Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust

by Holly Lawrence

December 5, 2005

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Holocaust

UC Santa Barbara, Fall 2005
(course homepage, web projects index page,
Christian resistance project main page)

Why no strong stance
Pius's Diplomatic Forms of Resistance
What He Could Have Done
About the
Page Author

Introduction (back to top)

The role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust has been a hotly debated topic for decades. It is known as well as noted that the Catholic Church’s administration never took a distinct stance, as a whole, in regards to their support or condemnation of Hitler, the Nazis, and Germany in general. As millions of Jews were being murdered for their beliefs, much of the religious world around them took subtle and diplomatic actions rather than making a strong and evident stance in their defense. The Catholic Church was, and still to this day is, questioned on why there was no quick and direct response. Moreover, the leaders of the Catholic church have underwent much scrutiny given that if they would have taken a stance, then the Catholics around the world would have followed their lead and maybe would have been a force against Hitler.

Many feel that the pope at the time, Pius XII, was too passive and some even go as far as to claim that he was on the side of the Nazis. However, due to many of his speeches and actions, it must be pointed out that he was in fact caught in the middle and did what he could to condemn the party and its actions, but was forced to do so in a submissive way. He was in a position where he could not risk taking a pronounced side between the allies or the Germans during the Second World War, either of which could result in catastrophe from the opposing side. In addition, he knew that he was powerless in regards to Hitler who was at the head of a killing operation that had already taken millions of victims. Pius knew that Hitler would not hesitate to move his focus from the Jews to those who opposed him. Pope Pius XII did what he could to calmly deal with the situation of the Holocaust and he did attempt to resist it, but an active role in resistance was impossible for him and the Vatican in general. There are plenty of people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, who feel that if the Pius XII had done more in a public manner to denounce the holocaust, then his mere proclamation would gather more attention towards the atrocities. His speeches in protest to the cruelty of the Nazi party did not go unnoticed, however, as there were and are many people who can clearly see the tough position in which he was caught therefore justifying his delicate approach from the outside. To take a diplomatic rather than a pronounced stand against Nazi Germany did not make Pius XII a supporter nor indifferent, it only proved that he was a smart and strong leader trying to save victims on both sides of the war.

Why Pius XII chose not to take a strong stance against the Holocaust
(back to top)

As recently stated, the Pope knew that he was powerless against Hitler and felt that if he absolutely spoke out against the Nazis and their policies, that there would be severe retaliations on Catholics (binary.net). He feared any sort of attack on Christians at all and new that the Vatican would also become a major target. He instead made subtle attempts at resistance, such as urging Christians to take in refugees and tried to make the Vatican a safe haven for those running from the Nazis (binary.net). Since the pope knew that he was powerless, he felt that rather than trying to take a dangerous position in opposition, he would focus more energy and time on making the Vatican a center for survival. By making the Vatican a sort of safe zone for Jews, this clearly shows that he was against the Nazis and their intentions. If he would have attempted to both criticize Hitler and try to turn the Vatican into a refugee camp, it would have given Hitler all the more reason to attack the Vatican. In fact, the safe zone that he created did in fact save anywhere between 300,00 and 860,000 Jewish lives (Wikipedia.org). As this may be a small and nearly insignificant number compared to the 6,000,000 estimated Jews that were killed, this number is still greater than any allied nation who openly and aggressively denounced Hitler and the Nazis.

He was fighting in a silent way trying to make sure he did not tempt the German Nazis to do anymore damage than had already been done. He knew that if they were capable of murdering millions of Jews, and that they were also capable of slaughtering anyone else they felt were threatening to stand in their way. His resistance was quiet and it was limited, but there was definitely no cooperation with the Nazis and their plans. It must be remembered that the Nazis did not solely take Jewish victims into their custody. There were also thousands of other "types" of people such as non-Aryans, gypsies, and mentally ill. They were obviously not meticulous about their choice of prisoners, and this especially made the pope nervous when it came to public opposition. Furthermore, if there were already Catholic prisoners that the Church was unaware of, then infuriating Hitler by openly resisting him would only result in their slaughter (binary.net). Retaliation towards any prisoners is what Pius XII wanted to stay away from. Therefore, any response would have most likely ended with vengeance against those who supported the Pope and his feelings.

Pius's Diplomatic Forms of Resistance (back to top)

In his few Christmas speeches, the Pope did make several allusions to the problems in Germany and his disgust with them (Lockwood). He used a careful and sustained type of criticism that was just enough to let them know that he was not one of their supporters. Many felt that this was not enough though. However, he was not able to take any other sort of action. In his Christmas speech of 1942, the pope may not have singled out Hitler and mentioned his name clearly, but he openly denounced the maltreatment "…of hundreds of thousands, who without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or progressive extinction…" (NY Times, 1942). As Hitler was the only person at the time systematically attempting to exterminate a race of people, the pope was obviously painting a picture of him. With a statement like this, it is hard to ignore the fact that the pope is making a clear attempt at condemning the Nazis and Hitler for their actions in the Holocaust.

His responses may not have been as drastic and dramatic as much of the Catholic community felt was warranted, but they were cautious steps in a direction that attempted to handle matters in a diplomatic way. In another silent yet anti-Nazi act, the pope used Catholic institutions to hide Jews upon learning that Italy had been taken over, thus making the Vatican the local authority. After learning that deportations would probably begin immediately, actions began in saving as many Jews as possible. The Vatican claims that it hid nearly 500 Jew,s while other institutions held a little over 4,200. In addition to this, the Vatican also offered to give 15 kilos of gold to help with the 30 kilos that the Nazis were demanding before the deportations (Jewishvirtuallibrary.org). These actions may not have been proclaimed and shouted aloud for the world to hear, but they were definitely not actions that supported Hitler and the massacring of Jews. In secrecy, the Pope was able to save thousands. If he would have done this for the public to be aware of, then he might have contributed to the deaths of thousands. [hm: why? his audience would have been arrested for listening, or his listeners would have begun to openly resist the Nazis?]

In addition to these practical and secretive measures to protect the Jews from the Holocaust, the pope also was the driving force behind a sort of "underground railroad" providing secret escape routes. However, it was other prominent Catholic figures that were operators of such acts. However, these would never have gone into effect if it were not for Pius XII (Wikipedia.com). Many of the Catholic leaders that did take hands on approaches were completely open about their condemnation of the Holocaust, and it must be remembered that Pius XII hardly ever stood in their way. He knew that he personally could not take a distinct and open stance, but he also allowed those under him to openly strike back against Hitler without interfering.

What He Could Have Done (back to top)

As it has been made more than obvious that Pope Pius XII took a quiet and diplomatic outlook on the Holocaust, many believe an openly aggressive opposition campaign would not have lead to atrocities against Catholics. One of many things that many feel could have helped end the holocaust sooner, and especially that could have rallied Catholics against it was the signing of the "German Policy of Extermination of the Jewish Race". This declaration by the Allies stated that there would be vengeance placed upon those perpetrators of the Jewish murders. The pope did not sign this document (Jewishvirtuallibrary.org). It can be thought that if he had signed this, then there would have been an open and blunt Catholic response, therefore generating more and more negative attention towards the Holocaust.

It is true that signing this document would have definitely put the Vatican, and moreover the pope, on the side of the Allies and against Hitler and the Nazis. In addition, signing this would have gained international Catholic attention and maybe even more proactive resistance. However, signing this would have also landed the Vatican on the same side as the Soviet Union, a communist country. As the Vatican may have been diplomatic when it came to the holocaust, it was outright against communism and Pius XII could not see any positive outcome for the Vatican itself, if it were to align itself with a communist country. That possibility seems to slip many people’s minds when thinking of this document. Once again, the diplomatic route was far more beneficial to all, especially the Vatican, than would a decision based on rash decisions and condemnation would have been.

Conclusion (back to top)

Although Pius XII may not have done what many claim he should have by making a staunch and outright disapproval of the Holocaust, the pope was still able to get his point across. As it seems that there are many who criticize him, there are also those who were able to sympathize and understand his demand and actions through diplomatic relations. An example of this type of understanding can be found in an editorial of 1942, which claims:

"The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas…he is about the only ruler left on the Continent of Europe who dares raise his voice at all… the Pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism… he left no doubt that the Nazi aims are also irreconcilable with his own conception of a Christmas peace." (NY Times, 1941)

The pope’s actions did not go fully unnoticed by everyone, but it is always easier to point out the flaws in someone’s decisions, than it is to accept and praise them. That is what many did and are still doing after more than 60 years.

Pius XII is hard to place on the chartPower Action Grid that ranges from perpetrators to victims. As he was clearly not a perpetrator nor a victim, he did not stand quietly on the sidelines nor publicly denounce the actions of Germany. He then must be concluded as being a more passive, but not a completely inactive opponent. He did what he could to draw negative attention to the violence, but in a matter that would not jeopardize others, mainly those Catholics whom Hitler could get a hold of. Trying a proactive role, although many seen it as necessary and unattained, was obviously not the way to go.

Pius's diplomatic pressures against the Nazis were heard around the world, and his secretive help towards the Jews was appreciated. The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights says it best:

"Preserving Vatican neutrality, and the capability of the Church to continue to function where possible…was a far better strategy to save lives than Church sanctions on a regime that would have merely laughed at them." (wikipedia.com)

The war has now been over for decades, and the Holocaust has ended, both leaving a wound on European history that will doubtfully ever be completely healed. To know whether direct resentment from the pope really would have led to more killings, or if it might in fact have been the one push that was needed to topple Hitler, will never be known. However, his actions are justified and his commitment was and still is noted and appreciated.

Annotated Bibliography (back to top)

  • Review of "The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965" by Robert P. Lockwood, Indiana University Press. Found at http://www.catholicleague.org/research/catholic_church_and_the_holocaus.htm.
    This 13 page paper critiques Michael Phayer's book that traces the roles of many prominent Catholic figures, primarily that of Pope Pius XII. It gives both sides of the story explaining why people could have gotten the impression that the Church was too passive during the Holocaust, and why they acted the way that they did. It tells how that pope really had neither jurisdiction in Germany nor the capabilities to really make any changes. The piece also describes how he did resist by telling Catholics to help refugees and attempted to make the Vatican a safe place for them. The way that he gives both opinions is really well done and it gives the reader a lot of information so that he or she can make an educated decision on the role of the Church. It is well documented and is a really vital source for describing Pope Pius XII's involvement and resistance in the Holocaust.
  • "Pope Pius and the Holocaust" by Reverend John T. Foland, found at http://users.binary.net/polycarp/piusxxii.html.
    This short article is extremely well documented. It has many quotes from the Pope's speeches and writings and the sources from which they came. It also gives opinion of other important people at the time, such as Albert Einstein. This piece, unlike the prior, is very adamant about proving that the Pope was indeed against the holocaust and did what he could within his power to condemn it. This piece was helpful in locating primary sources, such as the New York Times, Time magazine, and editorials. It is a perfect source for the argument in favor of the idea that the Pope did attempt to criticize and denounce the Holocaust to the world.
  • Explanation of Pope Pius and what he did during his reign as Pope, found in Wikipedia Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Pius_XII.
    This is a very dry source but is helpful with a timeline of the Pope and what he did. It gives many dates that he gave speeches and also a very straightforward explanation of what he was and was not capable of doing. It also gives accounts of Hitler's disgust with the Pope and many quotes from Jews at the time on their feelings about Pope Pius XII. It is a good source to use with the straight facts and the quotes from the Jews give an indication of the feelings towards him at the time.
  • "Pope Pius and the Holocaust" by Shira Schoenberg, found at http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/pius.html
    Another article on Pius XII and how he was diplomatic due to the fact that he had to be to save the lives of thousands, if not millions of others. She does give insight to how he did try his best to save as many Jews as he could, and she never goes as far as condemning him for being inactive. Behind every silent bout with the holocaust, she gives plenty of reason and insight on why he acted the way that he did. The article traces the pope from his early years, through the war, and to the end. It also gives recent evaluations and claims based upon his papacy.
  • New York Times December 25, 1941 pg. 24 and December 25, 1942 pg. 10.
    The article from 1941 is an editorial in which a reader praises the pope for his actions and understands why he is taking the diplomatic road. The article from 1942 is merely the pope’s speech translated into English for the United States.

About the Author (back to top)

Holly Lawrence
I am a senior double major in political science and history. I recently became a history major and have found twentieth century history to be my favorite. I am very interested in the Holocaust because I have never had an in-depth look at it before and have only been taught its beginning and end, never its implications. I chose to write on the Pope because as a Catholic, I have always heard many different stories on the Church’s involvement. I am very satisfied with my findings and hope that my project will help sway those who thought differently before about Pope Pius XII.

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