Ten years ago this fall, British author John Cornwell published Hitler's Pope, a strident attack against Pius XII, depicting him as an unwitting tool of the Nazis. Cornwell argued that Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) was among the most dangerous men of the twentieth century, whose political machinations assisted Hitler's rise to power, helping seal the fate of European Jewry.
The book caused a sensation. Vanity Fair ran long excerpts; it was serialized in the Times of London, and Cornwell appeared on "60 Minutes" to expand upon his thesis. The moniker "Hitler's Pope" became synonomous with Pius XII, and was invoked at every turn, by the Church's enemies, to deride the moral authority of the papacy.
As is so often the case, however, God uses an attack on the Church to highlight important truths. In this case, Cornwell provided an opportunity for Pius's supporters to highlight his accomplishments. Shortly after Hitler's Pope appeared, the L'Osservatore Romano exposed the falsehood of Cornwell's claims about the Vatican archives, which in fact offer ample proof of Pius XII's good deed, and Fr. Peter Gumpel, S.J., who oversees the wartime pontiff's cause, published a point-by-point rebuttal. Prof. Ronald Rychlak, employing far better sources than Cornwell, followed with Hitler, the War and the Pope, an acclaimed defense of Pius; The Pius War: Responses to the Citics of Pius XII, a major anthology, appeared; and Rabbi David Dalin completed the counter-attack with The Myth of Hitler's Pope. Cornwell has been in retreat ever since.
Unfortunately, once a myth gets started, its very difficult to contain. Even though reputable historians, and an increasing amount of laymen, now know the truth about Pius, the Hitler's Pope mythology persists. As Cambridge historian Owen Chadwick lamented: "It is still believed by many people that Pope Pius XII was a friend of the Nazis, or that he said nothing at all against racial murder during the war, or that he was so frightened for his own skin or his own palace that he was too timid to say anything whatever, or that he arranged Vatican money to help monsters like Eichmann to escape to South America." These claims are "fables," said Chadwick.
Contrary to Cornwell, Pacelli's time as papal nuncio to Germany (1917-1929) and Cardinal Secretary of State to Pius XI (1930-1939), was marked by a fierce and principled opposition to Nazism, a policy he continued into his pontificate (1939-1958). In the years leading up to World War II, Pacelli foresaw impending doom, at a time when many others remained blind.
"In March 1935," writes Rabbi Dalin, "in an open letter to the bishop of Cologne, Pacelli called the Nazis 'false prophets with the pride of Lucifer.' That same year, speaking to an enormous crowd of pilgrims at Lourdes, he assailed ideologies 'possessed by the superstition of race and blood.' At the Cathedral of Notre Dame two years later he named Germany 'that noble and powerful nation whom bad shepherds woud lead astray into an ideology of race.' The Nazis were 'diabolical,' he told friends. Hitler is 'completely obsessed,' he said to his longtime secretary, Sister Pascalina. 'All that is not of use to him, he destroys...this man is capable of trampling on corpses.' Meeting with the heroic anti-Nazi Dietrich von Hildebrand, he declared: 'There can be no possible reconciliation' between Christianity and Nazi racism; they were like 'fire and water.'"
In 1937, Cardinal Pacelli drafted Pius XI's famous anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge ("With Burning Anxiety"). That same year, he told the American diplomat A.W. Klieforth that Hitler was not only untrustworthy, but "a fundamentally wicked person." Pacelli, recorded Klieforth, "did not believe that Hitler was capable of moderation" and so "opposed unalterably every compromise with National Socialism."
Little wonder then, that when Pacelli succeeded Pius XI as pope, on March 2, 1939, the Nazi press denounced his election; Germany was the only major power that did not send a representative to the coronation.
Pius XII's pontificate was, as John Paul II and Benedict have said, a "great" one, highlighted by his courageous leadership during World War II. His first encyclical letter, Summi Pontificatus, issued just months after his election, was a scorching condemnation of racism and warmongering, and recognized as an attack upon the Third Reich. His public condemnations of the Holocaust, open embrace of Jews, and active support for Catholic rescue, earned the enmity of the Nazis -- who branded Pius "a mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals--" but won him praise throughout the civilized world.
When I asked Sir Martin Gilbert, the renowned historian, if he agreed with the Vatican's assessment, in its 1998 document on the Holocaust, that the Church under Pius saved "hundreds of thousands" of Jews, he replied: "Yes, that is certainly correct. Hundreds of thousands of Jews saved by the entire Catholic Church, under the leadership and with the support of Pope Pius XII, would, to my mind, be absolutely correct." These are facts which no amount of propaganda, or anti-papal polemics, can erase.
Perhaps the most dramatic act of Pius XII's papacy is one that remains the least known: his assistance in a plot to overthrow Hitler. The most famous attempt to oust Hitler was led by Claus, Count von Stauffenberg (a Catholic Colonel) in 1944--a story recently told in the remarkable film "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise. But there were earlier, equally daring, plots, including one initiated in 1939, the same year Pius XII became pope. At the end of that year, shortly after World War II began, elements of the anti-Nazi resistance contacted the Vatican in hopes of garnering Pius XII's support to remove Hitler, with sought-for cooperation from Britain. The magnitude of that initiative is described by Chadwick: "The Pope was being invited to engage in a conspiracy to overthrow a tyrant, and incidentally to put himself and his aides into those dire risks which attend conspirators....Never in all history had a Pope engaged so delicately in a conspiracy to overthrow a tyrant by force."
Despite these extraordinary dangers, Pius XII agreed to act as a middleman, declaring, "The German opposition must be heard in Britain." Alas, because of events outside the pope's control, the plot wasn't carried out that year, but Pius won the confidence of the German Resistance, with whom he maintained relations-- right up until Stauffenberg's heroic (but unsuccessful) effort, on July 20, 1944, after which Hitler arrested and executed the leading resisters. In fact there is evidence linking Pius to that plot, too: a German report to Hitler, prepared by SS General Ernst Kaltenbrunner, dated November 29, 1944, outlines the backround of the July plot, and specifically names Pope Pius XII as a co-conspirator.
These weren't the only high-stake plots involving the pope. There was another conspiracy, a kind of malevolent reverse of the noble ones against Hitler: a plot to kidnap or kill Pope Pius XII.
Many authors have long maintained that Adolf Hitler targetted Pius, as he was a major obstacle to the Fuehrer's plans for world domination. But some historians have questioned such a plot ever existed, because much of the evidence about it comes from General Karl Wolff (the SS Commander in Italy), and Rudolf Rahn (German ambassador to Italy) -- two highly controversial wartime figures. Recently, however, new testimony has emerged revealing that, at least on this issue, Wolff and Rahn were correct.
On June 16, Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops, recounted the testimony of Niki Freytag Loringhoven, whose father, Wessel, was an anti-Nazi German Colonel, who learned of Hitler's intentions soon after they materialized. According to Niki, days after Hitler's ally, Benito Mussolini, had been arrested, Hitler, in retaliation, ordered his main security office to punish the Italian people by kidnapping or murdering the leader they respected most: Pope Pius XII. Learning of the plot, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the German counterintelligence service, met with his Italian Counterpart, General Cesare Ame, secretly in Venice, on July 29-30, 1943. Also present at the meeting were the aforementioned Wessel Freytag von Loringhoven, and Erwin von Lahousen--all members of the anti-Nazi resistance. Upon returning to Rome, Ame spread word about the pending plans against the pope, and the anti-papal plot was narrowly averted. According to Avvenire, all this coincides with the deposition given by von Lahousen, at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, on Feb. 1, 1946.
These revelations, coupled with other new discoveries and testimonies, are gradually reversing the Hitler's Pope mythology, even as sporadic attacks against Pius and the Church continue. (Caretakers of the myth -- ranging from Communists to Catholic dissenters -- have ideological reasons for keeping these falsehoods alive). The so-called "Pius War" is not only advancing, but advancing in the right direction. It's only a matter of time before all fair-minded people, not just the Church, will recognize Pius XII as the man he really was: not "Hitler's Pope," but one of Hitler's greatest enemies -- who may yet be proclaimed a saint. Pius XII is a pontiff of whom all Catholics can be proud.
William Doino Jr. writes for Inside the Vatican and other publications. His 80,000-word annotated bibliography on Pius XII appears in The Pius War (Lexington Books, 2004), He has appeared on EWTN and many radio programs to speak about the Church's record during the Holocaust; and was part of a three-day Pius XII symposium, last September, in Rome, hosted by the Pave the Way Foundation. The conference ended with a private meeting with Pope Benedict at Castelgandolfo, where the Holy Father delivered a major address praising Pius XII.