The Vatican has long defended its World War II-era pope, Pius XII, against criticism that he remained silent as the Holocaust unfolded, insisting that he worked quietly behind the scenes to save lives. A new book, citing recently opened Vatican archives, suggests the lives the Vatican worked hardest to save were Jews who had converted to Catholicism or were children of Catholic-Jewish “mixed marriages.”
Documents attesting to frantic searches for baptismal certificates, lists of names of converts handed over by the Vatican to the German ambassador and heartfelt pleas from Catholics for the pope to find relatives of Jewish descent are contained in David Kertzer’s “The Pope at War,” being published Tuesday in the United States.
The book follows on the heels of Kertzer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Pope and Mussolini,” about Pius’ predecessor, Pius XI. It uses the millions of recently released documents from the Vatican archives as well as the state archives of Italy, France, Germany, the U.S., and Britain to craft a history of World War II through the prism of the Pius XII papacy and its extensive diplomatic network with both Axis and Allied nations.
“The amount of material in these archives about searching for baptismal records for Jews that could save them is really pretty stunning,” Kertzer said in a telephone interview ahead of the release.
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The 484-page book, and its nearly 100 pages of endnotes, portrays a timid pontiff who wasn’t driven by antisemitism, but rather a conviction that Vatican neutrality was the best and only way to protect the interests of the Catholic Church as the war raged on.
Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, suggests Pius' primary motivation was fear: fear for the church and Catholics in German-occupied territories if, as he believed until the very end, the Axis won; and fear of atheist Communism spreading across Christian Europe if the Axis lost.
To assuage that fear, Kertzer writes, Pius charted a paralyzingly cautious course to avoid conflict at all costs with the Nazis. Direct orders went to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano not to write about German atrocities — and to ensure seamless cooperation with the Fascist dictatorship of Benito Mussolini in the Vatican’s backyard.
That meant never saying a word in public to explicitly denounce SS massacres, even when Jews were being rounded up right outside the Vatican walls, as they were on Oct. 16, 1943, and put on trains bound for Auschwitz.
Kertzer concludes that Pius was no “Hitler’s Pope” — the provocative title of the last Pius-era blockbuster by John Cornwell. But neither was he the champion of Jews that Pius’ supporters contend.
Marla Stone, professor of humanities at the American Academy of Rome, said the book “takes a position between the previous poles of historical interpretation.”
“Previously, the choices were either Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s Pope,’ deeply sympathetic to the Nazis, eager for a Nazi-Fascist victory, obsessed with the defeat of the Soviets at all costs, and a dedicated antisemite,” she told a panel at the academy last month. “The other historiographic position held that Pius XII did everything within his power to help those suffering under Nazi and Fascist oppression and that he was merely constrained by circumstances.”
“The Pope at War” is one of several books starting to roll out two years after Pope Francis opened the Pius XII archives ahead of schedule. That gave scholars access to the full set of documentation to resolve the outstanding questions about Pius and what he did or didn’t do as the Holocaust unfolded.
One of the first out of the gate was written in-house, by the archivist of the Vatican’s secretariat of state, Johan Ickx. Perhaps understandably, it praised Pius and the humanitarian efforts of the Vatican to care for Jews and people fleeing the war, recounting the hundreds of files of Jews who turned to him, begging for help.
“For the Jews it was obvious and clear that Pius XII was on their side and both he and his staff would have done everything in their possibility to save them,” Ickx told Vatican News.
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, the German investigator who promoted Pius’ now-stalled cause for sainthood, has argued that Pius couldn’t speak out more publicly because he knew it would enrage Adolf Hitler and result in more Jews being killed. He cites the case of a Catholic bishops in the Netherlands who spoke out against the deportation of Jews and the Gestapo’s response: deporting Jews who had converted to Catholicism.
The Vatican had already taken the extraordinary step, between 1965 and 1981, of publishing an 11-volume set of documentation, curated by a team of Jesuits, to try to rebut criticism of Pius’ silence that erupted following the 1963 play “The Deputy,” which alleged he turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities.
But even the Vatican’s own prefect of the archives, Monsignor Sergio Pagano, said recently that the initiative, while “worthy” at the time, now needs to be revised.
During a panel discussion hosted by a Spanish research institute in Rome, Pagano acknowledged that the Jesuits “sometimes looked at half of one document, and the other half no,” and that he had learned of some “strange omissions” that are now becoming evident. But he insisted there was no attempt at the time to hide inconvenient truths, just a lack of full access to all the files and the chaos of working quickly with a disorganized archive.
Kertzer identifies two major omissions in his book: The first was the transcripts of a series of secret meetings between Pius and a personal envoy of Hitler, Prince Philipp von Hessen, that began shortly after Pius was elected and continued for two years. The secret channel gave Pius a direct line to Hitler that was previously unknown, even to high-ranking Vatican officials at the time.
The second was the full contents of the note from Pius’ top diplomatic adviser on Jewish issues, Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, responding to pleas for Pius to finally say something about the roundup of Italy’s Jews that accelerated in the autumn and winter of 1943. While Dell’Acqua’s opinion — that Pius should not say anything — was previously known, Kertzer says the antisemitic slurs he used to describe Jews had been excised from the Jesuits’ 11-volume text.
L’Osservatore Romano has already come out swinging against Kertzer’s scholarship, blasting a 2020 essay he published in The Atlantic on some preliminary findings from the archives as “strong affirmations, but unproven.”
A key example of the Vatican’s priorities, Kertzer says, came during the Oct. 16, 1943, roundup of Rome’s Jews. That cold morning, 1,259 Jews were arrested and brought to a military barracks near the Vatican, bound for deportation to Auschwitz.
The day after their capture, the Vatican’s secretariat of state received permission from German authorities to send an envoy to the barracks, who ascertained that those inside “included people who had already been baptized, confirmed and celebrated a church wedding,” according to the envoy’s notes.
Over the following days, the secretariat of state drew up lists of people the church deemed Catholic and gave the names to the German ambassador asking for his intervention. In all, of the 1,259 people originally arrested, some 250 were spared deportation.
“For me, what this means, and I think this is also a novelty in the book, is that the Vatican participates in the selection of Jews," Kertzer said in the interview. "Who is going to live and who is going to die.”