Books: A pontiff stripped of his lies

Frank McLynn
Saturday 25 September 1999 23:02 BST

Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII

by John Cornwell Viking pounds 20

For more than 30 years Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, stood in the dock of international opinion, accused of not having raised his voice to warn the Jews of the danger they were in from the Final Solution, of having put no pressure on Hitler and done nothing to save them. John Cornwell is a Catholic writer who began this book with the intention of mounting a definitive defence of Pacelli and to that end was given access to documents in the Vatican Secret Archive never seen before. What he saw convinced Cornwell not only that his task as defender was impossible, but that the case against Pacelli was even graver than anyone had recalled. Cornwell completely changed his mind about Pacelli, and the result is this superb book.

A scion of the Italian aristocracy, Pacelli was an ascetic who claimed an omniscience and linguistic talent he did not possess. A neurotic with a morbid fear of sexuality, also a hypochondriac and crank who in later life was injected with monkey glands, Pacelli loathed blacks (he requested that no "coloured" troops be among the Allied forces that occupied Rome in 1944), socialists and Jews; Judaism for him was simply camouflage for international communism. An authoritarian who believed that world Catholicism should be rigidly controlled from the Vatican, he was in the tradition of the despotic popes, whose ranks include Pius IX, Pius X and the present incumbent. All these authoritarians vigorously promoted mariolatry in all its forms; the Virgin Mary has always been used as an anti-liberal or anti-communist icon, and both Pacelli and the present Pope have always been willing to promote the more outre aspects of Marian worship, such as the cult of Fatima.

Pacelli dominated the Catholic Church for 30 years, first as Secretary of State under Pius XI, then as Pope from 1939-1958. In the 1930s this allegedly brilliant diplomat was outfoxed and outmanoeuvred by the Nazis at every turn. Obsessed with securing Concordat-style treaties with nation- states along the lines of the Lateran treaties signed with Mussolini in 1929, Pacelli destroyed the Catholic Centre Party in Germany, the only real opposition to Hitler after 1933 and the significant opposition to the Enabling Act of 1933 that gave the Fuhrer dictatorial powers. Pacelli ordered the Centre Party to dissolve itself, as this was Hitler's condition for signing a Concordat. The Catholic Church in Germany was gagged by the Vatican, forbidden to comment on political affairs. Hitler was able to turn his attention to the Jews with his flank secured and could boast that the Concordat proved that Nazism was the standard-bearer of Christianity against atheistic communism.

Throughout the 1930s, Pacelli continued to play Hitler's game. When the Nazis predictably turned on the Catholic Church, Pacelli said nothing. He made no protest about the "Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934 when Hitler liquidated all opposition within the Nazi party and he said nothing about Kristallnacht in 1938. When Pius XI finally lost patience with Hitler in 1937 and issued a condemnatory (albeit coded) encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, a gap opened up between him and the protege he was grooming as next Pope. Pacelli meanwhile assured the Nazis behind Pius XI's back that it was business as usual. Pacelli's first act on becoming Pope in 1939 was to send a letter to the "Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler". He then spent September 1939 trying to find some formula that would force Poland to surrender to Germany. He repeatedly failed to condemn Nazi aggression either in Poland or, a year later, against Belgium and France.

Pacelli was also complicit in the regime of Ante Pavelic in Croatia, where half a million Serbs were massacred, Franciscans presided over compulsory conversions and even the SS were revolted by the atrocities of Pavelic's followers, the Ustashe. For Pacelli, Pavelic was the heroic standard bearer of Christ the King, and one of his particular favourites was the dreadful Archbishop Stepinac, who connived at the massacres and was later (1998) beatified by John Paul II. Cornwell establishes that Pacelli knew all about the atrocities in Croatia but was indifferent. Meanwhile in Czechoslovakia, when the village of Liddice was razed and all its people massacred after partisans had assassinated the architect of the Final Solution, Reinhard Heydrich, Pacelli again said not a word.

But the the most serious count in the indictment against Pacelli was his failure to speak out about the Final Solution. Pius XII's apologists have come up with various explanations: he was timid, indecisive, he feared the consequences of alienating Hitler, he thought German defeat would lead to a communist Europe; it is even alleged in some quarters that Pacelli did not have clear information about the Holocaust. By exhaustive scholarship, Cornwell shows that none of these defences will hold. The Vatican documentation shows the Americans in September 1942 exerting maximum pressure on Pacelli to speak out, but in vain. The encyclical of Christmas 1942, alleged by supporters to be a denunciation of the Nazis, is in fact a gigantic hot- air balloon, full of vague philosophical bromides but never making any specific mention either of Jews or Nazis.

In the post-war era, Pacelli revealed himself in his true colours. He declared Franco's Spain to be the ideal form of society and awarded the Caudillo the Supreme Order of Christ - the Vatican's highest decoration. Pacelli's fanatical anti- communism in the late 1940s and 1950s revealed the humbug of his supine posture towards Hitler. As Cornwell shows, he was the ideal pontiff for the Nazis: "He was Hitler's parson. He was Hitler's Pope." It is nothing short of scandalous that the present pope is proposing Pacelli for canonisation. So far from being a candidate for sainthood, Pacelli was actually responsible for more evil than good. This is a brilliant book which should be read and reread by all who wonder why the Catholic Church is at present in grave, and possibly terminal, crisis.

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