THE VOICE OF THE CHURCH
Pius XII's Gold
Documents in the Vatican archives concerning World War II have been made public. An exclusive interview with Fr. Blet, the Jesuit who edited the volumes and who refutes the dark legend about the anti-Semitism of Pope Pacelli. Hinting at a hypothesis
EDITED BY ANDREA TORNIELLI
Asked recently about the presumed "silence" of his predecessor Pope Pius XII concerning the extermination of the Jews, John Paul II replied, "Read Father Blet." This is the highest and most authoritative recognition of the meticulous work done by this elderly French Jesuit, who edited the twelve volumes of Actes et Documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale [Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relating to the Second World War], containing all the documents in the Vatican archives concerning the period of the last world war. The project was conceived by Paul VI, who was elected Pope right at the moment when the dark legend of Pius XII's anti-Semitism was beginning to emerge. It represents exhaustive historical research to establish the truth about a pope now in the process of canonization, but whose image is constantly being subjected to instrumental attacks. Fr. Pierre Blet has recently published a book that summarizes and gives the scope of all the results of his research: Pio XII e la Seconda Guerra mondiale negli archivi vaticani [Pius XII and the Second World War from the Vatican Archives] (Ed. San Paolo, Milan, 1999). Its pages furnish the best response to the latest instrumental attack against Pius XII, launched two months ago by the English writer John Cornwell, author of a nearly 500-page book called Hitler's Pope, which does not contain anything new but proposes once again the old idea of Pius XII as an anti-Semite, and for this reason has aroused an enormous response in the world media.
At his desk, as every day, Fr. Blet shook his head when we talked to him of "silence." He has been able to prove that Pius XII did everything he could to save the Jews.
What is the image of Pius XII that emerges from your studies?
Pacelli was a man very well aware of his duty and he did it scrupulously. He never wasted a minute, he was an assiduous worker. He labored hard and concretely from the beginning to the end to save innocent lives, and he tried to help the persecuted Jews even before the beginning of the war and the Holocaust.
What did the Holy See do for the Jews before the war started?
The Nazis tried to expel the Jews from Germany and the countries they had occupied. Cardinal Pacelli, Secretary of State under Pius XI, worked to find hospitality for them in other countries. There were enormous difficulties: getting a visa for the United States took two years, and it was just as hard to get into England. In the end, Brazil granted 3,000 visas, a drop in the bucket compared with the requests.
In his book, Cornwell published a report sent to the Vatican by the nunciature of Berlin in 1919 when Pacelli was Papal Nuncio. It speaks of those in the Bolshevik revolt, calling them "pale, dirty, repugnant, and vulgar Jews."
This document that Cornwell says is unpublished and uses as "proof" of Pacelli's anti-Semitism was already known and published in a book in 1992. Its text was not prepared by the Nuncio, but by one of the auditors in the nunciature; it was he, and not Pacelli, who used these expressions.
Was PiusXII an anti-Semitic pope?
Not at all! In 1943 the Nazis asked the Jews in Rome for 50 kg. of gold not to deport them from the ghetto, and the Israelite community had collected only 35 kg. The Jews turned to Pius XII, who made up the difference in gold. Do you think the Jews would have turned to Pacelli if he had been anti-Semitic?
Another accusation that is hurled at Pacelli is the Concordat with Nazi Germany, which helped Hitler consolidate his power.
The Concordat was signed in 1933, when Hitler was already solidly in power. The German government offered the Holy See highly favorable conditions, but then did not respect them. Cardinal Pacelli himself said, "Let's hope these new rules are not all violated at the same time." That agreement was only meant to guarantee freedom of worship to Catholics, who however did not have an easy time; thousands of priests and nuns were arrested and the head of Catholic Action was murdered. If the Vatican had not signed the Concordat when the persecution began against Catholics, then they could have accused the Holy See of error in not signing it.
From the mass of documents that you were able to examine, do any episodes emerge that could lead one to believe that Pius XII condescended in any way to Nazism?
No, none. Pacelli was a great friend of the German people, because he admired their culture, but he did not help Nazism in any way. There is an illuminating episode in this regard. At the Pope's request, the diplomats of the Holy See worked to have American Catholic circles accept the alliance between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Stalin as a way of containing Nazism. Pius XII sent word to his apostolic delegate in Washington that the strategic pact for stopping Hitler could be made, even though the Holy See had firmly condemned Communism. And in 1940, when the Pope heard about the plans of the German Resistance to overthrow Hitler, he decided to pass them on secretly to the English, in hopes that something would come of it. These do not seem to me to be the actions of a friend of the Nazis.
How do you explain the Pope's "silence" on the extermination of the Jews?
This so-called "silence" never happened. Rather, the Pope's was the only voice raised in defense of those being persecuted. In his Christmas message of 1942, when all the heads of state were silent, Pius XII denounced the persecution against "hundreds of thousands of individuals who, guiltless, and sometimes only for reasons of nationality or race, have been designated for death or for progressive extinction." The New York Times had to admit: "This Christmas more than ever, the Pope is a solitary voice crying in the silence of a continent." On June 2, 1943, Pius XII made another speech, which his accusers are careful not to cite, in which he talked about those who were turning to him "since because of their nationality or race they were destined to exterminatory measures."
Some say the Pope could have been more daring in his public messages.
This is precisely the point. Pius XII knew that his public denunciations would have had a devastating effect: they would not have stopped the Nazis, but would have made the persecution of the Jews and Catholics even more terrible. In his speech in June 1943, the Pope explained: "Every word of ours addressed to public authorities, and every mention we made in public, had to be seriously pondered and measured in the interest of the sufferers themselves so as not to render the situation, although involuntarily, even more serious and unbearable."
Do you think the Vatican knew exactly what was going on in the death camps?
Exact knowledge of what had happened only came after the Allies entered the German camps. For this reason, neither Winston Churchill nor President Roosevelt denounced the extermination of the Jews, and they had fewer reasons than Pius XII to keep quiet; they did not have faithful spread all over the world who could be subject to cruel Nazi retaliations. The Pope decided to speak out just the same; he did it, and he was the only one to do it. But more than with words, he preferred to work concretely in favor of the Jews. All the recognitions that he received at the end of the war from high Jewish figures testify to this.
From the Vatican files that you were able to examine, does the number come out of Jews saved by the actions of the Holy See?
No, this information does not emerge. The Pope ordered religious houses and cloistered convents to be opened up to take in Jews and keep them from deportation. But he did not keep a count of the lives saved. A calculation has been made by a scholar of Jewish history, the Israeli diplomat Emilio Pinchas Lapide, who wrote in 1967, "Pius XII, the Holy See, the nuncios, and the whole Catholic Church saved between 700,000 and 850,000 Jews from certain death."
Father Blet, why, despite the fact that the documents speak clearly about the role played by Pius XII, do the attacks against him continue?
I believe that there is a well-orchestrated campaign. Cornwell's book is about to be translated into numerous languages...
Do you think the attacks are coming from Jewish circles?
I don't know. I fear that some Jewish circles are being used by others. It cannot be a coincidence that two publications close to the Jewish world, the New York Times and Newsweek, have been cool about or even given bad reviews of Cornwell's book. We must remember that the heavy duty campaign against Pacelli began in 1963, with a play that I don't want to name, just as I don't want to name the author because he does not deserve to be named...
Are you referring to The Deputy by Rolf Hochhuth?
Yes, exactly, but I don't even want to say that name. In any case, that play came out of East Germany, it came from Eastern Europe.
But today Eastern Europe, understood as the group of countries in the Communist bloc, doesn't exist any more.
It's true, it doesn't exist any more. But I'm afraid that there are still many who have not forgiven Pius XII for the defeat in Italy of the Communist front. The defeat in 1948.
History or Agitation
Milano Studenti and the case of The Deputy
In 1963-64 the Gioventù Studentesca [young high school students' CL group] magazine wrote about the play that was the starting point for the dark legend of Pius XII as an
anti-Semite. The following is what was said by Milano Studenti. At the beginning of our Movement's history, a cultural battle to affirm the truth, which today still maintains its relevance to the current moment
The European press has given a great deal of attention, since the spring of this year, to the story of a theatrical drama, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), centering around Pius XII and raising the question of his attitude toward Hitler's massacres.
The play, written by the 32-year-old Rolf Hochhuth, was staged for the first time by Erwin Piscator, a disciple of Bertolt Brecht, at the Theater Kurfüsterdamm in Berlin in February 1963. Currently it is playing at the Aldwych Theater in London and at the Theater of the Canton of Basel, while the Royal Flemish Theater has decided not to put it on. In Italy, after reporting on the polemic aroused by the performances in Berlin and London, an evening newspaper in Rome has announced the Italian translation of the drama and published some scenes from the script.
Rolf Hochhuth is part of a sector of European culture that, having made the decision to abandon the theatrical games of a literature of light comedy with no real purpose as well as the abstractions of intellectual snobbery, is "engaged" in seeking out historical topics that have or should have an echo and an influence on the present, and bringing them onto the stage. These writers set themselves halfway between "pure artists" (according to a definition that we do not accept) and the artist-historian or the artist-philosopher, and they prefer the forms of the novel-essay or the play-essay. No one can miss the impulse toward innovation that hides behind this tendency; but it must be very clear to everyone that the closer the artist comes to the historian, the more he must share his responsibility. But instead, look what has happened: in Berlin first, and then in London, the audience which judged it discerned in Hochhuth's play false history and protested loudly. Hochhuth refused to reply in a debate to the observations raised, while international journalism, greedily relishing these events, rushed to brand the public's indignant and determined reactions (both Catholics and non-Catholics) to the "passages of great rage"-which Hochhuth, as a German newspaper commented, has ripped up from his soul-as signs of cowardice, when not attempts against artistic freedom (a responsible figure at the Piccolo Teatro seems to have spoken out in this sense last May).
Whoever acts as a historian must accept a historian's responsibility; whoever acts as a judge must follow the procedures of every form of judgment among men.
The intervention of Cardinal Montini
Hochhuth's play accuses Pius XII of cowardice for not having dared express opposition, even at the risk of martyrdom, even at the cost of his life, to the atrocities committed by Hitler in his persecution of the Jews and of thus bearing the greatest responsibility for the 6,000,000 killed. Pius XII, he says, acted from diplomatic concerns and even more, from calculations of his own interest, considering Hitler to be the only efficient bulwark against Communism and wishing not to interrupt well-established banking enterprises. While the second accusation is laughable, the first has to be taken into consideration. Hochhuth, in an appendix to his text, bases his work on a report sent to Berlin in October 1942 by Ambassador Weizsäcker in which the Ambassador claims the merit of having obtained the Pope's silence on the deportations already enacted. This document, which represents the keystone of Hochhuth's argument, was explained and justified by a statement made by Albrecht von Kessel, at the time a member of the German Embassy at the Holy See, who declared that Weizsäcker's report was motivated solely by a desire to ward off an act of force by Berlin against the Vatican (see Die Welt, April 6, 1963).
In reality, the attitude of Pius XII in these ferocious years derived from a pondered consideration on the effectiveness and danger of his actions. Writing to the magazine The Tablet in June 1963, at the time Cardinal Montini said: "The reason why Pius XII did not take a position of violent conflict with Hitler, thus saving millions of Jews from Nazi extermination, is not difficult to understand for those who do not commit Hochhuth's error of judging the possibilities of an effective and responsible action during that tremendous period of war and Nazi bullying on the same basis as what can be done under normal conditions, that is to say, under the gratuitous and hypothetical conditions invented by the imagination of a young playwright. An attitude of condemnation and protest, which he blames the Pope for not adopting, would have been not only useless, but damaging. That is all there is to it. The thesis expressed in Der Stellvertreter indicates insufficient psychological, political, and historical insight into reality, in an effort to dress it up into something that works well on the stage."
A Berliner couple, the Wolfssons, who fled to Rome from the concentration camps, stated: "None of us wanted the Pope to speak openly. We were all fugitives, and whoever is fleeing does not want a finger pointed at them. The Gestapo would have become more zealous and would have intensified its inquisitions."
This testimony is joined by that of other leading figures in the Jewish world. Harry Greenstein, president of the association of Jewish charities, wrote to the Catholic Bishop of Baltimore, recalling that at the time he had sent, in the name of the Rabbi of Jerusalem, Herzog, a message of thanks to Pius XII for his actions in favor of the Jews. The director of the Jewish Chronicle adds, "No Jew can disregard what he (Pius XII) actually accomplished in their favor." The Israeli journalist Pinchas E. Lapide recalls the Nazi hostility and the joy of the Jewish communities at the news of Pacelli's election as Pope.
In reality, Hochhuth's is a trial without possibility of appeal; what is more, it is a trial against someone who is not there. It is not possible to resist the temptation to think that The Deputy is an expression of the need of Germans who are now reaching the age of maturity to free their past, at least in part, of the burden of the infamous period under Hitler. One cannot accuse of inertia a man who, while he was living the world's drama in the most complete manner possible (Pacelli saw both the great wars of this century being fought in his soul), had to weigh each word and every action. His great concern was above all to save lives; he who knew well the irascibility of dictators, capable only of revenge and retaliation, chose the means that at the time appeared to be the least exasperating. On April 30, 1943, he approved unreservedly the denunciation of Nazi atrocities made by the Bishop of Berlin von Preysing, but he received the news that Dutch Jews, even converts, had been exterminated in retaliation to the letter signed by the Catholic bishops of Holland.
A clear stance
These are episodes that history, no matter how it is being written, cannot ignore. Moreover, the Catholic Church had already proclaimed its definitive refusal of Nazism in the 1937 encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, long before the persecution of the Jews reached the proportions of the years 1942-1943. Cardinal Pacelli penned many pages of the document. "While race or people, while the State or a given form of it, while the representatives of government power or other fundamental elements of human society have in the natural order an essential place and one worthy of respect, anyone who however detaches them from this scale of earthly values, raising them up to be the supreme norm over all, even over religious values, and deifying them with idolatrous worship, perverts and falsifies the order created and imposed by God, and is far away from a true faith in God and from a conception of life which conforms with faith. Only superficial spirits can fall into the error of speaking of a national God, of a national religion, and undertake the mad attempt to imprison within the boundaries of one sole people, in the ethnic restriction of one sole race, God, the Creator of the world and Lawgiver of peoples."
Compared with this clear foresightedness, Hochhuth's play represents a belated accusation that moves away from a serene and objective examination of history to enter into the reign of agitation dominated by passion and the party line. Dr. Otto Dibelius, the leading figure in German Lutheranism, has said that "The Deputy does not render a service either to Germany or to the world." (Berliner Sonntagsblatt, April 7, 1963).
(Claudio Scarpati in Milano Studenti, n. 1, 1963).