Why "Hitler and the Vatican" Fails as History

Interview With Father Peter Gumpel, Postulator of Pius XII's Cause

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ROME, MARCH 3, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The new book "Hitler and the Vatican" by Peter Godman "is exaggerated in relation to the work done and the quoted documents," says the postulator of Pius XII's cause of beatification.



On Feb. 20, Godman, a New Zealander who is professor of the Latin Middle Ages and the Renaissance at the University of Tübingen, presented his book "Der Vatikan und Hitler" in Berlin. The English edition of the book goes on sale this month.

The new volume is very critical of Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, especially in regard to what Godman thinks the Holy See should have done to oppose Nazism and defend the Jews.

The book doesn't convince Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, the postulator of Pius XII's cause.

"Godman has worked only with scant documents related to Pius XI's pontificate," the priest says. "How can he present a study on relations between the Vatican and Hitler?"

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Gumpel, one of the leading historians on the relations between the Church and Nazism, shares his impressions of the book.

Q: The main thesis of Godman's book is that the Holy See did little against Nazism because the Holy Office and the Secretariat of State had divergent lines and lacked contact with one another.

Father Gumpel: For those who know how the government of the Holy See functions, it is obvious that this is an absurd thesis.

It is obvious that Godman has no idea how work is done in the Holy See. In expressing its opinion on such a delicate question as that of relations with the Nazi regime, how could the Holy Office not have first consulted the Secretariat of State?

Moreover, Godman perhaps does not know that in those years the Pope also held the post of prefect of the Holy Office. Both Pius XI as well as Pius XII were "ex officio" prefects of the Holy Office.

Q: What were the internal discussions in the Holy See on the way to confront Nazism?

Father Gumpel: Initially, Pius XI declared himself in favor of the publication of a series of propositions against Nazism. In particular he sought to condemn totalitarianism, the idolatry of the Reich, the theories of race and blood and, even more so, policies contrary to the life of the weakest.

Various schemes and plans of such condemnations were prepared by the Holy Office. At a given moment, the whole idea was shelved because Pius XI and Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli [the future Pius XII] began to prepare the encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge" [against Nazism].

Pius XI and Pacelli thought the propositions were not very effective, so they decided that an encyclical was better. Godman deplores the fact that the condemnations of the Holy Office were not published. Again, in this case Godman shows that he does not know how the Holy See functions.

Godman thinks that a series of proposals of the Holy Office were more important than an encyclical. But there is another aspect that shows how Godman does not even know well the history of those years.

The publication of "Mit Brennender Sorge" was kept secret for security reasons. The Nazis discovered it only on the afternoon of Saturday, March 20, 1937, shortly before it was read and distributed in churches.

The Nazis were informed by an employee of the press that was printing the copies of the encyclical. "Mit Brennender Sorge" was read and distributed in all churches during the Mass on Sunday, March 21, 1937.

For a while, the Nazis considered intervening in the churches, but they would have run the risk of a civil war. The Hitler regime was caught totally unawares.

French intellectual Robert D'Harcourt, who was in Germany at the time, wrote in Etudes/Revue Catholique d'Interet General, of May 5, 1937, that the publication of "Mit Brennender Sorge" was like a bomb.

The Catholic organization had not made a mistake; ... it succeeded in getting around the control of the Gestapo and had reached the churches.

On that occasion, the Catholic community also showed notable moral solidity. The people were happy and Hitler was furious. He ordered the confiscation of the presses that had printed the encyclical and the arrest of those responsible.

If it was so difficult to have the encyclical reach the population, how can Godman think that it would have been possible to send so many individual propositions of the Holy Office?

Q: The New Zealand author argues that Pius XI and Pius XII had an opportunist attitude.

Father Gumpel: The Holy See has always acted responsibly, considering all the possibilities. In every action, the pastoral concern was taken into account for the fate of the Catholic community, of the other communities, and of the population.

Godman enormously underestimates the Nazi persecution against Catholics: arrested priests, destroyed churches, closed schools, arrested Catholic leaders sent to concentration camps.

Between 1933 and 1937, in 36 months the Holy See sent more than 50 formal written protests to the Nazi regime, charging violations of the concordat. Hitler's government never responded.

In Rome, protests were reported in three white books that were sent in a diplomatic bag to all the German bishops, to let them know what the Holy See was doing in defense of their faithful.

All the protests of the Holy See were reported in a volume published in Germany in 1965: "Der Notenwechsel Zwischen dem Heiligen Stuhl und der Deutschen Reichsregierung - I. Von der Ratifizierung des Reichskonkordats bis zur Enzyklika 'Mit brennender Sorge.'" Bearbeitet von Dieter Albrecht. VKZ A 1, Mainz, 1965 [The Exchange of Notes Between the Holy See and the Government of the Federal Republic -- I. On the Ratification of the Federal Concordat of the Encyclical 'Mit Brennender Sorge'"].

Little is said about this aspect, but it is extremely relevant. It must also be for this reason that the German newspaper Die Welt, in the review of Godman's book, speaks about a decadent work and accuses him of having been negligent.