Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII

Catholic Church officials have always insisted that Pope Pius XII did everything possible to save Jewish lives. But he remained publicly silent while some 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. (Credit: Wikipedia / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell (Penguin, 2000). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Chapter 16: Pacelli and the Holocaust

The Final Solution evolved during the first three years of the war, coinciding with the first three years of Pacelli’s papacy. Much was planned and executed in secrecy, for the Nazi regime was sensitive, fearful even, of uncontrolled public opinion. But anything so widespread as a plan to destroy an entire people could not be hidden for long, and Adolf Hitler had made clear his intentions toward the Jews on January 3, 1939. “If international Jewry,” he declared, “should succeed, in Europe or elsewhere, in precipitating nations into a world war, the result will not be the bolshevization of Europe and a victory of Judaism, but the extermination of the Jewish race.”1 At the end of July 1941, a month after the attack on Russia on June 22, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich was ordered to make all the necessary preparations for “a complete solution” of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe. By the autumn of 1941 preparations were in hand for something unprecedentedly massive and wholly unique in history: the systematic enslavement, deportation, and extermination of an entire people.

In September 1941, Hitler had decreed that all German Jews must wear the Yellow Star, already obligatory in Poland. The Yellow Star naturally had a devastating, stigmatizing, and demoralizing effect on those forced to wear it, which included Jews who had become Christians. The German Catholic bishops lodged a plea with the regime: they asked for the stars to be removed, not from all Jews but only from Catholic Jews. The Gestapo refused. October saw the first mass deportations of German Jews to the East, prompting the bishops again to discuss whether they could not ask for preferential treatment of Jewish converts to Catholicism; they decided not to incite the regime, even for the sake of their own faithful.2 That same month, officials in the Ministry for the Eastern Territories decided on the use of poison gas for extermination. In November Goebbels declared that “no compassion and certainly no sorrow is called for over the fate of the Jews. . . . Every Jew is our enemy.”3

On January 20, 1942, a meeting took place at number 58 am Grossen Wannsee, a villa overlooking the Grosser Wannsee, a lake outside Berlin. There were fifteen high-ranking officials present, and Reinhard Heydrich took the chair. Heydrich asked all present to cooperate in the implementation of “the solution.” Reading from a draft prepared by Eichmann, Heydrich ordered that, “in the course of the Final Solution, the Jews should be brought under appropriate direction in a suitable manner to the East for labor utilization. Separated by sex, the Jews capable of work will be led into these areas in large labor columns to build roads, whereby doubtless a large part will fall away through natural reduction.”4

According to statistics prepared by Eichmann for the conference, eleven million Jews would “fall away,” including Jews in countries as yet unconquered. Croatia, the Catholic state that had enjoyed Pacelli’s special approval, was declared a place where there was no longer a problem, as “the essential key questions have already been resolved.” Eichmann was to head the operation of the “Final Solution” from his headquarters in Berlin, and his representatives were to travel to all the occupied capitals, reporting back as each deportation was planned and executed.

The deportations began in March 1942 and continued until 1944. Death camps were designed and staffed in remote areas of former Poland—Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno, and Majdanek. Transportation became a priority, involving a complex bureaucracy of timetables, rented railway cars, shunting arrangements, and provision of guards. Eichmann’s representatives were dispatched for these purposes to France, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, Norway, Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

By the end of the war, some six million Jews had perished.

The “Final Solution” constituted an unprecedented test of the Christian faith, a religion based on the concept of agape, the love that accords each individual, irrespective of difference, equal respect as a child of God—the love that, as Pacelli had declared in his first encyclical of 1941, quoting St. Paul’s utterance of Christian universality, does not discriminate between “Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all.” Christians were thus faced with a historic moral challenge. Was it not a clear Christian duty to protest and resist the extermination of the Jews, whatever the consequences?

Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, had a long history of anti-Judaism on religious grounds that had by no means abated in the twentieth century. It was not part of Catholic culture to persecute Jews on the basis of Hitlerian racial ideology, let alone condone the extermination of the race. And yet 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, Franco, Pétain, Mussolini, Pavelic, and Tiso (who was a Catholic priest). There were isolated but significant examples of Catholic bishops expressing anti-Semitic views even as the persecution of Jews gathered pace in Germany in the mid-1930s. In 1936, for example, Cardial Hlond, primate of Poland, opined: “There will be the Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain.”5 Pius XI had tardily repudiated racism in his famous encyclical Mit brennender Sorge in 1937, but there was residual anti-Judaism within the treatise, as we have seen. Despite a clear lead from the Pontiff, the Slovak bishops, for example, issued a pastoral letter that repeated the traditional accusations that the Jews were deicides.6 There was evidence of anti-Judaism, even anti-Semitism, in the heart of the wartime Vatican. The leading Dominican theologian and neo-Thomist Garrigou-Lagrange was a theological adviser to Pacelli and at the same time a keen supporter of Pétain. He was a close friend of the Vichy ambassador to the Holy See. In an infamous dispatch, the diplomat told his government that the Holy See did not object to the Vichy anti-Jewish legislation and he even supplied source notes from Thomas Aquinas which had been assembled by Rome-based neo-Thomists.7

But where did Eugenio Pacelli, now acclaimed and self-proclaimed as Vicar of Christ upon earth, stand on the issue of the persecution, deportation, and destruction of the Jews?

Pacelli’s Journey into Silence

Throughout 1942, Pacelli received a flow of reliable information on the details of the Final Solution. It came not all at once but gradually. At the same time, he was obliged to listen to mounting pleas from all over the world for a clear denunciation.

On February 9, 1942, just twenty days after the Wannsee Conference, Hitler made a hysterical broadcast declaring that “the Jews will be liquidated for at least a thousand years!” The speech was reprinted in Rome’s Messaggero newspaper and it caught the attention of both Osborne, the British minister to the Holy See, and Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione, who commented to Osborne on “Hitler’s new outburst against the Jews.”8 The story of Osborne’s attempts from inside the Vatican to get Pacelli to speak provides an ideal perspective from which to track the course of Pacelli’s knowledge and reactions.

On March 18, 1942, the Vatican received the memorandum by Richard Lichtheim and Gerhard Riegner sent via the nuncio in Berne, outlining violent anti-Semitic measures in Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, and Unoccupied France. The plea focused attention on those Catholic countries where the Pope had influence. Apart from an intervention in the case of Slovakia, where the president was Monsignor Josef Tiso, no papal reactions or interventions resulted, as far as we can see from the Vatican’s own documents, save for mild local initiatives of the nuncio in France.9

During the same month, a flow of dispatches came into the Vatican from various sources in Eastern Europe describing the fate of some ninety thousand Jews, among whom there were significant numbers of “baptized,” who had been sent to camps in Poland.10 The nuncio in
Bratislava commented that the deportation was the equivalent of sending a large number to certain death.

Throughout the spring of 1942, the world was increasingly apprised of the Nazi policy of slaying hostages in occupied territories in reprisal for partisan attacks. These were well known in the Vatican because the Germans were happy to advertise the fact to discourage further attacks. Osborne had been keeping a tally to pass on to the Pope, and he wrote on April 21 to his friend and frequent wartime correspondent Mrs. Bridget McEwen: “Yesterday being Hitler’s birthday, I wore a black tie in mourning of the millions he has massacred and tortured.” He mentioned that day to Cardinal Maglione a private theory of his—that “Hitler and all his diabolic works may be the process of the casting out of the devil in the subconscious of the German race” and that “they may, when the painful process is completed, turn into decent members of the society of nations.” Maglione, however, “seemed to wave it indulgently aside as a childish folly.”11

The hostage atrocities came to a crisis after Reinhard Heydrich, the Final Solution chief, was assassinated in Prague by two Czech resistance fighters flown in from Britain by British intelligence. Ten thousand people were arrested and thirteen hundred of them murdered. On June 9–10, the village of Lidice, held responsible for sheltering the assassins, was destroyed and all of its men and boys were executed.

The next day, Osborne wrote to Mrs. McEwen: “It has been made clear to me that H.H. [His Holiness] is in rather bad odour with the F.O. [British Foreign Office], and, I daresay, the British public too. It’s a good deal his own fault, but on the other it isn’t, he being as he is. I’m sorry about it, but I think there is much to be said on his side.”12

The remark aptly reveals the collapse of Pacelli’s reputation in Britain as a result of his silence, and yet the ambivalence evoked in those who were close to him within the Vatican. Two days later, Osborne felt less ambivalent when he saw below the papal apartments a multitude of First Communion children awaiting the Pope. It was “an appealing sight,” Osborne conceded in his diary entry for June 13, “but unfortunately the moral leadership of the world is not retained by mass reception of Italian first communicants.” Adolf Hitler, Osborne reflected, “needed more than the benevolence of the Pastor Angelicus, and moral leadership is not assured by the unapplied recital of the Commandments.”13

When the United States entered the war in December of 1941 following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Washington asked its counselor at the Rome embassy, Harold Tittmann, to take up residence within the Vatican on the same basis as Osborne. The Vatican was at first reluctant, but after much diplomatic wrangling Tittmann got the appropriate accreditation on May 2, 1942, and there began an unprecedented diplomatic relationship between the Holy See and Washington.

From this point on, Osborne and Tittmann had conversations, records of which appear in their official papers, about the stance of Pacelli. Osborne, according to Tittmann, declared that the Pope was unpopular in Britain and that his government was convinced that the Pontiff was hedging his bets on an Axis victory. On June 16, 1942, Tittmann filed a report to Washington expressing the view that Pacelli was diverting himself, ostrichlike, into purely religious concerns and that the moral authority won for the papacy by Pius XI was being eroded. He had pleaded with Cardinal Maglione to issue a denunciation of the reprisals taken for Heydrich’s death, but the Secretary of State had merely shaken his head, remarking that it would only make things worse.14 Tittmann ended by rehearsing his usual theory about Pacelli’s inertia and silence: that Pacelli thought it better to anger his friends rather than his enemies, since the friends were more likely to forgive the sins of omission. The impression is that the diplomatic corps within the Vatican was baffled by Pacelli’s behavior and casting around for explanations.

In the last week of that month, June 1942, the plight of the Jews within Nazi Europe—a million of whom had died by this stage—became a matter of world knowledge through the press and radio. The first newspaper to report that the Jews were being not only persecuted but exterminated was the London Daily Telegraph, which ran a prominent series. The first article on June 25 stated: “More than 700,000 Polish Jews have been slaughtered by the Germans in the greatest massacres in the world’s history.” The report, based on a dispatch sent secretly to Shmuel Zygilebojm, the Jewish representative on the Polish National Council, claimed that the killings were being carried out with the use of poison gas. Zygilebojm later committed suicide as a result of what he felt to be the indifference of the West. A second article, which appeared on June 30, carried the headline: “more than 1,000,000 jews killed in europe,” and claimed that it was the aim of the Nazis “to wipe the race from the European continent.” Both articles were reported on the BBC, and thus came via Osborne to the Pope’s attention. The New York Times carried the stories on June 30 and July 2, and this led to a protest rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden on July 21. At about this time, detailed information about Polish death camps was leaked to the West by three Jewish escapees; their stories also appeared in American newspapers.

During the last week of July, Osborne, Tittmann, and the Brazilian ambassador Pinto Accioly met to agree on a plan to make Pacelli speak out against the Nazi atrocities. Two days later, Osborne confided in his diary, “I have no doubt that, if it were possible, he would expend his sympathies on other peoples. Only why, then, does he not denounce the German atrocities against the populations of the Occupied Countries?”

The historian Owen Chadwick casts doubt on whether, despite this flow of information, Pacelli was yet fully in the picture about the true plight of the Jews, and suggests that even Osborne himself had his doubts about the reports.15 Osborne’s recently discovered letters, written from inside the Vatican, tell a different story. On July 31, 1942, he wrote to Mrs. McEwen as follows:

You remember your last letter, at least the last I have received, with its diatribe against the silence of the Vatican in the face of the German atrocities in the Occupied Countries? It is so exactly what I feel, and have been saying, and what others have been saying, and it is so admirably expressed, that I am sending a very slightly edited copy of it to the Pope. I do hope you won’t think this an abuse of confidence. I say that it comes from a Catholic friend of mine and that I think it is of interest as an indication of British opinion, Protestant and Catholic. Personally I agree with every word of it and have said much the same at the Vatican. It is very sad. The fact is that the moral authority of the Holy See, which Pius XI and his predecessors had built up into a world power, is now sadly reduced. I suspect that H.H. [His Holiness] hopes to play a great role as peace-maker and that it is partly at least for this reason that he tries to preserve a position of neutrality as between the belligerents. But, as you say, the German crimes have nothing to do with neutrality . . . and the fact is that the Pope’s silence is defeating its own purpose because it is destroying his prospects of contributing to peace. Meanwhile he canalizes his frustration by being the Pastor Angelicus, thereby exhausting himself and sapping his own morale. It is most unfortunate that that Irish monk, Malachi, wasn’t it, selected “Pastor Angelicus” for the 262nd Pope. If he had said “Leo Furibundus” [Ferocious Lion] things might have been very different. A film is being made here, for world distribution, to be called “Pastor Angelicus.” I cannot say how I deplore this. It is like Hollywood publicity.16


1. Quoted in L. Poliakov, Harvest of Hate (London, 1956), 17.
2. Guenter Lewy, “The Jewish Question,” in The Star and the Cross, ed. C. T. Hargrove (Milwaukee, 1966), 162.
3. Quoted in M. Gilbert, Final Journey (London, 1979), 64.
4. Quoted in M. Gilbert, Holocaust (London, 1987), 281–82. 404 Notes
5. Quoted in J. Carroll, “The Silence,” The New Yorker, April 7, 1997.
6. Y. Bauer, Jews for Sale: Nazi Jewish Negotiations, 1933–1945 (Yale, 1994), 69.
7. F. Kerr, “French Theology: Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac,” in D. Ford, ed., The Modern Theologians (Oxford, 1997), 112.
8. Osborne’s diary quoted in O. Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War (Cambridge, England, 1986), 205.
9. S. Friedländer, Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation, Eng. trans. (London, 1966), 104.
10. ADSS, viii, 457.
11. Letter Osborne to McEwan, April 21, 1942.
12. Letter Osborne to McEwan, June 11, 1942.
13. Osborne’s diary quoted in Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican, 206.
14. Tittmann’s papers cited in Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican, 207.
15. Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican, 208–9.
16. Letter Osborne to McEwan, July 31, 1942.

Excerpted from Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, by John Cornwell. Copyright © John Cornwell, 2000. All rights reserved.

John Cornwell FRSL is a British journalist, author, and academic. Since 1990 he has directed the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he was also, until 2017, Founder and Director of the Rustat Conferences. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters (University of Leicester) in 2011. In addition to his books on the relationship between science, ethics and the humanities, he has written widely on the Catholic Church and the modern papacy.

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