November 3, 2005
Hitler’s Pope Story a Myth, Rabbi Finds
"The Myth of Hitler's Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews From the Nazis" by Rabbi David G. Dalin (Regnery, $27.95).
In "The Myth of Hitler's Pope," Rabbi David G. Dalin has written an important, frank and lucid defense of an unfairly maligned figure of recent history. Dalin's book clears up often-heard libels about the World War II papacy of Pius XII. It also provides an opportunity to reflect on the role those libels play in the wider cultural context.
Dalin, a historian and political scientist, has here expanded on a series of essays written originally in 2001 in The Weekly Standard. At the time, a boatload of books defamed Pius as a Nazi sympathizer.
Notable among these anti-Pius tomes was John Cornwell's "Hitler's Pope" (1999), which featured on its cover a memorable photo of Pius exiting a building, seemingly saluted by Nazis soldiers. The photo was misidentified in the British printing of the book as depicting a scene in March 1939: "Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, leaving the presidential palace in Berlin." The implication, as historian Philip Jenkins wrote, was that "Pacelli is emerging from a cozy tete-a-tete with Hitler -- perhaps they have been chatting about plans for a new extermination camp."
Which is utterly false and sadly typical. In fact, the photo was taken in 1927, when Pacelli was the papal nuncio in Berlin. He had just attended a reception for Germany's democratically elected president, Paul von Hindenburg. Throughout his life, Pacelli refused to meet with Hitler. The soldiers in the picture, wearing the distinctive German helmets, are of constitutional Weimar, not totalitarian Nazi Germany.
But such has been the eagerness of the anti-Pius writers to bludgeon their alleged villain, that such distinctions tend to get lost. I'm not sure it's true, as Dalin argues, that Pius saved more Jews than any other Righteous Gentile in World War II.
But it seems fairly certain that he was, overall, a strenuous defender of Jews who saved tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands. While 80 percent of European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 85 percent of Italian Jews survived, thanks in large part to the Vatican's efforts.
At Castel Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence, 3,000 Jews found refuge -- a fact never mentioned in Cornwell's anti-Pius writings or in those of Susan Zuccotti. Kosher food was served there, and Jewish babies were born in the pope's private apartment, which had been transformed into an infirmary. At Seminario Romano, another Vatican property, 55 Jews remained in hiding from the Nazis, and, notes Dalin, "observance of the Jewish dietary laws was not only permitted but encouraged."
Dalin includes references to numerous papers from the Vatican, along with memoirs of Holocaust survivors and non-Jewish rescuers, showing that Pius directly ordered church representatives across Europe to hide Jews and provide other forms of material sustenance, including cash. In Hungary alone, 170,000 Jews evaded Auschwitz because of Pius' personal intervention.
Another Righteous Gentile of the era, Angelo Roncalli, who saved thousands of Slovakian Jews by signing their visas for immigration to Palestine (he later became Pope John XXIII), explained that "in all those painful matters, I referred to the Holy See and afterward I simply carried out the pope's orders."
Yet the myth that Pius did little or nothing to help Jews or oppose Hitler persists. A purported smoking gun is a letter written by Pacelli in 1919, when he was papal nuncio to Bavaria, about the brief, Jewish-led communist uprising in Munich. A few lines refer to one Jewish communist as "pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulse, with a face that is both intelligent and sly."
Anti-Pius writers assert that the text betrays hints of anti-Semitism. But as evidence, this is pathetic. The Bolshevik revolutionaries had threatened Pacelli's life on various occasions. If he wrote something insulting about their leader, who can blame him?
Recently, Cornwell has decided that he, for his part, can no longer blame Pius for Nazi deeds. Cornwell's honorable about-face has, however, received much less attention than his earlier assault on the pope's memory.
It's as though there's an impulse in the culture that resists acknowledging anything honorable or good in the history of the Catholic church. Dalin traces this resistance to internal feuds within the church itself, pitting modernists against conservatives. To degrade Pius is, in this view, to strike a blow at the church establishment today, which remains, of course, famously conservative.
This doesn't explain the desire among many Jews to believe only the worst about the Catholic church. The myth of Hitler's pope, qualifies as a subspecies of the myth of the eternally anti-Semitic church.
Why so many Jews appear so determined to see only guilt in Catholic -- and Christian -- history is a question I've thought about for years. So many Christians are friends to Jews, and the Catholic church of today espouses a remarkably philo-Semitic theology. But following centuries of humiliation of our ancestors, many of us still feel humiliated, still feel a need to lash out.
Why? Probably because of the breakdown among Jews of our traditional beliefs and culture, leaving American Jews estranged from our own religion. Jewish cultural poverty appears to be the cause of Jewish resentment of others who have not lost their religious traditions.
Of this tragic dynamic in the life of our people, Pius XII is not really the victim. He is, after all, dead. The real victims are Jews, only we don't know it.
David Klinghoffer's most recent book is "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History" (Doubleday).