January 2000

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Hitler's Pope:
The Secret History of Pius XII

by Woody Arbunkle

Hitler's Pope:
The Secret History
of Pius XII

John Cornwell
426 pp.

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When he began doing the research for Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, John Cornwell didn't set out to write a stinging condemnation. Of course, Pius XII has often been accused of making inadequate efforts to save Jews from Nazi prison camps, but Cornwell believed (at least initially) that if Eugenio Pacelli's "full story were told"--from childhood on--his pontificate as Pius XII "would be vindicated." So Cornwell approached the Vatican, he writes, and told them he was on the Pope's side. Archivists readily granted him access to previously unseen material. Then the problems started. "By the end of 1997, nearing the end of my research," Cornwell writes, "I found myself in a state I can only describe as moral shock. The material I had gathered, taking the more extensive view of Pacelli's life, amounted not to an exoneration but to a wider indictment."

As Cornwell readily acknowledges,


Eugenio Pacelli was no monster; his case is far more complex, more tragic than that. The interest of his story depends on a fatal combination of high spiritual aspirations in conflict with soaring ambition for power and control. His is not a portrait of evil but of fatal moral dislocation--a separation of authority from Christian love. The consequences of that rupture were collusion with tyranny and, ultimately, violence.


Pacelli's fatal flaw, as Cornwell would describe it, was his life-long drive to strengthen the Vatican by centralizing its authority over the Church's far-flung bishops and priests (Pacelli wasn't alone in this drive; it dates back to the mid-nineteenth century). This is manifest in his work as one of the principal architects of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, for instance. But it is Pacelli's work in negotiating the Reich Concordat of 1933 that serves as the best example of the tragic outcome of Pacelli's preoccupation with centralizing papal authority.

Catholicism had grown significantly in post-war Germany, and as Cornwell writes, up to 1933 it "remained the largest single social institution in the country." As the driving force behind the Center Party, it also exercised considerable political influence. Unfortunately, the German Catholic priests' criticism of the National Socialist Party (vehement by 1930) was at odds with the Vatican's own view of the Nazis, according to Cornwell. As far as the Vatican was concerned, Communism offered a much worse (and more overt) threat to the papacy.

Pacelli's abiding desire throughout the negotiations was to unite all German Catholics under "the full force of Canon law." And, as Cornwell acknowledges, Pacelli thought the negotiations showed Hitler's willingness to recognize the legitimacy of the Church's legislation. But Hitler made a crushing demand for, in Cornwell's words, "nothing less than the voluntary withdrawal of German Catholics from social and political action as Catholics, including the voluntary disbanding of the Center Party, by then the sole surviving viable democratic party in Germany." Blinded by his desire for strengthened papal authority, Pacelli agreed.

With hindsight, the Reich Concordat was clearly a tragic mistake. In addition to dismantling the last political force against Hitler, it took away the German clergy's ability to speak out individually against the Nazis' increasingly overt persecution of the Jews. At the time, though, the Vatican thought it had made the right decision in approving it, and Pacelli's role in its negotiation was praised. When Pope Pius XI died in 1939, Pacelli was the obvious choice to replace him. His nineteen-year-long reign was marked publicly by saintly quiescence (which troubled the anti-Nazi movement during the war, of course, because he never decisively spoke out against the Nazis) and privately by a disciplined determination that belied his Angelic Shepherd countenance (as Cornwell acknowledges, Pacelli actually considered accepting a plan to depose Hitler during the war, and his anti-Communist zeal preoccupied him after the war).

Cornwell's portrait of Pacelli is certainly not flattering. His descriptions of Pacelli's reclusive tendencies and his rather prim confidence in himself is likely to leave the reader with the feeling that spending an evening with Pacelli wouldn't have been all that fun--or even spiritually uplifting. But Cornwell is right to claim that it isn't the portrait of a monster. While his book isn't likely to gain him friends among devout Catholics, it is a strong, meticulously researched study of a man whose good intentions led him into tragically misguided decisions. Pacelli can't be blamed for Hitler's war against the Jews, and Cornwell doesn't suggest he should be. But his documentation of Pacelli's failure to force the Church to stand up against it when its own priests spoke out against Hitler is damning, indeed.

Whether the reason for Pacelli's silence after the mass extermination of Jews became known lay in a secret, deep-seated anti-Semitism (as Cornwell suggests might have been the case) or merely in a self-interested desire to hedge his bets in case the Axis Powers prevailed (the Vatican, after all, was defenseless against either an Italian or a German assault) seems irrelevant, in Cornwell's estimate. As he writes, "That failure to utter a candid word about the Final Solution in progress proclaimed to the world that the Vicar of Christ was not moved to pity and anger. From this point of view he was the ideal Pope for Hitler's unspeakable plan. He was Hitler's pawn. He was Hitler's Pope."


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