Call me skeptical, but I suspect that what my friend Joseph Bottum christened “The Pius War” will never be resolved. Controversy over Pope Pius XII’s role during the Second World War and the Holocaust is too juicy a topic, involving too many interests (and academic reputations), to ever die down. The Pius War may eventually outstrip the Hundred Years’ War in duration.
No serious scholar believes that Eugenio Pacelli, elected pope on February 2, 1939, was an anti-Semite, harshly indifferent to the fate of European Jewry. No serious scholar contests the evidence that Pius XII took direct and indirect measures to save Jews from the Nazi death machine. Visiting Castel Gandolfo this past September, I walked past the places where thousands of persecuted Jews had been hidden on the papal summer estate, and I remembered that Jewish children (some named “Eugenia” or “Eugenio” in honor of their benefactor) had been born in the pope’s bedroom.
Heeding the advice he was receiving from resistance leaders, and after the Nazi roundup of Jewish-born Dutch Christians which followed a sharp critique of Nazi practice by the Dutch bishops — the roundup that began Edith Stein’s journey to Auschwitz, and eventual canonization — Pius XII seems to have concluded that direct public protests from him would endanger both Jews and Catholics. Even so, his public criticisms of racial persecution, which mirrored the Holy See’s anti-Nazi commentary throughout the 1930s, were understood by both the Nazis and, mirabile dictu, the New York Times, to be directed at Berlin. It is also reasonably well-established that Hitler wanted to kidnap Pius XII, which rather cuts against the claim that Pacelli was, somehow, pro-Nazi; so does Pius XII’s role as middle-man between Britain and Germans exploring an anti-Hitler coup. On his death in 1958, Pius XII was praised by Golda Meir, then foreign minister of the State of Israel.
Reasonable people can debate whether Pius’s strategic decision to avoid an explicit, public condemnation of Nazism, precisely for the sake of saving lives, was the correct one. But it takes a certain bias, contradicted by many facts, to conclude that this decision was taken on the basis of cowardice. It takes even worse bias to conclude that it was taken because of anti-Semitism.
Why, then, the campaign of defamation, which has reached the point where one overhears tourists in St. Peter’s Basilica, spotting the bronze statue of Pius XII erected by his cardinals, whispering, “That’s ‘Hitler’s Pope’”?
Serious scholars have long suspected that the origins of that campaign lie in the anti-Catholic machinations of the KGB, the Soviet intelligence service. Confirmation of that thesis now comes from General Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence officer and the highest-ranking Soviet bloc spymaster ever to defect, in an article posted on National Review Online on January 26.
According to General Pacepa, the Soviets, stung by the public relations bludgeoning they had taken because of the persecution of Catholics in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and elsewhere decided to accelerate the anti-Catholic propaganda offensive they had launched toward the end of World War II by depicting the Church as a bulwark of Nazism. Pius XII was the primary target — because, as the KGB liked to say, “Dead men cannot defend themselves.” So the KGB concocted a scheme whereby its Romanian ally would penetrate the Vatican archives, using agents disguised as priests; certain Vatican officials, it seems, took the bait, assured by Romanian operatives that cooperation would lead to official Holy See-Romanian diplomatic relations. No documents incriminating Pius XII were found, but the plot now shifted. In 1963, a senior Soviet intelligence official told his Romanian colleagues that the centerpiece of the anti-Catholic offensive would now be a play defaming Pius XII, The Deputy. Its author, Rolf Hochhuth, was a former Hitler Youth turned communist fellow-traveler; the play was produced by a lifelong communist. The results — for The Deputy was the Pearl Harbor of the Pius War — vindicated KGB chairman Yuri Andropov’s conviction that the gullible find smut easier to believe than holiness.
Don’t bet the mortgage money that this new evidence will appear in the New York Times anytime soon.