Jul 14, 2022
Two substantial new historical studies of Pope Pius XII’s response to the Jewish Holocaust reach sharply opposed conclusions. Not surprisingly, it’s the negative criticism of Pius rather than the documented defense that’s getting attention, including puff-piece interviews by the New York Times and the Associated Press.
Brown University historian David Kertzer in The Pope at War (Random House) maintains that concern for the Church in German-occupied territories led the Pope to pursue what the AP calls “a paralyzingly cautious course” on Hitler. Kertzer’s negativity toward Pius won’t surprise readers of his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 volume The Pope and Mussolini, with its open dislike of Cardinal Pacelli, Pius XI’s Secretary of State and successor.
Cautious the Pope unquestionably was, but hardly inactive. German historian Michael Hesemann in The Pope and the Holocaust (Ignatius Press) concludes that while Pius XII couldn’t have prevented the Holocaust, without his efforts the number of Jews killed would have been far higher—a judgment evidently shared by the many prominent Jewish individuals and groups heaping praise on him after the war.
That Pope Pius was too timid to take risks is belied by the fact that early in the war he served as a communication channel between German military officers plotting to overthrow Hitler and the British government. And the failure of the plot was in no way the Pope’s fault. Hesemann tells this story in fascinating detail.