The Pope at War
David I. Kertzer

The Pope at War - Book Summary

The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler

Duration: 21:08
Release Date: November 25, 2023
Book Author: David I. Kertzer
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, History
Duration: 21:08
Release Date: November 25, 2023
Book Author: David I. Kertzer
Categories: Religion & Spirituality, History

In this episode of 20 Minute Books, we delve into the complex and historically critical time of World War II through the lens of one of the Vatican's most controversial figures in "The Pope at War." Based on the recently released documents from the Vatican in 2020, this thought-provoking narrative exposes the hidden interactions and clandestine negotiations of Pope Pius XII, born Eugenio Pacelli, with none other than Adolf Hitler.

Author David L. Kertzer, an acclaimed historian, anthropologist, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his work "The Pope and Mussolini," brings his expertise to the table, unveiling the untold stories that have long been shrouded in secrecy. This meticulous account not only sketches the profile of a pope during one of history's darkest periods but also probes the fundamental questions pertaining to the moral and ethical responsibilities of religious and political leaders.

"The Pope at War" is catered to those who hold a deep interest in the intricacies of World War II history, scholars of Catholic doctrine and history, and any individual intrigued by the philosophical dilemma of why individuals perceived as virtuous may make questionable choices. Join us as we step back into a period that changed the course of history, exploring the actions and decisions at the intersection of faith and power.

The complex legacy of Pope Pius XII

Delving into the annals of history, we find Pope Pius XII, a figure shrouded in controversy, with perceptions of him ranging from "Hitler's Pope" to the rescuer of Jews during the dark times of World War II. That said, recent revelations from the Vatican — millions of documents from Pope Pius XII's time — have brought us closer to deciphering the mystery surrounding the man beneath the papal vestments.

Among the troves of released information, a curious revelation stands out — the existence of a "Nazi Prince," a shadowy operative who served as an intermediary in covert dealings between the pope and Adolf Hitler himself. These secret discussions lend credence to the complexity of ecclesial and political moves during one of humanity's most tumultuous eras.

These documents — shedding light on decisions, actions, and, crucially, inactions of the pope during the zenith of the war — force us to confront a disconcerting question: Can remaining silent in times of moral crisis be tantamount to criminality, especially from a pedestal as powerful as the papacy?

In this narrative, we're about to embark on a journey through the corridors of history, exploring the ascent of Eugenio Pacelli to the papal throne as Pope Pius XII, the clandestine negotiations that colored his tenure, his disturbing quiescence amidst wartime atrocities, and the aftermath of his papacy that still echoes today.

Transition of power and the foreshadowing of silence

The year 1939 was pivotal, marked by the passing of one pope and the rise of another. Eugenio Pacelli, known for his piety yet perceived as having a deficit of assertiveness, was stepping into a scene of great turmoil as secretary of state under Pope Pius XI. The latter, locked in an increasingly fraught confrontation with Benito Mussolini over his racial laws and alignment with Adolf Hitler, was preparing a vehement reproach against Nazism and Italy's fascist regime — a condemnation that would never be voiced.

Tragically, Pope Pius XI's fervent opposition to the racist policies of his time died with him on February 10, 1939, just before he could deliver his critical encyclical. The world missed what could have been a defining moment when Pacelli, upon Mussolini's lobbying, made the momentous decision to cease the dissemination of the late pope’s profound dissent.

The ensuing papal conclave saw the emergence of Pacelli as Pope Pius XII, a title signifying continuity yet accompanied by a stark contrast in character and resolve with his predecessor. His vision — peace at the forefront, morality and piety as the church's pillars, an institution unstained by nationalistic ties — was crystallized in a speech inspired by Romans 13:1, which implored Christians to obey their governmental rulers.

The early tenure of Pope Pius XII, however, seemed to speak louder through its omissions than its proclamations. His immediate withdrawal from the assertive path his predecessor had charted and his emphasis on peace — seemingly at the expense of justice — became a harrowing hint of his wartime posture.

While reticent in political matters, Pope Pius XII had aspirations for diplomacy, initiating attempts to orchestrate a peace meeting. Despite receiving cursory support from Mussolini and Hitler, his endeavors were ultimately dismissed — no such summit took place. However, undisclosed negotiations were taking place, signaling a different kind of engagement behind the scenes.

Shadows of conspiracy: the Vatican's hidden negotiations

For years, the Vatican's archives on Pope Pius XII remained a fortress of secrets, with efforts to edit and conceal the truth of his wartime activities. It took until 2020 for the Vatican to finally unveil the crux of these documents, offering a glimpse into the clandestine communications that bridged the Vatican and the Third Reich.

The chief liaison between Pope Pius XII and Adolf Hitler came in the form of Phillipp von Hessen — known informally as the "Nazi Prince." This character, with a foot in both Italian royal and Nazi circles, was critical in sustaining the dialogue between the pope and the Führer.

A landmark moment in this intrigue was their first covert rendezvous. Here, the pope pleaded for a better treatment of Catholics in Germany, who were being stifled both in education and portrayed negatively in the media. Hitler, in return for the pope funneling all his communiques through von Hessen's secret channel, yielded slightly, dialing back the media assault on the church.

But the church itself was not without blemish. Allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests had surfaced, casting a shadow over its moral standing. Pope Pius XII's response was dual-edged: he ordered the destruction of incriminating records in Austria, reassuring Hitler of the church's stern internal handling, while hoping these scandals would be muffled in public discourse.

In their second secret exchange, the discussion veered towards the more contentious: racial policies and the bold stance of German clergy. Von Hessen urged, and the pope agreed, to maintain silence on Germany's treatment of Jews and to curb any clerical dissent against the Reich.

With the outset of war, the third meeting revealed a stark change — the promises made to the pope were abandoned, and the freedoms of the German Catholics were once again in jeopardy. Pope Pius XII's request for the restoration of the church's liberties went unheeded, with the plight of Catholics in Germany worsening irrespective of Hitler's earlier assurances.

A papal stance amid raging conflicts

The early stages of World War II presented a critical period where the line between action and inaction, speech and silence, bore profound consequences. For Pope Pius XII, the choice of silence became a deafening assertion of his stance, more pointed than neutrality could ever imply.

As nations crumbled under the military might of Hitler, there was an increasingly urgent clamor for the pope to break his silence. When Poland was besieged, desperate pleas reached the Vatican, urging the spiritual leader to condemn the invasion. Yet, despite the visceral discomfort that the pope felt over the spiraling violence, his voice remained absent from the global outcry.

It wasn't until the onslaught extended to Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands that Pope Pius XII's reserve seemed to momentarily falter. Distressed by the suffering inflicted upon these nations, he voiced his lament through telegrams that offered his prayers and lightly touched on the injustices being perpetrated, their publication in the Vatican's newspaper subtly broadcasting his views.

However, the indignation from Mussolini over these telegrams was swift and unforgiving, prompting the pope to retract into further silence, his vow never to publish dissenting messages thereafter — a silence that would loom over the Vatican's presence as the war raged on.

The perception of Pope Pius XII during these times could easily sway between that of a timid pontiff and an ally of the Axis powers. Yet, the revelations from history cast a more nuanced figure, one deeply invested in the elusive ideal of peace. Despite the pervasive anti-Semitic sentiments within the church, the pope did not align himself with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Instead, his gaze was fixed on the church's enduring presence beyond the war, ensnared in the misguided belief that appeasement and compliance with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini would ensure the prosperity of Catholicism. It was under this premise that he sought to navigate the tempest of war — a decision that would ripple through history.

As we delve deeper into the wartime papacy of Pius XII, we'll unravel the intricacies of his actions and inactions, giving us broader insight into how he sought to guard his vision of the church's future amidst a world ablaze.

Amidst chaos, the Vatican focuses on moral sanctity

During an era saturated with the cacophony of war, the priorities of Pope Pius XII took an inward turn toward the moral fiber of society. With nations besieged and humanity in distress, the pope found his voice on matters of a distinctly different nature — the spiritual and physical purity among the youth.

In a symbolic gathering, Pope Pius XII addressed 4,000 girls adorned in white, exhorting them to uphold virtue amidst the moral decline he perceived in wartime society. His speeches consistently echoed this sentiment, calling upon young women to embrace modesty and maintain their chastity.

Beyond personal conduct, the pope turned his gaze to media and entertainment, sternly criticizing the lack of governmental oversight on television and film. In his eyes, unchecked exposure to corrupting influences through popular media was eroding the virtues of the young populace, a concern that demanded attention as much as any battlefront.

While voicing his unease about societal mores, Pope Pius XII engaged in an artistic endeavor. To understand its significance, one must step back to the medieval prophecy of Saint Malachy, who envisioned a lineage of 112 popes, each cryptically named. The 106th pope, dubbed the 'Pastor Angelicus' or angelic shepherd, was believed to be Pius XII himself. Embracing this prophetic identity, he commissioned a biographical film titled 'Pastor Angelicus,' chronicling his life and papacy.

Amid these spiritual pursuits lay an undercurrent of apprehension — a burgeoning fear that Hitler harbored designs to dissolve the Vatican. Despite assurances from Mussolini and others that such fears were unfounded, the specter of the Vatican's vulnerability loomed large in the pope's mind, shaping his actions and potentially justifying his cautious diplomacy.

As we delve deeper, it becomes apparent that while the world burned in the fires of war, the papacy of Pius XII was consumed with safeguarding the sanctity of the church from both outside threats and internal decay.

Breaking silence amid shifting war dynamics

The tide of World War II saw a significant turn with the entry of the United States into the alliance against the Axis forces. It was during this time that Pope Pius XII appeared to break his enduring silence, albeit in a discreet manner. In his Christmas address of 1942, buried deep within the text and clothed in dense language, he delivered a concealed denunciation of the horrors perpetrated by the Axis powers. Largely unnoticed and ineffectual, it was a testament to his tentative approach to condemning the injustice surrounding him.

Despite the subtle nature of his denouncement, the surrounding nations were quick to criticize, which seemed to perturb the pope. For him, accustomed to a cloak of silence, even this veiled criticism felt like an uncharacteristically bold stance.

As the war's pendulum swung favorably for the Allies, Pope Pius XII navigated a series of communications with British and American envoys. Averse to seeing troops of color stationed in Rome and fervently wishing for an American occupation, the pope petitioned for the sanctity of Rome, pleading for a reprieve from the ravages of aerial bombings. These were the matters that preoccupied him — the immediate protection of his domain over the broader atrocities of war.

While the Allies offered no full assurance to avoid bombing Rome, they committed to sparing churches and the Vatican City — a thin consolation amidst the clamor of war. As a historical footnote, the wartime desperation also saw Mussolini requisition hundreds of church bells, melting them down to feed his war machine.

When bombs finally rained on Rome, the aftermath saw the pope stepping into the role of a shepherd amidst ruins, leading prayers in the one damaged basilica and cultivating his image as a spiritual leader amid suffering.

However, in the egregious matter of the systemic extermination of Jewish people, Pope Pius XII's silence remained resolutely unbroken. The revelatory files of 2020 attest to the pope's undeniable knowledge of the genocidal campaign against Jews — no longer whispers of rumor, but cold, hard fact. Yet, when called upon by the Allies, the pope chose secrecy over disclosure.

In his silence, Pope Pius XII became an unwilling accessory to the sequence of invasions and genocidal policies across Europe. More damning, though, was his muted response to the peril befalling Rome's Jewish community — a silence that, across the decades, has cast a long, dark shadow on the legacy of his papacy.

The contentious actions of a wartime pope

The tides of war brought Germany to Italy's doorstep as the country capitulated under Allied pressure. In turn, the German occupation extended Hitler's grievous policies to Italian soil and the Jews of Rome found themselves ensnared by the Nazi regime, mere steps from the sanctuary of Vatican City.

Amid this grim reality, Pope Pius XII navigated an ethical labyrinth. As Jewish families were herded into captivity within an old Roman college, the pope displayed a frantic resolve, scanning through the lists of captives. With baptismal records as his instrument of deliverance, he secured the release of over two hundred converts to Catholicism — a feat that earned him the accolade of 'Pastor Angelicus' from some and a hero in the eyes of others.

However, such actions cast a contrasting shadow on his simultaneous inability to respond to the broader tragedy. Jewish families sent desperate pleas, receiving only assurances that the Vatican was exerting its fullest effort. In the face of these appeals, more than a thousand Roman Jews were deported to Auschwitz, with a mere sixteen reported to have survived the combined horrors of labor and extermination camps. Through all this suffering, Pope Pius XII remained notably quiet.

The aftermath of the war saw the downfall of Hitler and the execution of Mussolini. Freed from the shadow of dictatorial figures, Pope Pius XII found his voice, unburdened by the fear of repercussions. He spoke as a leader who had weathered peril and safeguarded his beloved Rome.

In the year following Rome's liberation, the pope was revered by Catholic youth as a protector of the church. With his passing and over time, discussions of beatification commenced, considering his candidacy for sainthood — testament to his complex legacy.

While Pope Pius XII earned the title of venerable by 2009, his path to sainthood was paused by Pope Francis in 2014, citing a shortage of recorded miracles to his name. It was a subtle bookmark in what remains a vigorously debated chapter of church history, leaving the final assessment of Pope Pius XII's wartime role as an open and deeply contested question.

A pope's silence in the shadow of war

In the haunting echoes of World War II, the figure of Pope Pius XII remains an enigma, a silhouette cast against the relentless march of conflict and genocide. As the supreme head of the Catholic Church, his voice had the potential to resound across nations, yet he chose a path marked by silence.

As history peeled back the layers of those war-torn years, the intersection of faith, diplomacy, and human suffering has been brought into sharp relief. The recently opened Vatican documents have underscored a stark reality: while the flames of war consumed millions, the spiritual leader who could have made a difference chose discretion over declaration.

The reasons for Pope Pius XII's reticence — be it ingrained anti-Semitism, an unyielding pursuit of peace, or a strategic silence — continue to stir debate. Yet amidst the scrutiny, one cannot help but ponder how the tides of history might have shifted had he raised his voice to condemn the relentless persecution and mass extermination of the Jewish people.

Was he a beacon of virtue or a figure of complicity? The answer may sway in the winds of context and perspective, but the unveiled truths speak of opportunities forsaken and moments when moral clarity was clouded by silence. In an unforgiving light, Pope Pius XII's legacy appears tainted by his silence, which, amidst the cacophony of war, may have unwittingly abetted the atrocities of an era best never forgotten.

The Pope at War Quotes by David I. Kertzer

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