What came before: Pius XII and a righteous dispute

Pope Pius XII

Pius XII reigned from World War Two through the start of the Cold War - a time of unparalleled global turmoil. The debate about his legacy has been turbulent, too. Here, eminent Jewish historian Martin Gilbert assesses the Pope who faced Hitler.

- By Sir Martin Gilbert in The American Spectator

As a historian of the Holocaust, I frequently receive requests from Jewish educators, seeking support for grant applications for their Holocaust programs. Almost all these applications include a sentence about how the new program will inform students that the Pope, and the Vatican, 'did nothing' during the Holocaust to help Jews.

David Dalin, professor of history and political science at Ave Maria University, Naples, Florida - and an ordained rabbi - demonstrates in his recent book, The Myth of Hitler's Pope, that this is a false and distorted portrayal. 

The historical record is clear. There can be no minimising the horrors of those manifestations of Christian anti-Semitism that were a curse in the story of Nazi-dominated Europe. The Polish villagers who murdered their neighbours in Jedwabne had been churchgoers.

But, as I myself pointed out in my book The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust (2003), there was another side to this coin. Many hundreds of Polish priests and nuns are among more than 5,000 Catholic Poles who have been recognised by Israel for saving Jews. 

In Summi Pontifcatus, his first encyclical as Pope, Pius XII specifically rejected Nazism and expressly mentioned the Jews, noting that in the Catholic Church there is 'neither Gentile nor Jew.'

When Pius died in 1958, Israel's Foreign Minister Golda Meir said: 'When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.'

The Nazis Nazi held this same view.

After Pius XII delivered his Christmas message in December 1942, the Reich Security Main Office informed its representatives: 'In a manner never known before, the Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order.... Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice to the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.'

Nine months later, Pius XII was to upset the Nazis even more. After the German occupation of Rome, Pius and the Vatican took the lead in seeking to frustrate their deportation plan.

As a result, in Rome a larger percentage of the Jews were saved than in any other city then under German occupation. 4,715 were given shelter in more than 150 Catholic institutions; of these, 477 were given sanctuary in the Vatican itself.

The Pope opened his summer estate at Castel Gandolfo to take in several thousand and authorised monasteries throughout the German-occupied areas of Italy to do likewise. There were other decisive interventions in Hungary and Slovakia.

Such is the historical record. It explains why Rabbi Dalin is so disturbed by the continuing assertions that Pius XII did nothing to help Jews, was an anti-Semite, and effectively acted as 'Hitler's Pope.'

Read full article: Hitler's Pope? (The American Spectator)


Reflections on the Holocaust (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Pio XII (Vatican, Italian Language biography)


Habemus Papam! - Pope Pio XII, Italian language (YouTube)

World Mourns death of Pope Pius XII newsreel archival stock footage 1958 (PublicDomainFootage/YouTube)

Sir Martin Gilbert Interview (YouTube)

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