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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 on Monday, 4 July 2011

The handsome and much-publicised book costs £25

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.

  • David Lindsay

    June’s beatification of the three anti-Nazi martyr-priests of Lübeck has raised the matter of the obvious non-beatification of their Protestant companion, the first Protestant pastor to be executed by that regime, and who unlike the three priests received no aid whatever from his ecclesial body. I am told that there are Arians in the Roman Matyrology, although I do not know who they are. There are certainly adherents of the Angevin Schism among canonised Saints, and it is not unheard of for Eastern Catholics to dedicate churches to the Saints of their schismatic histories. One cannot help feeling that the Church ought to recognise those validly baptised persons who have suffered and died, and who continue to do so, alongside their Catholic neighbours in the Armenian Genocide, in the Holy Land, in Lebanon, in Egypt, in Turkey, in Iraq and elsewhere.

    And the more concentration of the Church’s real history during the War, the better. 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.

    Quite how relations came to deteriorate so far between the Church and those now screaming falsehood and abuse on this score could then be a subject of examination. And who knows, we might then be permitted to move on to some setting of the record straight about the torrent of falseood and abuse relating to sex between men and teenage boys, a torrent emanating from those at least turn a blind eye to, and who not uncommonly engage in, sex between men and teenage boys?

    Still, anything to support organised shakedowns, often by people whose records would otherwise cause their testimony to be laughed out of court, against the Catholic Church. Why? You and I know the answers to that one, dear reader. But imagine if the whole world were caused to know.

  • Ilyas

    Fr Shofield’s work should be read alongside JJN’s book – in view as a preface. I enjoyed both, immensely, but can make up my own mind about Pope Pius XII. In the words of Shakespeare, His Holiness was more “sinned against than sinning” and cannot be criticised out of hand. However, I should say that I enjoyed JJN’s book very much, and have found it a useful counterpart to the more traditional academic histories.

  • Ratbag

    Roman Catholics should be confident in the factual truth about our history and our popes, especially those about Pope Pius XII. If people like Norwich can’t be bothered to shift their carcass and do their research properly and in a scholarly fashion, and the supposedly smartass scribblers and commentators continue to believe the black myths about Pope Pius XII, let them. They’ll soon come a cropper and nobody will be left to blame but themselves.

    As I’ve said on previous occasions, if the Vatican and the Pope could sue the media for slander, libel and defamation of character they would move even further into the black financially …

    But the Roman Catholic Church is bigger than that and will come out of these troubles as glorious and triumphant as Our Lord’s Resurrection.

  • Gilesrowe

    I’ve never understood JJN’s exalted opinion of himself. Doubt he mentions Bishop von Galen, Lion of Munster, who like Pius XII defied Hitler at great personal risk, saving thousands of innocent lives and incurring Adolph’s rage. Nor St Maximilian Kolbe, jailed for printing anti-Nazi tracts who died substituting himself for a man with 10 children. But then, when has JJN ever publicly made a stand against evil men with power of life and death over him? I’m sure he feels quite brave enough maligning dead priests.

  • Paul Zerzan

    Pius XII could have saved 6 million Jewish lives if he had threatened Catholic Nazis with ex-communication.
    He did no such thing.  Catholics were excommunicated for advocating cremation of the dead or for voting
    for the Italian Communist Party but not for membership in the Nazi Party, membership in the Waffen SS, participating in genocide etc.  Nazis could and did attend mass and receive the sacraments.   Top Nazi officials inside and outside Germany were practicing Roman Catholics.  After the war top Nazi war criminals escaped to South America through the Vatican-run “rat-line” that used monasteries as “safe-houses”.  Sure Pius XII saved some Jewish lives here and there.  This was to “hedge-his-bets” in a war whose outcome was far from certain.  Pius XII was one of the bad popes and he should be condemned not praises

  • RJ

    Please read the post by David Lindsay below.

  • GFFM

    I guess invincible ignorance is bliss or more comforting than knowing the truth? “Saved more Jewish lives here and there” is a laughably ignorant statement. It an be argued that Italian Jews would not have been saved in the numbers they were saved without his support and intervention behind the scenes. Again, it’s easier to stick with the anti Catholic chestnuts than to actually learn the truth of the matter.

  • jack sheridan

    I’m surprised that Norwich didn’t do even the most basic research about PPX11.  What an ignorant man!

  • Jeannine

    I am surprised that Norwich would write such a book with only 1 reference. Sounds like sloppy researching &/or a man with an obvious agenda. So different from his prior work. I thought his books on the Byzantium were well researched showing many references. 

  • jng

    The hatred directed against Pius XII goes back much further than Cornwell’s book of 1999.  Hochhuth’s play, The Representative (or The Deputy), precedes it by 35 years.  The anti-semitic slurs against Pope Pius, ironically the individual within the Nazi empire  who did most to protect Jews in wartime Europe, are only comprehensible when one examines the sources.  The first, is an element within the Western establishment, including a section of the media, which seems to believe that because the Church condemns homosexual acts, it is a legitimate target for any negative propaganda.  The second, is a politically influential group of extreme Zionists whose object appears to be the takeover of the Palistinian homeland.  They mockingly place Pope Pius’s picture in the Holocaust Museum, as a form of justification, while the Christian population of the Holy Land, through political persecution, is reduced, in about sixty years, from 40% to a desperately tenuous single figure percentage, possibly as low as 4%.  The theory, not, it seems likely, one commanding much sympathy in Israel, seems to be that  America is more likely to look the other way if a Muslim rather than a substantially Christian state is elimated.
    Pius XII was a highly resourceful, courageous and compassionate man.  The slanders will not stop, because of the motivation behind them, but there is no reason why they should blunt our pride in this extraordinary  leader during one of the most difficult periods the Church has had to survive.  

  • Ben Trovato

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    What an old chestnut.  The testimony of so many who have bothered to investigate is quite different (eg Pinchas Lapide a Jew who wrote The Last Three Popes and the Jews, and Michael O’Carroll who wrote Pius Xll Greatness Dishonoured, not to mention the many Jews who have publicly praised Pius) is very different. Pius could have claimed the moral high ground by public denunciations which would have led to the further persecution of both Jews and Catholics (as happened in Holland).  Instead, he chose to work assiduously behind the scenes to save lives.

    The Red Cross maintained their neutrality during WW2 for similar reasons: to be effective in saving lives – and nobody writes lying plays or books about them.

  • Gfdsmith

    £25 for what is largely a work of fiction?  No thank you.  There are much better works on Catholic history for a lot less money.  Just log on to and browse their catalogue.

  • Anonymous

    Do you honestly think that that would have made a difference? In case you haven’t noticed the Catholics inside the Nazi Party were Nazis first and last; to have a genuinely Catholic Nazi is as much a self-contradiction as a married bachelor. Hitler had already been condemed by all of Western Europe and built up a myth of the perfect German that can really only be described as a religion in its own right. One book that we actually can trust called Hitler’s Table Talk demonstrates the effect that this would have had rather well: it contains the words of Hitler himself “the ancient world was pure because it did not have the poison of Christianity.” I hardly think that the Pope would have had much of an impact on a man with such a fanatical devotion to something like Naziism

  • Ratbag

    Exactly. Thank you!

  • Paul Zerzan

    Perhaps it would not have much of an impact on Hitler but it would have an impact on the ordinary Germans of the Catholic faith.  Why is it Germans were excommunicated for endorsing crematin of the dead but not for being Nazis?   Why were Italians automatically excommunicated for voting for the Italian Communist Party but German Catholics were allowed to vote Nazi?   6 milliion Jewish lives could have been saved instead of a few
    thousand (or perhaps a few hundred thousand).   German Catholics who were Nazi were allowed to attend mass and receive the sacraments.  This included top leaders and Waffen SS.  That was wrong!

  • Paul Zerzan

    I don’t find anything about the holocaust to be laughable.  6 million Jewish lives could have been saved instead of a few thousand or hundred thousand.  German Catholics were allowed to vote Nazi and join the Nazi Party.
    Why?  Italian Catholics were not allowed to vote Communist or join the Communist Party.  German Catholics were excommunicated for endorsing cremation of the dead, yet German Nazis were allowed to attend mass and receive the sacraments (including Nazi leaders and Waffen SS).  That is the simple truth.

  • Cjkeeffe

    What evidence to you have that excommunicating Nazis who where baptised Catholics would have saved a single soul? Do you have documentary evidence to prove the ascertion taht Waffen SS and the Nazi leaders atended Mass and recieved teh sacrements after say 1937? Further can you provide a concret example of what you would have done if you where pontiff during these days and also the consequnceof making that decision? Look at the result of the brave Dutch bishops who condemned Nazismduring the war. St Edit Stein and her sister (Rosa) where murdered not for being Jewish converts but because of the acts of the Catholic Dutch bishops. This is proven by a) Nazi records and b) the fact taht protestant convert Jews where left untouced. Furtehr 85% of Dutch jews died in the war. Whilst more than 85% of Rome’s Jews survived the war solely because of the orders of Pope Pius XII.

  • Robert

    Given that Lord Norwich has produced several worthwhile books in the past about Byzantium, Venice, and Sicily, the question arises: how can his research abilities in those works be reconciled with his pernicious and ignorant drivel against Pius XII? I am surprised that no-one has suggested one highly likely explanation: namely, that much or most of The Popes, including the anti-Pius diatribes, was in fact farmed out to some ignorant young ghost-writing chav, and that the publishers have simply put Lord Norwich’s name on the cover in order to generate sales.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Sloppy liberal axe-grinding by John Julius Norwich based on sloppy liberal axe-grinding by John Cornwell (who has belatedly said that he regrets the title of his book, incidentally). Let’s be clear however that they speak for themselves. Rants about conspiring groups of influential Zionists should have no place in civilized discourse and do the Catholic Herald no credit if they are allowed to remain on its website.

    Let us also be clear that rescuing Pius XII’s reputation makes no fundamental diifference to the humility that is still required of Catholics concerning Nazi Germany. Yes, there were awe-inspring heroes and saints, but the plain truth is that Hitler’s crimes were made possible by the acquiescence of the great mass of German Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike.

  • Paul Zerzan

    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.

  • jng

    How unfortunate that the Catholic Herald has complied with Mr Grumpy’s request to remove my entry from their website.  It was clear to me that he has not talked to many people in the region, and sensed the fear many Israelis as well as Palestinians have for extreme Zionist element there and its influence on the Government.  Incidentally, all Israelis consider themselves Zionist, a term which simply means that they believe in an Israeli homeland.  However, at the last election, about 40% of these Zionists supported a moderate alternative to their present Government.  I think that all Israelis and Palestinians would find the notion of an extreme Zionist conspiracy, with its connotation of secrecy, rather bizarre as, no matter what one might think of the objective of extreme Zionists, they are very open about it:  the inclusion of all of Judea and Sumaria into an Israeli state.
    The facts remain.  The Christian population of the Holy Land has been reduced from 40% in, about, 60 years to virtual extinction and insulting picture of Pius XII was placed in the Holocaust museum. 
    I am not too sure where the innocent sounding Mr Grumpy is coming from but I think he should show a little more awareness of the two million or so Christians who were victims of the concentration camps and who certainly were not responsible for the rise of Hitler.  Nor, it seems safe to assume, was Pius XII or Hitler would not have stimitized him as “an enemy of National Socialism.”
     Yet, one should be careful of facts.  It seems that some facts tend to stray beyond a comfort zone.


  • Cjkeeffe

    Good points, perhaps, writers do not need to worry about doing proper research in attacking Pius XII because, the world and as we have seen in this thread Catholics are so happy to accept that Pius XII was and at fault.

  • Anonymous

    I’m trying to understand how Norwich’s book advances our knowledge. It seems that all he does is make use of secondary sources. What’s funny about his use of Cornwell is that Cornwell himself relied extensively on secondary sources. (Check the endnotes of “Hitler’s Pope.”)

    The late Henri Cardinal De Lubac, S.J. once referred to “pamphleteer literature,” the kind of propaganda that wackos and conspiracy theorists hand out on street corners and leave on subways in order to get their “message” out.

    Norwich certainly qualifies. Anyone dumb enough to pay money for this deserves to get ripped off.

  • W Chase

    This must be true.  I heard this same rendition at my local KKK meeting!   Let’s blame the innocent because we diasagree with them and never condemn the guilty.  My favorite is making Hitler a catholic.  Also a slur!   

  • Jzinkan

    Did Ms. Phillips get any further than the introduction and the chapter on Pope Leo XII? Oh, and the six pages on Pope Joan?

    Granted, Pope Pius XII is important to those who look back no further than a hundred years, but come on – no comment on any of the pre-Reformation Popes? There was a nice crowd of Christian leaders! Is the twentieth century the only time the church has had problems with the sexual improprieties of the clergy?

    Admittedly, before reading the  review, I’d already formed an idea about the angle Ms. Phillips comments would take on this book. Let’s see; she reviews books for the Catholic Herald, she’s reviewing a book about the papacy, therefore anything not favorable will more than likely be challenged. She was way too predictable. 

    I plan to read Mr. Norwich’s book but I’ll be sure and keep Ms. Phillips comments on the research of Pope Pius XII in mind. Otherwise, I will form my own opinions thank you. Viva La Papa!

    J. Zinkan
    Palm Harbor, Florida

  • Eric

    It seems that nobody reviewing this book — or commenting on the review — actually READ the book. The books covers the ENTIRE papacy — 256 Popes and numerous Anti-Popes…. but, the reviewer only comments on one. (And Norwich did NOT devote 6 pages to “Pope Joan”… he devoted six pages to the MYTH of Pope Joan… a very BIG difference.)

  • Hempy

    Well docomented answer to Norwich erroneous chapter on Pius XII

  • Juggernaut

    Everybody knowes Pope Pius 12 was a nazi lover.