Holy See's Impartiality and Dedication in the World War

Author: Burkhart Schneider S.J.


Burkhart Schneider S.J.


"Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale", édités par Pierre Blet, Robert A. Graham, Angelo Martini, Burkhart Schneider.

Volume 5: Le Saint Siège et la guerre mondiale; Juillet 1941- October 1942. Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1969 pp. XXVI-794, with plates. Lire 7,500.

The fifth volume of the series "Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale", commenced at the beginning of 1965 at the instance of the Secretariat of State, was presented to the Holy Father on the Feast of St. Joseph, and was published on 25th March.

The Holy See's publication of documents, mainly for the first time, illustrating its attitude during the terrible years of the second world war, has aroused great interest among specialized historians. Both the importance of the contents of the documents and the technical and editorial skill with which they have been presented have also met with favourable comment. In this regard we only have to refer to the exhaustive accounts of the previous volumes drawn up by university professors such as Halecki at New York, Engel-Janosi at Vienna, Bendiscioli at Pavia and Pincherle at Rome.

This fifth volumecontains more than 500 documents of various kinds: speeches by the Pope, annotations by the Secretariat of State, instructions to Papal representatives and their reports, diplomatic notes, letters. It covers a period of one and a half years, extending from the beginning of the war against Russia (July 1941) to the end of October 1942. Most of the texts are in Italian, but there is also a large number written in French and English; German appears only rarely, in some memorandums from the German ambassador to the Vatican. Like the preceding volumes, this one has an exhaustive introduction in French, the purpose of which is to provide a guide as a means of facilitating access to the ponderous mass of texts and documents and to set out the chief themes in an orderly manner. The numerous notes also aid comprehension, and the detailed index facilitates references to the volume.

The original texts reprinted in the volume relate the Holy See's general activity with special reference to its diplomatic efforts. The volume therefore does not deal with the Holy See's humanitarian activities, which became more and more intense as the war proceeded, as is proved by a volumeof documents which increased with every year of the war. These activities included initiatives taken on behalf of prisoners of war and civilians, appeals made to humanize military operations, efforts to aid countries threatened with famine and to help fugitives, refugees andthe persecuted. All these problems will be documented in later volumes of the series, and will be presented with complete fidelity to the sources. Yet, even with the omissions just indicated, this volume contains a very great number of subjects.

The war against the Soviet Union

This volume opens with the beginning of the war in Russia against Stalin's Soviet dictatorship, which naturally becomes the centre of events. Both sides in the war called upon the Vatican to declare itself by taking up a position. The Axis powers hoped at first that the Pope would welcome and bless the war undertaken against Russia as a crusade against atheistic Communism. The German government had never mitigated its interior policy hostile to the church (it is significant in this regard that the list of documents reprinted here begins with a long report from the Apostolic Nuncio in Berlin on the regime's latest measures against the Catholic Church (n. 1 of 2-7-1941); yet it used thorough propaganda in an attempt to pass itself off abroad as the protector of Western Culture and to justify the war against Russia as an act in defence of Europe against Bolshevism. That idea of a crusade was promoted with great vigour above all in Spain and in Latin American countries.

The Holy See despatched precise directions to its representatives in those countries in order to confute such propaganda, and informed them of the difficulties which were continuing to be made for the Church in Germany. Not even the Italian government succeeded in getting the support it desired from the Vatican. On 5th September 1941 the Italian ambassador to the Holy See called on the head of the first section of the Secretariat of State, Monsignor Tardini, in order to transmit a pressing request from Mussolini that the Vatican should openly and frankly declare itself to be against Soviet Russia.

Monsignor Tardini replied to this request as follows: "The Holy See's attitude towards Bolshevism has no need to be explained again, The Holy See has already reproved, condemned and anathematized Bolshevism with all its errors. There is nothing to add to and nothing to take away from what has already been said (i.e. in Pius XI's encyclical letter Divini Redemptoris, 19th March 1937). A statement made now could easily take on a political character, whereas the Holy See has spoken clearly tempore non suspecto". (n. 62).

The Italian ambassador had spent a long time in Berlin, and was therefore capable of appreciating the objective truth of Monsignor Tardini’s next observation: "The hooked cross is not exactly the crusaders' cross".

The Holy See did not let itself be persuaded by any condescendence towards the desires and claims of the Axis. After the war Pius XII summed up his position and the considerations that determined it in the following words:

"It was Our constant preoccupation to remove a conflict that was so fatal for humanity. It was for that reason in particular that We took care, in spite of certain tendentious pressures, not to let even a single word issue from Our lips or come from Our pen or make my move that might indicate approval or encouragement of the war undertaken against Russia in 1941" (A.A.S. XXXVIII, 1946, 154) (Printed in French in the Oss. Rom.: Trans.).

The documents in this volume fully confirm what the Pope was to say in February 1946.

In order to make the Pope's attitude wholly comprehensible, we will add one more observation. Like his predecessor, Pius XII was certainly convinced of the danger that Bolshevism represented for the world. However, he remained completely consistent, and never pronounced a formal condemnation either against the German system or against the Bolshevist one, for such a pronouncement would have been used for propaganda purposes by both sides in the conflict, more particularly by the Allies, when Russia was still allied with Germany, in the first stage of the war, and by the Axis powers in the later stage, when Russia was one of the Allies.

In view of this, note must be taken of a very distinct difference in common opinion. Pius XII's behaviour in the first case—that is, in regard to the National-Socialist regime, was and is still considered as "silence", as tacit support for Fascism through fear of atheistic Communism; in the second case, i.e. in regard to Bolshevism, there is no mention, of the Pope's behaviour.

Myron Taylor's visits

The Vatican's position in regard to Communism and the war against Russia under Stalin was just as important and, perhaps more dramatic for the United States of America and for President Roosevelt in particular. During the time under consideration Roosevelt sent to the Holy See his personal ambassador, Myron Taylor, who was usually represented in the Vatican by the chargé d'affaires, Harold Tittman.

The two visits turned into a number of audiences with Pius XII and conversations with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Maglione and his closest assistants Mons. Tardini and Mons. Montini. The documents relating to those meetings are very full and numerous.

During his first visit, in September 1941, Taylor expressed himself in vigorous terms in order to persuade the Vatican to do something to change the minds of a large proportion of American Catholics who were openly isolationist, and were against the United States entering the war and against Roosevelt's policy. Many such Catholics, amongst whom were more than a few bishops, maintained that entry into war against Germany on the side of Russia meant direct support for atheistic Communism, and that such support was clearly contrary to Christian principles. They believed that they could deduce this from Pius XI's encyclical against Communism, where they found the following; "Communism is intrinsically perverse and collaboration with; it cannot be allowed in any field by any one who wishes to save Christian civilization" (A.A.S. XXIX, 1937, 130). Consequently Catholics could never agree to giving military aid to Russia.

Roosevelt's Special Envoy had to try to obtain a change in the convictions of those United States Catholic opponents of the President, by means of a statement from the Vatican.

On the basis of what Roosevelt himself had already stated in a letter to the Pope, Myron Taylor forcibly pointed out that thenew Russian Constitution showed neutrality in regard to the Church, that the Soviet system was ready to protect liberty of religion and the rights of man and finally, National Socialism was a much greater danger for the Church and for mankind.

In spite of these arguments, the Church did not allow itself to have any illusions. Mons. Tardini, who analyzed Roosevelt's letter and prepared the Pope's reply, commented as follows:

"Atheism and war upon religion form part of Communism's immediate social and political programme. They cannot be done away with (at least permanently) so long as Communism continues to exist. It is extremely painful to see how Roosevelt looks forward with such imperturbility to the permanence of Bolshevism. That means preparing a future for Europe and the world which will certainly not be better and may indeed probably be worse... Roosevelt asserts that Germany is more dangerous than Russia... Both Communism and Nazism are false and pernicious as ideologies; both are materialist, both are antireligious, both are destructive of the most elementary rights of tile human erson, and both are implacable enemies of the Holy See. But on the practical level, that is in regard to the question of what has concretely been done so far, which has gone further, Communism or Nazism, has is that obviously Communism has gone further" (N. 74, 3° and 5°)

Tardini submitted these reflections to the Pope in writing, and they were also communicated and clarified to the United States diplomatist orally. Here is a longer excerpt from another document which reports an exhaustive conversation between Mons. Tardini and Myron Taylor:

"At this point I asked Mr. Taylor for a final explanation. Supposing that Nazism is defeated and Communism survives, Europe would be in the following condition. All countries (the Balkan ones, the Latin and German countries) would be prostrate. Communism would be in triumph and would invade every nation. Consequently a new militaristic power would exist in continental Europe (because Communism has shown that it knows how to arm itself and wishes to arm itself); it would be as aggressive as Nazism (because it is well known that Communism strives to spread itself everywhere). Have the United States realised this eventuality? How could they impede it? And if they did not halt it, would they not find themselves faced in a few years with an enemy who would perhaps be stronger and more dangerous than Hitler himself? Mr. Taylor seemed astonished at my query. He appears never to have thought about the matter" (n. 80)

A few months later, when Great Britain and the United States were now the allies of the Soviet Union, Mons. Godfrey, Apostolic Delegate in London, wrote in terms which show astonishing accord with Mons. Tardini's judgment and views: "...The glory of the military successes gained by the Red Army, which is laudedby the British press every day, helps to blind the people, and it is very probable that many are letting themselves be deceived by the words of the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden). However the sounder part of his listeners will consider his two insinuations as false: first, that the Soviets limit themselves to home policy inside their own frontiers, secondly, that in making peace and starting a new order, a disagreement concerning forms of government between the Anglo-Saxons and the Bolsheviks should not be an insuperable obstacle to future collaboration. In my humble opinion, the truth is quite different. If Communism remains, after the storm of this world conflict, with its international ambitions still unchanged, nothing can be more absurd than to say that it is possible to have lasting agreement between it and the group of nations led by Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill..." (nr. 209).

The Holy See's impartiality

We are not concerned here with finding out how right Tardini was in the questions which he put to Taylor or how accurately Godfrey judged the situation. The important point. in our context is that the dangerousness of the Bolshevik system was clearly recognized at that time in the Vatican. The real weight of the answer given to Roosevelt call be seen in that light.

Two elements can be distinguished in it; one negative, one positive. At all events, the American isolationists received no support from the Vatican and their arguments about the dangerousness of Communism were not adopted, even though they were acknowledged to be true. The positive part in the Vatican's position consisted in the fact that the bishops of the United States were asked to provide an interpretation or explanation of the context surrounding the papal encyclical against Communism, so as to calm the minds of the faithful. The basic argument may be summed up in a few words as follows: The Russian people are fighting a war of defence against the attacking German army; the question of whether the United States ought to aid the Russian people to repel that attack is above all a political problem, which has to be solved by the government of the country. The encyclical against Communism certainly condemns that ideology, but does not condemn the Russian people, which has been thrown into a very difficult position because of the German attack.

Documents referring to Taylor's visit to the Vatican show unmistakably how Pius XII and his assistants made painful efforts to maintain impartiality and not to say or do anything that might be misused by the other belligerent. In this matter also, the Holy See did not cease to present admonitions and warnings, but the political decision was left entirely in the hands of the government and no obstacle of any kind was raised against it. The Holy See could not do any more than that, and not even Roosevelt could have expected more.

Besides these problems of great importance for the United States government, there was discussion of other important matters during that visit and during Taylor's stay in Rome in September of the following year (1942). It was now a question of considering an intervention on the part of the United States in order to alleviate the lot of many priests and bishops who had been imprisoned or deported by the Russians, and to obtain news of prisoners of war in Russian hands.

The result was negative. It was soon clear that the Russians' intention was only to accept material aid from the United States but to refuse all mediation or interference in their own affairs. Another concern on the part of the Vatican was to try to set limits to air warfare, which had been becoming more and more intensive, and especially to try once more to protect Rome against air attacks, with which Pius XII had been much preoccupied ever since Italy entered the war. Assurances were given, and were maintained in a general way. No more than that could be obtained.

Relations with Japan

A new difficulty arose on the occasion of establishing stable diplomatic relations with Japan, during the period covered by the present Volume.

Negotiations had been set going a long time before, but no agreement had been reached. The situation changed with lightning effect when the Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbour and started off the war between the United States and Japan on 7th December 1941. Japan was now interested in having a representative at the Vatican, and urgent proposals were put forward to this purpose. The reply could not be anything but an affirmative. It was clear that the Japanese desired to open an embassy to the Holy See to serve their own particular purposes, but, as Mons. Tardini noted on one occasion, every State primarily pursues only pursues its own interests through its diplomatic missions (n. 270).

Possible reactions on the part of the Allies were foreseen in the Vatican, and therefore both the United States and England were confidentially informed. A storm of indignation broke out. The British envoy and the United States chargé d'affaires protested to the Secretariat of State; the ministries of foreign affairs of the two powers expressed their indignation to the Papal representatives at Washington and London; public opinion was roused, and Roosevelt himself roundly declared that his good friend Pius XII would never give his consent to a proposal of this kind (n. 282; n. 292).

The Allies regarded the Vatican's acceptance of a Japanese envoy as an excessive concession and a taking of sides in favour of the Axis. But the reasons that led to the decision were so obvious that it was not difficult for the Holy See's diplomats to demonstrate the inconsistencies in their reproaches. The Vatican could plainly not make any refusal. Great Britain had made a similar request in 1914 and the United States in 1939. Both had been acceded to (n. 270). Finally, now that these official contacts had been made, it was possible to do something for prisoners of war in Japanese hands (both the British and the United States governments soon expressed their appreciation for the Holy See's work in that field).

When Mons. Tardini put these arguments to the Allied envoys orally, they understood how baseless their protests were. On another occasion Tittman asked the Cardinal Secretary of' State whether the Vatican were disposed to accept a representative from Soviet Russia also, and received the following reply: "Why not? But those gentlemen have so far not made any such proposal" (v. Introd. p. 35).

There were actually rumours that Stalin had written to the Pope, and they were taken so seriously—perhaps because the thing was so improbable—that the diplomats were obliged to seek clarifications. There were statements and denials, but the legend did not die. However, the Vatican archives do not show even the slightest trace of such a letter, and we may regard the rumour as a typical product of war propaganda.

Unreal Peace proposals

As in a preceding volume, particular interest is aroused by the reports of the Apostolic Delegate in Turkey, Mons. Roncalli. This is because of their contents and because the future John XXIII was on particularly good terms with the German ambassador, Franz von Papen, who expressed sentiments in favour of peace and outlined projects for a new order in Europe.

Monsignor Roncalli transmitted these proposals to the Secretariat of State, and recommended that Baron von Lersner, the faithful aide of the German ambassador in Turkey, should be received and listened to when he came to Rome.

A conversation with von Lersner did take place in the Vatican, but it was soon all too clear that those fine ideas were excessively unreal and had no possibility of being put into practice. It was necessary to conclude, with resignation, that there was no chance of preparing or setting negotiations going, not even pre-negotiations, to end the war, which had become a terrible world war in the course of 1941. For Pius XII it was particularly tragic that in spite of his efforts it had not been possible to prevent the war spreading and all efforts to move towards peace were doomed from the start.

When we read the original texts carefully we have to treat them in a special way. Above all, we have to approach and understand them in chronological order, without considering future developments, which occurred after the words we read in the text were set down. Vatican diplomacy of the time did not know everything, and therefore had to restrict itself to what it did know. But it is most interesting to compare the Vatican sources with other sources referring to those same years, and we cannot fail to see that the former are distinguished by broadness of appraisal and knowledge and secure judgment upon the situation. The Vatican papers do not contain opinions comparable to the illusions of the British Minister for Foreign Affairs about a fundamental alteration of Bolshevism, or over optimistic judgments on Communism such as Roosevelt's. Nor do they find prognostications of victory such its are recited in the diplomatic papers of the Axis powers.

This also enables us to observe theeffects of a neutrality that was maintained in a consistent way and so preserved those responsible for Vatican policy from making hasty and short-sighted judgments.

* * *

The editors of these papers are continuing with their work. It is not yet possible to foresee how many other volumes will be needed to complete the series. However, the unfolding of the questions and problems in every volume and how they were treated in the courseof events makes it clearer and clearer that, in spite of difficulties and failures, the Vatican made every effort to put bounds to the folly of war and to alleviate its consequences.

It was certainly not the Pope'sfault that those efforts had no result.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 April 1969, page 6

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