History Will Render Justice to Pope Pius XII
Interview of Paolo Mieli, historian and editor of "Corriere della Sera"
History can sometimes arrive on stage and exit from it completely distorted. This happened on 20 February 1963 when Rolf Hochhuth's play Der Stellvertreter [the Vicar] was performed at the Freie Volksbühne in Berlin.
Indeed, a "black legend" evolved from the production which has accompanied world historiography to this day, feeding a hate campaign directed against Pius XII, labelled even "a vile criminal" and, also in the Catholic world, accused of being a Naziphile because of his "silence" about the Shoah.
Fifty years after Pope Pacelli's death, the black legend of "Hitler's Pope" is still vividly present in the newspapers. Paolo Mieli, an authoritative historian and editor-in-chief of an important Italian daily, Corriere della Sera, discusses it here in an interview with Giovanni Maria Vian, editor-in-chief of L'Osservatore Romano, and with the author of this article. The following is a translation of the interview, which was conducted in Italian.
There is often talk about Hochhuth's play. But perplexity about Pope Pacelli's attitudes dates back to some years before it. When did the "Pius XII problem" really begin?
The watershed was certainly the performance of "The Vicar" but some of the accusations, even if they were sketched differently from Hochhuth's, date back even to before World War II began. The first person to mention Pius XII's reticence was in fact Emmanuel Mounier, who in May of 1939 objected tactfully to a silence that brought embarrassment to many: that of Pius XII about the Italian attack on Albania.
The same kind of accusation was then levelled against him by another French Catholic intellectual, François Mauriac, who in 1951, in the preface to a book by Léon Poliakov, complained that the persecuted Jews had not had the comfort of hearing the Pope condemn in clear and distinct words: "the crucifixion of countless brothers in the Lord". Moreover, it should be remembered that this same book — one of the first important texts on anti-Semitism — also presented justifications for this silence. Poliakov, himself a Jew, wrote in essence that the Pope had been silent in order not to further jeopardize the Jews.
Therefore the first statement on this topic by a Jewish scholar was very cautious?
I would go further. Except for Poliakov, the first evaluations of the Jewish community all over the world were not only cautious but were even favourable of Pius XII.
Could the reason for this caution be the fact that the real accusations against the Pope were beginning to come from the Soviets already during the war?
There is no doubt that Pius XII was a Pope who was also — and I emphasize "also" — anti-Communist. And during these decades of controversy, he has often been criticized for being influenced by this view. We recall, for example, two famous speeches he delivered before becoming Pope, during two visits — to France (1937) and to Hungary (1938) — in which he emphasized the persecutions of the Communist regime rather than those of the Nazi regime.
However, concerning this it should first be said that the thematization of the Holocaust, the Shoah as we know it today, came many decades after the end of the World War. I remember that during the 1950s and 60's, one still spoke approximatively of deportees in the concentration camps. It was known that the Jews fared worse, but full awareness of the Shoah came later.
During the 1930's, very few had any idea about what could happen to the Jews. Of course, in Germany, there had been the "Krystallnacht". But obviously it is much easier to interpret and understand the facts today, with hindsight. And the Jews who escaped from Germany were not welcomed with open arms in any part of the world, not even in the United States. In a word, it was a complex problem. The Western world, the civil world, with a few exceptions, did not understand, did not realize what was happening.
So when we speak about a Pope at the end of the 1930s, we can understand why he would be more sensitive to anti-Christian persecution in the Soviet Union than to what was emerging in the Nazi world. This does not mean that he was secretly a Nazi.
The 1930's: controversy is often directed at Pius XI too...
One of the criticisms of Cardinal Pacelli, Pius XI's Secretary of State, is that he diluted the condemnations of National Socialism. One of the many accusations — which I do not believe are entirely justified — against Pacelli was that he toned down the Encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge". In fact, examining Pope Pacelli's activities from a historical standpoint, a few details come to mind. When the war broke, he criticized the French Church's apathy under Nazi domination in Vichy, France; then he criticized the flagrant anti-Semitism of the Slovakian Monsignor Josef Tiso; as clearly narrated in Renato Moro's book, "La Chiesa e lo sterminio degli ebrei [The Church and the extermination of the Jews]", Il Mulino publishers, he expressed his willingness and even assistance in the highly risky plot some had against Hitler between 1939 and 1940.
I continue: in June 1941 when the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany, there was a certain resistance in the Western world to making pacts with those who until that moment had fought on the side of Nazi Germany. Pius XII, on the other hand, made a great effort. to facilitate an alliance between Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.
Lastly the most important chapter: during the Nazi occupation of Rome — as recounted, for example, in two publications, Enzo Forcella's famous book (La resistenza in convento, Einaudi) and a book only recently published by Andrea Riccardi ("L'invernopiù lungo, Laterza) the Church made all her resources available: almost every basilica, every church, every seminary, every convent took in and helped Jews. It was consequently possible to save 10,000 Jews, as compared with the 2,000 who were deported. I do not mean that all of those 10,000 were saved by the Church of Pius XII, but without any doubt the Church contributed to saving the majority.
And it would have been impossible for the Pope to be unaware of what his priests and women religious were doing. The result was that for years, many years — dozens of examples could be given — extremely important figures in the Jewish world acknowledged this contribution, attributing it explicitly to Pius XII.
Almost every trace of these witnesses has been lost. This was the subject, for example, of a wonderful book by Andrea Tornielli ("Pio XII il papa degli ebrei, Piemme). I would like to provide just a sample of this vast quantity of documentation. In 1944, the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem, Isaac Herzog, said: "The people of Israel will never forget what Pius XII and his illustrious delegates, inspired by the eternal principles of religion at the basis of authentic civilization, are doing for our unfortunate brothers and sisters in the most tragic hour of our history. This is a living proof of divine providence in this world".
That same year, Sergeant Major Joseph Vancover wrote: "I would like to tell you about Jewish Rome, about the great miracle of finding thousands of Jews here. The churches, the convents, the monks and nuns, and above all the Pontiff, hastened to the aid and rescue of the Jews, snatching them from the clutches of' the Nazis and of their Italian Fascist collaborators. Great efforts, not without dangers, were undertaken to conceal and feed the Jews during the months of the German occupation. Some religious paid with their lives for this rescue operation. The whole Church was mobilized for this purpose, working with great dedication. The Vatican was at the centre of every activity of assistance and rescue, in the given circumstances and under Nazi domination".
Next, I cite a letter from the Italian front, by the soldier Eliyahu Lubisky, a member of the socialist kibbutz Bet Alfa. It was published in the weekly Hashavua on 4 August 1944: "All the refugees are talking about how helpful the Vatican was. Priests put their lives in danger to hide and save Jews. The Pontiff himself participated in the. task of rescuing Jews".
Again, 15 October 1944. We point out the address given by Silvio Ottolenghi, Extraordinary Commissioner of the Jewish community in Rome: "thousands of our brethren were saved in the convents, in the churches, in the extraterritorial buildings. On 23 July I was summoned to be received by His Holiness, to whom I communicated the thanks of the community of Rome for the heroic and affectionate assistance extended to us by the clergy through the convents and colleges... I told His Holiness of the desire of my fellow Jews in Rome to go en masse to thank him. But this kind of demonstration was not possible, except at the end of the war, in order to avoid compromising all those in the north who still needed protection".
This was while the war was still being fought. What about today?
Today, unfortunately, the focus Pius XII is still so strong that even a normal historiographic discussion flares up.
The issue stings to the point that the photograph of Pius XII at Yad Vashem and its caption is still a problem, in spite of the mass of testimonies you just mentioned. What happened?
What happened is that over the years, the black legend of Pius XII has spread. We recall the books by John Cornwell (Hitler's Pope) and by Daniel Goldhagen (Hitlers willige Vollstrecker), in which these accusations are made more explicit. A common judgment was formed, according to which Pius XII was seen as a Pontiff who was no less than an accomplice of the Nazi Führer. This is insane! And only think that at Eichmann's trial in 1961, a judgment about the Pope was expressed that is worth rereading. The person speaking is Gideon Hausner, the state prosecutor in Jerusalem: "In Rome, on 16 October 1943, a vast round-up was organized in the old Jewish neighbourhood. The Italian clergy participated in the rescue operation and monasteries opened their doors to the Jews. The Pontiff intervened personally in favour of the Jews arrested in Rome".
This was just two years before the performance of "The Vicar"...
And it was precisely in 1963 that two types of revision of Pius XII's role began to take root. One was malicious — from within the Church herself — which contrasted Pius XII with the figure of John XXIII. It was a devastating operation: John XXIII was treated as a Pope who, during World War had shown that sensitivity which instead Pius XII had not. This is a very bizarre idea. And between the lines of the invective against Pacelli, it seems to emerge that the Pontiff has been made to pay for his anti-Communism. Actually, Pius XII was a Pope in line with the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th century. If one reads what he wrote or listens to the recordings of his Discourses, one realizes how he also expressed, for example, criticism of liberalism. I mean that he was not at all a pawn of anti-Communist Atlanticism.
This means that he wasn't the chaplain of the West...
Absolutely not. The image of Pius XII as the chaplain of the great anti-Communist offensive during the Cold War is off track. Although, naturally, he was anti-Communist. And for this anti-Communism, he had to pay a very high price, which has distorted his image through theatrical performances, publications, and films. But anyone who has a non-prejudicial attitude and has tried to understand Pacelli through the documents cannot fail to be stunned by this black legend, which makes no sense. Pius XII was a great Pope, able to rise to the occasion. It is as if today we were to blast Roosevelt for not speaking more clearly about the Jews. But how can one verify a war, especially regarding an unarmed figure like the Pope? The speciousness of this offensive against Pius XII seems truly suspect to any person of good faith, and it is a speciousness that it is dutiful to oppose. Sooner or later, someone will reinterpret the facts in the light of the testimonies I mentioned earlier.
Are there differences between European, and in particular Italian, historiography on Pius XII, and American?
According to me, yes. We must not forget that this aversion toward Pius XII was born in the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant world. It did not come from the Jewish world, which instead adapted itself over time in order to avoid a counter attack by an international campaign. To put it in another way: if the Pope is accused of letting anti-Semitism run free, obviously the Jewish world feels duty bound to see things clearly. Thus we come to the episode of the seventh hall of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where a photograph of the Pope appears with a caption that describes his behaviour as "ambiguous". Or to the request, in 1998, by of the ambassador of Israel to the Holy See at the time, Aaron Lopez, to put a moratorium on the beatification of Pius XII. Now, for this matter, I have nothing to do with it. because the moratorium is not a historiographical issue. But there is something excessively obstinate about attitudes toward this Pope, and it stinks from a mile away.
Since 1963 the spotlight was put on Pius XII in an effort to find evidence of his guilt, and nothing appeared. On the contrary, the studies brought to light copious documentation that attest. to how his Church gave crucial help to the Jews. I recall, in this regard, a very beautiful gesture: in June of 1955, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra asked to be allowed to give a concert at the Vatican in honour of Pius XII, to express gratitude to this Pope, and it played a movement from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony in the presence of the Pope. This was the atmosphere.
And when the Pope died, Golda Meir — Israel's foreign minister, and future prime minister — said: "When the most frightful martyrdom ever struck our people during the ten years of the Nazi terror, the voice of the Pontiff was raised in favour of the victims. We weep for the loss of this great servant of peace".
For some, the Pontiffs voice had not been raised, but they had heard it. Do you see? Golda Meir had heard his voice.
And William Zuckerman, director of the magazine "Jewish Newsletter," wrote: "All the Jews of America pay homage and express their sorrow, because it is likely that no leader of this generation gave more substantial help to the Jews in the hour of tragedy. More than anyone else, we were able to benefit from the great and charitable goodness and magnanimity of the lamented Pontiff during the years of persecution and terror".
This is how Pius XII was considered for years, for decades. Were they all crazy? No, they were the ones who had suffered the persecutions for which Pius XII is blamed as an accomplice.
If we take this as a case of historiography, the black legend is crazy. But I think that, apart from some polemicists, any historian worthy of the name — even in the case of people like me who are not Catholic — will fight to reestablish the truth.
What has emerged so far from. Israeli historiography? Has there been an evolution in the judgment of historians? Is there still a debate about Pius XII?
I would say that Israeli historiography is very restrained. In reality, the case is still open because of the obstinance of another world, which is not the Jewish world. I think that three aspects must be considered. First of all, Pius XII has been made to pay for his anti-Communism. Second, this Pope knew Germany well, and had a pro-German attitude that, make no mistake, does not mean pro-Nazi. Finally, it must be said that the criticisms of Pius XII always come from circles that could be criticized ten times as much themselves. During the Shoah, these circles were unable to demonstrate a presence anywhere near what they criticize Pius XII for not doing.
Would you like to give us some examples?
Regarding what happened in France, in Poland, but even in the United States — when we think about it, the idea of those who accuse Pius XII is that everyone knew, or in any case that it was possible to know. So I ask: whom do we remember, during World War II, among the personalities of these circles who raised their voices in a way that the Pope is criticized for not doing? I don't know any.
Are you also referring to the Italian antifascists?
Absolutely. But in the end, who can be indicated as someone who did for the Jews something that the Pope did not do? I don't know anyone. There are individual cases, just as there were individual cases among high Church officials. At least this Pope did everything he was able to do. He made it possible for ten thousand Jews in Rome — and this also happened in other parts of Italy — to save themselves, compared to the 2,000 who were killed. I don't understand what the terms of comparison should be. So I believe that it is possible to conjecture that these criticisms, these accusations come from circles whose consciences are not at ease concerning this issue.
So the black legend is a case of a guilty conscience?
I would say so. It doesn't make sense otherwise. The truth is that hatred for Pius XII came about in a specific context, at the start of the Cold War. We should remember that it was the Pope who made the victory of Democrazia Cristiana in 1948 possible. I am convinced that the accusations against him are the purging of a hatred that rose up in the second half of the 1940's and during the 1950's. The literature hostile to Pius XII came after the war. In Italy, it began after the collapse of the national unity government in 1947 and became more heated during the 1950's. This whole depository of hatred and strong aversion emerged in later years. If it had come to light immediately, the Jews whose lives have been saved thanks to this Church would not have permitted the speaking and writing of what has been said and written. Because it came out 20 or 30 years later, all of the witnesses, all of those who were saved — we are talking about thousands of people — were gone, and the new generation of their children absorbed these accusations. And in fact, who was it who resisted the accusations? The historians.
Furthermore, there were Catholic voices that have contrasted Pius XII and his Successor, John XXIII.
In fact, I believe that the opening of the beatification causes of these two Popes was not announced at the same time by accident. When Paul VI went to the Holy Land in 1964, and spoke in very warm terms about Pius XII, there were no great protests. No one protested. And operation "Vicar" had already begun. The accusations seemed incredible. After this, the landslide gradually gained strength, as the generation of eyewitnesses disappeared. However, I think that historians will do justice to Pius XII.
We have mentioned the Catholics. "La Civiltà Cattolica" has written that Pius XII failed to speak with a prophetic voice. Isn't that a somewhat anachronistic judgment? Should the Pontiff have gone to the ghetto on 16 October 1944, as he had gone to the bombed neighbourhood of San Lorenzo a few weeks earlier?
Sincerely, the Jewish blood that runs through my veins makes me prefer a Pope who helps my fellow Jews to survive, rather than one who puts on a show.
A Pope who goes to a bombed neighbourhood is a Pope who weeps for the victims, he performs a gesture of warmth and affection for the city, while his presence in the ghetto might be controversial. Of course, in hindsight anything can be said, even that it would have been right for him — as has been written — to throw himself on the tracks to keep the trains from leaving. But I think that these are shallow judgments.
And also, in sincerity, criticizing another for not doing what. none of your own people did is a bit risky. In fact, I don't recall that any representatives of the anti-Nazi Roman resistance went to the ghetto, or threw themselves on the tracks. These discussions are truly not sound.
Concerning the controversy within Catholicism, Rabbi David Dalin has gone so far as to write that Pius XII is the biggest club that the progressives can use to attack the traditionalists...
The most inconvenient aspect, but to me it is evident (even if mine is a perspective from the outside) is that this battle in the Catholic world that opposes the figures of John XIII and Pius XII is not very courageous, because no one does it openly. There is no book or article from an authoritative representative of the Catholic world that clearly says, John XXIII yes and Pius XII no. It is a battle carried out between the lines, comprised of subtleties. In my opinion the argument is simple: either one is truly convinced that Pius XII was a Papal accomplice to the Nazis, or if instead things are the way they have been discussed in this interview, then certain people should realize that these arguments only contribute to perpetuating the black legend about this Pope. It should be noted: I believe that this black legend is running out of time. Pius XII will not be a Pope marked by a "damnatio memoriae".
Why do you say this?
Exactly from the historical viewpoint, the evidence in favour is so strong and extensive, and the lack of contrary evidence is so glaring, that this offensive against Pius XII is destined to exhaust itself.
A final question about the attitude of Pius XII. How can the nature of his silent work regarding the Holocaust be reconstructed?
I have often thought about Pius XII, trying to imagine what kind of personality he had. He has been compared to Benedict XV, the Pope of the World War I. But World War II was very different. Certainly Pacelli was a tormented individual, one who had his doubts. He himself dwelt upon his own "silence" in 1941. He found himself at a terrible crossroads that brought some of his convictions into question. Then there was a long period after the war, until 1958, in which he continued to be a strong Pope, present, important, decisive for the reconstruction of Italy after the war. He may have been the most important Pope in the 20th century. He was certainly tormented by doubts. On the matter of his silence, as I have said, he questioned himself. But this is exactly what gives me a sense of his greatness.
One thing has struck me above all. Once the war was over, if Pius XII had had a guilty conscience, he would have bragged about his work to save the Jews. But he never did this. He never said a word. He could have. He could have had it written about, had it said. He didn't do it. For me, this is the proof of the quality of his character. He was not a Pope who felt the need to defend himself. Regarding judgment about Pius XII, I must say that there remains in my heart what Robert Kempner, a Jewish lawyer of German origin and the second prosecutor at the Nuremberg trial, wrote in 1964: "Any propagandistic statement of position by the Church against the government of Hitler would not only have been premeditated suicide, but would have accelerated the killing of a much greater number of Jews and priests".
I conclude: for 20 years, the judgments about Pius XII were unanimous. In my opinion, therefore, there is something that doesn't add up about the offensive against them. And anyone who ventures to study him with intellectual honesty must start from precisely this point. From these figures that don't add up.
Weekly Edition in English
15 October 2008, page 7
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