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Review: The Pope at War
June 17, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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The Pope At War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler

by David I Kertzer. Random House, New York, 2022

Much of what David Kertzer writes about World War II Italy, the Vatican, Pope Pius XII, and the German, Italian, Spanish, and French fascist regimes is already well known, to those who care to know. While Kertzer had access to newly opened Vatican archives, and the revelations should be explosive, the Roman Catholic Church is betting that, like some unexploded World War II bomb, the news will not put the church in danger. These things happened over 80 years ago. The players are dead and cannot be tried and hung for their crimes. Most of the thrust of the book simply confirms what was said, for instance, in The Vatican in World Politics by Avro Manhattan, published in 1949.

For those who do not know the history, it should be an interesting read. After the Catholic Church and its allies lost World War II, it was recast as a war between the evil atheists Hitler and Mussolini and the Good Guys, the British, French and American empires and the good Pope, Pius XII, with his band of rebellious Catholics who saved as many Jews from the Holocaust as was possible, given the circumstances.

The Pope At War

Back in reality, as Kertzer shows, Hitler, Mussolini, General Franco and Pius XII played on the same team. Sure, Hitler was less of a team player than the others. Sure, Pius XII thought everyone should obey him, not the other way around. He and his predecessor, Pius XI, had helped Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco come to power, but that is before the book begins. Eugenio Pacelli was born in 1876 and became Pope in 1939, taking the name Pius XII.

The book has several themes, supported by numerous quotes from newspapers and Vatican documents, including a particularly disturbing set of archives that were only released to scholars in 2020. The main theme people may be interested in is the Pope's treatment of the Jews: did he try to save them, or was he complicit in the Holocaust? A major point of the book was the close cooperation between Italian fascism and the Catholic Church. Whether the Pope worked for peace in World War II is deeply examined. A lesser, though important theme, was the relationship between Pius XII and Adolf Hitler and the German government.

Regarding the Jews, after the war the Catholic Church heavily promoted the idea that it saved as many Jews as it could, and that Pius XII led that effort. During the 1930s and then during the war most observers saw the Church fail to support Jews. To create the myth of the courageous Church with a Pope and hierarchy protecting Jews against the terrible Nazis, after the war the Church made claims to that effect. In the United States, in particular, because the Church joined the Cold War crusade against communism, propagandists promoted that story line. The Pope At War makes clear, including with recently released documentation from the Vatican archives, that Pius XII mainly did nothing to save Jews. The only Jews he did anything at all for, and very little for them, were those who had converted to Catholicism, including Catholics with a Jewish ancestor that the Pope and Church claimed should be classified as Aryan. This was a tiny percentage of the Jews of Italy and other Nazi controlled areas like Germany, Poland, Ukraine, and France.

Only in 1943, when the Allies successfully invaded Sicily and were preparing to invade mainland Italy, and Mussolini had been removed from office, did Pius XII push to save the Catholics of Jewish ancestry by redefining who was a Jew. "In the five years since those laws had gone into effect, Father Tacchi Venturi, the pope's unofficial Jesuit emissary to Mussolini, had repeatedly complained to the government on his behalf about the ways they were being applied. Now the Jesuit was eager to act. Seeking papal approval, he wrote the Cardinal Maglione urging that they take advantage of the changed government to remedy 'the painful condition in which, due to their ancestry, not a few Catholics of so-called mixed families find themselves.'" The Pope ordered that the request for changes in law enforcement should ensure that "the racial laws were applied only to those whom the church regarded as Jews." [p. 334]

The cooperation, and occasional antagonism, between the Catholic Church and the fascist government of Italy is documented and explained in deep detail. At the time, and then especially after the fascist government fell, Pius XII and the Church complained about anti-clerical trends in the Fascist movement, which were real enough. But Mussolini and his Fascist Party wanted a united nation, and that caused them to make the Catholic Church the official state religion. All schools in Italy had Catholic religious instructions. The conflicts between church and state took two forms. One was that of individuals: both the Roman Catholic Church and the Fascist Party included very large numbers of people, some of whom did found fault with their partners. But that is normal: there was probably as much intra-fascist and intra-church disagreement as there was conflict between Church and State. Kertzer gives numerous examples, quoted from newspapers and documents, of praise and cooperation between church and state during this period. Included are back-and-forths between Mussolini and Pius XII over various incidents, all of which resulted in mutual agreements.

But reading The Pope At War might give a wrong impression of the relationship between Hitler and Pius XII. There are many illustrations of Pius XII complaining about the Nazis. The book says very little about the Church in Germany (Deutschland), and of course readers are right to assume that the Nazis were evil. But the Nazis were a very large group, and on religion fell into four camps: roughly [these are my guestimates, not Kertzer's] 30% Catholic (including Hitler and Von Papen]; 60% Lutheran; 10% rabid nationalist or Teutonic pagan. Within the Catholics and Lutherans was a range from fervent to nominal. Hitler had to balance all this, and his criteria was German nationalism. While there were many minor conflicts between Nazis and certain German Catholics, and the Pope, the real complaint of Pius XII was that, unlike Mussolini, Hitler did not make Catholicism the mandatory state religion. German nationalism was prioritized over Catholic instruction. But is that not the same system followed in the USA? The other issue was pederast priests. Pius XII and anti-Nazi propagandists point to the Nazi prosecution of pederast priests as anti-church. But as Kertzer does document, the Church, all the way up to the pope, protected pederast priests, and internal church documents showed those who were prosecuted were knonw to the church. Sound familiar?

Returning to the War, the documentation is extensive, deep, and supported by the recently opened Vatican archives. As war approached the Pope took the position that he was for peace. Yet he refused to criticize the nations that were aggressors. Not Nazi Germany and not Italy. He repeatedly encouraged the church in Italy to support the Italian military. My favorite incident: "He praised the efforts of the archbishop of Milan, who had recently convinced hundreds of thousands of the faithful to sign a pledge that they deposited at the feet of the Madonna a the city's famed Duomo. If the Madonna agreed to bring Italy victory in the war, they would all say the rosary daily, stop going to see movies that promoted immodest fashions, and devote their families to the Sacred Heart of Mary." [p. 296]

The Allies, America and Britain, are not without fault, but this arises only as an occasional detail. "The claim that Hitler was planning to kidnap the pope, later often cited by defenders of Pius XII in explaining his actions, was an invention of Allied propaganda." If you understand that purposely bombing civilians is a war crime, there are numerous instances cited of Britain, and later America, doing that to Italian cities, though Kertzer does not use the term.

Almost nothing good happens in The Pope At War. It consists of hundreds of pages of bad human behavior. This will not appeal to a broad set of readers. Hopefully, it will inform other histories of the era and of the Papacy. I doubt it will ever trickle down to Roman Catholic schools, or even universities. It will not shake the Faithful. But at least it is there for people who want to know the truth about what happened during World War II and why.


Pius XII



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