciation was the most appropriate, the most just for that particular moment.

He was convinced he had said "everything" and "clearly" and of having done so in a way that would not expose to Nazi reprisals faithful Catholics who were living in territories of the Reich, and Jews.

For him, this was a point of the greatest importance for which he would have sacrificed anything, as he said clearly both during the war as well as immediately after.

In short, one can discuss ad infinitum over the fact that the Pope's denunciation was or was not adequate to the gravity of the moment; and above all, at the historical level, different positions can be held legitimately.

However, one cannot say, as some propagandists do, that the Pope was consciously "silent" about what was happening to the Jews, because he was pro-Nazi or simply because he lacked sensibility due to anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism.