When I began to write this particular series, I had little idea where it would take me. This is unusual, as normally there is a carefully planned structure which is executed to the letter, however, that is not the case this time. In part, this was because there is no existing template: to my knowledge there is, as yet, no survey of the Catholic Church during the Second World War. As such, this series was a journey, which, occasionally threw up unpleasant surprises, but which also occasionally, showed the Church at her best.
For many, the Second World War was first and foremost a European conflict. However, from a US perspective, the war had a distinctly non-European element, much more so than the First World War. Pearl Harbor, and the reach of Britain’s and Holland’s Asian Empire ensured that this was a truly global conflict. Troops from the Dominions, but also from India, the Caribbean and Africa served on all fronts under the Union Jack.
If the story of Belgium brought some relief in what has often been a quite dark story of the Catholic Church in the Second World War: here, at least, one can discover a Catholic Church that unhesitatingly denounced the darkness of Nazism and Fascism. This story was mirrored north of the border in Holland, and there will have been few countries where the Catholic Church was in a stronger position to resist the neo-paganism of the Nazis than there. Nowadays, this is a startling idea: the Church in Holland has suffered a long-term decline since the 1960s, and its influence on wider society is but a shadow of what it once was. This has many reasons, but one unfortunate side-effect is that the magnificent role played by the Church during the Second World War has been forgotten. Indeed, it came as a surprise to many in Holland to learn that so many Dutch Catholics had given their lives during the War.
After the ambiguities of France and the outright collaboration of priests and bishops in countries such as Croatia and Slovakia, the story of Belgium’s Catholic Church during the Second World War will come as some relief. For once, there are few ambiguities in the story. Strangely, in a nation riven internally along ethnic lines and where there were large numbers of volunteers for the SS and the German army, the Church stands out as a beacon of hope.
As seen in last week’s article, the Church in France was particularly badly placed to provide a unified response to the challenges posed by the Nazi occupation of their country. Liberal and conservative groups within the Church had amalgamated with political factions within France’s body politic, making the notion of a ‘Catholic experience’ in war-time France almost nonsensical. In addition, there were, for most of the war, two ‘Frances’: the north and west which was occupied by Germany, and the south-east, where the right-wing Vichy regime held sway until its downfall in 1942.
In this series so far, it has become quite clear just how diversified and extreme the different experiences of the Catholic Church were during the Second World War. Based on the evidence here, there was no such thing as a ‘Catholic Experience’ of the war. Indeed, almost the only unifying factor was the constancy of Catholic teaching promulgated by the Vatican: all people were created equal, and war is immoral. Even that teaching was not always followed, and one can find a considerable body of Catholics, including priests and bishops, who ignored it altogether.
Apart from Slovakia, there was nowhere in Europe did the Catholic Church identify itself so closely with a Nazi regime as in Croatia. This is the common conclusion of almost all historians on the situation in the Balkan nation between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps this conclusion is unsurprising: Catholic priests, including an archbishop, were closely involved with the political and racial aims of the Croatian State during this period, and the Vatican appears on first sight to have fully endorsed the existence of that state. The reader of this series will, by now, be well equipped to pose a question mark against such sweeping statements. As in almost every other country, the Catholic experience was rather less uniform than that presented above. Let us first consider the background to the story. The Croats form part of the Serbo-Croat language family. In most other instances, language is the first marker of ethnicity, but not here. That one family was divided into three separate peoples, the result of a convoluted religious history. Croats and Serbs had parted company during the eleventh century, when, after the Great Schism of 1054, the southern Serbs had adhered to the Orthodox Patriarch in Constantinople whilst the northern Croats had stayed with Rome. In the heartland of the language, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the two peoples lived intermingled. There they were joined by a third religiously determined ethnic group, the Bosniaks. Originally, these were Bogomil heretics, closely aligned with the Cathars of southern France. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Bosnia in the fourteenth century, they converted to Islam. Most of northern Croatia remained under the rule of Catholic Austria, whilst Bosnia and Serbia became part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century. During this period, Muslim converts dominated Bosnia, whilst the Serbs clung to their Orthodox Faith as an expression of their identity. Croats aligned closely with the Catholic Habsburg dynasty, which they rescued from revolution on several occasions, notably in 1848. As romantic linguistic nationalism began to sweep Europe, some Serbs and Croats began to think of themselves as one people, the South Slavs, and a political movement for the creation of a South Slav state began.
This article will examine the Catholics on the south-eastern end of the Church’s traditional reach, those of the Czech lands, Slovakia and Hungary. The three Churches here had vastly different experiences during the war years. For the Czechs, the war had come early, in the wake of the Munich agreement of 1938. No other country suffered such a prolonged occupation, and few had such a surreal experience. Shorn of most of its majority German-speaking land in the Sudeten, the Czechs would have been justified in fearing the worst. After all, they were Slavs and Nazi ideology had little time for Slavic peoples. However, somehow the Czechs were seen as different, and they never suffered to the same extent as the Poles or the Russians.
In his biography of Bl. Pope John Paul II, George Weigel noted that there was wide-spread collaboration between the Communist regime and members of the clergy in Poland. During the Second World War, the Polish Church was not given that particular ‘luxury’. Nazi racial ideology branded Poles an inferior race, sub-humans who had to make way for German expansion. We know all this is based on two lies: one, the lie of races within one human race, and another, that Germany lacked space for its people.
In this series there have been several references to Poland already. No other country suffered from the war to quite the same degree as Poland. It was occupied for longer than any other, except the Czech lands, its people were treated with more brutality than any except perhaps the Russians, and on its soil stood the emblems of the atheist Nazi regime, the death camps. This was apt. Besides the six million Jews that were killed by the Nazis, they also murdered around two to three million ethnic Poles, many deliberately exterminated in concentration camps like Auschwitz, to ‘make space’ for German colonization.
So far in these articles on Germany we have encountered outright support and collaboration, quiet resistance, and attempts to preserve the essence of Faith and Church life without breaking with the regime altogether. The next step from this was outright opposition, based on Faith. One such Catholic example is furnished by the redoubtable Bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing. Von Preysing came from a staunchly Catholic Bavarian background, and had been appointed Bishop of Berlin in 1935. This was a position of importance; he may have been a suffragan to the Archbishop of Breslau – modern Wroclaw in Poland – but he was also the bishop of the Capital of Germany. The appointment of Von Preysing was a clear message from the Vatican to Hitler. Von Preysing had been an outspoken opponent of the Nazis from very early on. When they came to power in 1933, he had said during a sermon, “we have fallen into the hands of criminals and fools”.
For Germany’s Catholic Church, the accession to absolute power of the Nazis ushered in a period of acute suffering and persecution. Here was a regime that was totally and utterly opposed to the Church, and was prevented from acting against her without restraint only by the fear that it would cause an uprising amongst Germany’s Catholic population. The story is a familiar one, and it is a story of choices: choices to defend the Church and her interests first. This choice has led to the occasional claim of indifference to the plight of the German Jews, but that is to obscure what the Church’s priorities were, and to ignore the very real threat, including that of martyrdom, that faced the Church. To put it bluntly, and without trying to diminish their suffering in the least, the Jews were not the only victims of the regime.
Next to Italy, no other country shaped the experience of the Catholic Church during the Second World War as much as Germany. That this is so is hardly surprising: for most of the half of the twentieth century German politics determined the politics of Europe, and, by extension, of the Church. It was German intervention in the Austro-Serb conflict that sparked the Continent-wide war of 1914-1918, and it was Germany that re-armed and gradually pushed the Continent into its second great war from 1933 onwards. From a Catholic perspective, Germany had been a problem region ever since the Reformation. In the sixteenth century, large swathes of the country, mainly in the north and east, had been lost to the Faith. Only in the south, in Bavaria and Württemberg, and in the Rhineland around Cologne and Bonn, did the Church retain a secure holding. There, the impact of the Council of Trent was deeply felt, and the Church was deeply embedded. Indeed, some of the dioceses, such as Cologne or Trier, had roots almost back to Apostolic times. Of course, another large swathe of German-speaking lands had also remained Catholic: those in the Alpine lands of Austria, and those German-speaking regions in the Czech lands, known as the Sudeten Land. At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, in 1648, the balance between Protestant and Catholic Germans was almost perfect, and would remain so until deep into the nineteenth century. However, the drive for a national home for the Germans under Otto von Bismarck was to lead to the exclusion of the Germans under Habsburg rule, those of Austria and the Czech lands. To some Germans, who would deeply influence Hitler, himself Austrian, this was always unsatisfactory. To others, it was perfect. Bismarck welded a German nation state from the various kingdoms and principalities, a union which was achieved after the defeat of France in 1871. Almost directly Bismarck was to target the Catholic Church in what became known as the Kulturkampf or Culture War. This began in Prussia, the largest constituent country of the new Germany, which was predominantly Protestant, but which, in the west, contained large numbers of Catholics, too. To the conservative elite in Prussia, these Catholics constituted a threat to Prussia’s, and, therefore, to Germany’s, identity. Having excluded vast numbers of Catholic German-speakers from their new construct, they now wished to exclude the Catholic Church, too. The union between the predominantly Protestant north and the Catholic kingdoms and countries of southern Germany gave this movement real impetus. Paradoxically, the Liberals in those southern states were delighted with the new Germany. For some decades now, they had been engaged in piecemeal attempts to curb any influence of the Church. They had deprived it from the right to teach in schools, and had instituted close government supervision of the clergy. In Prussia, the Liberals had been rather weak, but, in 1871, Liberals from across Germany found each-other in the new Empire, and began to work to shape it in accordance with their vision. Essentially, that meant a country in which positive Faith played little or no role: it was un-German. They found an unexpected ally in the arch-conservative Bismarck, who had been rather contemptuous of Prussia’s Liberals prior to 1871. From about 1866, when Prussia had defeated the Habsburgs and excluded them from his plans to unify Germany, Bismarck had begun to move closer to traditional Prussian dislike of Catholicism, of which the Habsburgs were the main German protectors. He, too, believed that Catholicism was inimical to the modern Germany, but, wily politician that he was, also saw the Kulturkampf as a means to strengthen a German sense of national unity. To understand the full-scale attack on the Church, its traditions, its institutions and its teachings during this period is essential in order to appreciate the importance that the Papacy attached to reaching a legally-binding concordat with the Nazi regime in the 1930s. It was an attack that lasted for decades, only petering out towards the end of the century, and left an indelible mark on Germany’s Catholics and their Church. In the wake of the Kulturkampf, they became politically powerful and became a force to reckon with. The main vehicle for Catholic political power was the Zentrumpartei or Centre Party. It was founded in 1870 to defend the autonomy of the Church, its right to teach, denominational schools and the sanctity of marriage. Interestingly, from the outset it defended the rights of non-German minorities like the Poles in the north-east and the French-speakers from the Alsace, who, as Catholics, found a natural political home in the Centre Party. The Kulturkampf made the Centre Party. Catholics flocked under its protection and it became the natural vehicle for all Catholics, regardless of what part of Germany they came from. During the years prior to the First World War, the Centre was frequently involved in the government of Germany, and supported its colonial and foreign policy. Indeed, it was enthusiastic when war did break out in 1914. However, as the conflict dragged on and the economic situation became perilous, the left-wing of the party became more critical. It was this wing that supported Vatican attempts to establish peace. In the Reichstag, the parliament, they were the main proponents of a vote to end the war in 1917, a vote ignored by the German army command. The Centre was to become a mainstay of the Weimar Republic, established after the collapse of the German monarchy at the end of the war. However, she had lost a significant element of support when the Bavarian wing of the party broke away to establish a Bavarian-Catholic movement. Nonetheless, throughout the 1920s, the Centre formed part of the various governments that tried to negotiate the fraught political landscape of post-war Germany, wracked by strife between armed faction, plagued by foreign occupation of important industrial zones and loss of territories, and fatefully crippled by vindictive indemnities. The commitment of many in the party to democracy was startling, particularly as their relations with the other pillar of the Weimar state, the Social Democrats, were often difficult. The Socialists had inherited many Liberal ideas, including a dislike of Catholic autonomy. However, from 1920 the Church had official relations with the Republic, something it had not managed with the old Reich, and the Nuncio, Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, managed to exert some influence on the debate, over which the shadow of the Kulturkampf still loomed large. Indeed, Pacelli was convinced that only a concordat with Germany would safeguard the German Church. He managed to establish concordats with several of the constituent countries of the Weimar Republic, which assisted the local Church greatly. The tensions that were tearing Germany apart in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street Crash were also causing friction in the Centre Party. It became divided into three factions, a left-leaning group connected with the Christian trade unions, a conservative group leaning towards dictatorship under Franz von Papen, and a center group, highly loyal to the Pope under the leadership of Heinrich Brüning. Some Catholics had, initially, also been strong supporters of the new Nazi movement. This had not lasted too long, however. Catholic intellectuals, such as the Munich Jesuit, Bl. Rupert Mayer, soon pointed out that the neo-pagan and Social Darwinist Nazis believed in an ideology entirely incompatible with the teachings of the Church. However, it would be Brüning, by paving the way for dictatorship by his own rule by dictat, ignoring parliament, and von Papen, who was to invite Hitler into government, who were to cause the end of the Weimar Republic. The role of the priest-chairman of the Centre Party, Ludwig Kaas, was also rather dubious, as explored in a previously. That it was a group of Catholic politicians who signed the death warrant of the Weimar Republic which their party had done so much to create and maintain, must rank as one of the great and bitter ironies of the Church’s history of this period. It is placed in stark relief when one considers that the vast majority of Catholics voted Centre to the last free election, and utterly rejected the Nazis.
In this, our last installment on the Church during the Second World War in Italy, we will examine the experiences of the Church during the German and Allied occupations. The beginning of the end for Mussolini came on the night of 9 July 1943. That night, a daring amphibious landing took place on the island of Sicily, in an Allied attempt to take the war to the enemy. It was an audacious undertaking, dreamed-up by Churchill, whose previous experience of an amphibious invasion had been anything but positive.
The relationship between the Catholic Church in Italy and the country’s Fascist regime began seriously to unravel in the year 1938. Until then, two important considerations had mitigated the short-comings of Mussolini in the eyes of the Church: the signing of the Lateran Treaty and the Concordat. The first had ended years of strife between the Church and the country that had been the host of the Throne of St. Peter since the first century; the second had created Italy in the Church’s image, at least to some extent.
By the early 1930s, the Church and Mussolini both realized that the Concordat and the Lateran Treaty had not really delivered what they had expected. For the Church, the happiness at having a modicum of independence restored, and at regaining its traditional place in Italian society, was tempered by a growing awareness that the regime that controlled the state was not as well disposed towards her as originally believed. Mussolini, too, was disappointed. His hopes that the Concordat had tied the Church to the Fascists, and that his role in restoring the Church’s independence had made Her subservient to him, had been dashed in the episode around Catholic Action.In 1929 he stated in parliament: “The Fascist state claims to the full its ethical character: it is Catholic, but it is before everything else exclusively and essentially Fascist”. Such praise was no longer forthcoming after 1932, and Pope Pius XI made quite clear that he did not think Fascism to be Catholic at all:
So far in this series, we have been examining specific issues concerning the Catholic Church and its history during the Second World War. Through an examination of where the Vatican believed the Church stood, and by looking at the impact made on Catholic thought by the various ideologies that dominated the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I hope to have painted a backdrop against which the history of the Church in individual countries can be explored.
So far, we have examined several elements pertinent to the role played by Pope Pius XII during the Second World War. Of these, his relationship with the Jews and the Germans, the two peoples central to almost every narrative of the war, are the most essential. The Holy Father’s experience of Marxism and his radical denunciation of the philosophy have already been highlighted before. What is rarely mentioned, however, is that Fascism and Nazism and Communism – and, indeed, radical free market capitalism – share a common source: Social Darwinism. In essence, Social Darwinism is the transfer of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary ideas onto the field of human society. It was very popular during the later nineteenth century, particularly in Britain and the United States, and has retained its nefarious hold on several political movements to this day. Most would not recognize the label, which is usually, but correctly, applied to them by their opponents. Chief amongst these is the Catholic Church. To understand why Social Darwinism has been such a problem for the Church, one has to examine its basic tenets, and compare these with the principles of our Faith as taught by Jesus, the Apostles and their successors. When the earliest social commentators began to read Darwin, what struck them most was the notion of the survival of the fittest. This was, even then, a crude reading of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin suggested that species survive because they develop a set of tools to cope with their environment and their competitors. This does not suggest a survival of the fittest at all; it merely suggests that species adapt to survive. Applied to human society, this faulty reading became in the first place a pseudo-scientific justification for the unrestrained free market and capitalism. It appeared that the natural world justified the failure to protect the weak, and, in the crude notion of the Social Darwinists, this allowed mankind to follow its basic instinct. The notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ was coined, not by Darwin, but by Herbert Spenser (1820-1903), in his Principles of Biology of 1864. Spencer would later write another seminal work of Capitalist philosophy, The Man versus the State, in which all forms of state intervention on behalf of the weakest was denounced. An even more violent attack on the sanctity of human beings came from the pen of another British thinker, Francis Galton (1822-1911). Galton has been called the father of modern eugenics, and was an extremely intelligent man, who, unfortunately, channeled his intelligence into thinking about social Darwinism. Convinced that nature was more important than nurture – he coined the phrase – Galton devised elaborate notions of racial and class superiority. To ensure that the human race would develop its full potential, Galton believed that ‘breeding programs’ were in order for the fittest and the hereditary strongest. He did not develop the logical counterpart to his idea, but that was easy enough for his subsequent followers.These trends merged with two other currents in Europe. The first was an ancient one: Anti-Semitism. The hatred of Jews was nothing new in nineteenth and twentieth-century Europe. It has deep roots, which fed popular dislike of strangers during the Middle Ages, and which found erroneous justification in the ‘fact’ that the Jews had killed Jesus. Of course, the Jews had not done so, but the Romans, but this did not stop the hatred. Frequently, the Church, or members of the Church, encouraged this Anti-Semitism, and its critics are correct in stating that the extermination camps have some Christian roots. Popes often went out of their way to protect Europe’s Jews, but that did not stop local bishops. Despicable though this religious Anti-Semitism was, it has to be distinguished from the racial Anti-Semitism that was fed by Social Darwinism. This had begun to divide the single human race, all created in God’s image, into fictitious ‘races’, deploying all the tricks of acceptable scientific techniques, without pausing to think that these may not be acceptable to a later age. The Jews featured rather lowly in this order of races, and this found a ready audience amongst the disenfranchised of Europe, including, in Vienna, one Adolph Hitler. Combined with eugenics as a means of achieving the perfect human race, it would prove to be a lethal notion.The second important current that collided and merged with Social Darwinism was nationalism. Increasingly, Europeans saw their nation as the essence of their identity, at the expense of everything else. It was an attitude that reduced the value of human life to its usefulness for its country. Young men died for their country, and if they refused to do so, were executed or imprisoned. A whole industry sprang up to promote the hatred and fear of those in other countries. In many instances, this coincided with a growing ethnic awareness. It became more important to be German than to live under the rule of a particular ruler, to pick just one example. Again Social Darwinism and the idea of specific human ‘races’ merged with these nationalist tendencies. The idea grew that a race should have its own national state, but this ignored the patchwork of ethnicities that marked much of Europe. Eugenics came to be seen as a logical solution to the problem, as did ethnic cleansing. All ideologies that dominated Europe between 1918 and 1939 were, to some extent, indebted to Social Darwinism. The free market democracies of Britain and France had their system underpinned by its theories, which allowed Winston Churchill to wage war on striking miners – they undermined the strength of the country and challenged those ‘born to govern’. In Italy and Spain, as well as in many eastern European countries, it created the atmosphere in which a strongman could govern, on behalf of the nation, of course. In the Soviet Union it allowed the fullest implementation of Stalin’s horrors as the natural conclusion of the struggle for control between the weaker, bourgeois class and the virility of the working classes. I am not arguing here, as some historians have done, that Social Darwinism is the sole source of all the ideologies with which Pope Pius XII was confronted when he became ascended St. Peter’s throne in 1939. However, the impact of the various strains of Social Darwinism is unmistakable. That any ideology influenced by this way of thinking would find the Catholic Church in its way hardly needs explanation. The notion that it is natural for mankind to trample the weakest underfoot, and the idea that somehow we ought to ‘improve’ on God’s plan through eugenics are, simply, incompatible with the values of the Gospel. Pope Pius XII could not collaborate with the Nazis, the Soviets or any other regime founded upon ideals alien to those of his Church. Instead, he found he had to oppose them, as had all his predecessors since the middle of the nineteenth century. The Holy Father repeated time and again the simple statement of the Church: God created mankind in His own image, and every human is part of one family, and has enormous value.In December 1940, he published his single strongest condemnation of eugenics. Posing the question whether euthanasia was ever lawful, his answer was "No, because it is contrary to the natural law and the divine precept”. This ‘no’ applied to the disabled as well as those of different ethnicities – Jews, Gypsies et al – and those whose sexuality differed from the prevailing norm, such as homosexuals. Direct interference in God’s plan, in accordance with Social Darwinist thinking was, simply, anti-Catholic. Of course, we have to look no further than the famous Encyclical which Pacelli wrote for his predecessor, Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge: “In the furrows, where We tried to sow the seed of a sincere peace, other men - the "enemy" of Holy Scripture - oversowed the cockle of distrust, unrest, hatred, defamation, of a determined hostility overt or veiled, fed from many sources and wielding many tools, against Christ and His Church”.The Nazis were not ‘just’ the enemy of the Church, they were the enemy of ‘Holy Scripture’. There were many reasons for this, but the main one lay in the field of their wholesale embrace of the ideologies of Social Darwinism. One simply cannot understand the role of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War without understanding this fact, and without realizing that it informed the Pontiff’s every reaction against the regime in Berlin
It is frequently said that Eugenio Pacelli had a profound love for Germany. This is rarely an innocent statement: it usually means to imply that he was biased towards the Germans. That Pope Pius XII liked the country is beyond doubt; he had spent many years there, spoke the language very well, and had many close German friends. Whether that also caused him to favor Germany during the war is another matter, though. Let us consider the stance of one of the most influential of his German friends, the Jesuit priest and professor of Church history, Robert Leiber. Between 1924 and 1929, Leiber worked closely with Pacelli when he was the Nuncio, first in Munich and then in Berlin. In 1930, he moved to Rome and became professor at the Gregorian University. From this post, he maintained his links with Pacelli, now Secretary of State of the Vatican. He was his main researcher and would read all his letters, speeches, radio talks and encyclicals. This fact is important, as we recall the critical attitude of Pius towards Nazism in his first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. After the war, Leiber would repeatedly defend those Germans and members of the Church who supported Zionism, in the face of opposition from the Holy Office. Leiber was also an influential lynch-pin in the final, frantic pre-war attempt to overthrow Hitler and the Nazis and thus end the slide towards war. He was approached by Joseph Müller, a lawyer who had helped Pope Pius XII to define the legal protection left to the German bishops after the Nazi take-over after the concordat. Müller was the spokesperson of an influential group of German military men, who wished to remove Hitler. They wanted the Pope to approach the British to persuade them to declare peace once Hitler was gone, which message was conveyed to London by the British ambassador to the Vatican, Sir Francis D’Arcy Osborne. The first approach was made in September 1939, immediately after the outbreak of war in Poland, and the British reply, that peace would, indeed, follow a coup d’état, was related to the German opposition in February, again through the mediation of Pope Pius XII. As we all know, nothing came of the plans, but it is significant that the Holy Father wished the “voice of the German opposition to be heard”. Leiber and Pius would later repeat their contacts with the German resistance when they supported the 1944 plot against the dictator. Yes, Pope Pius XII loved Germany, but the episode shows that he had little time for the Nazis. In all of this, one of his often maligned German friends, Robert Leiber, was the conduit between Pope and German opposition to Hitler. The one shadow hanging over Leiber is his supposed involvement in the so-called ratlines, the escape route for Nazis fleeing Germany when the war was lost. There were, indeed, several priests, including some leading bishops in Austria and France, who were responsible for facilitating the fleeing of criminals from justice. Yet Leiber’s link with the organization is, at best, tenuous. It is true that he corresponded with Bishop Hudal, a leading ‘light’ of the movement, but the nature of this correspondence is unknown. If Leiber did support the exodus of Nazis to South America, it mirrors the role played by Nazi leader, Hermann Goering, in saving Jewish friends from the Holocaust: an act of kindness that went against the grain of their personal convictions. Pope Pius XII’s own love for Germany had deep roots. As early as 1915, he had been part of a Vatican delegation in Vienna, trying to negotiate a peace treaty to end the First World War. Two years later, in 1917, he became the Nuncio in Munich, the Bavarian capital. Since the German Empire had no diplomatic relations with the Vatican, this post in the largest Catholic state in the Empire was the de facto link between Berlin and Rome. This position became official in 1920, when the Weimar Republic opened official relations with the Church. Another of Pius’ friends who sheds much light upon his views on Germany is Ludwig Kaas. Few people ever deserved the title of ‘turbulent priest’ as did Kaas. Ordained to the priesthood in the Rhineland city of Trier, he was undoubtedly a brilliant scholar, who held a PhD in theology and one in philosophy. From this theoretical basis, he applied his extensive knowledge of Canon law and Church history to the problems facing the Church in modern Germany. This turned him into one of Catholicism’s most prominent political figures, to the acute discomfort of many in the German hierarchy. As with so many Germans, the defeat of 1918, and particularly the chaos that enveloped Germany subsequently, appalled Kaas, who now became a politician. He joined the overwhelmingly Catholic Centrum Party and was elected to the first Parliament of the Weimar Republic. Kaas showed his great love for Germany by opposing partition, but at the same time was an advocate for reconciliation with France and the other Allies. In 1920, he became an advisor to Pacelli, when the latter became the Nuncio to Germany. Kaas was to provide the information on Prussia, the largest constituent part of Germany, which Pacelli lacked. In 1929, Kaas achieved the greatest political goal of his life, when he was instrumental in helping Pacelli to negotiate a concordat between Prussia and the Holy See. It seemed as if the Kulturkampf – the battle between the German Empire and the Church under Bismarck - and its nefarious aftershocks had finally been buried. Yet this triumph was followed closely by his greatest mistake. The Centre Party had always been an uneasy coalition between Catholics enthused by the Church’s social teaching, monarchists, and those espousing an authoritarian regime. Franz von Papen was one of the latter, and fell out with Kaas. In an attempt to unseat von Papen, Kaas reached out to the Nazis and Hitler: it was a fatal mistake. We all know the results: in spite of losing seats in the Parliament in the elections of 1933, Hitler came to power as the result of a political deal in which Kaas played an important role. The major question is: did Pacelli endorse him? There is some evidence that Pacelli, by now the Secretary of State in the Vatican, was furious with his old friend, who had allowed the Centrum Party to be dissolved. It had robbed the Vatican of its negotiation power during the Concordat discussions, in which Kaas, ironically, played a major role. The so-called Reichskonkordat was eventually signed and gave the Church some protection, but only in theory. Nazi hostility to the Catholic Church was deep-seated and the Concordat proved ineffective. Just after his election in 1939, Pope Pius XII met the German episcopate and told them: “They [the Nazis] always responded, "sorry, but we cannot act because the concordat is not legally binding yet". But after its ratification, things did not get any better, they got worse. The experiences of the past years are not encouraging”. As a result, Kaas became a persona non grata amongst Germany’s embattled bishops, and Pope Pius XII seems to have agreed. He maintained his friendship with Kaas, but put him in charge of the excavations of St. Peter’s tomb under the Vatican Hill, his political role finished. Kaas, unlike Leiber, did not share Pope Pius XII’s inherent distrust of the Nazis, and this ensured that his influence came to an end. The Pope would never let friendships come between his vision of the Church and society as enumerated in Summi Pontificatus. The same is also true for his love of Germany: that the Holy Father liked the country is beyond doubt, but he would never allow this to cloud his judgment of the regime that had come to power in 1933.
The single most controversial element of recent Catholic history has to be the relationship between Pope Pius XII and the Jews. This controversy is an on-going one and a small article such as this cannot hope to offer any new insights. However, it can present a survey of the debate to date, and make some tentative suggestions. The controversy revolves around the proposition that, during his Pontificate, Pope Pius XII remained silent when it came to the deportation, incarceration and deliberate extermination of the Jews in what is now called the Holocaust or Shoah. As shall be seen, the Holy Father’s silence was not as pronounced as some would have it, but one does require ‘Catholic’ ears to hear it. His very first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, contains a very profound statement on the Jews. It appeared in October 1939, some weeks after the war had begun, and well after the direct attacks on the Jews had commenced in the Third Reich. The Encyclical is rarely quoted by historians, which is a great omission. Traditionally, the first encyclical of a new pope sets the tone for his Pontificate, and Summi Pontificatus forms no exception. Pope Pius XII began with a reference to the consecration of mankind to Christ the King. He wrote: “It is a message to men who, in ever increasing numbers, have cut themselves off from faith in Christ and, even more, from the recognition and observance of His law; a message opposed to that philosophy of life for which the doctrine of love and renunciation preached in the Sermon on the Mount and the Divine act of love on the Cross seem to be a stumbling block and foolishness”. This is a very clear attack on the Nazis, for their ‘philosophy’, drawing on Social Darwinism and Nietzsche, held that the Sermon on the Mount contained all that which enslaved people. Love and renunciation were linearly opposed to the ideals of the survival of the fittest, as espoused in the Third Reich. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount holds no reference to Jews: it was written by and for Jews! The Encyclical also contains a strong denunciation of the unbridled free market of capitalist society. Quoting the Apocalypse, Pope Pius XII affirmed Catholic social teaching: “Thou sayest: I am rich, and made wealthy, and have need of nothing: and knowest not, that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked”. That he was in the mood for combat is beyond doubt, “Who among "the Soldiers of Christ" - ecclesiastic or layman - does not feel himself incited and spurred on to a greater vigilance, to a more determined resistance, by the sight of the ever-increasing host of Christ's enemies; as he perceives the spokesmen of these tendencies deny or in practice neglect the vivifying truths”. This was an attack on all the forces that had been battering the Church for over a century: extreme free market capitalism, Marxism, secularism and now, Nazism. The text leaves little doubt about the direction of the Pontificate: he wished to defend the radical, Catholic alternative to what was on offer in the political sphere. The Encyclical thus becomes a vital document in understanding the Pope’s stance during the war years. The Holy Father knew what was to come, and the evil that would come with it; he had witnessed it during the First World War, and, like his predecessors, had tried in vain to halt it. Thus he wrote, “Venerable Brethren, as We write these lines the terrible news comes to Us that the dread tempest of war is already raging despite all Our efforts to avert it. When We think of the wave of suffering that has come on countless people who but yesterday enjoyed in the environment of their homes some little degree of well-being, We are tempted to lay down Our pen. Our paternal heart is torn by anguish as We look ahead to all that will yet come forth from the baneful seed of violence and of hatred for which the sword today ploughs the blood-drenched furrow”. The image of the stern, remote Pius XII is shattered by that single sentence: “We are tempted to lay down Our pen”. Here is the Pope acknowledging the futility of his own resistance, and the limitations of his own position: he was powerless to prevent the destruction of so many lives, of so many people’s happiness. He knew where the blame lay: amongst the regimes that had rejected the ethics of Christianity, the ethics of love, brotherhood and compassion, the ethics of inclusiveness, forgiveness and humility. He wrote: “From the immense vortex of error and anti-Christian movements there has come forth a crop of such poignant disasters”. Amongst this anti-Christianity, Pius singled out the evil of racism. He emphasized the need for native leadership in the emerging Churches in the colonial world, a truly radical statement in an age where British Prime-Minister, Winston Churchill, could dismiss Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, as a ‘naked fakir’. Pius goes on to quote Scripture in support of his stance, more in particular St. Paul: “putting on the new, (man) him who is renewed unto knowledge, according to the image of him that created him. Where there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision”. This is Pius at his most radical: no Catholic could mistake the open support of the idea that all men, and that included the Jews which were classed as non-humans by the Nazis, were equal before Christ and in Him. An important question, of course, is whether Pope Pius XII actually lived by the words he wrote in his first Encyclical. In other words, does the – mostly – public silence mask an active involvement in the prevention of the Holocaust? The answer to that question is simply ‘yes’. Pius knew that to speak out loudly was to condemn more souls to torment. The lesson was learnt by the Dutch episcopate. It spoke out against the deportation of the Dutch Jews, with only one result: all ethnic Jews who were Catholics, and who had been left in peace, were rounded up and sent to the extermination camps, including St. Edith Stein. In a letter to the Bishop of Berlin in 1943, Pius admitted that his silence was to ‘avoid the worse’. Pius’ silence was a deliberate silence, and does not make him complicit in any way, as it was accompanied by a great exertion on behalf of the Jews. This varied from making deeply symbolic gestures to actively trying to save those threatened. In 1939, for example, he appointed several Jewish academics, who had been dismissed from Italian universities, at Pontifical universities. In 1940, the Vatican received a request from the chief Rabbi of Palestine to intervene on behalf of the Jews of occupied Lithuania. Pius called Von Ribbentrop to the Vatican and repeatedly protested against the treatment of Lithuania’s Jews. Action speaks louder than words. This was followed by a letter to all the clergy, urging them to exert themselves on behalf of the Jews. Two Nuncios in particular stand out in their efforts following this letter, namely those of Hungary and Turkey, who both saved many thousands of Jews by providing them with travel documents and money raised by American Catholics in particular. Letters written to the governments of Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary and Vichy France leave no doubt that Pius condemned Anti-Semitism. Indeed, in his Christmas address of 1942, Pius was explicit in reiterating the Church’s teachings. He condemned the treatment of "those hundreds of thousands, who ... sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction”. It was a rare departure from the normally quiet diplomacy and guarded symbolic gestures, and one that immediately dismisses the idea that Pope Pius XII remained totally silent on the Holocaust. One can continue for some time with these examples, which are often willfully ignored. Indeed, at times the truth is simply twisted to serve the political message. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the Jews of Rome. The Holy Father has been accused of standing by when they were targeted by the Nazis. Nothing can be further from the truth. Eighty percent of Rome’s Jews were saved, mostly by being hidden in churches and monasteries, including almost 500 who were brought into the Vatican. Since only some 800 people use the Vatican on a daily base, the Pope was obviously more than aware of their presence! I have previously explored why Pope Pius XII is presented in the way he is in certain circles; he was not without blame with regard to some Vatican policies during the war, but if everyone had adopted the Pope’s stance to the Jews many more would have escaped the camps.