The response of Pius XII and the Vatican to the Holocaust has been one of the most controversial topics in all of Holocaust literature. The pope did not protest the killing of European Jews; his major concern was the fate of baptized Jews, a tiny segment of those slated for murder by the Nazis. Even Roman Catholic historians, such as John Cornwell (Hitler’s Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII, 1999) and James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, 2001), have reviled the pope for his silence and inaction during the Holocaust. Other historians, however, have been more sympathetic to the pope, arguing that he did as much as possible in light of the military and political factors limiting his options.
There is no person more qualified to examine this topic than David I. Kertzer, a prolific professor at Brown University and the leading authority on the modern relationship between Jews and the church. His previous books include The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (1997), The Popes against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (2001), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (2014). His latest work is a deeply researched, eloquent, and passionate critique of the wartime papacy. Kertzer quotes the wartime British ambassador to Rome: Pius XII’s policies were “blatantly despicable” and resulted in “a renunciation of moral leadership and a consequent atrophy of the influence and authority of the Vatican.
The major goal of Pius XII, Kertzer makes clear, was to protect “the institutional church, its property, its prerogatives, and its ability to fulfill its mission as he saw it.… Those who respected the church’s prerogatives, showed a deference to the Catholic clergy, and offered the resources of the state to strengthen the church were good. Those who threatened the church’s influence, undercut its institutional activities, and threatened its property and its reputation were bad.” Thus, in April 1939, the pope told a special German envoy to the papacy that the church “loved Germany. We are pleased if Germany is great and powerful. And we do not oppose any particular form of government, if only the Catholics can live in accordance with their religion.
Pius XII feared that, should the papacy condemn the Nazi regime, his tens of millions of German Catholics would be endangered. Plus, many German Catholics were sympathetic to National Socialism, and they might have left the church had they been forced to choose between the two. Then there was the pope’s concern that fascist Italy, Germany’s major European ally, would seize the Vatican, depose him, take over the church’s properties, and persecute its clergy and laity. Finally, there was the church’s abhorrence of atheistic communism. If the pope had to side with the Soviet Union or Germany, he preferred Germany — not because he admired Nazi Germany, but because he detested the Soviet Union even more. The pope thus believed he had good reasons for acting (or not acting) the way he did, even if it put the moral authority of the Vatican at risk.
In condemning the Roman Catholic Church in general and Pius XII in particular, the Vatican’s critics, including Kertzer, have unwittingly paid it a great compliment. They take the church’s claims to moral leadership seriously, and then they condemn it for not living up to this standard. In fact, the papacy acted the way that organizations and governments usually behave: as amoral institutions out to protect their interests. Its behavior during the war, then, was hardly surprising. “If Pius XII is to be judged for his actions in protecting the institutional interests of the Roman Catholic Church,” Kertzer aptly concludes, “his papacy was a success.” But “as a moral leader, Pius XII must be judged a failure.