Fascism's fellow-traveller in the Vatican

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The Independent Culture

JOHN CORNWELL initially set out to write a sympathetic biography of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII from 1939 to 1958. But when he uncovered new evidence of Pacelli's behaviour, the book became a trenchant critique. This finely-written work reads almost like a thriller, and has its hellish climax as the Final Solution stains the whole of Europe.

JOHN CORNWELL initially set out to write a sympathetic biography of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII from 1939 to 1958. But when he uncovered new evidence of Pacelli's behaviour, the book became a trenchant critique. This finely-written work reads almost like a thriller, and has its hellish climax as the Final Solution stains the whole of Europe.

Cornwell once studied for the priesthood, and investigated the strange death of Pope John Paul I in A Thief in the Night. Writing with authority, he attacks Pacelli for turning his back on Europe's Jews. His central question is: why did Catholic antagonism to Nazism fail to materialise?

Pacelli came from a caste of anti-democratic papal lawyers, devoted to establishing an autocratic papacy in opposition to Italy's new nation state. As papal nuncio, he was sent to Munich, the heart of Catholic Germany, in l920. His aim was to gain power for the Vatican through a Concordat. Pacelli fought the liberalism of the Weimar Republic, and stayed in Germany when Hitler became Chancellor. He constructed the Vatican-German pact which enfeebled grassroots Catholic social democracy, and forbade Catholics to take political action without Rome's consent.

Pacelli's exclusive hierarchy gained a stranglehold over Europe's Catholics. His Concordat was a deal - refusing any opposition to Hitler's actions in return for power over all Catholic education, church appointments and social activity. And, as Pope, he did absolutely nothing to stop Hitler's killing industry, even when made fully aware of Auschwitz.

Cornwell richly details the background to this complicity. When he came to power in 1933, Hitler received a telegram of congratulations from Pacelli. Four days after being crowned Pope in l939, Pacelli wrote to Hitler proclaiming his devotion to the German people under Hitler's leadership. Even before invading Poland, Hitler knew there was nothing to fear from the Vatican.Nazi-occupied Europe was the biggest Catholic community in the world. Had Pacelli promoted resistance, then certainly thousands - if not millions - would have been saved. Cornwell shows him as a true servant of papal anti-Judaism. The Catholic prejudices of his late 19th-century boyhood "actually bolstered aspects of Nazi anti-Semitism".

If anti-Semitism was endemic to Catholic doctrine in this period, then Pacelli was certainly the perfect Pope to act as Hitler's poodle. He remained silent when Hitler invaded Catholic Poland. The Nazi occupation of the Ukraine was judged a Christian liberation. The Holy See supported the fascist and Catholic Croats of the Ustashe. When news of the Ustashe massacre of Serbs, and the virtual elimination of Jews and Gypsies, become known, Pius XII refused to condemn the murderers (even when Franciscan priests took a leading part in massacres). The horrors mount as Cornwell shows that Catholics of Jewish origin could not depend on Pacelli's voice. The Pope insisted that Jews who converted to escape death could not be helped by Mother Church.

Cornwell sees the Vatican and fascism as willing partners, with Communism as their common enemy. He notes that almost every right-wing dictator of the period was brought up a Catholic: Hitler, Horthy, Franco, Petain, Mussolini and Pavelic. He implicates anti-Semitism in the very structure of the Vatican hierarchy. In l936, Cardinal Hlond, primate of Poland, said "there will be the Jewish problem as long as the Jews remain."

Cornwell agonises over Vatican non-intervention in the Holocaust, but reveals what a strong Catholic resistance might have achieved. In February l943, the Gestapo jailed 10,000 Jewish men in Berlin. Of these, 2,000 had German gentile wives who staged a week-long street protest, chanting "Give us back our men." The Gestapo backed down, and the men were freed. This demonstration changed the fate of 2,000 people. If ordinary women could liberate Jews destined for Auschwitz, what might the words of a Pope have done?

As John Paul II prepares to make Hitler's Pope a saint, Cornwell's fresh allegations are bound to provoke Vatican fury. Cornwell is not frightened to link Karol Wojtyla's autocratic regime with Pacelli's, noting that both are guilty of revisionism. The current Polish pope - who is by no means an anti-Semite - still enraged many Jews when he canonised the Jewish nun Edith Stein. Now, as the century ends, he is rushing to make a saint of a fascist sympathiser.

Cornwell shows that the power of Hitler's Pope lives on beyond the grave.

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