How Pius XII and the Church Saved Lives During World War II

Historic analysis upon the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland

Pius XII, shown at prayer in an undated photo, led Church efforts to save lives and fight Hitler during World War II.
Pius XII, shown at prayer in an undated photo, led Church efforts to save lives and fight Hitler during World War II. (photo: Pius XII, Vatican Media/National Catholic Register; all others, public domain, Wikicommons)

It was Sept. 1, 1939, and terror flooded the hearts and minds of many in Europe — and especially in Poland. German planes roared over the skies of Poland, dropping bomb after bomb, as tanks and soldiers swarmed across the border.

In his book entitled Hitler, the War and the Pope, Ronald J. Rychlak estimates that, by the end of the war, Adolf Hitler would murder 6 million Jews within Nazi death camps built primarily in Poland. About 3 million Catholic Poles would die along with them, while 2 million Catholic Poles would be forced to work as slaves for the Third Reich in Germany.

On that fateful day of Sept. 1, these horrors began.

Top: The invasion of Poland, 1939, shown from the air; bottom: German battleship SMS Schleswig-Holstein fires at the Polish Military Transit Depot during the siege of Westerplatte.


Within a week of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the countries of Great Britain, France, New Zealand, Australia and Canada had declared war on Germany in defense of Poland. Hitler had made many enemies.

Yet what remains unknown to many is that Hitler’s most powerful enemy had already begun to wage a secret war against him. This enemy was Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church. Hitler would kill millions during the war, and the Church would take a stand against him.

Many individuals have accused Pius XII and the Church of failing to stand up against Nazism, and have even gone so far as to call Pius “Hitler’s Pope.” This claim, however, could not be further from the truth, nor this name more undeserved, as historical documents relate.

Eighty years ago this month, after receiving word of the invasion of Poland, Pope Pius XII “fell to his knees and poured out his grief in prayer” in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, relates Rychlak.

What Pius did in the following month demonstrates the vital role that he, and the Catholic Church he was leading, would play in the war.

Pope Pius XII walks the Vatican grounds in an undated file photo inside Vatican City.



Rescue Operations

After leaving the chapel, Pius sent a telegraph to nuncio Archbishop Alfredo Paccini in Warsaw, Poland. He directed Archbishop Paccini to begin organizing passage to Palestine for Polish Jews. Pius also directed Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, to begin making “thousands of baptismal certificates for Jews in the hope that such papers would permit passage into the country,” recounts Rychlak.

Throughout the war, Pius would lead the Church in rescuing more than half a million Jews. Though this number is low in comparison to the number of Jews killed by Hitler, Pius stood strongly for the truth that every life matters.

All Jews from the village of Bluzhev in Poland were killed by the German Nazis during World War II.


Rescuing victims would not be the Church’s only wartime operation to save lives.

On Oct. 16, the Pope received a message from the German resistance. The resistance wanted Pius to join their cause in undermining the Nazis and to serve as a link between Hitler’s internal and external enemies.

It took only a day for Pius to make his decision — and on Oct. 17 he accepted the resistance’s invitation. In Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, Mark Riebling summarizes the role that the Pope would serve in the undeground: “He would engage the German military resistance and encourage a conservative counterrevolution. He would serve as secret foreign agent for the resistance — presenting and guaranteeing its plans to the British. He would partner with the generals not just to stop the war, but to eliminate Nazism by removing Hitler.”


Wartime Declaration

Three days later, on Oct. 20, Pius released his encyclical Summi Pontificatus (The Unity of Human Society), in which he made his rejection of Nazism and his support of the Jews clear.

“With a heart torn by the sufferings and afflictions of so many of her sons, but with the courage and the stability that come from the promises of Our Lord, the Spouse of Christ goes to meet the gathering storms,” wrote Pius.

 The world reacted with support. David G. Dalin records in his book The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: Pope Pius XII and His Secret War Against Germany, “Allied aircraft dropped 88,000 copies of the encyclical over parts of Germany in an effort to raise anti-Nazi sentiment.”

The allies had found a crucial ally in the Pope, and his encyclical would affect the hearts of important Catholics in Germany.

Throughout the course of the war, the role of Piux XII and the Catholic Church in defending the Jewish people would only grow, and their role in German military resistance would also grow more essential.


Storm Shelters

In the Eternal City alone, the Church sheltered thousands of Jews during German occupation.

Dalin writes, “In Rome, 155 convents and monasteries sheltered some five thousand Jews during the German occupation. ... [N]o fewer than three thousand Jews found refuge at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. Sixty Jews lived for nine months at the Jesuit Gregorian University, and many were sheltered in the cellar of the Pontifical Bible Institute.” Hundreds of Jews also lived within the walls of the Vatican itself, Dalin estimates.

Jews were hidden at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence, during the war.


Pope Pius asked churches and convents throughout all of Italy to assist in sheltering Jews. Italian Catholics responded to his call. Lay and religious provided refuge, false IDs, food and papers to Jews, and many lost their lives as a result.

Some individuals were personally responsible for saving hundreds of lives. Three hundred Jews hid under the protection of the bishop of Assisi, Giuseppe Nicolini, for more than two years, and 800 Jews found protection through the efforts of Cardinal Pietro Boetto of Genova.

Pius directed Catholics in other nations to do all that they could to save Jews, as well, and heroes emerged throughout Europe.

In Hungary, Archbishop Angelo Rotta, who served as papal nuncio in Budapest, and a young Hungarian Catholic named Tibor Baranski worked to save more than 3,000 Jews. Baranski became the executive director of the Vatican’s Jewish Protection Movement, and “under his direction, many Jews were hidden in the homes of Catholic families in Budapest, while others were concealed inside factories, in secret rooms constructed by workers,” records Dalin. After the war, Baranski testified that he and all other nuncios in countries under Nazi rule received handwritten letters from Pope Pius instructing them to do all in their power to protect Jews during the war.

From Istanbul, the future pope Archbishop Roncalli sent immigration certificates to Budapest, which made it possible for many Hungarian Jews to escape to Palestine.

Slovakian Jews also found protection in the Church’s efforts, and Dalin estimates that Pius played a role in saving “approximately twenty thousand Slovak Jews.”

In Croatia, Bishop Guiseppe Palatucci and his nephew rescued 5,000 Jews by giving them false identity papers and refuge in Italy. Pius personally sent money to Bishop Palatucci and instructed him to use it to care for the Jewish refugees.

France, too, was not without its Catholic heroes. Father Pierre-Maria Benoit, a Capuchin priest, lived in a monastery in Marseilles when the Nazis occupied Vichy France in 1942. In the basement of his monastery, Catholics were soon immersed in printing false documents to help Jews escape France.

Dalin writes that Father Benoit used his connections “with border guides, the French underground, and Catholic and Jewish religious organizations” to “provide food, shelter, and new identities for thousands of French Jews secretly smuggled into Spain and Switzerland.”

Though Father Benoit was forced to escape to Rome when the Gestapo discovered his activities, he remained dedicated to his mission and “contacted the Swiss, Romanian, Hungarian and Spanish embassies,” requesting documents for the protection of Jews taking refuge in Italy.

In total, Dalin estimates that the Church saved at least 700,000 (and likely as many as 860,000) lives in rescue efforts throughout Europe.


The Hit on Hitler

One would think that Pius’ energies would be completely exhausted by orchestrating this incredible feat. However, Pius kept his promise to the German resistance, and, through his leadership, the Church sought to put an end to Hitler’s slaughter of the innocent once and for all.

In Church of Spies, Riebling records the story of the Church’s role in the resistance in detail.

Pius’ official involvement in the resistance began with Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence. Canaris, who had initially supported Hitler, quickly realized the Nazi dictator’s diabolical nature. He resolved to stick to his post while secretly organizing a coup against Hitler. Canaris needed a way to convince the allies that the German resistance was real and needed a means to link Hitler’s internal and external enemies.

The answer he found was the Pope, and he sought a way to contact him.

Canaris recruited a fearless Catholic man named Joseph Müller for this mission. For several years, Müller had been building up a network of agents in Germany to collect information on Nazi movements against the Church and report information to the Vatican. Now Müller and Canaris would work together, and Canaris had a critical link to Rome.

Upon receiving Canaris’ orders through Col. Hans Oster — Canaris’ chief of staff and head of the Central Department of the Counterintelligence Office — Müller traveled to Rome and informed Msgr. Ludwig Kaas, former chairman of the German Catholic Center Party and current adviser to Pius on German affairs, of the plea from the German resistance.

When Msgr. Kaas brought this plea to Pius, he found a ready and experienced listener.

But Müller’s network had not been the Vatican’s only source of information. Pius and the bishops of Germany had also established a courier intelligence service between the bishops of Germany and the Vatican in March of that year. Pius had become increasingly aware of the threat Hitler posed to the Church. “The Nazis had thwarted the Church’s teachings, banned its organizations, censored its press, shuttered its seminaries, seized its properties, fired its teachers and closed its schools,” writes Reibling. Meeting to discuss this reality, Pius and the bishops had agreed to keep a close watch on Hitler’s movements against the Church.  

Pius, then, was already experienced in the field of intelligence and immersed in seeking information on Hitler’s movements, and he quickly agreed to help the resistance. Together he, Müller and countless German religious and lay faithful would seek to accomplish incredible feats in undermining Hitler’s rule. Müller visited the Vatican at least 150 times throughout the war, risking his life to smuggle information between Pius and the resistance. German Catholic military leaders, including Claus von Stauffenberg — who was famous for his role in in the failed assassination attempt to kill Hitler known as “Operation Valkyrie” — joined the resistance and sacrificed their lives for the cause of destroying Hitler’s power.

Pius also served as the link between the resistance and Britain, informing Britain of the plots to overthrow Hitler, leaking information on Hitler’s movements from the inside, and asking for support.

Riebling writes, “The Vatican remained the crossroads of the plot to kill Hitler: [A]ll roads truly led to Rome ...” Pius supported the plots against Hitler “lest there might conceivably be one chance in a million of its serving the purpose of sparing lives.” Pius knew that so long as the Nazis remained in power, the lives of the innocent would not be protected.

While the plots to assassinate Hitler were not successful, the Church and the resistance made valiant strides and attempts at undermining and weakening Hitler’s power.


Gratitude to the Church

After the war, Pius and the Church received immense gratitude for their efforts. In Hitler, the War and the Pope, Rychlak writes of the tremendous thanks shown to Pius and the Church.

The National Jewish Welfare Board, Rychlak records, thanked Pius graciously for his “noble expression of religious brotherhood and love” during the war.

A representative of the Hebrew Commission, Joseph Nathan, thanked Pius and the religious men and women who, “executing the directives of the Holy Father, recognized the persecuted as their brothers and ... hastened to help them, disregarding the terrible dangers to which they were exposed.”

Pius led these efforts out of love for God’s Chosen People. 

A story Rychlak records makes Pius’ motives clear: “When the pope received a large delegation of Roman Jews in the Vatican, he ordered that the Imperial steps be opened for them to enter. This was an honor usually reserved for heads of state. Noting that his visitors seemed uncomfortable in the Sistine Chapel, he came down from his throne and warmly welcomed them, saying, ‘I am only the Vicar of Christ but you are his very kith and kin.’”

On June 1, 1945, Müller met with Pope Pius and thanked him wholeheartedly for his role in the German resistance. It was largely thanks to the Pope that the world knew there were still good men in Germany.

Through Pius’ leadership and through the sacrifices of many courageous and holy men and women, as the authors cited in this report demonstrate, the Catholic Church was able to save thousands of lives from Hitler’s purge, to sacrifice for the cause of defending innocent life, and to proudly take a stand against Nazism.

As Rychlak records in Hitler, the War and the Pope, following the war, the Israeli consul in Italy, Pinchas Lapide, reported: “The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all other churches, religious institutions and rescue organizations put together.” Lapide did not speak these words to discredit the efforts of other organizations, but to highlight the significance of the Catholic Church in saving lives.

On this, the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, these historical accounts prompt remembrance of the lives lost and the heroes made in World War II — and how Catholic heroes of the war, including the Pope himself, protected innocent lives, no matter the sacrifice.

Paulina Hoeing is a student at Ave Maria University; she was the Register’s intern this summer.