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The Vatican and The Dictators

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 09 January 2014
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


An analysis of the evidence regarding Pope Pius XII and in particular his relations to Hitler and Nazi Germany which reveals the depths of this Pope’s anguish over the Fuhrer’s dreadful inhumanity (R. A. Lamb Esq.)

1. Beginnings

Pius XII (Pacelli) became Pope in March 1939 on the eve of the Second World War which broke out in September 1939 having been Secretary of State in the Vatican previously. He reigned all through World War II.

2. Pius XI

Pius XI was particularly concerned that Austria, the most Catholic of countries, should not become part of Nazi Germany. When Dolfuss, the Austrian Chancellor, was murdered by the Nazis on 25th July 1934 Pius was delighted that Mussolini moved his troops to the Brenner to prevent an Anschluss. In the negotiations for the independence of the Saar Mussolini was responsible for an article in the Treaty which gave all Jews the right to leave Germany freely with their whole property within a year of the plebiscite.

Pius XI composed a pastoral letter against Hitler Mit Brennender Sorge (with acute anxiety). Pacelli warned the Papal Ambassador to Germany: Orsenigo the controversial pastoral letter was being prepared. It went out worldwide on 21st March 1937 despite brutal attempts by the Gestapo to suppress its publication. It spoke of the Nazi war of annihilation against the Catholic faith, and the Fuhrer was described as “placing himself on the same level as Christ” and as “a mad prophet possessed of repulsive arrogance.” Hitler took revenge with vindictive measures against the Catholic Church. From then on Pius referred to Russia and Germany in the same breath, and during 1939 continually attacked the Nazis. Pacelli agreed Mit Brennender Sorge in principle, but would have preferred a milder approach.

Hitler regarded the Catholic Church as political and the Nazis started a vicious anti-Catholic campaign in 1937. Hitler wanted no modus vivendi with the Vatican quite clearly.

Far from alleviating the persecution of the Church in Germany Pius XI’s attacks on the Nazis had the reverse effect with Hitler stepping up his anti-Church campaign.

Because of this experience Pacelli had a gut feeling from then on that direct confrontation with Hitler would always result in intensification of his repressive measures, and this coloured his subsequent behaviour towards Nazi Germany.

Hitler visited Rome with unprecedented pageantry on 3rd May 1938. Pius XI declared he could not stay in the same city as the Nazi dictator; he had been trying in vain to obtain guarantees of reasonable treatment for the Church in Austria after the Anschluss of March 1938. The Pope declared the Vatican Museum closed when he heard Hitler wanted to see some of the paintings and refused admission to the Vatican City to all the German official party, and announced the emblem of a cross other than that of Christ ought not to be hoisted in Rome. The King Victor Emmanuel III shared the Pope’s views but was unable to express them.

3. Pius XII

Within hours of Pacelli’s election as Pope the Nazi press attacked Pacelli for having no understanding of Nazidom. Germany boycotted his coronation, and in the first few days of the papacy Pacelli minuted that Hitler was “obsessed; he destroys everything that does not help him; everything he says and writes carries evidence of his psychopathic state; he is capable of treading on corpses and smashing anything that stands in his path. I cannot understand how so many in Germany, including the educated, do not understand this and cannot learn the lesson of what he writes and says”. After the enclave Pius XII held a conference with the German Cardinals who wanted him to make a strong demand to Hitler, but instead the Pope decided to send a diplomatic letter to Hitler. This weakness was much criticised.

Pius XII refuses to declare the Italian German campaign against Soviet Russia “a holy crusade against bolshevism, but is sceptical about Stalin’s pretence that the Church was being allowed to operate freely in Russia.

Much criticism is aroused by Pius XII’s refusal to excommunicate Hitler and his entourage for the atrocities against Jews and Poles. A priest who crosses Poland on a hospital train brings Pius XII messages from Polish Bishops. His dilemma over whether to make a public protest to Hitler but he decides against it because he feels it would intensify Polish suffering. However Vatican Radio reveals German atrocities until Gestapo take savage reprisals on any Germans who listen to it.

After giving the Pope a detailed account of the appalling conditions in Poland this priest implored Pius XII to excommunicate Hitler and his coterie. The Pope was much moved; he went on his knees and holding up his arms declared he was agonised by what he had learnt and that he was on the brink of excommunicating Nazism and denouncing to the civilised world the bestiality of the extermination of the Jews, but he had heard threats of ghastly reprisals not only against him, but on the whole population of the occupied territories: “After many tears and prayers he had come to the conclusion that his protest would have done no good but would have evoked the fiercest reprisals against the Jews and other defenceless people. Perhaps my protest would produce praise for me in the civilised world but it would subject the poor Jews to a persecution even more implacable than they were already enduring.”

Soon after King Victor Emmanuel overthrew Mussolini and installed the Badoglio Government who ruled for six weeks, the Vatican received the alarming news that Hitler planned to send 3,000 S.S. to Rome in order to occupy the Vatican and deport the Pope. A plan was made by Count Galeazzi for the Pope to go to San Felice Circeo between Naples and Rome on the coast and from there on a Spanish boat to Spain. Sister Pascalina, the Pope’s devoted secretary, went to San Felice to finalise the arrangements. It is improbable that she would have done this unless the Pope had at least toyed with the idea of flight. However when it came to the crunch Pius XII categorically refused to leave Rome although the Intelligence received in the Vatican about Hitler’s intentions was in his view correct. The Pope declared; “You are right about the Nazi intention, but I will not leave the Vatican unless I am handcuffed and removed by force.”

On 10th September Rome was occupied by the Germans forty-eight hours after the King and the Badoglio Government had fled to safety in the territory occupied by Allied troops. Mussolini set up a new Fascist Government in the North from where the Fascist Radio spread rumours that Hitler was about to abduct the Pope and take him to Germany; these were repeated on the BBC Italian service.

Hitler summoned Wolff, the SS Commander in Rome, to the Wolf’s Lair on 13th September 1943, and told him to make plans urgently to occupy the Vatican, kidnap the Pope, remove him to Leichtenstein and put in safe keeping all the archives and treasures of the Vatican. The Fuhrer asked Wolff how long it would take him to 4. prepare such an operation. Wolff tried to delay the operation by saying he would have to collect Latin and Greek scholars to examine the archives, and this would need a month. Much annoyed, Hitler agreed to the delay saying he would have preferred to attack the Vatican immediately. Whereupon Wolff argued that in the chaotic situation ruling in Italy the only firm authority was the Church, and that he had established good relations with ecclesiastics without whose cooperation he had too few units of the SS and the police in Italy to keep order. Wolff promised Hitler that if the plan to attack the Vatican was put in cold storage he could guarantee to keep Italy calm by lenient treatment, and the Italians in the part occupied by the Germans would become allies again. Reluctantly Hitler agreed to postpose kidnapping Pius XII. Wolff then sent a message to the Pope that he and the Curia were in no immediate danger, and he established a satisfactory relationship with the Vatican during the nine months of German occupation of Rome relying on the good offices of Father Ivo Zeiger, Head of the German College.

The Germans put pressure on the Pope to show sympathy with the German defence in the east against what they called” the Bolshevik threat to Christianity and European culture.” The Pope, although aware of the danger to his person, refused categorically saying he could not show sympathy with the Germans in their fight against Soviet Russia unless at the same time he denounced the dreadful behaviour of the Nazis in Poland and the conditions in the concentration camps. The Pope showed no fear of Hitler although he was well aware of Hitler’s plan to deport him.