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Refuting the ‘Black Legend’ of Pius XII

A Jesuit historian sets the record straight about the Pope and the Nazis

BY Pierre Blet

December 14-20, 1997 Issue | Posted 12/14/97 at 1:00 AM

 

Jesuit Father Pierre Blet is an expert in the history of relationships between the Catholic Church and secular states. His reputation for careful research combined with his faithfulness to the Church have made him a man of paramount importance to the Vatican. Pope Paul VI chose him, together with three Jesuit confreres, to research and publish 12 volumes entitled Documents from the Vatican. Reference Period: World War II. Father Blet, who recently published a book detailing Pope Pius XII's role in World War II, spoke last month with Register correspondent Antonio Gaspari in Rome.

Gaspari: What led you to write a book about Pius XII, and why now?

Father Blet: Modern historians pass over the papal role in international affairs in silence—especially the period before and during the Second World War. This attitude favors the spread of many illusions. They especially underestimate how much the Holy See did to prevent the outbreak of war, and the role taken by Pius XII to aid the victims of the war.

When Pius XII became pope in 1939 the world was at peace. And he tried as no one else in the world to end the war and re-establish peace—through solemn discourses, calls to governments, and secret diplomacy.

Few remember that in March 1939 he proposed a conference with Italy, France, Great Britain, Germany, and Poland to impede the conflict. The negative responses from various governments did not discourage the Pope from trying to prevent the German-Soviet pact.

[He] spoke to the governments of the whole world Aug. 23 at 7:00 p.m. on Vatican radio, warning that, “Nothing is lost with peace. Everything is lost with war.” Unfortunately, a few days later the Wehrmacht troops the Polish border.

Pius XII then tried to keep Italy out of the war. He met with King Vittorio Emanuele and Queen Elena Dec. 21, 1939. Despite the normal protocol, it was he himself who initiated the meeting with the intention of persuading the heads of state to stay out of the conflict.

When Joachin von Ribbentrop came to Rome in 1940, Pius XII sought a meeting to set out reasons for peace. He also tried a double intervention, a letter of his own and one from American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to the head of the Italian government to persuade him not to enter the war. It was in vain.

Some suspect that Pius XII had German sympathies.

This is not true. From a document of the foreign office we know that Pius XII was in contact with the German generals who wanted to overthrow Hitler. The Pope sent to London the proposals of the German general who wanted to overthrow the dictator and asked for a guarantee of an honorable peace. The English, however, did not trust him and voted against the proposal.

I found a document in the archives of the French embassy in Rome that Pius XII met secretly with the ambassadors of France and England in March 1940, the exact date of the start of the German offensive of the Adrennes. Pius XII did not hesitate to communicate vital information.

Why didn't Pius XII publicly denounce Nazism?

Pius XII seriously considered the possibility of making a public denunciation, but he did not want to risk more lives by doing so. After the publication of Mit Brennender Sorge (On the Church and the German Reich, encyclical letter of Pope Pius XI, March 14, 1937) he had a chance to see that there was no benefit. On the contrary, it could have worsened the situation.

Pius XII knew that a public declaration would have weighed heavily against the interests of those who were suffering the most. The Red Cross came to the same conclusion. Protests could in fact have brought harm to the very ones we intended to help.

The American Robert M.W. Kempner, deputy chief at the Tribunal of Nuremberg, wrote this about the war crimes: “All the arguments and writings of the Catholic Church against Hitler would have [been suicidal]. The execution of Catholic priests would have been added on to that of the Jews.”

An eventual public declaration by Pius XII portrayed the Holy Father as an enemy of Germany. Pius XII could not hold account of all the German Catholics, but he had no illusions about the intentions of the Third Reich. The persecution against the Church had already started before the war and manifested itself for the duration of the Third Reich. While Pius XII remained in silence, the [Vatican] secretary of state and the apostolic delegations acted to bring help to the Jews and the other victims of the war.

One of the accusations against Pius XII is that he did not do enough for the Jewish refugees.

This is a slander. Volumes eight, nine, and ten [of Actes et Documents] are full of documents in which Jewish communities, rabbis around the world, and other refugees deeply thanked Pius XII and the Catholic Church for their help and for how much was done in their favor. Furthermore, Father Robert Leiber, personal secretary to Pius XII, confirmed for me that the Pope used his personal influence to help Jews persecuted by Nazism. In Croatia, Hungary, and Romania, papal envoys under the direct solicitation of Pius XII succeeded many times in suspending deportations.

In his Christmas address of 1942, Pius XII denounced all the cruelties of the war, the violations of international law that permitted horrible crimes and caused hundreds of thousands of people, without any fault, solely because of their nationality or race, to be destined for death. In a June 2, 1943 address, Pius XII returned again to this theme, speaking about those “who because of their nationality or race are destined for extermination, and I warn that no one will be able to violate the law of God with impudence.”

Pius XII did not preoccupy himself only with the Jews, he extended the charitable action of the Church to all victims of the war without distinction of nationality, race, religion, or creed. The Pope [acted] silently and discreetly, at the risk of appearing passive or indifferent, but he brought aid to the victims of the war.

What about the encyclical sought by Pius XI but never published by Pius XII?

This is hypocrisy from those who attack Pius XII. It's true that Pius XI was preparing an encyclical against racism in general, but it did not make specific reference to anti-Semitism.

Pius XI wrote a draft of the encyclical for Jesuit Father John LaFarge, a specialist on racial issues, who at that time was in Rome. Father LaFarge worked the whole summer and then consigned his text to the Jesuit general who sent it to Civilità Cattolica.

I had a chance to read the text and it's clear that the encyclical wasn't ready for publication. It was just a first draft. There were many interesting themes, but it wasn't yet publishable. At one point Father LaFarge wrote, “t is just to refute the sentiment of anti-Semitism but this does not signify that the Church should not take precautions with regard to the Jews.”

I do not dare imagine that this would have happened today if Pius XII had consented to the publication of the text.

—Antonio Gaspari