Why hadn’t the pope done more to resist Hitler? Critics posited cowardice, insensitivity, political calculation, anti-Semitism, and apathy; some just said Pius was a Nazi, and left it at that. Catholic apologists countered that the pope was silenced and paralyzed by a desire to save lives, since “a strong condemnation would have increased the persecution.” Both sides in the debate generally agreed, however, that Pius did little or nothing to oppose the Nazis. Both sides were wrong. The entire Nazi era was marked by dramatic, if secret, Church resistance, in which the pope played a pivotal role. The signature element in this resistance was Pius XII’s participation in the conspiracies to kill Adolf Hitler.
—Mark Riebling, intelligence expert and author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler
The contentious war over the legacy of Pope Pius XII—born Eugenio Pacelli and known by the codename the “Chief” for his espionage efforts during WWII —began in earnest in 1963. It was in this year that playwright Rolf Hochhuth released his controversial drama The Deputy, portraying Pius as a cold-blooded hypocrite who remained silent about the Holocaust. Since that time, the Bishop of Rome has remained a controversial figure with outspoken supporters and detractors. In Altar of Resistance, Book 2 of my WWII Trilogy, I take neither side. I treat him critically and at the same time with some degree of admiration, emphasizing both his perceived failings by those who worked closest with him and his deep involvement in the plots to remove Hitler from power and his heroic efforts, behind the scenes, to rescue the persecuted during the war, including at least 4,000 Jews.
The historical figures that were closest to the Pope have left behind a well-documented record of overall support and veneration for the man laced with some sharp criticism. They include Cardinal Luigi Maglione, Pius’s reliably pro-American Secretary of State; Father Robert Leiber, a German Jesuit priest, Pius’s private secretary, and his closest advisor, who served as one of German Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s two spy cutouts with Pius in Rome and was codenamed “Gregor;” Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, an Irish priest in the Congregation of the Holy Office and a key figure in the Vatican Escape Line for Allied POWs and refugees for which his codename was “Golf;” Count Giuseppe Dalla Torre, the Director/chief editor of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano who was occasionally at odds with the Pope over his insistence on maintaining Vatican impartiality during the war; and Sir D’Arcy Osborne, the British Minister to the Holy See and a key figure in the Pope-backed plots against Hitler and in the Vatican Escape Line. Sir D’Arcy’s codename was “Mount.”
The codenames for Pius and those who worked closely with him provide an illuminating window into the espionage activities of the Vatican as it supported the Allies behind the scenes during these tumultuous times. From September 1939 through the summer of 1944, the defensor civitatis—the defender of Rome as the Pope was called by its citizenry—and his team of primarily Roman Catholic secret agents were deeply involved in an ongoing, highly secretive plot to topple Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. Throughout this time period, he acted as a secret intermediary between German generals plotting to overthrow Hitler and the British government. Very few affiliated with the Holy See were even aware that he had committed himself to the tyrannicide of the Führer. In fact, no one in the Secretariat of State—not even his closest advisors, Secretary of State Maglione, Undersecretary for Ordinary Affairs Montini, or Undersecretary for Extraordinary Affairs Tardini—had been let in on the secret. And that was how Eugenio Pacelli—once a boy wandering the streets of Rome and now the city’s Supreme Pontiff—wanted to keep it. His war to topple Hitler was a secret war, his Catholic church a Church of Spies, and Vatican City, with its warren of diplomats, was “un covo di spie”—a cave of spies, as Benito Mussolini disparagingly referred to the Holy See.
Knowing what we know today, it would seem patently obvious that the man codenamed the Chief should get credit for his heroic behind-the-scenes stand against Hitler. But history is a fickle thing and Pius’s valiant efforts to eliminate the Nazi mass murderer and dictator and save civilian lives must always be weighed against the one great indictment against him. As stated by Robert A. Ventresca, author of Soldier of Christ, the most comprehensive and balanced biography of the Pope, “Perhaps no failure—personal or pastoral—was greater than Pius XII’s inability or unwillingness to lend his singular authoritative voice to arouse the individual and collective conscience in a humanitarian defense of European Jews before and during the war…. This is not to say that he was anti-Semitic or hard-hearted in the face of the catastrophe that befell Jews and others during World War Two. We know that he was neither of these things. It was simply that he failed to appreciate how a word from the foremost spiritual leader of the Christian world could serve as a powerful symbol and practical impetus for action during the war, and for atonement and reconciliation after.”
The historical record is clear enough on Pius to conclude that he was a heroic yet flawed religious leader who guided the Catholic Church during an extremely perilous time. From that perspective, he was perhaps no better or worse than Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Winston Churchill. For all of his greatness, Roosevelt will forever be tarnished for unfairly interning Japanese-Americans, not speaking out early enough against German oppression of Europe’s Jews, and his failure to perceive, or not take seriously enough, the full extent of the post-war threat of Stalin and Soviet Communism. Similarly, the legendary Churchill is remembered not just for uniting his great country during time of war, but for his loose tongue regarding top-secret intelligence matters, his meddlesome and opinionated personality, and for putting Britain’s stodgy imperialism and pride ahead of the Allied war effort, as shown by his obsession with the Mediterranean theater and Balkans and his overzealous promotion of British Generals Montgomery and Alexander. Meanwhile, Pius has his supposed “silence” regarding Nazism and the Holocaust while being fixated on halting the spread of Soviet Communism; and his potential indifference towards, or at least inexcusable lack of knowledge of, what U.S. intelligence referred to as the Vatican “Rat Line” that allowed post-war Nazi and Ustaši war criminals to escape justice and flee to South America. When you consider the facts about each of these three larger-than-life figures, the reality is inescapable: they were—all three of them—flawed yet great men. In the time of the greatest war and moral crisis the world has ever known, they all united their people and stood up against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine in their own unique way. Maybe Pius could have done more, but anyone with an ounce of fairness in them surely agrees that he should be recognized at least as much for what he actually did during the war as for what he didn’t do or what he should have done.
For all of his flaws, Eugenio Pacelli was most certainly not “Hitler’s Pope.” When it comes to Pius XII, there are five critical numbers—40, 55, 3, 4,000, and 85—that every historian and writer needs to acknowledge first and foremost in their assessment of the man. The first number, 40, is the number of speeches Eugenio Pacelli gave in Germany as papal nuncio between 1917 and 1929 that unambiguously denounced Hitler and the emerging National Socialist ideology. The second number, 55, is the number of official protests Pacelli lodged with Hitler and the Nazi regime while serving as Vatican secretary of state, a time in which the German press lampooned him as his predecessor Pius XI’s “Jew-loving” cardinal and “Jew lover in the Vatican.” The third number, 3, represents the number of plots in which Pope Pius XII was directly involved to remove Hitler from power through political assassination. The number 4,000 represents the estimated number of Jews that respected Holocaust historians Sir Martin Gilbert, Renzo De Felice, and Meir Michaelis maintain found refuge in the Vatican and its religious institutions during the German Occupation of Rome. And lastly, the number 85 represents the percentage of Italy’s Jewish population that survived the Holocaust as a direct result of the efforts of Pius and the Roman Catholic Church, the highest survival percentage of any country in Europe except Denmark. In my view, every historical text written by every author on Pope Pius XII needs to start their narrative with these numbers (and perhaps other numbers as well). In fairness to history and Pope Pius XII, the objective numbers must be acknowledged up front prior to passing judgement.
Having said that, I fully agree with the fair and widely-respected Ventresca that, “Pius XII could have spoken out more clearly, more explicitly, to denounce the Nazi persecution of Jews and others, including Catholics. He could have directed Catholic agencies and the Catholic faithful to make anti-Nazi resistance a religious crusade or the rescue of Jews and other victims a religious duty. So, yes, Pius XII could have done things differently. But we can never say with certainty that a different approach would have produced a different outcome. The approach he chose—to avoid public confrontation and thus avoid a greater evil, as he put it—is all we have to go by. How do we assess this approach? That is the question.”
I also agree with intelligence expert Mark Riebling’s judicious but critical assessment of the historic figure. In his seminal book, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, Riebling makes clear the “long, epic history in which Pius was deeply involved in trying to remove Hitler from power.” But in trying to tell the story of the Chief’s valiant struggle against Hitler, he maintains that “there is no evidence he was doing it for the Jews. What was really driving Pius was the plight of Germany’s Catholics.” Riebling further maintains that “the Vatican’s view wasn’t that much different from the views of governments and other institutions. You had the New York Times put a story about gas chambers in its back pages.” While sympathetic to Pius and his efforts to remove Hitler from power, he then goes on to state, “The Pope was someone who saw the church in a certain way” and believed “that it couldn’t afford to lose any more prestige. He believed that if he spoke about morals during the war and everyone ignored it, it was all over for the church. He should have said what the truth was and dealt with the consequences.”
How will history ultimately judge Pius XII? In 1965, Pope Paul VI opened his cause for canonization, and in 1990, John Paul II declared Pius a Servant of God. Pope Benedict XVI then furthered Pius’s cause for sainthood by declaring him Venerable in 2009. Pius XII’s elevation to Venerable status elicited howls of protest from international Jewish groups, including the World Jewish Congress, because of the Pope’s controversial “silence” regarding the Holocaust, specifically his failure to publicly speak out during the October 16, 1943, Judenaktion and the March 24, 1944, Ardeatine Caves Massacre (75 of the 335 victims murdered by the Rome Gestapo were Jewish). In contrast, no less than Albert Einstein praised Pius and the Vatican for its efforts in combating Hitler’s Third Reich: “[Only] the church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign of suppressing the truth. I have never had any special interest in the church before, but now I feel a great admiration and affection because the church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom.”
Some claim that the Vatican is in a rush to make Pius XII a saint before the 1939-1945 wartime archives from his papacy are opened to historians. But most historians (including the late Sir Martin Gilbert) agree that until the Vatican’s wartime archives are opened, all talk of Pius XII’s canonization needs to be postponed. According to Riebling, the Vatican’s reluctance to release all of its papers and transcripts of the secret recordings made during the wartime Pius’s pontificate is evidence that the Holy See “clearly has stuff they’re holding back.” He concludes by saying, “I think it’s important for secular scholars to check the Vatican’s work.”
This author wholeheartedly agrees.
Open the vaults so the world may truly see this heroic yet flawed man—Roman-born Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, the Chief of the Vatican’s wartime Church of Spies.
Photo: Getty Images