What did Germans see in Adolf Hitler? It is difficult for people of our era to see the appeal of history’s most infamous murderer. Charisma often does not travel over time and space. Another case of incomprehensible charisma is Hitler’s contemporary, Pope Pius XII, originally Eugenio Pacelli, an Italian nobleman who became an Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church in 1917 and pope in 1939. Even those who think that Pius was a saint have trouble showing anything the Pontiff said or did that might inspire people of our own day. And yet he was once an object of reverence and even adoration.
To their contemporaries, the two men represented polar opposites: Hitler, a rabble rouser preaching a doctrine of blood and race, and Pius, a man of contemplation offering the Church’s grace to all. Pius prayed for God’s eternal kingdom while Hitler savagely seized living space for his Thousand Year Reich. Yet in recent years books have appeared alleging complicity between the man of peace and the man of rage. The British writer John Cornwell calls Pius “Hitler’s Pope.” His failure lay not so much in supporting Nazism—Pius was neutral—but rather in his refusal to speak out against mass murder, in particular the mass murder of the Jews. Why did Pius not use his moral authority to inform Catholics of the unprecedented crime happening in his own city in Rome and across Europe? Why did he not excommunicate Hitler, the baptized Catholic, or at least place Mein Kampf on the Index of Forbidden Books? His defenders say that he feared confrontation would make things worse. But worse for whom? What could have been worse than the Holocaust?
Hubert Wolf, a professor of Catholic theology in Münster, was among the first to gain access to the archives of Pius XI, or Achille Ratti, who was pope from 1922 to 1939, and his important book takes these debates to a new level. Pacelli served Pius XI as Cardinal Secretary of State and his signature runs through that papacy’s documents. In 1933 he negotiated an accord—a Concordat—with Hitler that regulated the Church’s interests in Germany. As Hitler’s power grew, however, the German state encroached upon activities that the Concordat protected—in religious education, for example. Pius XI watched as storm troopers arrested priests and nuns for offenses to “morality,” and wondered whether to condemn Nazism—but neither he nor Pacelli found the right words, and a pattern of reticent neutrality set in. Though Wolf’s narrative stops in 1939, we learn enough not to be surprised at Pacelli’s failure to speak out for the Jews during the war.
The pope’s great concern was the salvation of the faithful. This goal was impossible to fulfill if the church could not teach about sin and extend grace through sacraments. To secure these things, Pius vowed to negotiate with the “devil himself”—a pledge that he kept in 1929 by concluding a Concordat with Mussolini, permitting the Church legal operation in Italy for the first time since 1870, when Italian troops entered Rome and the pope declared himself prisoner in the Vatican.
That was also the year in which the First Vatican Council proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals. Technically, popes have used this ultimate authority only once since then, when Pius XII proclaimed the bodily ascension of Mary into heaven in 1950. But Wolf takes us behind the Vatican walls and decodes a larger culture of infallibility among the cardinals and their staffs in the papal bureaucracy (the “Roman Curia”), who considered their works implicitly good. Outside the city lay a host of temptations threatening to ensnare believers in mortal sin. In 1926, Pacelli was Vatican ambassador, or nuncio, to Germany, and he alerted Rome to the “moral perils” confronting Catholics in the freedoms of Weimar democracy. “Perhaps the thorniest problem for religious life and pastoral care,” he wrote, was Germans’ propensity to use contraceptives and have abortions. He railed against the “perverse propaganda of nudism,” and against the Tango, which was “of very evil origin.” “Any gymnastics wear for girls,” he continued, “that proactively accentuates their shapes or that is inappropriate for the female character must be avoided.”
Germany had just experienced the greatest cataclysm since the seventeenth century, and Berlin was a place where impoverished shopkeepers queued at soup kitchens while disfigured veterans asked for handouts on street corners. Working class families lived six to a room. But what bothered Pacelli were girls’ gym clothes. Pleasure and license posed a danger to eternal salvation, but poverty did not.
Catholic moral theology of that time catalogued sins in excruciating detail, but was all but silent on how to practice charity. The important pastoral guide by the German monk Heribert Jone—used by generations of priests for calculating penance—even restricted neighborly love by establishing a hierarchy. “In case of the same degree of need,” Jone specified, Catholics had the greatest duties toward those “most closely connected to us.” Examples of such connections were lineage, race, and religion. “Those related by blood (at least of the first degree) receive highest preference before all others, assuming the need is the same.” Pastoral guides said little about what constituted “need,” but it was assumed to exist in relation to eternity. Thus getting one’s child to Mass on Sunday (in order to avoid mortal sin) was of incalculably greater urgency than assisting persons whom one had no blood relation to. The greatest act of charity toward such people was to make them Catholic.
Which brings us to the Jews. On March 25, 1928, Pius XI condemned anti-Semitism as a false teaching of the modern age. This is a fact well known to his defenders. Less known are the circumstances. Two years previously a group called Amici Israel had emerged within the church advocating improved relations with Jews, and demanding, among other things, an end to a Good Friday prayer for “perfidious Jews.” Soon Amici had over three thousand members among the priesthood, including scores of bishops. The men of the Roman Curia became concerned.
An internal memorandum excavated by Wolf tells us all we need to know about their attitudes. Rafael Merry del Val, a Spanish Cardinal acting as Secretary of the Holy Office, recommended closing down the organization, reasoning from Paul’s letter to the Romans 10:21 (“All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people”). Hebraism, he wrote, “continues perfidiously to oppose Christianity; and today, after the war, attempts more than ever to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in opposition to Christ and his Church.” The Jesuit Enrico Rosa distinguished in a position paper between an “unchristian type of anti-Semitism”—which the Pope had just condemned—and a “healthy evaluation of the danger emanating from the Jews.” If the Church rejected racial anti-Semitism, which fed on “material interests,” it warned against the other extreme of friendship, “which is not less dangerous and all the more seductive given the appearance of good.” In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ tells his followers: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” According to these Vatican experts, persecuted Jews were not brothers, but impediments to personal salvation.
Yet there was a deeper and more debilitating level of belief that kept Christians from acting as brothers toward Jews, and it was the conviction that history was the arena where God enacted his will. Great events—such as the outbreak of war or the rise of a political movement—reflected the dictates of Providence, and believers had to make peace with them. When Germany annexed the Czech lands in March 1939, Pacelli refused to protest, because to do so would have been to “interfere in historical processes.” A similar reasoning applied to the fate of the Jews. If they were persecuted, it was for a reason—and the reason seemed self-evident in the anti-Judaic mind of European Christians: the Jews had rejected Christ as Messiah.
Catholics were less likely than other Germans to vote for Hitler, and many abhorred the Nazis. Yet in this anti-Judaic view they shared an assumption with Hitler’s followers: that the Jews were fated to suffer. Though many Nazis were deeply anti-Christian, their leader claimed to be executing God’s will in the measures that they took against Jews, and Catholics had no received vocabulary with which to dissent. Thus Pacelli objected to people being killed “because of their nationality or race”—for example, in the fifty-sixth paragraph of his Christmas address in 1942—but he did not speak out for the Jewish people, because according to Catholic theology they lived under a curse.
Why does anyone care about these long-dead popes? Even history buffs can scarcely talk of the Vatican without confusing Pius XI and Pius XII. The pope of our day provides an answer. Looking back upon Nazism, Benedict XVI has implied that the papacy was more clear-sighted than German theologians and bishops, who tried to compromise with evil. Some prayed for the victories of German armies, and their leader, Cardinal Bertram of Breslau, regularly congratulated the Führer on his birthday. When Hitler died in April 1945, Bertram ordered masses said in his memory. But the popes, by contrast, never showed sympathy for Nazism, and prayed for peace. It is Benedict who gives new urgency to the scholarly concern with the history of Pius XI and his successor.
In Hitler, these men faced the greatest moral challenge in the church’s history, but were as perplexed as anyone about how to respond. Wolf calls Hitler the devil, and so did some priests at the time—but the Vatican did not. Throughout the 1930s, the Curia struggled for clarity about the dangers of Nazism, commissioning several statements but failing to release any. Occasionally Ratti and Pacelli spoke against the “cult” of race, but still left room for those who wanted to cultivate racial “values”—through the eugenics of family counseling, for example. In 1938, the Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano stated that the Church advised against interracial marriage—but through “persuasion, not by prohibition.”
Pacelli considered banding with the fascists, something he imagined as “useful.” It was certainly more useful against godless Bolshevism than alliances with liberal democracy. He rejected the idea because some fascists were bent on destroying religion. Still, he did not condemn fascism, because other fascists defended Church interests. In 1939, Pacelli as Pius XII congratulated General Franco for his “Christian Heroism” and welcomed over three thousand soldiers of the Italian-Spanish Arrow Division to the vestibule of the Hall of Benediction, blessing their rosaries and allowing them to kiss his ring.
A generation later, bishops from across the world assembled in Rome for the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and drew lessons that had eluded the men of the Roman Curia thirty years earlier. It was wrong to imagine the world as divided between the good of the church and the evil outside it. “Many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside its visible structure.” And contrary to the memorandum of Cardinal Merry Del Val, a special blessing rested upon the Jewish people. To see this, one had to read the whole of Paul’s letter to the Romans, with particular attention to chapters nine through eleven, and not just one line.
The words of an Episcopal Council have unsurpassed authority, and cannot be contravened, even by the popes. Yet in recent years John Paul II and his Secretary of the Holy Office Joseph Ratzinger—now Benedict—have re-asserted central authority by appointing bishops against the wishes of their flocks, silencing criticism, and supporting right-wing fringe groups. All of this contradicts the vision of the church as “people of God,” as more than just an institution of power with a hierarchy topped by the Roman Curia.
In 2008, Benedict resuscitated a Good Friday prayer for the Jews, and last year he raised the cause of canonizing Pius XII to a higher stage. For many students of church history, such steps have been deeply troubling. Those hoping to form a judgment of Benedict’s course should read Wolf's learned book and ask themselves whether the Pius they encounter in the memoranda salvaged from the Vatican’s secret archives seems like a saint—with a charisma that speaks through the ages—or whether he appears as fallible as any of us, a man who sought wisdom but ultimately failed to see beyond the horizons of his own time.
John Connelly is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.