Vatican documents reveal secret back channel between Pope Pius XII and Hitler

13 June 2022

David Kertzer has used newly declassified Vatican documents to provide a far fuller portrait of the wartime pope than ever before.

David Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, has spent decades excavating the Vatican’s hidden history, with his book “The Pope and Mussolini” winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. His new book “The Pope at War” examines Pope Pius XII’s role in the Holocaust.

In August 1939, Adolf Hitler engaged in secret negotiations with Pope Pius XII, the existence of which the Vatican has eagerly kept hidden for eight decades. Knowledge of them has only now come to light with the recent opening of the Pius XII archives at the Vatican. An excerpt from “The Pope at War” revealing these secret meetings can be read at The Atlantic:

Pius XI died in early 1939, much to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s relief. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who had been the secretary of state, was elected pope, taking the name Pius XII. Hitler now saw a chance to improve relations with the Vatican, or in any case to keep the new pope from openly criticizing his regime. As his secret go-between with the pope, he chose 36-year-old Prince Philipp von Hessen, the son-in-law of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III. Few German aristocrats had a more illustrious pedigree than von Hessen, whose grandfather was the German emperor Frederick III and whose great-grandmother was Britain’s Queen Victoria. He was an early member of the SA, the Nazi Party’s storm troopers, and wore its brown-shirted uniform. And he had experience keeping secrets, having taken steps to prevent his amorous relationship with the English poet Siegfried Sassoon from coming to light.

Shortly after Pacelli’s election, Hitler summoned von Hessen to his headquarters. Given the new pope’s evident eagerness to turn the page on the Vatican’s rocky relations with the National Socialist regime, Hitler had decided to explore the possibility of a deal. Von Hessen was told to see if he could schedule a secret meeting with the pope to begin discussions.

To maintain secrecy, the talks between von Hessen and the pope had to be arranged through unofficial channels. The roundabout route, which would be used repeatedly over the next two years, involved a man named Raffaele Travaglini, a shadowy friend of Prince Umberto, Italy’s future king and the brother of von Hessen’s wife, Princess Mafalda. Travaglini was a schemer and self-promoter, as well as an avid fascist. And he was deeply enmeshed in a social network that reached into the Vatican.

Kertzer argues that the unearthed documents of Pius XII show him as neither an antisemitic monster nor a hero. According to The New York Times, Kertzer “makes the case that Pius XII’s overriding dread of Communism, his belief that the Axis powers would win the war, and his desire to protect the church’s interests all motivated him to avoid offending Hitler and Mussolini, whose ambassadors had worked to put him on the throne. The pope was also worried, the book shows, that opposing the Führer would alienate millions of German Catholics”.

The Independent reports:

The 484-page book, and its nearly 100 pages of endnotes, portrays a timid pontiff who wasn’t driven by antisemitism, but rather a conviction that Vatican neutrality was the best and only way to protect the interests of the Catholic Church as the war raged on.

To assuage that fear, Kertzer writes, Pius charted a paralyzingly cautious course to avoid conflict at all costs with the Nazis. Direct orders went to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano not to write about German atrocities — and to ensure seamless cooperation with the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in the Vatican’s backyard.

That meant never saying a word in public to explicitly denounce SS massacres, even when Jews were being rounded up right outside the Vatican walls, as they were on Oct. 16, 1943, and put on trains bound for Auschwitz.

Vatican documents show secret back channel between Pope Pius XII and Adolph Hitler

The Pope at War

“The Vatican’s Secret Archive and World War II” with David Kertzer

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