Hitler's Pope: The Roman Church and the Third Reich

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Hitler's Pope

The Roman Church and the Third Reich

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Hitler’s Pope is a provocative title for a biography of Eugenio Pacelli, better known as Pope Pius XII. The implication in the title is that the pope was Hitler’s enabler. The title is deliberate, the implication substantially proved by the author, British historian John Cornwell, a practicing Catholic who has fallen foul of the Vatican and other leading members of the hierarchy since publication of this revealing book by Viking.

Anybody who is familiar with Europe will be aware of the close historical links between church and state in the various European countries. France severed her ties in the anticlerical turmoil of the French Revolution toward the end of the 18th century. The 19th century wasn’t good for the church either. With the theory of evolution, socialism and rapid industrialization, the church lost power and influence. Garibaldi’s unification of Italy deprived the Roman Church of territory, while the subsequent unification of Germany under the Protestant Prussian kaisers led to the anti-Catholic policies of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

Desperate to reassert its authority, the Papacy reacted with the decree of papal infallibility in 1870, paving the way for increased centralization and papal authority. Six years later Eugenio Pacelli was born into a Roman legal family that had seen many years of service to the Holy See. Pacelli was destined to become perhaps the most autocratic of all popes, significantly shaping political events in the 20th century. His 19-year reign from 1939 to 1958 coincided with World War II and the division of Europe into the “Christian” West and the communist East that followed. Prior to becoming pope, he was Vatican secretary of state for 10 years, guiding the Vatican State’s foreign policy.

Resurrections of Roman Empire

The biblical books of Daniel and Revelation predicted the church’s involvement in European politics during the last 2,000 years (see principally Daniel 7 and Revelation 17). A church-state union was prophesied to be the foundation of seven successive attempts to reunify the Roman Empire.

It is relatively easy to look back in history and see the role of the church in the first few attempts to reunify Europe, to restore the glories of Imperial Rome, by uniting the various integral parts of the old Roman Empire. The first church-state union was under the Emperor Justinian who reunited the Empire in the middle of the sixth century. On Christmas Day 800, the pope himself crowned the Frankish King Charlemagne who attempted to restore the Western Empire. Less than two hundred years later the Holy Roman Empire was created to try to accomplish the same goal. Early in the 16th century when the Protestant Reformation posed a massive threat to the church, the Austrian Emperor Charles V and his son Philip II of Spain were strong defenders of the church-state bonds that had governed Europe for over one thousand years.

The next attempt to unite Europe was under the French Emperor Napoleon. The pope crowned him, too, but the revolution he brought to Europe was not favorable to the Papacy. Europe was entering an anti-religious age, which continues to this day.

The extent of the church’s involvement in the resurrections of the Roman Empire already mentioned varied, but the church was always there, involved in some way. It has been more difficult to see the role of the church in the sixth attempt at European reunification, which culminated in two world wars that set Europe back decades and shattered the colonial empires of the European nations.

Author thought to clear pontiff’s name

There have been many accusations made about Pius XII’s involvement with the Third Reich. Growing up in England shortly after the Second World War, I recollect that most people were critical of the church for doing nothing to stop the war, or to help the Jewish victims of the Holocaust. It was generally believed that the Roman Church had been pro-Nazi, though there was a realization that many members of the church had not felt that way and many bravely helped the victims of Nazism.

With the beatification of Pius XII being considered, Cornwell wanted to completely clear the man’s name and sought permission from the Vatican to research his career in the service of the Papacy, a career that spanned six decades, including the century’s two greatest conflicts. Rather than exonerating Pius XII, Cornwell’s research showed that the wartime pope was instrumental in helping the Nazis and that he acquiesced in the annihilation of six million Jews. Further research showed that Hitler’s rise to absolute power may not have happened if not for Pacelli. Indeed, Pacelli directly contributed to both world wars. Without him, it is quite possible that neither conflict would have taken place.

The book is far from sensational. Rather, it takes us through Pacelli’s life and the world events that involved the Vatican during those years.

Decree of infallibility

The Roman Catholic Church is a very conservative organization. Unlike any other church, it has sustained itself for almost 2,000 years, always actively involved in the world’s politics, especially the politics of Europe. Church and state were inseparable. Right up into this century the Hapsburg emperors of Austria had the right to veto the choice of a pope. While the church taught its adherents the divine right of kings, the kings forced their people to be subject to the church in everything. The social order of Europe was built upon these two foundations.

When that order came to an end in the 19th century, the church had to reinvent and reassert itself. At a time of increasing democratization in many nations, the church became more autocratic. Faced with a republican mob in the Eternal City, Pius IX, crowned in 1846, “hurled denunciations against the ‘outrageous treason of democracy’ and threatened prospective voters with excommunication” ( Hitler’s Pope, p. 10).

“The historic decree of papal infallibility passed on July 18, 1870, by 433 bishops, with only two against, reads as follows: ‘The Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, exercising the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, he defines… A doctrine concerning faith and morals to be held by the whole Church, through the divine assistance promised to him in St. Peter, is possessed of that infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer wished his Church to be endowed… And therefore such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are irreformable of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church.’

“An additional decree proclaimed that the Pope had supreme jurisdiction over his bishops, individually and collectively. The Pope, in effect, was ultimately and unprecedentedly in charge” (p. 12).

“The Pope’s Will: God’s Will” was a popular expression at the time (p. 38).

One of Pacelli’s successors, Pope Paul VI (1963-78), wrote in a private note to himself of the solitude that infallibility and the papal office resulted in. “I was solitary before, but now my solitariness becomes complete and awesome. Hence the dizziness, the vertigo. Like a statue on a plinth-that is how I live now. Jesus also was alone on the cross. I should not seek outside help to absolve me from my duty; my duty is too plain: decide, assume every responsibility for guiding others, even when it seems illogical and perhaps absurd. And to suffer alone… Me and God. The colloquy must be full and endless” (pp. 2-3).

No doubt similar sentiments would be expressed by subsequent popes. As Cornwell puts it: “The ideology of papal primacy, as we have known it within living memory, is an invention of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”

It was this deeply held conviction of absolutism and of the supreme role of the church in the affairs of this world that led to Pacelli’s controversial actions in the Nazi era. To Pacelli, nothing was more important than the Papacy. Even the lay members of the church were merely pawns in a great power game that was constantly being played out on the world stage. This becomes clear when reading of his role in both world wars.

Pius XII’s role in the world wars

Just four days before the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914, representatives of the Vatican and the Serbian kingdom met to put their signatures to a treaty known as the “Serbian Concordat,” a document negotiated and drafted over the previous 18 months by Pacelli, then undersecretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs. This was a direct agreement between the Vatican and the Serbian authorities, members of the Orthodox faith.

“Within the terms of the treaty, Serbia guaranteed that the Holy See had the right to impose the new Code of Canon Law on its country’s Catholic clergy and subjects; that Catholics would have freedom of religion, worship, and education within its territories… At the same time, the treaty implied the abrogation of the ancient protectorate rights of the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the Catholic enclaves in Serbia’s territories.”

The treaty effectively cut Austria off from any influence in Serbia, a move that angered the Austrians at an extremely sensitive time. “The result was a sharp increase in anti-Serbian rhetoric and calls for action. When the archduke was murdered in Sarajevo only days later, emotions were already volatile. The ‘Serbian Concordat’ undoubtedly contributed to the uncompromising terms that the Austro-Hungarian Empire pressed on Serbia, making war inevitable” (pp. 48-49). Conflict between Austria and Serbia followed just a few weeks later, leading directly to World War I.

It wasn’t that Pacelli had wanted war. It was rather that his single-minded obsession with the church and its own temporal power inadvertently caused a flare-up of tension between Austria and Serbia.

Less than 20 years later, as secretary of state, Pacelli again inadvertently contributed to the terrible events that led inevitably to the Second World War.

Hitler’s rise to power was not an easy one. His first forced attempt at power resulted in his imprisonment, during which he wrote his book Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”). His National Socialist Party struggled on with minimal support as a small, bothersome party dwarfed by much bigger parties that held the reins of power. His opportunity for increased support came with the Depression when millions of Germans lost their jobs and hyper-inflation wiped out peoples’ personal savings. Blaming the Jews and foreigners in general for causing this, Hitler’s popularity rose. But he still could not command power without the support of others.

Eventually only the Catholic Center Party stood in his way to absolute power. Here Pacelli was very helpful. Seeking a concordat between the Reich and the Vatican, Pacelli betrayed the millions of Catholic supporters of the Catholic Center Party by signing an agreement with Hitler that resulted in a ban on political activity by members of the church. It was the only democratic party left in Germany. With its disbanding, Hitler became the supreme leader of the country. Nothing stood in his way. The Vatican had even become the first state to recognize his odious regime, giving it tacit approval by its “Reich Concordat.”

Role in Holocaust

Anti-Semitism has always been a problem in mainstream Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church is not the only culprit in this regard. But a long history of anti-Semitism in the church contributed to Pacelli’s role in the Holocaust.

Cornwell writes: “Christian antipathy toward the Jews was born out of the belief, dating from the early Christian Church, that the Jews had murdered Christ-indeed, that they had murdered God. The Early Fathers of the Church, the great Christian writers of the first six centuries of Christianity, showed striking evidence of anti-Judaism. ‘The blood of Jesus,’ wrote Origen, ‘falls not only on the Jews of that time, but on all generations of Jews up to the end of the world.’ St. John Chrysostom wrote, ‘The Synagogue is a brothel, a hiding place for unclean beasts… Never has any Jew prayed to God… They are possessed by demons.’

“At the First Council of Nicea in 325, the Emperor Constantine ordained that Easter should not compete with the Jewish Passover: ‘It is unbecoming,’ he declared, ‘that on the holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews; henceforth let us have nothing in common with this odious people” (pp. 24-25).

Persecution became the norm for the Jews in “Christian” countries throughout the centuries that followed. The Holocaust is the persecution that resulted in the most deaths in the shortest possible time. But it was just one of many periods of intense persecution of Jews by Christians.

Cornwell’s research revealed writings of Pacelli where he himself showed clearly his anti-Semitism. This would explain his role during the Holocaust. At a time when the whole world knew what was going on and he resided in the center of the capital of one of the two major European Axis powers, Pacelli did not use his influence to condemn the Holocaust, to call for the end to the persecution of the Jews. He could have at least done this one humanitarian act, but he didn’t, which raises the question why. This question has been asked for six decades.

Cornwell wrote in the London Sunday Times: “Pacelli’s failure to defend the Jews cannot be seen in isolation from the development of the ideology of papal authority. From the very outset of his career he had associated Judaism with the Bolshevist (communist) threat to destroy Christianity. But his antipathy towards Jews went much deeper. Writing in 1919 to a Vatican official from Munich, which had become the centre of local Bolshevik agitation, Pacelli had described the revolutionaries and their chief, Eugen Levien, in his headquarters in the former royal palace.

“ ‘The building, once the home of a king, resounded with screams, vile language, profanities,’ he wrote. ‘In the midst of all this, a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around in all the offices with lecherous demeanor and suggestive smiles. The boss of this female rabble was Levien’s mistress: a young Russian woman, a Jew and a divorcee, who was in charge… This Levien is…also Russian and a Jew. Pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with a face that is both intelligent and sly.”

Like many, including Hitler, Pacelli equated Communism with the Jews.

A further extract from Cornwell’s book shows that the Catholic Church was equated with the forces of extreme conservatism. “Catholicism appeared, on the face of it, to have links with the very right-wing nationalism, corporatism, and Fascism that sustained anti-Semitism or complicity in anti-Semitism on racial grounds. Practically every right-wing dictator of the period had been born and brought up a Catholic-notably Hitler, Horthy, Franco, Petain, Mussolini, Pavelic, and Tiso” (p. 280).

Pacelli wasn’t just guilty of anti-Semitism. When the Allies entered Rome, he asked the American military commander of the city not to billet any “colored troops” there, out of concern for the city’s women and children!

After World War II the whitewash began. The Papacy once more enjoys universal respect. Yet the factors that caused the problems highlighted in Cornwell’s book persist to this day. History reminds us of the church’s constant involvement in politics and of the disastrous consequences for millions of people. Prophecy reminds us that there is still one more resurrection of the church-state union that has dominated European civilization since the time of the Roman Empire.

Chillingly Cornwell wrote in the Sunday Times: “Liberal commentators insist that if Pius XII were to be canonized, he would join de Balaguer and Pius X-who was Pope while the young Pacelli wrote the laws establishing modern papal power-to form a formidable right-wing triumvirate of esteem. They would represent an endorsement through the next century of a centralized papal absolutism that proved disastrous for the Catholic church in Germany and, indeed, for the world as a whole.”