To begin to understand Pius XII’s actions during World War II, we must remember the world in which he lived. Hitler had assumed control of Germany in 1933. In July of that same year, he began not only persecuting Jews but also Christians. He infiltrated the German Evangelical Federation (the Lutheran Church), removing leaders who were opposed to his agenda. Many of these ministers died in concentration camps or prisons, like the famous Dietrich Bonhoffer.
The persecution was even more intense for the Catholic Church. Gestapo agents attended Mass and listened to every homily preached, prepared to arrest any priest attacking or criticizing the regime. Chanceries were searched for any “incriminating” documents. Communication with Rome was limited. Nazi propaganda represented the Church as unpatriotic and hoarding wealth with its clerics portrayed as idle and avaricious. By 1940, all Catholic schools had been closed, and religious instruction confined to the Church itself or at home. Meanwhile, anti-Christian teaching was imparted in the public schools.
Remember too that the first concentration camp was established in 1933 at Dacchau, outside of Munich. This camp was not so much an “extermination camp” as one for the “political” prisoners, including priests. The camp administration so feared the influence of the priests upon the rest of the prisoners that a special cellblock surrounded by barbed wire was created– Block 26, Priesterblock— to isolate them. At Dacchau alone, 2,720 priests were imprisoned (of which 1,000 died), and were subjected to the most awful tortures, including the medical experiments of the notorious Dr. Rascher.
Such persecution was not confined to Germany. For example, the Church in Poland also suffered severely. During the first four months of occupation following the September, 1939 invasion, 700 priests were shot and 3,000 were sent to concentration camps (of which 2,600 died). Countless other Catholics– priests, religious, and laity– in other countries died for the faith during the Nazi era.
Pope Pius XI, who had condemned Nazism in his 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, died in February, 1939, and Pope Pius XII succeeded him as the successor of St. Peter on March 12. Think of the world– and the Church– Pope Pius XII had inherited!
To make matters worse, by June, 1940, Hitler controlled Europe and northern Africa, and was planning the invasion of Britain. The Vatican, officially a neutral country, was isolated. Hitler had plans to depose Pius XII, appoint his own “puppet” Pope, and move the Vatican administration to Germany, plans which would have been executed if the war would have gone in the Nazi’s favor. Who then was to come to the aid of the Vatican? Pius XII, who had to insure the survival of the Church, was very much alone.
Despite the overwhelming evil of Nazism, Pius XII spoke out. After the invasion of Poland in October, 1939, he denounced the aggression of the Nazis and proposed a peace plan. In 1940, he called for the triumph over hatred, mistrust, and the spirit of “cold egoism.” The following year, he pleaded for the rights of small nations and national minorities, and condemned total warfare and religious persecution.
In his Christmas message of 1942, he specifically denounced the extermination of the Jews: The New York Times praised this message, writing, “This Christmas more than ever Pope Pius XII is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent. The pulpit whence he speaks is more than ever like the Rock on which the Church was founded, a tiny island lashed and surrounded by a sea of war…. When a leader bound impartially to nations on both sides condemns as heresy the new form of national state which subordinates everything to itself; when he declares that whoever wants peace must protect against ‘arbitrary attacks’ the ‘juridical safety of individuals’; when he assails violent occupation of territory, the exile and persecution of human beings for no reason other than race or political opinion; when he says that people must fight for a just and decent peace, a ‘total peace’ — the ‘impartial’ judgment is like a verdict in a high court of justice.”
Besides these worldwide pleas for peace, the Vatican persistently issued communications of protest to Hitler which were attested to by von Ribbentrop at the Nuremburg war trials, who said, “I do not recollect [how many] at the moment, but I know we had a whole deskful of protests from the Vatican. There were very many we did not even read or reply to.” Pope Pius XII’s position was so clear to the Nazis that he was sometimes referred to as “The Chief Rabbi of the Christian world,” and his papal ambassadors as “Prime Ministers for the Jews.”
Pope Pius XII also acted. His Holiness allowed the Vatican diplomatic corps which were protected by diplomatic immunity to carry messages between the Allied Powers. Vatican Information Services also sent over 5 million messages for soldiers. For Jews fleeing Nazi occupied territory, the Vatican assisted them with financial resources as well as necessary paperwork. During the Nazi occupation of Rome (September, 1943 to June, 1944), Pius XII helped to raise the Gestapo’s demand of 50 kilos of gold from the Jewish community for “their safety.” Unfortunately, the payment did not prevent the eventual round-up of Jews. However, of the 9,500 Jews in Rome, the Nazis only captured 1,259; the rest were hidden safely in churches, monasteries, convents, and the Vatican itself.
He hid 3,000 Jews at his summer residence, Castle Gandolfo, and recruited 400 for his Swiss guards. He also lifted cloister restrictions, allowing religious houses to offer refuge for Jews. He allowed the issuance of false baptismal certificates to Jews. These deeds do not even include the general relief efforts and distribution of food coordinated by the Vatican for the city of Rome. Pinchas Lapide, a former senior Israeli government official, has proven with documentation from the Yad Vashem archives that papal relief and rescue programs saved at least 860,000 Jewish lives– more than any other agency or government, independently or together.
We too must remember that any defiance of the Nazi regime meant immediate and severe retaliation. The Catholic bishops of Holland were particularly outspoken in their protests against Nazism; for this, 80% of all Jews were arrested and deported– more than any other country in western Europe– and persecution against the Church was extremely cruel. Jean Bernard, Bishop of Luxembourg, who was detained at Dacchau, later wrote, “The detained priests trembled every time news reached us of some protest by a religious authority, but particularly by the Vatican. We all had the impression that our warders made us atone heavily for the fury these protests evoked.” Cardinal Sapieha, Archbishop of Krakow, wrote to Pius XII in 1942, “We must deplore that we cannot communicate your Holiness’ letters to the faithful, for that would provide a pretext for fresh persecution. We already have many who are victims because they were suspected of being in secret communication with the Apostolic See.” Historian Norman Davies, scholar of Polish history, commented, “To ask why the Pope or Catholics in Poland did not do more to assist Jews, is rather like asking why Jews did nothing to assist persecuted Catholics. In a world where immediate death awaited anyone who contravened Nazi regulations both Catholic and Jew were victim.” Clearly, Pius XII was burdened with speaking the truth while safeguarding the survival of the Church.
When Pope Pius XII died on October 9, 1958, Golda Meir, then Israeli delegate to the United Nations, sent official condolences: “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.” Dr. Raphael Cantoni, a leader in Italy’s Jewish Assistance Committee added, “The Church and the Papacy have saved Jews as much and insofar as they could Christians. Six million of my co-religionists have been murdered by the Nazis… but there would have been many more victims had it not been for the efficacious intervention of Pius XII.” Therefore, for anyone to condemn so easily in hindsight Pope Pius or the Church as a whole for the course of action taken during World War II reveals an ignorance of history.