Exploding the myth of ‘Hitler’s Pope’

A year or so ago, my friend Liz Lev, the best English-speaking guide in Rome, was taking a group of American tourists through St. Peter’s Basilica. Seeing the bronze statue of Pope Pius XII, one of the tourists said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Oh. Hitler’s Pope.” As Liz remarked later, that Pius XII was some sort of anti-Semitic crypto-Nazi had become the common wisdom.

Whence this preposterous calumny? Although the Pius Wars were launched in 1963 by Rolf Hochhuth’s mendacious play, The Deputy, it wasn’t until John Cornwell stuck the label “Hitler’s Pope” on Pius XII in his 1999 book of that title that the calumny got into general circulation. Cornwell’s account was subsequently demolished by Ronald Rychlak in Hitler, the War, and the Pope — to the point where Cornwell was compelled to concede that he was no longer confident in his judgment on Pius. But Cornwell’s moniker — “Hitler’s Pope” — stuck.

Rabbi David Dalin’s new book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (Regnery), is a courageous attempt to rebut Pius’s critics by a Jewish scholar who believes that Pius XII should be honored as one of those “righteous gentiles” who saved Jewish lives during Hitler’s reign of anti-Semitic terror. In addition to reminding a 21st century audience that Pius XII was uniformly praised by Jewish leaders between the end of World War II and his death in 1958, Rabbi Dalin demonstrates the falsity of the key charges against Eugenio Pacelli: that he was an anti-Semite; that he had helped Hitler consolidate his power by negotiating the German concordat of 1933; that he favored Nazi Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union; that he was indifferent to the suffering of European Jewry.

In addition to recounting the numerous ways in which Pius XII helped save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives (including hiding Jewish refugees from Rome at the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo), Dalin also shows how the Pius Wars have gotten enmeshed in several other debates: the debate within the Catholic Church about its nature and mission, and the debate within the wider society on the role of revealed religion and traditional morality in public life. Pius-bashing, it seems, can be both a useful way to press certain internal Catholic agendas and a tool to promote certain explicitly anti-Catholic agendas. The Big Lie, it seems, has a protean quality to it.

Dalin is at his most innovative in his portrait of the man who really was Hitler’s favorite cleric: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a genuine anti-Semite with real blood on his hands. He had become Grand Mufti of Jerusalem through an incomprehensibly stupid decision by the British authorities in mandatory Palestine; but that didn’t prevent al-Husseini from taking Nazi Germany’s side in the war, to the point where he eventually moved to Berlin. There, he was feted by Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the so-called “Final Solution” to the “Jewish question.” Perhaps the most chilling moment in Dalin’s book comes when a disguised Hajj Amin al-Husseini visits the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he urges the guards and the executioners to “work more diligently.” Hitler had a clerical supporter, to be sure: but it wasn’t Pius XII, it was Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a precursor of contemporary Islamist terrorism.

The Myth of Hitler’s Pope is a kind of lawyer’s argument for the defense, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. If he succeeds in denting the myth that confronted Liz Lev in St. Peter’s, David Dalin will have done everyone who cares about truth a genuine service. There remain, of course, many questions in need of careful exploration — questions about the past with serious implications for the future. How does the pope’s role as a global moral witness co-exist with the diplomacy of the Holy See, which must “play” according to the established rules-of-the-game? How does the “universal pastor of the Church” address a situation in which many of his spiritual sons and daughters are manifestly in the wrong? Those are questions worth debating. The question of whether Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust is not.

COMING UP: Care for Her Act: A common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The pro-life community is often accused of only being pro-birth; however, a congressman from Nebraska is seeking to not only bring more visibility to the countless organizations which provide care for women experiencing crisis pregnancies through birth and beyond, but to also imitate that care at the federal level and enshrine it into law.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R), who serves the first congressional district in Nebraska, is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill that’s been in the works since last year. The overall goal of the bill is to “[commit] to care for that journey of life through a complementary set of services whereby the government makes a decided choice on behalf of the life of the unborn child and meeting the needs of the expectant mother,” Rep. Fortenberry told the Denver Catholic.

The Care For Act seeks to accomplish this through four basic provisions: A $3,600 tax credit for unborn children which would apply retroactively after the child is born, in addition to the existing tax credit for children; a comprehensive assessment and cataloguing of the programs and resources that are available to expectant mothers; providing federal grants to advance maternal housing, job training mentorships and other educational opportunities for expectant mothers; and lastly, offering financial incentives to communities that improve maternal and child health outcomes.

The Biden Administration recently indicated that they’ll be removing the Hyde Amendment in next year’s budget, which has historically been in place to prohibit pubic funds from going to abortions. The Care for Her Act would circumvent this to some degree, and it would also test whether Rep. Fortenberry’s dissenting colleagues who have in the past expressed that women should be cared for throughout their pregnancies and beyond are willing to stand by their words.

While the conversation around pregnancy and women’s health often centers around abortion, Rep. Fortenberry intentionally crafted the Care for Her Act to not be against abortion, per se, but rather for women and their babies.

“Abortion has caused such a deep wound in the soul of America,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “However, the flip side of this is not only what we are against, because it is so harmful, but what are we for? So many wonderful people throughout this country carry the burden of trying to be with women in that vulnerable moment where there is an unexpected pregnancy and show them the gift of what is possible for that child and for that woman. Let’s do that with government policy as well.”

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry (R) of Nebraska is expected to introduce the Care for Her Act to Congress soon, a bill which seeks to provide a community of care for women facing an unexpected pregnancy. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Even The Washington Post has taken notice of the Care for Her Act. Earlier this year, Rep. Fortenberry introduced the idea to his constituents, and as to be expected, he received mixed feedback. Those who are pro-life were supportive of the idea, while those who support abortions were more apprehensive. Still others shared consternation about what the government ought to or ought not to do, expressing concern about what the Care for Her Act seeks to do.

“My response is, if we’re going to spend money, what is the most important thing? And in my mind, this is it,” Rep. Fortenberry said.

However, he was very encouraged by one response in particular, which for him really illustrates why this bill is so important and needed.

“One woman wrote me and said, ‘Jeff, I had an abortion when I was young. But if I had this complement of services and commitment of community around me, I would have made another decision,'” Rep. Fortenberry recalled. “And I said ‘yes.’ That’s why we are doing this. For her.”

So far, Rep. Fortenberry has been able to usher support from a number of women representatives on his side of the aisle. He is hopeful, though, that support could come from all sides of the political spectrum.

“Is it possible this could be bipartisan? I would certainly hope so, because it should transcend a political divide,” he explained. “We, of course, stand against abortion because it is so detrimental to women and obviously the unborn child. At the same time though, I think that others could join us who maybe don’t have the fullness of our perspective, who want to see the government actually make a choice on behalf of protecting that unborn life.”

Amidst the politically polarizing discussions about pregnancy and unborn life, the Care for Her act is a common-sense approach to caring for women and their babies. It offers women facing an unexpected pregnancy the chance to experience hope in a seemingly hopeless situation and make a life-giving decision for both herself and her child.

“I’m excited by this,” Rep. Fortenberry said. “I think it opens a whole new set of imaginative possibilities for America, a transformative ideal that again makes this moment of vulnerability when there is an unexpected pregnancy, our chance, our commitment as a community of care.”