A persistent myth considers that Pope Pius XII was guilty of having contributed to the genocide of the Jews during the Second World War—by his excessive withdrawal or even by his unavowed complicity. A drama was written in 1963 by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth (The Vicar, Der Stellvertreter), which later inspired in 2000 the polemical film Amen by director Costa-Gavras, both of which reinforce this commonplace. Although many historical facts exist to challenge such a perception, the myth of collaboration between Vatican authorities and the Reich regularly returns to the forefront to feed the fantasies of anti-clerics who cannot help but see in the Apostolic and Roman Church a cursed and consenting auxiliary of National Socialist totalitarianism.
A few things are important to remember on the historical level. Contrary to what is widely reported in the mainstream media, the Holy See had never remained silent during the tragedy of the extermination of the Jews. Pope Pius XII spoke out against the crimes perpetrated during the ongoing war, particularly in the Christmas radio message of 1942, a lengthy oration in which he spoke, among other things, of “hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own, and sometimes solely for reasons of nationality or race, are destined to death or gradual extinction.”
This important communication was the Vatican’s response to a request from the Anglo-Saxon allies (who denounced the policy of “annihilation of the Jewish race” on December 17th, 1942), but it met with criticism. It was disparaged for being too general, without explicit reference to the Nazis or use of the word “Jew.” Nevertheless, it was celebrated as an act of courage in the December 25th edition of the New York Times in 1942. The National Socialists interpreted it as an act of impudence, and expressed displeasure with the Pope’s meddling in political affairs. Heydrich denounced the Pope’s attitude in an internal SS circular of January 22th in 1943, while the Reich ambassador to the Pope, von Bergen, protested against this “break with the traditional attitude of neutrality.”
For a long time, the dearth of research did not allow us to say much more, allowing the wildest rumors about the pontiff’s complicity in Nazi crimes to fester. The reproaches intensified in the 1960s, using as a pretext the absence of a major solemn condemnation of the National Socialist crimes or the lack of religious sanctions against the German people and its leaders. The anti-communism of Pius XII, as well as his Germanophilia, were equally notorious: would Pius XII not have spared Hitler to guard against Stalin? Such accusations obviously have a defamatory aspect.
Some put forward the idea that the pope showed complacency towards nazism. But the rejection of totalitarianism, incompatible with religious life, was absolute, for both Pius XII as for Pius XI. Furthermore, it was fully articulated in their various nunciatures before their pontificates. Pius XII was nuncio in Berlin before becoming pope and was able to witness first-hand the rise of nazism, whose neo-paganism he rejected with all his might. Pius XII never showed the slightest sympathy toward the Nazis. As proof, we can consider his invitation to American Catholics to support Roosevelt’s offer to assist the USSR against Nazi Germany, despite his deep anti-communist convicitions. He was a man capable of exercising discernment according to the urgencies of the time. Moreover, the pope’s alleged “Germanophilia” was directed toward the German people, and in no way toward the National Socialists and their leaders. The Concordat of July 1933 was intended to provide a legal framework for the Holy See’s relations with Germany and was no more an endorsement of national socialism than Cardinal Casaroli’s later Ostpolitik under Paul VI, seeking a “modus vivendi” with the popular regimes, was an endorsement of communism. Indeed, the Holy See chose to develop a “dialogue of compromise” with the countries of Eastern Europe living under soviet rule during the sixties, without ever contradicting its condemnation of communism as “intrinsically perverse.”
The charge of a complacent pontiff does not stand up to scrutiny, and neither does the overall reproach of an apparently too timid, not sufficiently clear-cut condemnation of the Nazi agenda.
Pius XII’s duties as a pastor bound him to treat all peoples with impartiality; the pope declared to the allied ambassadors that if he had explicitly mentioned the Nazis in his Christmas message of 1942 that he would have had to mention the Communists as well. His cautious nature—Pius XII had a career as a diplomat—dissuaded him from doing so. Moreover, he had to take into account the balance of power in his statements, lest he reinforce the violence of the National Socialists against the Jews. Six months earlier from his Christmas message, on a Sunday, July 26th, a statement from both the Protestant and Catholic hierarchies in the Netherlands had been read out to all religious congregations, in all temples and churches, in the form of a telegram to Reich authorities decrying the deportation of the Jews. In the months that followed, the Reich Commissioner Seyss-Inquart retaliated brutally, and the deportation of the Jews was extended and accelerated. In the end, 79% of the Jewish population of the Netherlands died in the Shoah. Pius XII knew to be careful not to unleash reprisals against German Catholics (a minority in the country) and those from occupied countries.
The apparent “silence” of Pius XII can easily be understood in terms of his training as a Vatican diplomat. In the years prior to his own papacy, he was able to experience on several occasions the ineffectiveness of the great condemnations of his predecessor Pius XI, such as Non abbiamo bisogno (an encyclical in Italian condemning fascism in 1931), Divini Redemptoris (an encyclical condemning atheistic communism, published in 1937) or Mit brennender Sorge (an encyclical in German condemning the National Socialist regime, published also in 1937). The future Pius XII, who was at that time only Cardinal Pacelli and Secretary of State, was at the origin of the drafting of Mit brennender Sorge, in collaboration with the bishops and archbishops of Cologne, Münster, Munich, and Berlin. As early as spring of 1933, he sent a letter to the nuncio in Berlin asking him to warn the Hitler regime not to persecute the Jews. Between 1933 and 1939, as Cardinal Pacelli, Pius XII sent 45 protest notes to the German government, none of which made any impact.
The Shoah was a personal tragedy for Pius XII, who even considered giving himself up personally as a hostage in October 1943—oscillating between proclamations of principle, voluntarily vague, and direct interventions through the intermediary of the episcopates. Given the context, he had to systematically favor negotiations and parallel initiatives, which were necessarily discreet and not easily identifiable to the public.
The recent opening of new Vatican archives has put an end to the rumor that the Pope was insensitive to the tragedy of the deportation and extermination of the Jews. Historian and archivist Michael Feldkamp from the German Bundestag has been researching the pontificate of Pius XII and papal diplomacy for several years. In particular, he has studied documents from the Historical Archives of the Section for Relations with States of the Secretariat of State. He found that Pope Pius XII personally saved the lives of at least 15,000 Jews. He was perfectly aware of the reality of the Shoah, so much so that he created an office within the Secretariat of State specifically dedicated to these issues, under the direction of Cardinals Tardini and Dell’Acqua. Pius XII tried—in vain—to alert the American authorities to what was happening in Europe. According to Feldkamp, Pius XII sent a report on Nazi mass murders to the Americans shortly after the Wannsee Conference, as early as March 1942, but the Americans did not believe it.
In addition to these attempts at warning, it appears from the archives that Pius XII was personally involved in the rescue of thousands of Jews, by all means available to him: opening monasteries, issuing baptismal certificates, finding hiding places, etc. Feldkamp’s work reveals, for example, that the Papal Palatine Guard, a kind of papal bodyguard like today’s Swiss Guard, was involved in battles with the Waffen-SS and assisted in hiding Jews in the Roman basilica of St. Maria Maggiore.
The documents are formal, and testify to a precise, personal, and ongoing involvement on the part of the Pontiff. But that is not all. Alongside these rescue actions, Pius XII maintained discreet but intense diplomatic work: the archives mention negotiations with the German embassy or with the Italian police, even with Benito Mussolini himself, and with the Italian minister of foreign affairs.
The historical evidence is thus accumulating to allow the rehabilitation of the historical figure of Pope Pius XII, but ideological biases persist, and the precise and rigorous archival work is barely audible to the public. Feldkamp himself experiences the repeated barriers that greet his work: “I see in my research and publications here in Germany how difficult it is to pass off these new results as credible. I often encounter this skepticism, both inside and outside the Church,” he confided in an interview on vaticannews.va.
Beyond the written records, there remain the acts. Perhaps the best testimony of Pius XII’s commitment to the Jews was the conversion and baptism of the chief rabbi of Rome in 1945, who chose Eugenio as his first name in memory of Pope Pius XII.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).