For 50 years, the truth about Pius XII’s battle against Nazism has been suppressed. But new evidence makes his heroism undeniable

It has scarcely been noticed in Britain, but a remarkable development has recently taken place in Holocaust studies. Nearly two years ago, the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation, a historical research institute, set out on “a modest project”. It wanted to mark “Houses of Life” – places where Jews were sheltered during the war – with memorial plaques. It found more than 500 such houses in Italy, France, Hungary, Belgium and Poland. Eduardo Eurnekian, chairman of the foundation, wrote that “to our surprise, we have learned that the overwhelming majority of Houses of Life were institutions related to the Catholic Church, including convents, monasteries, boarding schools, hospitals, etc”.

In Rome alone, some 4,500 people found refuge in churches, convents, monasteries and boarding schools. In Warsaw, All Saints Church sheltered Jews. This was remarkable, because the penalty for Poles for rescuing Jews was the death camp or, more likely, instant execution.

It is appropriate that a foundation named after Raoul Wallenberg should find such an extensive Catholic contribution to saving Jewish lives. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat in Budapest during the war. He and Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio, saved 120,000 out of the city’s 150,000 Jews. Wallenberg was arrested by the Red Army and never seen again.

The news about the Houses of Life is only surprising because the truth about the Church and the Jewish people in the Second World War has been suppressed. Several aides of the wartime pope, Pius XII, acknowledged that they had worked to rescue Jews on his direct instructions. They included two future popes – Mgr Angelo Roncalli (John XXIII) and Mgr Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI). Pius XII himself sheltered Jews both in the Vatican itself and at Castel Gandolfo.

This is a good moment to mark the Church’s witness against Nazism. Eighty years ago, on March 14, 1937, Pope Pius XI issued Mit Brennender Sorge (“With Burning Anxiety”), an encyclical, pointedly written in German, condemning Nazism. “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the state, and divinises them to an idolatrous level, perverts an order of the world created by God,” the pope wrote.

Pius XI’s secretary of state was Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pius XII. He distributed the text, which he had helped to draft, secretly within Germany. Four years earlier, in 1933, he had negotiated a concordat between the Holy See and Germany, not to appease Nazism but to have some means of holding the Nazis to account through an international treaty. The regime referred to him as “Jew loving”: he had made more than 50 protests against Nazi policy, the earliest coming just days after the passing of the Enabling Act, which granted Hitler the power to enact laws without Reichstag approval. Pacelli was regarded as so anti-Nazi that the Third Reich attempted to prevent his election as pope in 1939.

Pacelli’s personal story is important. He was a Germanophile – and, equally, a philosemite – from his youth. As nuncio in Bavaria during the brief 1919 communist republic he showed high personal courage, remaining at his post. His sympathy and friendship with Jews, including the great conductor Bruno Walter, was well known, and he gave discreet help to many. At Walter’s request, he gained the freedom of a musician, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, arrested in a pogrom while Bavaria was under communist rule. Safe in America, Gabrilowitsch became the founding musical director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Walter himself later became a Catholic.

Before the war, Pacelli took extraordinary risks to help the German opposition. He knew which generals were preparing to act against Hitler, and made sure news of their intentions reached the British government.

In a situation of huge difficulty, Pius XII did what no one else did to save Jewish lives during the war. He knew quite early on what was really happening to the Jewish people. At the time, too many were in denial, including a British diplomat who wrote of “these whining Jews”. Neither Britain nor America made it easy for Jews to escape into exile – the Kindertransport was a blessed exception.

In the war years, Pius XII acted directly in Italy and through papal diplomats in Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and elsewhere. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances, there is no firm number for those saved by the pope and the Church in one way or another. It was perhaps between 500,000 and 860,000.

Pius XII’s statements both before and during the war were unmistakably hostile to Nazism. The Allies may have wanted more, but the price would have been the ending of all the good the pope could do. The Nazis understood his meaning very well. A plan to kidnap Pius in 1944 was only averted by the unlikely intervention of SS General Karl Wolff.

The pope was also utterly clear about the evils of communism and vicious Stalinist religious persecution. But he said nothing about it during the war. Allied diplomats in the Vatican understood this, realising that it was only the pope’s preservation of the Holy See’s neutrality which enabled him to give refuge to thousands of Jews in religious houses in Italy and the Vatican itself. It also allowed him to provide contacts so that information about prisoners of war and the Holocaust could reach the Allied powers.

All this was acknowledged during and after the war, not least by Jews. Albert Einstein, who had escaped Nazi Germany, said in 1940: “Only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth … I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”

Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, and Isaac Herzog, chief rabbi of Israel, paid similarly generous tributes. Israel Zolli, Rome’s chief rabbi, became a Catholic and took the pope’s Christian name, Eugenio, in tribute to him. After Pius’s death in 1958, Golda Meir, then Israeli foreign minister, wrote: “We mourn a great servant of peace.”

The Nazis hated the Church. Thousands of Catholic priests were imprisoned, especially in Dachau, the “priests’ camp”. It is true that some bishops followed a policy of appeasement: Cardinal Adolf Bertram of Breslau supposedly ordered a Requiem Mass for Hitler in 1945. Some Catholics betrayed Jews and even, as in Jedwabne in 1941, massacred them. But others, notably Bishop Clemens August von Galen of Münster and Bishop Konrad von Preysing of Berlin, did all they could to resist Nazism. Preysing’s agent, Bernhard Lichtenberg, the provost of Berlin cathedral, was judicially murdered and is now recognised as a martyr.

Yet in the nearly 60 years since Pius XII’s death, his reputation has been traduced. One recent example was the BBC’s report that the silent prayer of Pope Francis at Auschwitz was in reparation for the silence of the Catholic Church. The corporation was simply repeating what had become the received view of Pius XII and of the Church’s record during the war.

Lord Alton of Liverpool immediately protested, and together he and I made a formal complaint to the BBC. A considerable correspondence ensued. In early December, the complaint was upheld. Fraser Steel, head of the editorial complaints unit, wrote: “This did not give due weight to public statements by successive popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.”

The negative view of Pius marked an astonishing reversal of reputation. In 1963, a previously unknown German, Rolf Hochhuth, published a play called The Deputy which blamed Pius XII for the Holocaust. Hochhuth claimed it was historically accurate. The play was premiered in West Berlin and performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in England and America.

The provenance of Hochhuth’s play, and the degree of communist support, aroused suspicion. The USSR had a strong interest in destroying the moral authority of the pope and the Catholic Church. As Khrushchev, a mass murderer in his own right, said at the time, dead men cannot defend themselves.

Confirmation of these suspicions came only in 1998, with the publication of the memoirs of Ion Mihai Pacepa, a Romanian three-star general in the Securitate who defected in 1978. According to Pacepa, the project, known as Seat 12, originated in Moscow with Khrushchev. From 1959, Pacepa had directed his spies, posing as priests, to pilfer Vatican archives. They found nothing they could use, but Ivan Agayants, the KGB’s disinformation chief, had been able to feed Hochhuth with false information, which he was only too ready to use. The Soviets’ aim was to discredit Pope Pius and wreck the growing understanding between the Church and Judaism.

The American writer Ronald Rychlak, who has done the most detailed work on the story, concludes that Hochhuth was heavily dependent on such Soviet disinformation. Not that Hochhuth was the only author: his play was rewritten and heavily abridged by Erwin Piscator, a famous producer and communist agent of influence.

In 1964, Blessed Paul VI commissioned detailed research, eventually published in 1981, which showed the degree of papal and Catholic support for the Jewish people during the war. This should have been the end of the matter. It was not. A number of Jewish scholars, such as Daniel Goldhagen, publishing in the 1990s, endorsed the accusations. This had its effect. The distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert wrote that he repeatedly received applications for support for PhD study which usually included a reference to the “silent” or even “anti-Semitic” Pius XII.

John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope, published in 1999, was seriously misleading. He implied that Pacelli held “stereotypical” anti-Semitic views. This was based on, among other things, mistranslating, misconstruing and selectively quoting a long letter written by Pacelli in 1919, reporting on a meeting with the chairman of the Bolshevik administration in Munich. Cornwell’s book was overdependent on the understandably embittered recollections of Heinrich Brüning, the exiled former German Chancellor. Hitler’s Pope was really part of a campaign against St John Paul II. But that is a different argument and has no business in an evaluation of Pius XII.

Cornwell’s book had wide circulation and favourable reviews from the liberal media. It and others in a similar vein have been savaged by knowledgeable critics, such as Rychlak, Gilbert and Rabbi David Dalin. Together they provide detailed evidence of misquotation, misrepresentation and even malice in these books. The media have found little space for these corrections. So the lie remains the received story. But the example of the BBC suggests that this may be changing.

Three steps would do much to right the wrongs against Pius.

First, the BBC should prepare a major documentary on the pope who was responsible for saving thousands of Jewish lives. I am advised that the corporation will consider this. The BBC has acknowledged that there should be closer scrutiny. Which of course there already has been: the question is whether minds are open.

Secondly, the critical statements about Pope Pius at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, should be substantially revised. Many of the pope’s helpers have now been named Righteous among the Nations. It is time that Pius was recognised himself as among the Righteous. He needs not a tree, but a whole forest planted in his memory. The story of the Houses of Life adds further weight to the evidence for his bravery.

Thirdly, Pius’s beatification should proceed without delay. Rome has already recognised his heroic virtue, paving the way for him to be declared Blessed.

Let the last word be with Pius himself. In 1943, he wrote: “The time will come when unpublished documents about this terrible war will be made public. Then the foolishness of all accusations will become obvious in clear daylight. Their origin is not ignorance but contempt of the Church.” At that time he was referring to Nazi propaganda. His words apply equally to the malicious libels of the past 60 years.

The Very Rev Fr Leo Chamberlain osb is a former headmaster of Ampleforth College. He is parish priest of St John the Evangelist, Easingwold in North Yorkshire

This article first appeared in the March 10 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here