Review of David Bankier, Dan Michman, Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Current State of Research

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 4 (December 2013)

Review of David Bankier, Dan Michman, Iael Nidam-Orvieto, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Current State of Research (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2012).

By Jacques Kornberg, University of Toronto

This book, on an enduring controversy, offers something new.  Based on a workshop in 2009, which was jointly organized by the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem and Reverend Roberto Spataro of the Salesian Theological Institute of Saints Peter and Paul in Jerusalem, the book aims for dialogue rather deepening controversy. There is a story behind this unusual aim. Relations with the Vatican had deteriorated over statements in the Yad Vashem museum that Pope Pius XII did nothing about the genocide of European Jewry during World War II.  This charge led the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, to threaten to boycott the 2007 annual memorial ceremony on the Holocaust held at Yad Vashem.  Negotiations led Franco to withdraw his threat. In return, Yad Vashem somewhat softened its statement on the pope, mentioning another point of view, that papal neutrality might have helped the Church rescue Jews, and that final judgment awaits opening the wartime archives.  Still it stuck to its view that the pope’s record was one of “moral failure.”

BankierPiusThe workshop was a further attempt to mend frayed relations.  Yad Vashem and the Reverend Roberto Spataro (acting “on behalf of the Nuncio”) each chose five scholars for the workshop.  The latter: Andrea Tornielli, Matteo Napolitano, Grazia Loparco, Jean-Dominique Durand, and Thomas Brechenmacher; the former: Paul O’Shea, Michael Phayer, Susan Zuccotti, Sergio Minerbi, and Dina Porat.  Summing up at the end, the Reverend Spataro commented: “we met in an atmosphere of confidence, trust and mutual respect.”

The book is organized around key issues: Pacelli’s personality and the Jews, which also covers his policies as Secretary of State and later as Pope; Pius XII and rescue in Italy, which dealt with Vatican policies during the German occupation of Rome; post-war assistance to fleeing Nazis and policies on hidden Jewish children, which covers the infamous “rat-line” and Vatican policies on returning hidden Jewish children to families or to Jewish institutions.  All of these subjects have long been examined by scholars, but always bear re-assessment especially when new evidence emerges.

Though originating in political stroking and mutual deference, the book has a good deal of scholarly value. For one, it avoids the hyperboles of overheated debate. Discussion is focussed on key documents, thus firmly grounded, foregoing sweeping generalizations.  Of course a document’s meaning is not self-evident but subject to varying interpretations. This is what makes the book valuable.

Some participants introduce new archival documents; some reread old and well-known ones.   Andrea Tornielli argues that Pacelli acted to alleviate the Jewish plight. He points to a Pacelli letter of 16 November 1917 to the Foreign Minister of Bavaria. Pacelli,  Nuncio to Bavaria,  urged the Foreign Minister to safeguard the Jews of Jerusalem, endangered by Ahmed Gamal Pasha, the Turkish military governor of Syria (including Palestine), who threatened to expel them. Ahmed Gamal saw Zionism as an enemy of Turkish rule and took steps to remove Jewish settlements, as part of an overall policy of repression of Arabs and Armenians in Syria during World War I

Next, Tornielli notes a Pacelli letter of 1938 as Vatican Secretary of State, opposing a law forbidding Jewish ritual slaughter (shechita) in Poland.  Tornielli translates Pacelli’s words: the law “would constitute a real persecution against the Jews.”  The letter about shechita is published in the appendix to the book. Another report notes that Pope Pius XI brought up the matter in talks with Polish bishops.

These documents challenge long-held views, based on multiple documents, of Pacelli’s public silence over crimes against Jews, including the German pogrom of November 1938.  These long-held views are articulated by others in this book.

Jean-Dominique Durand also argues the case for Pacelli. He points to a document, this time a well-known report of 19 August 1933 by Ivone Kirkpatrick, British chargé d’affaires to the Vatican, to R. Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary of State in the British Foreign Office, recounting a conversation he had with the Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli. Durand quotes Kirkpatrick: “Cardinal Pacelli criticized the German government’s internal policy, the persecution of the Jews, their actions against their political opponents, and the regime of terror to which the whole nation was submitted.”   What Durand left out is crucial and weakens his argument.  Kirkpatrick wrote that Pacelli’s views were “for private consumption only. I do not think there is any question of any public expression by the Vatican of disapproval of the German government.”

It is gratifying to note that after over fifty years of scholarship on the role of the Vatican in the 1930s and 1940s, wide consensus has been achieved on some issues.  Most scholars now agree on Pacelli’s early assessment of Nazism as an enemy of civilization and of the Church. Few see the concordat signed with Nazi Germany in July 1933, as anything else than a harsh necessity.  The concordat did not carry any endorsement of Nazi rule.  Indeed, the Vatican sought a concordat with Bolshevik Russia as well, but failed to reach an agreement.   In addition, as Torielli points out, the first international agreement signed with Nazi Germany was not the concordat, but the Four Power Pact signed by Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany in mid-June 1933, requiring mutual consultations on all foreign policy issues in the spirit of the League of Nations, the Locarno Pact and the Briand-Kellogg Pact.

Other issues would be better illuminated by the opening of the Vatican archives for the pontificate of Pope Pius XII.  One controversy is about whether Pius XII acted out of any concern for the fate of Jewish-Italians, more particularly Jewish-Romans, during the German occupation of Italy.  We know that he was advised not to issue any protests against Germany during the occupation, because Hitler’s volatile rages may well have led to a German occupation of the Vatican.  Documents also show that Pius sought to dampen polarization between Italians and German occupying forces, because he feared a communist uprising in Rome.  But was rescuing Jews part of his strategy?

Consensus does exist on how to interpret the absence of a written papal directive to Catholic institutions to rescue Jews.   The pope would not have undertaken such a recklessly, transparent measure in view of the German occupation. Further, it was not papal policy to direct Catholics to risk their lives by helping Jews evade deportation. In summary: the pope wanted to distance the Vatican from anything provocative.  However, Grazia Loparco points to Vatican undersecretary Giovanni Montini’s  (later Pope Paul VI), response to a Jesuit request for guidance on whether to help rescue Jews, that it was their own responsibility.  She goes on to point out that we do not know whether or how much face-to-face personal encouragement  or approval Vatican officials provided on the issue of rescue.  Pius XII implicitly encouraged rescue in a statement to the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano of 25/26 October 1943, where he spoke of the “universally paternal charity of the Supreme Pontiff [which] …does not pause before boundaries of nationality, religion or descent.”  But he did not go any further than this.  He did not protest the round-up of Jewish-Romans on 16 October 1943,  though his defenders argue that the round-ups in Rome ceased  simply because he threatened protest through German diplomatic channels.   But the evidence for this, based on timing, is weak.  Indeed, after an interval, deportations of Jewish-Romans continued, though many by now had moved from their homes and were in hiding.  My own view is that rescuing Jews was far less important to him than having a non-confrontational German occupation.

A final controversy deals with the aid Vatican officials provided to Nazi war criminals seeking to flee to South America.  Michael Phayer poses the question: “Did the Pope know what was happening? ”  He makes a strong case for “yes.”  The reason: the pope hoped to supply South America with fervent anticommunists.

The lessons of this book are that documents are often slippery; they too often can support conflicting interpretations; that what is omitted in reading documents is as important as what is left in; and that further documentation through the opening of the wartime Vatican documents is essential.