Exploding the myth of ‘Hitler’s Pope’

George Weigel

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: A man for strengthening others

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When the choirs of angels led Father Paul Mankowski, SJ, into the Father’s House on September 3, I hope the seraphic choirmaster chose music appropriate to the occasion.  Had I been asked, I would have suggested the Latin antiphon Ecce sacerdos magnus as arranged by Anton Bruckner. The all-stops-pulled moments in Bruckner’s composition, deploying organ, brass, and full choir, would have been a perfect match for Paul Mankowski’s rock-solid Catholic faith, his heroic ministry, and his robust literary and oratorical style; the a capella sections, softly sung, mirror the gentleness with which he healed souls. Above all, I would have suggested Bruckner’s motet because Father Mankowski truly was what the antiphon celebrates: “a great priest who in his days pleased  God.”

We were friends for some 30 years and I can say without reservation that I have never met anyone like Paul Mankowski. He was off-the-charts brilliant, an extraordinary linguist and scholar; but he wore his learning lightly and was a tremendous wit. He rarely expressed doubts about anything; but he displayed a great sensitivity to the doubts and confusions of those who had the humility to confess that they were at sea. He could be as fierce as Jeremiah in denouncing injustice and dishonesty; but the compassion he displayed to spiritually wounded fellow-priests and laity, who sought healing through the work of grace at his hands, was just as notable a feature of his personality.

His curriculum vitae was singular. The son of working-class parents, he put himself through the University of Chicago working summers in a steel mill. He did advanced degrees at Oxford and Harvard, becoming the sparring partner of a future Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, at the former, and delving deeply into the mysteries of Semitic philology – unfathomable, to most of his friends – at the latter. He taught at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and was pastor of an English-speaking parish in Amman, Jordan. Wherever he was, he lived like a true ascetic; he was also the best company imaginable at a meal or a party.

He was a writer of genius, although his published bibliography is considerably slimmer than it might have been, thanks to the years when he was silenced or censored by his religious superiors. A good example of his ability to combine keen insight and droll humor is his 1992 dissection of the goings-on at the annual convention of the American Academy of Religion (available here). More recently, Father Mankowski drew on his extensive experience as a confessor and spiritual director to pen, with his superiors’ permission, a respectful but sharp critique of his fellow Jesuit James Martin’s book, Building a Bridge (available here). In the decades between those two pieces, and when permitted to do so, he published essays and reviews on a wide range of topics, including literature, politics, Church affairs, biblical translations and the priesthood, while sharing his private musings with friends in a seemingly endless series of pungent parodies, revised song lyrics, and imagined news stories.

Years ago, his friend Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed Father Mankowski one of the “Papal Bulls:” Jesuits of a certain generation notable for their intellectually sophisticated and unwavering Catholic orthodoxy, which often got them into hot water of various temperatures (including boiling) with their Ignatian brothers and superiors. Paul Mankowski was no bull, papal or otherwise, in a china shop, though. He relished debate and was courteous in it; what he found off-putting was the unwillingness of Catholic progressives to fight their corner with a frank delineation of their position. This struck him as a form of hypocrisy. And while Father Mankowski, the good shepherd, often brought strays back to the Lord’s flock, he was unsparingly candid about what he perceived as intellectual dishonesty, or what he recently deplored as “ignoble timidity” in facing clerical corruption. Paul Mankowski was not a man of the subjunctive, and he paid the price for it.

He is beyond all that now, and I like to imagine St. Ignatius of Loyola welcoming him to the Father’s House with a hearty “Well done, my son.” In this valley of tears, freshly moistened by those who mourn his untimely death at age 66, Father Paul V. Mankowski, SJ, will be remembered by those of us who loved him as a man and a priest who, remaining faithful to his Jesuit and sacerdotal vocations, became a tower of strength for others. This was a man of God. This was a man, whose courageous manliness reflected his godliness.