Did Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) and the Vatican City turn a blind eye to the Holocaust?

Did Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) and the Vatican City turn a blind eye to the Holocaust?

            Before returning to Rome from his nuncio position in Bavaria, Pacelli had completed a total of 16 concordats and treaties with Nazi Germany as well as other European states, which enforced traditional Christian beliefs to maintain in Nazi Germany as well as other European countries. Once returning to Rome in 1929, Pacelli was assigned to the position of Secretary of State for the Vatican until becoming Pope in March 1938. The International role of the Vatican in terms of international diplomacy had been independent and neutral from communism in the east and socialism and fascism Europe. Because the Vatican wished to remain neutral but at the same time keep traditional Christian ties to each country, the Vatican, through Pacelli’s nuncio from 1922 to 1929, was able to keep concordats with a verity of countries in Europe. The atheism of the USSR had caused fear among the Vatican of communist expansion and an eventual dissolution of Christian authority in Rome. The neutrality of the Vatican City therefore, would have to take an opportunistic approach when it came to protecting itself from the East expansion. This approach lead to Pacelli signing the Reichskonkordat, signed on the 20th of July in Rome, 1933.
            The Reichskonkordat, signed by both von Papen and Pacelli, wished, as the document states:  “to permanently regulate the relations between the Catholic Church and the state for the whole territory of the German Reich in a way acceptable to both parties”, recognizing previous concordats Pacelli completed in Bavaria, in 1924, Prussia in 1929 and Baden in 1932 to remain in force. In the Reichskonkordat, the Secret Supplement made clear that any clergy of the Christian faith would inevitably, unless otherwise stated, would join the military in the case of mobilization[1]. Through this, the Vatican acknowledged Hitler’s plans for mobilization or war. The concordat also shows how the Vatican positioned itself to side with who they thought most likely to defeat any threats from the communist East.
Though the freedom of worship and the practice of the Christian faith had been agreed upon, the Reichskonkordat also would also demand that the Vatican would become less politically active. As Nazi Germany became more powerful and idealistic, the Reichskonkordat was continually neglected and disregarded by the Nazis. Between the years 1933 and 1939, Pius XII sent 55 protests of violations of the concordant with assistance from Cardinal von Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich. Between this period the Church took an active opposition to the Nazi regime for disregarding the concordat. Von Faulhaber and Pius XII published an encyclical titled Mit Brennenden Sorge (With Burning Anxiety). This was secretly sent to many churches and read by a variety of priests on Palm Sunday, one of the busiest days of the church. The Nazi response to the encyclical was that the encyclical was, as F. Coppa says, “a call to battle against the Reich”.
Through the Christian values and principles were accepted by the Third Reich, The Nazis were able to promote anti-Semitism through propaganda and “mainstream Catholic publications”[2].
However at the same time, there were also many publications also concerning themselves with anti-Semitism. These publications were on the other spectrum of the Church’s opinion on the Jewish faith. Scriptures would be pro-Nazi, naming them to have “killed Jesus” and their wish to “destroy the Church.”



[1] http://www.ibka.org/artikel/ag97/reichskonkordat.html
[2] Gregory S. Paul’s The Great Scandal: Christianity’s Role in the Rise of the Nazis, Free Inquiry, Volume 23, Number 4, October-December 2003

To what extent could Pope Pius XII have protected Jews during the German occupation of Italy?

Luka Lucic
Mr. Heath
Bavarian International School
Word Count:


            This investigation will focus on the extent to which Pope Pius XII could have saved Jews during World War Two, specifically during the nazification of Italy and the Roman Razzia of October 16, 1943. I have thus phrased the question as “To what extent could Pope Pius XII have protected Jews during the German occupation of Italy?”

The influence of the Vatican has historically played an immense role in global affairs, ranging from influencing the mindset of millions of followers of the Roman Catholic Church, to impacting the political and social landscape of continents. One such example is evident during World War Two, on October 16th 1943, when the Italian government implemented a Razzia to round up Jews en-masse, Pope Pius XII largely fell silent and refrained from clear public condemnation of the Nazis, therefore, my investigation will attempt to answer the question “To what extent could Pope Pius XII have protected Jews during the German occupation of Italy?” This response of the Pope has been the topic of numerous debates regarding the Vatican’s stance of the holocaust, and to what extent the Pope failed to use his vast influence to potentially save countless lives. This essay will seek to examine the various factors involved in the determining the reasons for the Popes conduct, and analyze the range of perspectives illustrated by historians in regards to the extent to which the Pope both knew preemptively of the Razzia, what (or if any) means he took to protect the Jews, and what measures he took to speak out against the persecution of Jews. The relevance of this question is still of great importance today, because although there were some 400 million Catholics by the end of the Second World War, there are currently over 1.2 billion member of the Catholic Church who look up to the Pope, meaning his actions still hold great political influence.

On May 2nd, 1945, fascist Italy fell to the Allied Powers as American troops made rapid advances to take Turin and Genoa. Pope Pius XII, then patriarch of the Catholic Church, was widely criticized after the liberation of Rome to have been unjustly silent regarding the fascist and Nazi persecution of Jews. More vocative critics even accuse him of outright anti-Semitism, and declare he step down from the papacy.[1] Those in defense of Pius XII cite his efforts as a Cardinal, during which he co-authored works such as “Mit Brennender Sorge” as well as “Divini Redemptoris”, the former of which was a condemnation of Nazism, highlighting it as being a pagan ideology with no place in Western Europe, and the former encyclical criticizing the rise of fascism in Italy. The Pope however never made amendments to the Nostra Aetate, an encyclical which essential blames the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, despite requests from various bishops to have it examined by His Holiness.[2] Supporters of the Pope are typically quick to point out the seemingly wise and calculated political maneuvering of His Holiness. His generosity and sympathy is illustrated by the fact that when the Nazis completed their occupation of Italy on the 8th of September, 1943, Pius XII offered to loan 15 kilo of gold to the Jewish community in Rome, who were ordered to produce 50 kilo to the Nazis, or 300 hostages would be murdered.[3] This investigation will examine, then analyze, the claims and perspectives of various records, historians and other sources in order to obtain a broad and balanced perspective of the question at hand. These sources will include “The Catholic Church and the Holocaust” by Michael Phayer (PhD historian, LMU) whose purpose is to educate its readers on the link between the Catholic Church and its policy and relations with the Nazis. The tone is generally critical of Pius XIIs actions, as illustrated by the central theme of the book. The value is immense, as it is a widely cited and credible source, with a unique thesis and an abundance of primary sources. The limitations include it being written many decades after the events of the holocaust and the Third Reich, meaning that the book may be short on eyewitness accounts, as well as a need to support the thesis, and perhaps therefor being selective of the information he chooses to present, in order to better solidify his perspective. To contrast this, I will examine an article by Robert A. Graham who writes for the Jewish Virtual Library, and is far more of an apologist for the Pope. This source is highly credible as it cites various historians as sources, and the origin of the author (being Jewish himself) provides an alternate and perhaps unique perspective on the matter. I will also analyze “Under His Very Windows” by Susan Zucotti (PhD Modern European History from Columbia) who, like Phayer, is largely critical of the pope. Zucotti won the National Jewish Book Award, and lectures at both Barnard and Trinity College, making her a very reputable and reliable source. Her novel is well documented and supported, however limitations arise when one considers the bias nature of the book, starting with the accusatory connotation of the title. Other sources that will be referred to in this investigation will include Martin Gilberts “The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy”, the Jewish Virtual Library, The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and the Reichskonkordat treaty signed by the Holy See and Nazi Germany.

Michael Phayers thesis is that Pope Pius XII refused to speak out against Nazism because he found it to be the lesser evil between fascism and communism.[4] Phayer supports this claim by citing the that on December 1942, the allies made a declaration entitled “Nazi Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race”, in which it stated that there would be repercussions to those involved in the genocide of the Jews. When the U.S Secretary of State was asked weather Pius XII could issue a similar declaration, Magilone insisted that the Pope couldn’t “denounce publicly particular atrocities”[5]. Phayer interpretation of this is that the highly anti-communist Pope couldn’t condemn the Nazis without involving the Soviets, so he only made general condemnations of human rights violations. He asserts that the Pope did relatively little for Jews throughout the Nazi persecution, although this is somewhat of a contradiction as he later goes on to credit the Pope for using the Vaticans institutions in order to save hundreds of Jews during the Razzia of October 16th 1943[6]. One of Phayers most prominent examples highlighting what he calls the “sloth” and “lassitude” regarding anti-Semitism is a situation that occurred in Vichy France. When the first discriminatory laws arose around 1940, banning Jews from being public employees, Phayer notes that the Vaticans response was not only passive, but several priests and bishops even endorsed the law.[7] The French consular to the Vatican, Léon Bérard, informed top Nazi officials in his government that he had “spoken to competent authorities, and that the Holy See had no insurmountable difficulties with this statute and did not intend to become involved in the matter”.[8] He goes on to quote the diary of John Österreicher, who wanted to better Christian-Jewish relations. He remarked that Pius XII was highly fearful of the Nazis, and that his insistence of keeping a diplomatic tone in regards to the persecution of Jews was evidence of his laissez-faire and carefree attitude. He mocks the Pope, claiming that if he were “still trying to get the Führer to abide by the Concordat (referring to the Reichskonkordat of 1933, which effectively attempted to stabilize Catholic-German relations in German politics), then it would be time to start either crying or laughing”.[9] Phayer continues his criticism of Pius XII, as he notes that he was a major component for negotiating the aforementioned Concordat with Germany on behalf of his predecessor, Pius XI. Various historians and revisionists take issue with this, including the British minister for the Vatican, F. Osborne, who said of the Pope “The Father acts like an ostrich, burying his head in the sand in the face of atrocious crimes against humanity. He has shamelessly contorted the Reichskonkordat as a guise for his passiveness, using it to support his outright refusal to intervene in these political maters”. Phayer clearly made extensive use of archival records and has conducted extensive research on the topic. In order to explore the question at hand, he broadens the scope of the Popes policies and actions. He frequently points out that Pius XII only poorly challenged the nationalist Croatian Ustasha, who infamously waged genocide throughout modern day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. While he does provide balance between accusing the Pope of not having done enough to save Jewish lives, the majority of his accreditation goes to various priests and monks who made personal sacrifices not under the direct order of Pius XII to save lives, a claim that is central to Zucotti thesis, which will be explored later in greater detail. There is immense value in Phayers seemingly in-exhaustive database of records and transcripts, which largely originate from figures that are either close to the Pope, influential government officials, or respected historians.

The Vatican and the Holocaust: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust occasionally vouches for Pope Pius XII, crediting him and his constituents with generously and promptly offering refuge to hundreds of persecuted Jews, most notably on the day of the Razzia in Rome. The Jewish Virtual Library notes that on the month that the Pope was elected in March 1939, he acquired 3,000 visas for European Jews to enter Brazil and Argentina.[10] The article however also provides balance, stating that Papal representatives in Chile, Bolivia and Argentina wrote to Pius XII, complaining that the Jewish immigrants were “invasive”, “disrespectful” and “exploitative and cynical”.[11] Since Pius XII never replied to these comments, it is unknown to what extent this influenced his view, although he made no further attempts to secure visas into foreign countries on behalf of persecuted Jews. Rosenberg also refutes the claim that the Pope was simply unaware of the extent to which Jews were being persecuted, citing Bishop Preysing of Berlin, who wrote in 1941 to Pius himself “Your Holiness is certainly informed of the situation of the Jews in Germany and neighboring countries. I have been asked from the Catholic and Protestant side alike if the Holy see could not do something on this subject / in favor of these unfortunates.” The letter hadn’t garnered a response from the Pope, nor did a first hand account of an archbishop in 1942, who witnessed the slaughter of Jews in Lwow. The author notes that the Popes policy of neutrality was rather ironically broken after 1942, when U.S Generals made clear to the Vatican that total victory was going to be the objective for the allies (and at the time, it seemed like it was the likely outcome). Based on assumption, Rosenberg argues that the change of policy for the Papacy was more the result of practical advantages instead of a moral drive to condemn the Nazis. Rosenberg ends his investigation with mixed descriptions of the Pope, as he demonstrates in the conclusion that the reaction of the Pope was highly inconsistent. It states that although he was responsible for saving some Jews, it might not necessarily be proportional to the amount of influence he had, and also that he was privy to many factors that didn’t allow him to more openly condemn the persecution of Jews; fear of falling out of favor with German Catholics, fear of repercussions that the Nazis might impose, and a belief that private intervention could accomplish more. He concludes by asserting that despite his motivation, he, and so many other prominent and influential figures, could and should have done more to save Jewish lives.

As the title suggests, Susan Zucotti revision of Pope Pius XII is largely scathing. “Under His Very Windows” is a reference to a telegram the German representative to the Vatican wrote in the midsts of the Roman Razzia during October of 1943. Zucotti herself is a professional in studying the Holocaust with respect to Franc and Italy, and her underlying thesis is that the increasingly popular assumption of Pius XII rescuing Jews is just a myth.[12] She does, however, aknowledge the works of various clergy and bishops who, thorough individual initiative, decided to rescue Jewish lives.[13] Zucotti devotes an entire chapter on establishing what the Pope knew about the Holocaust. She begins by listing various affiliates of the Pope, such as Pius XII’s secretary during WWII, Father Robert Leiber, who passionately criticized Rolf Hochhuth’s play “Der Stellvertreter” (which was very critical of the Popes actions throughout the war). They all echo the claim that no one in the Vatican knew that six million jews were killed during the holocaust, although Zucotti notes that the official Papal declaration of what the Papacy knew during the Second World showcased that the Vatican knew of countless times that massacres of Jews had occurred in both the Soviet Union and the Third Reich,[14] second perhaps only to British intelligence reports. She supports this by asserting that and understanding of the distribution of Papal diplomats and bishops would confirm this assumption. The author also rebuts assertions that the Pope is to be credited with saving hundreds of Jews by making it easier for them to escape Europe once the Nazis invaded Italy and got to Rome. Her counter is that the Papal networks are equally responsible for establishing ratlines throughout Europe and into South America which SS officials will use after the war to avoid standing trial at Nuremburg.[15] Prominent Nazi members, such as Josef Mengele, lived out the rest of their lives in relative peace and never faced a court for the crimes they committed throughout the war. It should be noted that Zucotti does not provide evidence that Pius XII himself was at all aware of the flight of these Nazis, however, Father Robert Leiber does prove his knowing of these ratlines in 1946, when he made mention of the Nazis in hiding in Brazil.[16] She goes on to criticize the fact that hundreds of Jews who escaped the Nazi Germany were taken from Italy and placed in Polish internment camps when they couldn’t produce visas within 42 hours. Given that this anecdote is provided by Father Dominic Pérez, who frequently reported to Pius XII on issues regarding Italian politics, “it can be assumed”, says Zucotti, “that although the Pope most certainly knew of these cruel deportations (given that they were reported on Allied radio broadcasts and made headlines in Britain) he was simply disinterested and unwilling to get involved, despite his extensive influence in Italian politics”.[17] She states that Pius XII seemed to only have a singular moment of earnest sympathy for the Jewish plight, when he chose to facilitate some 140 Jewish immigrants that were German and had promised to convert to Catholicism.[18] This claim supports her assumption that Pius XII was fond of Germany as a nation, and selectively chose to save those who he believed could bolster his image and reputation in his surroundings.

[1] Kareem Masoud, The Palestine Post (The Jerusalem Post, 1944).
[2] Gabriel Wilensky, Pope Pius XII Conception of Jews (Friedlander, 2007) p. 620
[3] Israel Pocket Library, Holocaust, p. 133.
[4] Michael Phayer. The Catholic Church and the Holocaust 1935-1960 (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000) xii.
[5] Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews, p. 315.
[6] Michael Phayer. The Catholic Church and the Holocaust 1935-1960 (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000) 102.
[7] Ibid, 5.
[8] Ibid, 5.
[9] Ibid, 6.
[10] Martin Rosenberg. The Vatican and the Holocaust: Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust (The Jewish Virtual Library, 2004)
[11] Ibid.
[12] Susan Zucotti. Under His Very Windows (Yale University Press, 2000) vi.
[13] Ibid, 14.
[14] Ibid, 94.
[15] Ibid, 96.
[16] Ibid, 95.
[17] Ibid, 72.
[18] Ibid, 73.