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How to kill the myth of Hitler’s Pope

Harold Bloom said he wanted to bin all the remaining copies of his novel. Perhaps that idea could be taken up elsewhere

By on Thursday, 8 July 2010

Pius XII during a radio broadcast in 1947 (AP Photo/Luigi Felici)

Pius XII during a radio broadcast in 1947 (AP Photo/Luigi Felici)

My thanks to all those who contributed to my earlier blog about Pius XII and the Holocaust. There were some informative and helpful posts. Indeed, as a result of one of them I was prompted to watch the interview with Sir Martin Gilbert. An authority on Churchill as well as the Holocaust, Gilbert also happens to be Jewish. He was in no doubt that Pius XII did everything he possibly could to save Jewish lives. In a kindly, but completely authoritative way, Gilbert dismissed the play by Hochhuth (translated as The Deputy) as a work of polemical fiction, which made no attempt to present the documentary evidence that existed. “I didn’t find the Hochuth play historical in any way,” he concluded.

Asked by the interviewer about John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope, Gilbert dismissed it out of hand; the title deliberately “sets the reader on a certain course”. He added that he also felt “quite offended by the cover” which purports to show Pius being saluted by Nazi officers – when in fact the photo was taken during the Weimar Republic at the time that he was papal nuncio.

I was mulling over all this when the Telegraph dropped through the letterbox (I confess we are not a Guardian household). It had an item, illustrated with the same mischievous photo, and the headline: “Hitler’s Pope saved thousands of Jewish lives.” A new claim that Pius XII may have arranged the exodus of about 200,000 Jews from Germany after Kristallnacht has been made by Dr Michael Hesemann, a German historian carrying out research in the Vatican archives. Sir Martin Gilbert himself, described as “a British historian and the world’s leading expert on the Holocaust”, is quoted as saying that the Pope should be considered as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority. All this is covered more fully in Simon Caldwell’s report so I won’t comment further, except to say that what Gilbert indicated during the interview mentioned above, viz that the more material that comes to light, the more it will vindicate Pius XII, seems to be confirmed.

A final remark before I move on to other, even more contentious topics (such as “Is Christopher Hitchens a secret Catholic?”): it is a mild and charitable suggestion that would kill the myth of Hitler’s Pope once and for all. Harold Bloom, professor at Yale and a great Shakespeare scholar, is on public record as saying that he would like to buy up all the copies of his one attempt at novel-writing that are still lurking on public bookshelves somewhere in the world – and bin them. He is dead right in his critical judgment. I have tried reading this novel, called A Gnostic Fantasy, and found it – well, completely unreadable. Could John Cornwell take note of this laudable aspiration? If you want to completely destroy the reputation of a good, even saintly man, you could not do it more devastatingly than by inventing a title like “Hitler’s Pope”. “Mao’s Pope” or “Stalin’s Pope” don’t come near the depth or force of this slur. And Bloom didn’t pretend his novel was anything other than fiction.

  • B.R. Hughes

    Thank you Mr. Phillips. Not only did Mr. Cornwell manipulated the public by using that photo of Pius XII but his publishers deliberately made it darker in order to make it more sinister. Hitler's Pope is an exercise in manipulation of factoids and inuendo mascarading as truth.

  • Gabriel Wilensky

    Even if John Cornwell was to buy all the copies of his book, surely many orders of magnitude more than Bloom's novel, that would not change anything regarding the opinions about Pope Pius XII. The negative perception of his papacy vis-à-vis the jews during the Holocaust did not start with Cornwell's book, and as a matter of fact continues to this day irrespective of Cornwell's book. The only way to “kill the myth of Hitler's Pope”, as you state, is to prove that it is indeed a myth. So far the evidence is against him, which is why the allegations against him continue to be so strong. Only after the Vatican Secret Archives are open to independent scholars will the final word be said on this subject.

    Gabriel Wilensky

    Six Million Crucifixions:
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  • Peter Kingsley

    Sadly there is rather alot of evidence to suggest that the Catholic Church's relationship with the Nazi's – certainly in Germany – was rather too close. This rather provocative You-Tube video suggests otherwise –

    Some of your readers may also be interested in Bishop Williamson's interview relating to the non-existance of Gas Chambers during the Holocaust.

  • David Lindsay

    As someone once said, “Tell a lie big enough…” In fact, Pius XII was first ever called “Hitler’s Pope” by John Cornwell, in his 1999 book of that name, a thinly disguised liberal rant against John Paul II with the ‘thesis’ that the future Pius XII, while a diplomat in Germany, could have rallied Catholic opposition and toppled Hitler. Pure fantasy, like the origin of the whole “Pope supported Hitler” craze: the 1963 play The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, who was later successfully prosecuted for suggesting that Churchill had arranged the 1944 air crash that killed General Sikorsky. Pius XII directly or indirectly saved between 8500 and 9600 Jews in Rome; 40,000 throughout Italy; 15,000 in the Netherlands; 65,000 in Belgium; 200,000 in France; 200,000 in Hungary; and 250,000 in Romania. This list is not exhaustive, and the Dutch figure would have been much higher had not the Dutch Bishops antagonised the Nazis by issuing the sort of public denunciation that Pius is castigated for failing to have issued. After the War, Pius was godfather when the Chief Rabbi of Rome became a Catholic, and was declared a Righteous Gentile by the State of Israel, whose future Prime Minister (Moshe Sharrett) told him that it was his “duty to thank you, and through you the Catholic Church, for all they had done for the Jews.” When Pius died in 1958, tributes to him from Jewish organisations had to be printed over three days by The New York Times, and even then limited to the names of individuals and their organisations. All of this is contained in works of serious scholarship by Margherita Marchione, Ralph McInerny, Ronald J Rychlak, and others, most recently the superlative Rabbi Professor David G Dalin.

    Colonel Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg, recently given the full Tom Cruise treatment, was a devout Catholic, with close dynastic connections to the Bavarian Royal House of Wittelsbach that Jacobites would have on the Thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland, and to the family of Saint Philip Howard, martyred Earl of Arundel. In Austria, Hitler ordered the murder of the Chancellor, Englebert Dolfuss, who defended, on the borders of Italy and Germany, Catholic Social Teaching and what remained of the thoroughly multiethnic Hapsburg imperial ethos (to this day, numerous German, Magyar and Slavic names are found throughout the former Austria-Hungary) against both the Communists and the Nazis. In the same tradition was Blessed Franz Jägerstätter. Examples of Catholic anti-Nazism could be multiplied practically without end. The more Catholic an area was, the less likely it was to vote Nazi, without any exception whatever. Not least, the present Pope’s Maths teacher sent him to get the Hitler Youth form, and then just kept it on file for him. “Thus was I able to escape it.” In other words, he was never in it. Have you got that? He was never in it.

  • Eamon Kiernan

    Pius XII seems to have been a towering pope in many ways. He had a lot to say, and he said a lot, yet we are chiefly concerned with his silence. If only he had placed on the record for posterity a clear public condemnation of the Holocaust. But he did not. So he is at risk of living on as “Hitler’s Pope.” Ms. Phillips, you suggest that to call him this is to fuel a myth, and that a book with the title “Hitler’s Pope” is an impertinence which might best be dealt with by the author removing it from circulation. But it is such over-the-top defences of Pius XII that fuel the myth. In my view, the discussion thus far misses the point. If Pius XII saved 200,000 Jews in France, as one comment on your blog claims, why did he not save all Jews everywhere? Playing a numbers game proves nothing. No matter how many Jews he may have saved, we can always wonder why he did not save more. Even if Pius XII had done nothing else day or night during World War II but try to stop the Holocaust, we would still be left wondering about him. We cannot pore admiringly over his words of condemnation in a missive to Hitler. We cannot sit back in moral edification and watch him condemn the Holocaust on old newsreels. But we would like to. Most of us today were brought up to believe that the Hitler regime was the very epitome of evil. We probably spent a lot of our reading lives and TV-viewing lives in states of near-shock over the Holocaust. It is natural enough to look for an articulation of clear moral leadership by the highest moral authority of the time, but we look in vain. He bottled out, so to speak. The reasons for this silence are no doubt highly complex. Due consideration of them may well put us more on the side of Pius XII. But the fact of that silence, and its challenge to our moral sensibilities, is the only place to begin. In this lies the value of Rolf Hochhuth’s play. One of its strengths is the stark contrast between the silence of the Pope and the choice of public solidarity with the Jews by the priest, Riccardo, which immediately seems right to us. The German title Der Stellvertreter contains many fruitful associations which the English title The Deputy does not. It points, for example, to the meaning of the Crucifixion, namely that Jesus was innocent and died for our sins. It is a powerful message, and a true one, when Riccardo dies innocent in Auschwitz while Pope Pius works out crafty diplomatic moves in Rome. Pope Pius is not innocent, nor are we readers and theatre-goers who understand only too well the forces of self-preservation at work in the Vatican. Hochhuth based the character of Riccardo in part on the real-life example of the Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg, who regularly spoke out against the persecution of Jews at the Cathedral in Berlin, and lost his life as a result. The moral dilemmas of the play are real ones. They are likely to re-occur whenever the peaceful cohabitation of religion with worldly powers is shaken up by an urgent moral challenge. This is surely of far greater importance than the mere reputation of someone, even if that someone is a pope on the way to canonisation. History is full of fence-sitters, but do we draw inspiration from them? Bernhard Lichtenberg, not Pius XII, is unquestionably an inspirational character.

    Eamon Kiernan

  • Saints_the_best

    The comparison to a phrase such as 'Mao's' or 'Stalin's' Pope is ludicrous; neither were christian, never mind Catholic. If any pope is a Nazi, it's the current

  • Ion Zone

    You have to be kidding. Are you saying every non-Jew who lived under the Nazis was a Nazi themselves? Would you like to present some evidence for our current pope being a Nazi? Even if he had been in the Hitler youth (which he wasn’t – he avoided the draft) how does that make him a Nazi now? The Hitler youth was an attempt to create a child army, it was hardly the SS.

  • Ion Zone

    “If Pius XII saved 200,000 Jews in France, as one comment on your blog claims, why did he not save all Jews everywhere?”

    And how would he have done that, exactly? Perhaps the nuns could have stormed the concentration camps!

    I’m sorry, but that is ridiculous. They saved as many as they could by pretending to be neutral.

  • Paul Zerzan

    Comment & Blogs
    John Julius Norwich dredges up the same old slur about Pius XII
    His assessment of Pius as ‘odiously anti-Semitic’ is based on one source – John Cornwell
    By Francis Phillips on Monday, 4 July 2011 The handsome and much-publicised book costs £25
    I have just picked up John Julius Norwich’s The Popes: a History. It is a handsome volume and will set you back £25. Published earlier this year with the usual publicity (I heard Norwich himself discuss his book in a radio interview, assuring listeners that he would steer clear of all theological considerations), I started on his introduction. My hackles were instantly raised at the reference to “the odiously anti-Semitic Pius XII to whom the beloved Pope John XXIII came as such a welcome contrast…”
    The same old ignorance; the same old slur. Turning to the chapter on Pius XII I checked Norwich’s sources: there was only one: Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell. Cornwell’s book, as Norwich should have known if he had done any homework before throwing out his vicious comment, has been comprehensively demolished by respectable historians such as Michael Burleigh in Sacred Causes and Sir Martin Gilbert in The Righteous.
    As it happens, Pius XII and the Jews happened to have been the subject of my first blog last summer. The posts I received about it were instructive and helpful. As well as referring to Burleigh, whom I had read, and Gilbert, whom I hadn’t, people mentioned the research done by Pierre Blet SJ, Ronald Rychlak, Hubert Wolf and Gerhard Besier. It was pointed out that Cornwell had not seen vital Vatican archival material which shows Pius XII in a much more favourable light than in his (deliberately mischievous) portrayal. Indeed, Rabbi David Dalin, a Jewish historian, had written The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, a book I had also read, to demonstrate just how misleading and selective Cornwell’s book is.
    Burleigh’s verdict in Sacred Causes is that “there is not the slightest evidence to support the idea that Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s Pope’”. Indeed, after his death in 1958, Pius was praised by Golda Meir, later to be prime minister of Israel, and in the useful little CTS booklet, “A History of the Papacy” by Fr Nicholas Schofield, the author concludes: “Pius XII’s concern for the Jews impressed many outside the Church. In 1945 the chief rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took as his baptismal name ‘Eugenio’, in tribute to the pope.” (Pius’s baptismal name was “Eugenio”.)
    John Julius Norwich, a well-known writer and broadcaster on the arts – the blurb on the dust jacket of his book cites his industry and versatility – is content to blacken the reputation of a greatly respected historical figure on the flimsiest evidence. His introduction concludes with the extraordinary statement, “as an agnostic Protestant, I have absolutely no axe to grind… My job has been to look at [the papacy] and to give as honest, as objective and as accurate an account of it as I possibly can.” There is nothing objective or accurate in his assessment of Pius XII. I think readers might save themselves £25 and read Fr Schofield’s booklet in the CTS’s “concise histories”; it is only £1.95. Interestingly, Schofield doesn’t bother to mention another myth, that of “Pope Joan”; Norwich gives her six pages.In This Article
    John Cornwell, John Julius Norwich, Pope Pius XIIShare
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    About the author
    Francis Phillips
    Francis Phillips reviews books for the Catholic Herald.
    Contact the authorRelated PostsHow to kill the myth of Hitler’s PopeMorning Catholic must-reads: 05/07/11Allied diplomats urged Pius XII to stay silent about Nazi deportationsMorning Catholic must-reads: 10/12/10In new book, Pope says abuse crisis left him ‘stunned’

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    Post as … Showing 22 comments Sort by Popular now Best rating Newest first Oldest first   Subscribe by email   Subscribe by RSS Paul Zerzan 1 day ago According to Rabbi Boteach: Pius was the man who, as Cardinal Secretary of State, became the first statesman, in 1933, to sign an agreement with the man he called “the illustrious Hitler,” sending him a letter expressing his confidence in his leadership. His concordat with Hitler forced the Catholic Centre Party into dissolution, not only removing the last obstacle to Hitler’s goal of absolute power in Germany but also destroying any further resistance by Germany’s Catholic bishops to the Nazis.He was the Pope who famously refused, amid unmistakable evidence of thousands of Jews being shipped to slaughter in Nazi concentration camps, to ever speak out against the holocaust. This followed Pius’ successful efforts to prevent the publication of an encyclical commissioned by his dying predecessor to condemn Nazi anti-Semitism. This is also the Pope who sent Hitler birthday greetings every single year and who refused to excommunicate Hitler or any other top Nazis who were on official Catholic rolls (to give this context, the singer Sinead O’Connor was excommunicated). He ignored the pleas of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill to denounce the Nazis. He later refused to endorse a joint declaration by Britain, U.S and Russia condemning mass murder of Europe’s Jews, claiming that he simply could not condemn “particular” atrocities. The most he ever did was a single pronouncement during the war on the murder “of hundreds of thousands.” By then, of course, there were millions, and he did not mention Hitler, Nazi Germany, or the Jews in the statement. Most infamously, he was silent when the Germans rounded up Rome’s Jews in October 1944 for slaughter. They were being processed for extermination in a military school a few hundred yards from his window in St. Peter’s. An Italian princess, Enza Pignatelli, forced her way into the Pope’s study and warned him about the imminent assault on the city’s Jewish citizens. “You must act immediately,” she cried. “The Germans are arresting the Jews and taking them away. Only you can stop them.” The Pope assured her, “I will do all I can.” He made no protest and nearly all were later gassed in Auschwitz. Curiously, amid the Pope’s inability to find his voice to condemn the extermination of European Jewry, when the Catholic archbishop of Berlin issued a statement mourning Hitler’s death, the Pope did not reprimand him.Author John Cornwell unearths letters from Pius’ early career in Germany which reveals a stubborn, even distasteful disposition toward Jews. While Papal nuncio in Germany, Pius refused to perform favors for the Jewish community on the flimsiest of grounds and describes the Munich chapter of the German Communist Party as being filthy and full of Jews. Pius refers derisively to “a group of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them” and he describes Communist leader Max Levien as a Jew, “pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive…” Perhaps this would explain why, in one of the greatest acts of mass-kidnapping in history, Pius, in 1946, instructed the French Church to refuse return of entire classes of Jewish children who were entrusted to the Church for safekeeping during the holocaust if they had already been baptized.Now, if, as the Church maintains, Pius is being falsely maligned by his critics as a pious fraud and moral coward who disgraced a great world religion, then why doesn’t the Vatican fix the error by simply opening their archives on his pontificate that would reveal Pius’s correspondence and actions during the War? It has thusfar released a very select and carefully scrubbed collection of wartime documents that reveal next to nothing about the Church’s interactions with the Third Reich.There is a comical element to this debate, which would be more humorous if it weren’t so tragic. It involves Pius’ defenders arguing that Pius purposefully refrained from condemning the holocaust because the Jews would have fared even worse had the Pope spoken out.Worse than the holocaust? Now that’s funny.

  • Anonymous

    Pius XII could have saved six million Jewish lives if he had threatened Catholic Nazis with excommunication.
    He did no such thing but he did excommunicate Germans who endorsed cremation of the dead and Italians who voted for the Italian Communist Party.  Pius XII saved some Jewish lives only after the battle of Stalingrad and it
    became clear that Germany was going to lose the war.  After the war Nazi War Criminals escaped to South America via the Vatican-run “rat-line” that used monasteries as safe-houses.  Pius XII was no Saint.

  • J B Baldwin

     Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutley ,,,,,,,,