Review of Frank J. Coppa, The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII: Between Diplomacy and Morality

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 18, Number 4 (December 2012)

Review of Frank J. Coppa, The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII: Between Diplomacy and Morality (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).

 By Suzanne Brown-Fleming, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum [1]

The Devil in the Documents

“It may take years, perhaps decades, before the Pius War is brought to an end,” (176) Frank J. Coppa concludes in his recent book, The Policies and Politics of Pope Pius XII: Between Diplomacy and Morality. For this study, Coppa brings to bear new sources: chiefly, but not exclusively, the recently opened papers of the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), available in part at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “This debate is bound to continue,” writes Coppa (146).

One of Coppa’s main arguments—and a great contribution toward moving the so-called Pius Wars forward—is to remind us that Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII, 1939-1958) was greatly influenced by his mentor, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri (1914-1930), who championed “a diplomacy of accommodation and conciliation” (57). Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922), under the advice of Gasparri and then-Secretary of the Department of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs Pacelli, sought to play a role as a mediator during World War I, and thus declared himself “impartial without preconception or judgment.” While he hoped such an approach would earn him “the trust of both sides,” instead it “provoked suspicion” due to his “continual refusal to cite specific abuses and name the perpetrators” (60). Scholars who have followed the “Pius Wars” will experience a sense of déjà vu when reading Coppa’s fine analysis of this period. One 1916 pamphlet “denounced ‘The Silence of Benedict XV’ and claimed papal silence compromised the church and weakened the faith” (62). As Coppa observes, this same critique was and is still today made with regard to Pacelli. Coppa argues that Pacelli’s “impartiality” during World War II had important historical roots and precedents during World War I. One cannot fail to wonder why a policy of impartiality, which Coppa argues drew massive criticism during World War I, would be adopted as a viable model going forward.

Coppa rightly points to a factor often ignored in the heated exchanges about the 1933 concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. The Vatican concluded concordats with “authoritarian, democratic, socialist and fascist regimes” alike (66). The Vatican’s concordats with Austria (1934), Baden (1932), Bavaria (1924), Italy (1929), and Prussia (1929) are often mentioned in the secondary literature. Not mentioned frequently are the concordats with Czechoslovakia (1928), Latvia (1925), Lithuania (1927), Poland (1925), Portugal (1928), and Romania (1927). Pacelli never gave up his attachment to concordats and maintaining diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, to the point where he “ordered the Vatican printing house to destroy all evidence of [Pius XI’s] papal speech [Humani Generis Unitas]” because he “feared it would widen the rift with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany” (72) following the death of Pope Pius XI. This explosive memorandum of 15 February 1939 is reported to be in the newly opened Vatican Secret Archives material, but its precise location is not cited (72). In the end, Pacelli followed policies of “accommodation, appeasement, impartiality, and silence” (138), and when considered in the light of his experience during World War I, we should not be surprised, argues Coppa.

While Coppa does not place great emphasis on the point, he argues that Pacelli made “constant and negative” (40) references to Jews in 1918-1919 during his tenure as papal nuncio to Munich (1917-1920). To date, only two reports containing such references have been brought to light by scholars: Pacelli’s 30 April 1919 reference to “grim Russian-Jewish-revolutionary tyranny” in describing the Second Soviet Republic in Bavaria (12 April–3 May 1919), cited by Hubert Wolf in his book Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich (2010), and the much-discussed 18 April 1919 report about the Munich revolutionaries from Pacelli to Gasparri, which first appeared in Emma Fattorini’s 1992 book Germania e Santa Sede: La Nunziature di Pacelli tra la Grande Guerre e la Reppublica di Weimar (later sensationalized by Cornwell’s reference to it in his highly-critiqued 1999 book Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII).  Coppa cites one additional document from then-nuncio Pacelli to Gasparri, dated 15 November 1918, in which he described the Eisner government in Germany as “illegitimate” and “led by Jews, atheists, and racial Protestants” (40). Coppa indicates that he saw many more documents in which “Pacelli revealed a degree of anti-Judaism as well as anti-communism as he catalogued the Bolshevik-Jewish cooperation against the state, the social order, and the church” (39). Pacelli, writes Coppa, “almost always mentioned the Jewish background of the revolutionaries [when] cataloging their personal and political excesses” (39). This is a highly original contribution to what is often a predictable and polemical exchange regarding the person of Pacelli, and bears further study. An article giving a comprehensive analysis of Pacelli’s reports during this compact period, and references to Jews therein, would be well worth pursuing.

The contested degree and significance of Pacelli’s anti-Jewish sentiments brings to bear Coppa’s effort to differentiate him from his predecessor, Achille Ratti (Pope Pius XI, 1922-1939). Coppa’s admiration for Pope Pius XI comes through in his frequent references to Ratti, who in Coppa’s view “early-on proved critical of anti-Semitism” (66). Coppa does not discuss evidence to the contrary during Ratti’s appointment as nuncio to Poland, pointed out by David Kertzer in The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism (2001. In fact, regarding Ratti’s time as nuncio in Poland, Coppa writes that “Ratti was shocked and scandalized by the pogroms unleashed against the Jews in Eastern Europe,” citing a secondary source work rather than primary source documentation. Nor does Coppa discuss the damning evidence uncovered by Hubert Wolf regarding the May 1928 commentary in Civilità Cattolica, “Il pericolo Giudaico e gli ‘Amici d’Israele,’” printed at the direct behest of Pope Pius XI and featuring adjectives like “presumptuous and powerful” and “danger[ous]” to describe Jews. Pius XI, we now know due to evidence brought forth by Wolf, explicitly supported the retention of “perfidious Jews” in the Good Friday liturgy (Wolf, Pope and Devil, 116, 121). Coppa discusses only the 1928 condemnation of anti-Semitism (67), which we know via Wolf can no longer be taken at face value.

Coppa argues that Pope Pius XI “sympathized with the Jews who were already persecuted by the Nazi state [in 1933] and responded positively to the appeals of Edith Stein and others to intervene on their behalf” (83). Here he refers to Edith Stein’s April 1933 letter to the pope, attached to a cover letter dated 12 April 1933 from Archabbot Raphael Walzer, O.S.B., of Beuron, Germany. Wolf reaches an entirely different conclusion regarding the episode of this letter. According to Wolf in Pope and Devil, Cardinal Pacelli presented her petition to the pope in a private audience on 20 April 1933. The heading above his six agenda items for that meeting reads “the archabbot of Beuron sends letters against the National Socialists.” There exists “no evidence in the archives of any other letters that Walzer might have sent,” and Pacelli did not note any instructions from the pope, meaning that Pacelli was given the latitude to respond as he saw fit on the pope’s behalf (Wolf, 188).

Coppa’s brief discussion of March-September 1933, which marked the Enabling Act, the repeal by the German bishops on the ban on Nazi party membership, the dissolution of the Center Party, and the signing of the concordat (83-86) requires sharper focus on chronology and the relationship between each of these distinct events. I disagree with Coppa’s interpretation of the importance and impact of the pope’s 4 April 1933 query (via Pacelli) to nuncio in Germany Cesare Orsenigo asking “how it would be possible to become involved in the desired direction” of “universal peace and love for all human beings” following the 1 April 1933 anti-Jewish boycott (87-88, 96). Coppa is much more convincing when discussing the last years of Ratti’s life, when available evidence indeed suggests a softening of those attitudes described by Kertzer and Wolf.  One could argue that Ratti’s evolution, even revolution, from a man imbued with the anti-Jewish prejudices of his age to the man he become by 1938 makes him more, rather than less, impressive.

Poor editing makes this book frustrating for scholars to use as effectively as they might and does not do justice to Coppa’s research. For example, the endnotes are inconsistent from chapter to chapter. With respect to the materials from the Vatican Secret Archives congregation of extraordinary ecclesiastical affairs [Archivio della Sacra Congregazione per gli affari Ecclesiastici straordinari, or AA.EE.SS., cited as AAES in Coppa’s book), they are at times incomplete for scholars who wish to find the precise document cited. For example, endnote 34 in chapter one reads: “Pacelli to Gasparri, October 22, 1917, AAES, Bavaria, Germania, n.371,” without the position (posizione) or file (fascicolo) cited at all. This leaves those scholars who wish to look up the document for themselves within the massive AAES Bavaria sub-collection unable to do so efficiently. In other cases, the position and file are cited, alongside the memorandum number, but the date, author, and recipient are not identified (91, footnote 26). On at least three occasions, “Pope Pius” becomes “Pope Pus” (51, 65, 149). Whole paragraphs appear again, verbatim, in several parts of the book, for example, “The recent opening…as well as Germany” first appears on p.53 and then again on pages 70-71. The index also contains omissions.

The overall value of this book lies in its effort to move us away from polemics and toward examination of new sources. It is fitting that Coppa, the first recipient of the American Catholic Historical Association’s Lifetime Distinguished Scholarship Award, be among the first to lead us through these new sources. Coppa is quite correct, I think, to ruefully acknowledge that new sources will not bring an immediate resolution. Coppa’s book is replete with new documents that several scholars have just now begun to examine, and they are reaching very different conclusions. That is the practice of good history.

[1] The views as expressed are the author’s alone and no not necessarily represent those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum or any other organization.