Pope Pius XII’s “Silent” War: Part I

Pope Pius XII’s “Silent” War: Part I

Pope Pius was often described as a political Pope, which he seemed to me to be at the time. Very possibly, the future will rate him a saint. Only time will tell.

—Harold H. Tittmann, Jr., U.S. Chargé d’ Affaires to the Vatican, 1942 [1]


On the night of February 9, 1939 Pope Pius XI was gravely ill and struggling to stay alive. For those who knew him as Achille Ratti, the vigorous mountain climber from Desio, Italy outside of Milan, it was difficult to see him in such a desperate state. Despite his worsening condition, the frail eighty-one year old Pontiff was determined to give a scheduled speech on February 11 commemorating the ten year anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords with Benito Mussolini and his Fascist regime in Italy.[2] This was not to be a celebratory occasion. By all accounts, the Pope was intending to use this historic event to openly rebuke both Mussolini and Adolf Hitler for their heretical ideologies on race and their public diatribes against those deemed to be enemies of the state, namely the Jews. The Italian ambassador to the Vatican, Bonifacio Pignatti told his Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano (Mussolini’s son-in-law), “The Pontiff threatened to do something before dying that would be remembered in Italy for a long time.”[3]

As preparations were being made for the Lateran ceremonies, cardinals from all over the globe converged on Rome to hear the Pope’s message. Little did they know that within twenty-four hours the Pope would be dead. On that fateful evening, Pius XI had sermon notes for his allocution laid out on his desk as well as a highly sensitive draft of an encyclical on race entitled Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of the Human Race), written by a group of Jesuits led by an American, John La Farge. The priests were secretly commissioned by the Pope to compose a refutation of pagan German philosophies being espoused by men such as Houston Chamberlain in his book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century (1899) and Alfred Rosenberg in The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930) that became part of the Nazi creed on race and Aryan supremacy. Author David I. Kertzer asserts in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Pope and Mussolini (2014), that secret informants inside the Vatican alerted Italian officials that the Pope was about to release a highly critical statement on race that could sway public opinion against the government, “Rumors of the secret encyclical against racism had somehow leaked out, and Mussolini and his entourage were worried.”[4] Not only were the Italian foreign ministers apprehensive about the political fallout from the speech, but also Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State who was unaware that the Pope even had an encyclical on race prepared.

In March 1937, when the Pope’s health was more vigorous and his temper less inhibited, Pius XI wrote a scathing encyclical entitled Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern) in which he condemned fanatical nationalism and those who embraced the ideology of a superior race:

Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community — however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things — whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.[5]

That the encyclical was entitled in German is telling. To make matters worse, in July 1938 the Italian government published “The Manifesto on Race” that closely followed Nazi racial laws and policies vilifying the Jews. Mussolini and his coterie of scientists now viewed Italians as part of the pure Aryan race. The Pope was appalled. Theories on racial purity and Social Darwinism were anathema to the Pope and contrary to the tenets of Christianity. “Pius XI believed racism presented a frontal challenge to ecclesiastical teaching,” writes Frank J. Coppa, “and felt a moral obligation to say so, promising a group of visiting German students [in September 1938] he would do all within his means to defend the faith.”[6]

In addition to his vitriolic rebuttal on race, there was also a sense of foreboding among Italian officials that the Pontiff was planning to dispense with diplomatic formalities and publicly denounce the Fascists and the Nazis for their persistent violations of agreements made with the Catholic Church. In the nearly six years since the signing of the Concordat with Germany in July 1933,[7] the Nazis were closing Catholic Action organizations, harassing ex-Center Party officials, and arresting and imprisoning priests and other church prelates. As an expression of his anger and utter contempt for the Nazi regime, the Pope thought nothing of snubbing Hitler during his state visit to Rome in May 1938 by closing the Vatican Museum and leaving the city for an extended vacation at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo. Diplomacy was not one of the Pope’s strong points.

With Pius XI’s health quickly deteriorating during the night, he quietly succumbed to his illness on the morning of February 10, 1939. The speech that was to be an opprobrium of all that was wrong with racist totalitarianism would never be given. The official cause of death was heart failure but conspiracy theorists are quick to point out that one of the primary physicians treating the Pope was Doctor Francesco Petacci, the father of Mussolini’s mistress, Claretta.[8] While it was common knowledge that Mussolini’s relationship with the Pope was rancorous at best, The New York Times reported that it was Dr. Filippo Rocchi who treated Pius XI during the night administering “stimulants” to try to revive him.[9] An autopsy was never considered.

News of the Pope’s death quickly spread around the world. Thousands of mourners and dignitaries assembled in Vatican City on St. Valentine’s Day to attend the funeral services and to pay their last respects. After a solemn mass, Pius XI was interred in a crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica not far from where an archeological expedition would soon begin to unearth the remains of the first pope, St. Peter.

Once Pius XI was laid to rest, Cardinal Secretary Pacelli wasted no time in suppressing potentially explosive documents found on the Pope’s desk:

On February 15, he [Pacelli] ordered the pope’s secretary to gather up all written material the Pope had produced in preparing his address. He also told the Vatican printing office to destroy all copies of the speech it had printed, copies that Pius had intended to give the bishops… Pacelli also took the material that Ledóchowski had sent the pope three weeks earlier – what has since come to be known as the “secret encyclical” against racism – eager to ensure that no one else would see it.[10]

Had the encyclical been released by the Pope before his demise, it would have been distributed to all Catholic bishops worldwide and become a doctrinal position statement of the Church. The obvious question is why did the Cardinal Secretary bury the encyclical and the printed transcripts of the Pope’s speech into the secret archives? Nobody knows for sure, but it is only one of several controversies that have shrouded the legacy of Eugenio Pacelli who would soon become Pope Pius XII.


On March 2, 1939 thousands of the Catholic faithful crowded outside St. Peter’s Square in Rome anxiously waiting to see if clouds of white smoke would rise above the chimney of the Sistine Chapel signifying the election of a new Pope. Behind the scenes, Italian and German foreign ministers were urging their respective cardinals to vote for Pacelli because he was deemed “favorably disposed toward the Fascist regime and would not publically criticize the Nazis.”[11] At approximately 5:27 p.m., the plume turned from black to white when Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli received the necessary forty-two votes to become the 260th Pope of the Catholic Church. In one of the briefest papal conclaves in history, the new Pontiff was introduced to a multitude of cheering well-wishers from the famed balcony overlooking the immense Piazza Di Pietro designed by Bernini.

Pacelli was the clear choice to receive the papal miter not only in recognition of his virtuous life as a devout Christian servant but also because of his vast diplomatic experience as Nuncio to Germany and Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius XI. His extensive background in German politics, culture, and language were of particular importance to the Holy See in light of the rising belligerence of Hitler and the Nazi Party. Many of those who comprised the College of Cardinals recognized that a political pontiff was essential during the perilous times in which they lived.[12] Ominous war clouds were forming over Europe once again; Mussolini’s public speeches were becoming more menacing and bellicose; Hitler was preparing to launch his blitzkrieg to conquer the world; and the Catholic Church was under siege in both Russia[13] and Germany. By the time of Pius XII’s coronation ceremony on March 12, 1939, Austria and the Sudetenland were already annexed into the Third Reich and it was no secret that preparations were underway for an assault on Czechoslovakia and Poland. Political rallies throughout Germany and Italy were fast becoming garish demonstrations of extreme nationalism and breeding grounds for racial hatred. Violent outbreaks against innocent Jewish civilians in Germany such as what occurred on the night of Kristallnacht in November 1938 were becoming common occurrences throughout the Reich.

When Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Poland in September 1939, Great Britain and France honored their alliance with Poland and declared war on Germany. Pius XII was suddenly confronted with all the perils associated with protecting the sanctity and neutrality of the Church during wartime provocation. Diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Mussolini quickly deteriorated in June 1940 after Italy entered the war on the side of the Axis alongside Germany. By the end of 1940, Nazi forces had engulfed France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and were moving with lightning speed in a quest to overtake the entire European continent. For Hitler, the subjugation of Western Europe was not enough to satisfy his lust for more “living space” or lebensraum. The German military juggernaut would next invade the Balkans in the spring of 1941 and then, to the utter shock of Joseph Stalin, Hitler would unleash operation Barbarossa attacking Russia in June 1941. By December, the United States would be dragged into the European conflict after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. As the war progressed, Allied air raids began striking military targets and key transportation systems throughout Italy and coming dangerously close to Vatican City.[14] The Pope fired off several communications to the Allies pleading for Rome to be spared from the carnage and recognized as an open city thus exempting it from future bombing raids.[15] Civilian casualties were rising precipitously as well as the discontent for the Fascist regime. In July 1943, Mussolini was ousted from power but in retaliation, Nazi forces marched into Rome in September threatening to invade the Vatican and arrest the Pope.[16] Hitler relented but after nearly a year of occupation, the Nazis were forced to flee Rome before the Allies liberated the city in September 1944. The Nazis were now in full retreat in Italy, Russia, and the other occupied territories of Europe. By May 1945, Hitler was dead and the war in Europe was over.

Pope Pius XII was Vicar of Christ throughout the war years of 1939-1945, the reconstruction period of post-war Europe, and during the first decade of the Cold War era with the Soviet Union. Until his death in October 1958, Pius XII presided over the world’s largest church during one of the most tumultuous times in world history. Lauded as a scholar and a man of deep devotion to God and to the Church, Pius XII has also been the target of persistent rumors and controversies since his death especially now that he is being considered for canonization by the Curia. Many of his critics have come to the forefront raising questions as to whether the Pope’s “silence” during the Holocaust period made him culpable for not doing more to help the plight of the Jews. These scholars, authors, and journalists have created a cottage industry over the past half century arguing whether the Pontiff should have been more outspoken in leading the world in condemnation of Fascist repression and Nazi atrocities against the Jews. His detractors question why he openly denounced Marxism in his Christmas Encyclical of 1942 but did not do the same with National Socialism. Other writers contend that he should have, at the very least, excommunicated Adolf Hitler, a Catholic by birth, as a public indictment for his racist ideology and crimes against humanity. John Cornwell, author of the best-selling book Hitler’s Pope (1999), goes as far as to condemn the Pope as being anti-Semitic, “Pacelli displayed a secret antipathy toward the Jews, evident from the age of forty-three in Munich, both religious and racist, a circumstance contradicting later claims that he respected Jews and that his wartime actions and omissions had been performed with the best of intentions.”[17]

Exactly when the firestorm of criticism surrounding Pius XII’s “silence” first originated is difficult to ascertain but as Frank J. Coppa notes:

The reassessment occurred gradually. For more than a decade, Pius XII did not suffer the consequences of what some deemed his ‘sin of omission’ since the genocide was mostly ignored by most states and statesmen at that time. Consequently, from the collapse of Nazi Germany to 1963, there was considerable praise and little open criticism of Pius XII’s public neutrality during the course of World War II.[18]

That would all change after the play, The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth, opened in Berlin in 1963. The play has been cited by numerous scholars (including Coppa) as the catalyst that swayed public opinion against the Pope’s conduct during the Holocaust. The stage production of the play has been presented in various cities throughout Europe and the United States and the print edition of the text, including footnote references, has been circulated world-wide. The fictional drama, loosely based on historical facts, includes a cast of characters who played central roles in the Church-Holocaust drama including: Adolf Eichmann, the notorious SS officer and orchestrator of the Final Solution; Dr. Josef Mengele (unnamed in the play but clearly identified); Kurt Gerstein, a conflicted SS engineer who worked with poisonous gases at Auschwitz and secretly begged the Vatican Nuncio in Berlin to denounce Nazi atrocities; and Pope Pius XII, pragmatic, aloof, and stoic when discussing the fate of the Jews. Sarah Fraiman-Morris aptly describes the theme of the play: “Hochhuth’s Deputy (1961) is mostly a reproach to the Vatican and to the Pope for not protesting against Nazi Germany’s actions against Jews.”[19] When the play opened in New York on February 26, 1964, The New York Times critic Howard Taubman wrote: “The gravamen of the play is that the Pope was wanting as God’s vicar on earth when he failed to denounce the Nazi extermination of the Jews in the hideous death factories.”[20]

The wounds between the Catholic Church and Jews have still not fully healed as The New York Times reported in January 2010 before Pope Benedict’s state visit to Rome’s main synagogue:

When Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree last month that nudged nearer to sainthood his controversial wartime predecessor, Pius XII, he sparked another round of the sort of Jewish-Catholic disputations that have marked his papacy…Pope Benedict’s decision of course renewed the long standing debate over Pius’s World War II legacy (was he “silent” or even complicit in the Nazi extermination of the Jews?).[21]

The disputation surrounding the Pope may never be fully settled until the Vatican agrees to release all the sealed archives of Pius XII as it did when Pope Benedict released the records of Pius XI in 2006. In an official statement on the web page of the United States Holocaust Museum, the editors call for greater transparency from the Holy See: “The opening of the post-1939 archival material is essential to the proper assessment of Pius XII. Only then will a sound and accurate portrait of his moral leadership during the Holocaust be possible.”[22] It is the sitting pope who has the sole authority to release archival files. Perhaps the current pontiff is reluctant to open another controversial Pandora’s Box while the Church continues to deal with law suits and recriminations in the ongoing child abuse scandals?

Despite the cacophony of Pius critics, there are also supporters such as Pinchas Lapide, author of The Last Three Popes and the Jews (1967). A former Israeli consul in Milan, Lapide (now deceased), made headlines back in April 1966 when he told a New York Times reporter that the Pope deserves a memorial forest in the Judean Hills with 860,000 trees, the number of Jewish lives that were saved through Papal efforts.[23] While Lapide’s claim may be considered “fantastical”[24] by some scholars, there are others who assert that Pius was wise in maintaining Vatican neutrality during the war. They argue that his forbearance in dealing with Mussolini and Hitler saved the lives of countless Catholic priests and parishioners, not to mention Jews who found safe haven inside convents and monasteries even while Nazi troops were marching into Rome in September 1943. Ethel Mary Tinnemann is one scholar who reviewed the Vatican archives that were released and posits why the Pope may have been reluctant to speak out against Nazi oppression even when called upon to do so:

The Vatican documents convey the impression that Pius XII failed to speak for three main reasons: (1) a fear of injuring the neutral position of the Vatican and its mission to all peoples; (2) a belief that speaking would not help Jews and might cause them greater harm; and (3) a concern that Catholics might suffer greater persecution.[25]

Pius defenders also present credible evidence to support the assertion that the Pope participated in secret back-door diplomatic negotiations between Allied foreign ministers and members of the German Resistance in an effort to ouster Hitler from power. Furthermore, there is well-documented evidence that the Pope was not only privy to but also condoned at least three separate assassination plots to kill Hitler.[26] Could it therefore be conjectured that the Pope’s “silence” was nothing more than a calculated ruse to give the appearance to the Nazi leadership that the Vatican was maintaining strict neutrality especially when Nazi troops and SS forces were occupying Rome in September 1943?

In the past few years, new information, diaries, and testimonies have come to the attention of Pius scholars and researchers resulting in an avalanche of new books and journal articles being added to the ever growing historiography on the Pontiff. To help sort through this maze of Pacelli literature, this paper will present some of the current scholarship on the Pius XII controversy to see how attitudes and opinions may have changed over the years as new information has become available. Was Pius XII’s alleged “silence” attributable to the three points outlined by Tinnemann or was he guilty of anti-Semitism as Cornwell asserts? Unfortunately, nobody knows for sure what impact the Pope might have had on the course of events if he had been more vocal in his denunciations of Nazi atrocities against the Jews.

To facilitate this examination, primary and secondary sources will be referenced to analyze the historiography on this topic and to see how scholars have parsed letters, notes, diaries, and other archival materials that have been made available over the last six decades since his death. Consideration will also be given to key events during Pacelli’s long ecclesiastical career that have fueled the bonfire of controversies surrounding his Pontificate. As such, some of his more notable disclosures, official actions, and memorable life experiences will be referenced in order to facilitate a balanced assessment of his legacy. Such events include:

  1. His tenure as Vatican Nuncio to Germany from 1917-1929.
  2. His leadership role as Vatican Secretary of State during the negotiations of the Concordat with Germany signed in July, 1933.
  3. His policy of Vatican neutrality during World War II.
  4. His involvement with the German Resistance.
  5. His response to reports of atrocities against Jews in Poland and Croatia.
  6. His conduct during the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943.

Should Eugenio Pacelli be embraced as a hero saint of the Catholic Church or should he be condemned for his inaction in helping the plight of the Jews?

### End Part I ###


[1] Harold H. Tittmann Jr., Inside the Vatican of Pius XII: The Memoirs of an American Diplomat During World War II (New York: Image Books, 2004), 96.

[2] The Lateran Accords were signed on February 11, 1929 by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri on behalf of the Holy See and Prime Minister Benito Mussolini of Italy. The agreement defined the political, social, and religious relationship between the Catholic Church and State and recognized Vatican City as an independent nation.

[3] David I. Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (New York: Random House, 2014), 355.

[4] Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini, 364.

[5] Pope Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, Section 8, March 14, 1937.

[6] Frank J, Coppa, “Between Morality and Diplomacy: The Vatican’s ‘Silence’ During the Holocaust,” Journal of Church and State Vol. 50 No. 3 (Summer 2008), 549.

[7] The Concordat was an agreement signed between the Vatican and Nazi Germany in July 1933 that was modeled after the Lateran Accords signed with Italy. Details of the Concordat are covered later in this paper.

[8] Gerald Posner, God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2015), Footnote v.Kindle Location 1782.

[9] Camille M. Cianfarra, “Pope Pius is Dead at Age 81; Death at 5:31A.M.,” The New York Times (Feb. 10, 1939), 1.

[10] Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini, 373.

[11] Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini, 377.

[12] Gerald Posner, God’s Bankers, Kindle Version, Location 1800.

[13] Mark R. Elliott, “Persecution of Christians in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet and Post-Soviet Union,” East West Church Ministry Report Vol. 22 No. 3 (Summer 2014). “Unwavering Kremlin hostility toward the Vatican and fear of fifth columnists in its vulnerable western borderlands led to the nearly complete institutional demise of Catholicism on Soviet territory in two decades. Communist repression reduced the number of functioning Catholic churches from 980 in 1917 to two showcase parishes in Moscow and Leningrad in 1939. Likewise, the number of priests fell drastically from 912 in 1917 to two in August 1939. By 1934, Soviet Russia had not a single serving Catholic bishop, from 21 in 1917, not a single functioning parochial school or social institution, from 300 to 500 in 1917, and no functioning seminaries, of the four previously in operation.” http://www.eastwestreport.org/43-english/e-20-2/343-persecution-of-christians-in-tsarist-russia-and-the-soviet-and-post-soviet-union.

[14] During the early morning hours of July 19, 1943, British aircraft began bombing raids in and around Rome. By 11a.m., American bombers were striking freight yards at San Lorenzo, railroad facilities, and military airfields. In his diary entry for July 19, Harold H. Tittmann, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires to the Vatican noted, “I then learned for certain that Rome itself had been bombed, with considerable loss of civilian lives, and that the Papal basilica of San Lorenzo had been badly damaged.” Shortly after the attack, Pius XII left the Vatican and went to the bomb site at the basilica where he “knelt down in the rubble and prayed for the victims of this and other raids.”

[15] Tittmann, Inside the Vatican of Pius XII, 147.

[16] Mark Riebling, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, (New York:Basic Books, 2015), 171.

[17] John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York: Penguin Group, 1999), 295.

[18] Coppa, “Between Morality and Diplomacy, 543.

[19] Sarah Fraiman-Morris, “Faust and Job in Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy,Literature and Theology Vol 21. No.2  (June 2007), 214.

[20] Howard Taubman, “Theater: Hochhuth’s ‘Deputy’ Opens,” The New York Times (Feb. 27, 1964), 26.

[21] David Gibson, “Pope Quiz: Is Every Pontiff a Saint?” The New York Times (Jan.17, 2010), 4.

[22] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Statement on Pope Pius XII (December 21, 2009), https://www.ushmm.org/information/press/press-releases/united-states-holocaust-memorial-statement-on-pope- pius-xii.

[23] James Feron, “Israeli Author Says Efforts of Pius XII Saved Many Jews,” The New York Times (Apr 24, 1966), 1.

[24] Doris L. Bergen, “Speak of the Devil: Hubert Wolf on Pope Pius XI and the Vatican Archives.” Harvard Theological Review Vol. 105 No. 1 (Jan 2012), 117.

[25] Ethel Mary Tinnemann, “The Silence of Pope Pius XII.” Journal of Church and State Vol. 21 No. 2 (Spring 1979), 280.

[26] Mark Riebling, Church of Spies (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 93.

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Written by
Gary DeGregorio