August 08, 2011

Pope Pius XII and Germany

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

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.

Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.

Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.

Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.

In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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