'Hitler's Pope' debate: Highest moral drama

The Argument

The new book by John Cornwell charges Pope Pius XII with acquiescence to the Holocaust -- a controversy of consummate ethical importance.

On Books

September 26, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

For 60 years, debate has raged about who or what might have deterred Adolf Hitler's rise to power and his Holocaust. Among world leaders during Hitler's era, few if any have ignited more intense controversy than Pope Pius XII. Before his ascension, he was known as Eugenio Pacelli, serving as a Vatican diplomat during the 1920s and 1930s. He was elevated to the papacy in 1939 and died in 1958, in the 59th year of his priesthood and his 82nd year on Earth.

He is now within short reach -- perhaps a year -- of being declared a saint. That carries profound spiritual meaning within the Roman Catholic Church. It also bears immense symbolic significance: Elevation to sainthood is taken by many as a declaration of the highest moral and spiritual values of church itself.

As beatification proceeds, a new book has come out, in America and in Europe, that raises more emphatically than ever before questions about Pius XII's role in relation to the Nazi era. It is "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII" by John Cornwell (Viking, 430 pages, $29.95).

Inevitably, this book will precipitate fresh, intense debate both within and outside the church.

That debate is a profoundly important experience for literate civilization. It is of consequence to everyone seriously concerned with the origins and causes of evil and with the nature of human responsibility for combating it. (For a report on the origins and attitudes about Cornwell's book, please read John Rivera's excellent article on Page 1 of today's Sun.)

Cornwell, a practicing Catholic who once was a seminarian, later served as editor of the foreign news service of the Observer, a respected British Sunday paper. He has written supportively of matters of the church; his 1989 book, "A Thief in the Night: The Mysterious Death of Pope John Paul I," dismissed popular murder-conspiracy theories and was largely welcomed by ecclesiastic reviewers.

He contends that when he decided to undertake the challenge of writing about the relationship between the Vatican and the Nazis, "I was convinced that if his full story were told, Pius XII's pontificate would be vindicated."

He gained access to archives in the Vatican and elsewhere, some of them not previously public. "Nearing the end of my research," he writes, "I found myself in a state I can only describe as moral shock."

Was Pius XII culpable for Nazi crimes? Do not look here for an answer. Do not look to Cornwell. Despite the book's title, he does not accuse Pius of direct responsibility. What he does is convincingly demonstrate that Pacelli was expressively anti-Semitic, and that Vatican diplomacy that he helped implement was significantly helpful to Hitler's ascent to power.

So what is his case? From early in his career, Cornwell writes, "Pacelli betrayed an undeniable antipathy toward the Jews, and ... his diplomacy in Germany in the 1930s had resulted in the betrayal of Catholic political associations that might have challenged Hitler's regime and thwarted the Final Solution." Cornwell suggests that acquiescence is historically more important than the Vatican's somewhat mixed record of seeking to thwart Nazi policies once Italy was part of Hitler's Axis.

"Eugenio Pacelli was no monster," Cornwell concludes. "His case is far more complex, more tragic, than that... His is not a portrait of evil but of fatal moral dislocation -- a separation of authority from Christian love. The consequences of that rupture were collusion with tyranny and ultimately, violence."

That language is all from Cornwell's preface; 430 pages follow, including 44 given to footnotes and an index. The book is written for the general audience, not for scholars who can, and will, go to thousands of pages of other documents, in several different languages.

As a general reader, I found those prefatory conclusions well supported by what followed. If anything, given the hideous consequences of the Holocaust and the culpability of millions of people who did not fight against it, Cornwell is circumscribed and methodical.

Before Hitler's rise, Roman Catholics constituted about one-third of Germany's population and after Nazi annexations almost one-half. Even for people reasonably aware of Western history, it is easy to forget how widespread and virulent -- and accepted -- anti-Semitism was until after World War II. It is perhaps even easier to forget the open scorn and repression brought against the Roman Catholic church well into the 20th century.

Cornwell's tracing of the 19th and early 20th century political, ethnic and ecclesiastical history in Europe and Rome is detailed, intricate and -- to me, anyway -- fascinating. The impacts of revolutionary republicanism, of socialism -- of modernism as a social as well as an intellectual movement and force -- all were profoundly disturbing to the conservative leaders of the church, the men to whom young Pacelli was drawn.

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