Public Lecture: “November 1938: Perspectives from the Vatican Archives”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

Public Lecture: “November 1938: Perspectives from the Vatican Archives,” The Wiener Library for the Study of Holocaust and Genocide, 23 October 2013.

By Suzanne Brown-Fleming, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

For more information or documentation relating to this lecture at the Wiener Library, please contact Dr. Brown-Fleming at sbrown-fleming [at] 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. 

In March 1943, in his final public statement before his death and speaking to the World Jewish Congress in New York, Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, Archbishop of Westminster and as such, spiritual leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales (1935-1943) said the following: “I denounce with utmost vigor the persecution of the Jews by the Nazi oppressors.” Even the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII, nor Pope Pius XI before him, had ever, or would ever, publicly voice objection to persecution of Jews specifically by the Nazis specifically by name.  Tonight I will discuss the concerns and preoccupations that shaped the Holy See’s muted response to the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom.  My talk today is based on the records of the Vatican nunciatures (diplomatic headquarters) in Munich and Berlin during the 1930s. In February 2003, in an unprecedented break with Vatican Secret Archives policy, the Holy See opened those records pertaining to the Munich and Berlin nunciatures (Vatican diplomatic headquarters) for the period 1922 to 1939. During these years, Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII (1939-1958), served as nuncio to Bavaria (1917), nuncio to Germany (1920), and Secretary of State to Pope Pius XI (1930–1939). The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s archives now hold microfilm copies of this subset of critical new primary source material.


Discussions about the plight of European Jewry swirled in the offices of the Secretary of State in the months before the November pogrom. Secretary of State and future Pope Eugenio Pacelli and his lieutenants received many, many requests for help. Internal exchanges reveal a certain level of sympathy, tinged still by anti-Jewish sentiment. In February 1938, Apostolic Inter-Nuncio to the Netherlands Father Paul Giobbe wrote to Undersecretary for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs Domenico Tardini to softly encourage a petition from president of the Dutch Zionist Committee H.B. van Leeuwen, asking for the Holy See’s support in favor of Jewish emigration to Palestine. “Under the current difficult political and social circumstances, the Jews, declared undesirables in some European countries and in the face of… blood and violence that currently dissuade the pursuit of systematic emigration to Palestine, [yet] obstinately imbued…with the utopia of the reconstruction of the Jewish Kingdom, now want to find territories that are safe and easily accessible…the Holy See should at least support them by smoothing the way,” he wrote. Apostolic nuncio to Switzerland Fillippo Bernardini sent a detailed report concerning the persecution of Austrian Jewry and a proposal for the emigration of 10,000 Viennese Jews to Lebanon in May 1938. The September 1938 Italian racial laws were discussed in great detail in the Secretariat of State before their passage, to the point where the Vatican’s emissary to Benito Mussolini, Father Tacci Venturi, brokered a deal between Pope Pius XI and the Duce that the pope would agree to decline any public condemnation of the Italian racial laws as long as the Duce would give his word to stop persecution of the Italian Catholic youth group Catholic Action, and to agree not to subject the Jews to “bad treatment of the kind that was customary for centuries”—a promise, needless to say, Mussolini did not keep.

The Reichskristallnacht folio is small, containing only 15 documents: 10 letters from private individuals, some addressed to Secretary of State Pacelli and some to Pope Pius XI and all written in August 1938, and 5 pieces of official correspondence. Small in number, letters from private individuals illuminate the atmosphere in Europe and the United States in the months before the November pogrom. On August 12, 1938, German American Catholic Dr. Gotthold Steinführer of Chicago, Illinois wrote a brief and impassioned letter to Pope Pius XI in Rome. “Permit me to make Your Eminence aware of the words of our Lord Jesus Christ regarding the Jewish question, for example in Matthew 8:11[1] and Revelation 2:9.[2]  Your Eminence should not defend the Jews, who [belong to] the Synagogue of Satan. Referring to the above words of Christ, those who defend the Jews defend for Satan. The entire Gospel of John shows the fight of the Jews against Christ. The greatest enemies of all Christendom are the Jews, from Paul until today. Yours Faithfully, Dr. Gotthold Steinführer,” he wrote.

I should note that letters to the Holy See filed in other folios also require systematic examination, as they offer interesting insights into popular Catholic thinking, such as the one from Maria Theresa Bauer of Paris to Pope Pius XI noting that a gesture of protection from the Holy Father “would make many [Jews] inclined to convert to Catholicism in these painful hours.” As to those who had done so already, decades earlier, they, too, wrote to their pope. These were Catholics whose families were affected by the 15 September 1935 Nuremberg Laws (Law to Protect German Blood and Honor and the Reich Citizenship Law) and other Nazi legal restrictions.

Mrs. George Marse described herself as “a German Catholic wife to a Jewish German doctor.”  Their four children, baptized as Catholics and raised in Catholic schools, were now defined by the Nazi state as “half Aryans.” Mrs. Marse wrote to Pope Pius XI as a last measure following years of unsuccessful attempts to find financial support for emigration. “I have found no help. The Jewish committees are only responsible for purely Jewish cases! Our family consists of but one Jew and five Catholics!  How can my husband expect help from the Jews with his Catholic wife and his [four] Catholic children!?” she wrote in her impassioned letter.  Another letter, addressed to Pope Pius XI and received by the Holy See in August 1938, made the same argument: “I am one of the many thousands of my comrades in fate… so-called “Half-Jews” [Halbjuden]…our coreligionists leave us in the lurch—no one cares about us!! One wants to shout to all the world, Christians, where are you?”  Such letters reflect the general need for further research on discussions and concrete aid efforts within the Holy See regarding those Catholics who were defined as Jews by the Nazi state. Currently, no monograph treats this important subject.

Of greatest interest are 2 official reports from Vatican nuncio in Berlin, Cesare Orsenigo, to the Secretary of State in Rome, Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pope Pius XII). They are dated 15 and 19 November 1938, respectively. A brief word Cesare Orsenigo, author of the reports, is in order. An Italian national who was Pacelli’s successor as nuncio to Germany in 1930, 56 years of age when he was appointed to Berlin, Archbishop Orsenigo has thus far not fared well in the historiography for the 1933-1945 period. His contemporary, George Shuster, described Orsenigo as “frankly, jubilant” about Hitler’s election to the chancellorship on January 30, 1933.  Other documents across the Vatican archives demonstrate Orsenigo’s admiration for many aspects of the Nazi regime. This is why the tone of these two reports, decidedly sympathetic to beleaguered Jewry, is surprising. Let us begin with Orsenigo’s first report about Reichskristallnacht, dated 15 November 1938. His description of the events themselves openly acknowledged the reality of anti-Semitic vandalism (as he titled the report), and, the Nazi and German popular role therein:

The destructions have been initiated, as if by a single order… The blind popular revenge followed one identical method everywhere: in the night, all display windows were shattered and the synagogues were set on fire; the day after, shops that did not have any defense were looted. Doing this, [the looters] destroyed all the goods, even the most expensive ones. Only towards the afternoon of the 10th, when the masses, having vented their wildest feelings, and not being restrained by any policeman, did Minister Goebbels give the order to stop, characterizing what happened as venting by “the German people…” All of this easily leaves the impression that the order or permission to act came from a higher authority… The hour is to follow of ministerial laws and dispositions in order to isolate Jews more and more, prohibiting them every commerce, every [ability to frequent] the public schools, every partaking in places of public diversion (theaters, cinemas, concerts, cultural meetings), with a fine totaling one billion [Reichsmarks] to be paid [by Jews themselves].

In the remainder of the report, Orsenigo noted the strong temptation of German Jewry to commit suicide in the wake of these terrible events, noted the positive if limited efforts by the embassies of Columbia, England, and Holland to document these events and protect the assets of Jewish nationals, and openly criticized Poland, writing, “it was… Poland that provoked the violent action of Germany” by refusing to extend the expired passports of Polish Jews from Germany, prompting Germany to “suddenly sen[d] back to Poland tens of thousands of Jews, and among these and also the parents the young exasperated boy [Polish Jewish student Herszel Grynszpan], that then assassinated the German ambassador in Paris [Ernst vom Rath].” In reading the report as a whole, Orsenigo is critical of the events of Kristallnacht, critical of the Nazi state, and critical of the German population.

The second report, dated 19 November 1938, concerned impending legislation declaring “null and void all marriages already conducted” between “Aryans” and Jews, including those marriages in which the Jewish spouse had converted to Catholicism after the marriage. Not surprisingly, Orsenigo objected to the legislation, due to its disregard for Canon Law, but he also added critical commentary about the increasingly radical nature of the Nazi state, noting that “serenity and competence” were “more and more lacking in high places of command” and that there existed a “state of mood that [Orsenigo thought] greased the anti-Semitic events[, a state of mood that] reveals always more and more turbulence and agitation, and is increasingly less able to be controlled,” he wrote.

Let us turn to Eugenio Pacelli’s (the future wartime pope’s) response.  We know that he received both of Orsenigo’s reports of 15 and 19 November, and, hence, received direct and detailed information about the pogrom. While no documentation of Pacelli’s response to the two Orsenigo reports has yet been discovered, we do have available Pacelli’s response to a request from Cardinal Hinsley that Pope Pius XI make a statement about the pogrom. The story was this: in late November, Cardinal Hinsley sent to Pacelli a request from Lord Rothschild, whom Hinsley described as “the most famous and highly esteemed amongst Jews in England.” On 26 November 1938, Cardinal Hinsley wrote to Pacelli the following:

…There will be a public gathering in London in order to ask [for] aid and attendance to all those who suffer from persecution [for reasons of] religion or race… If [in] principle [it] were possible to have an authentic word of the Holy Father being declared that in Christ discrimination of race does not exist and that the great human family must be joined in peace [by] means of respect of the personality of the individual, such message would [be] sure [to] have in England and America, [and] nevertheless through the entire world, the [effect of] leading to good will towards the [Catholic] Religion and the Holy See.”

Cardinal Hinsley was, as far as I have found, the only head of a bishops’ conference to ask Pope Pius XI to protest Kristallnacht. Perhaps we can attribute this to his particularly British world view? University of Chichester scholar Andrew Chandler recounts a conversation between Cardinal Hinsley and Winston Churchill after the fall of France in 1940: “I’m glad we’re alone [in this fight],” he was said to have remarked. When Churchill asked why, Hinsley responded that “Englishmen fight best when they have got their backs to the wall.”

It is worth recounting Pacelli’s response to Hinsley’s letter, dated December 3, 1938, in full. Pacelli’s notes on the matter read as follows:

If the [matter] were of substantially private character, it would be easier. On the other hand, it is necessary to remove the appearance of fearing that which does not need to be feared. Cardinal Hinsley could speak [if] saying he is surely interpreting the thought of the Sovereign Pontiff saying that the [matter] not only finds the Pope in a moment of much worry for his health, but also overwhelmed by the amount of matters before him. It is therefore not possible for [the Holy Father] to [respond] personally. He [Cardinal Hinsley] can say that he is interpreting the thoughts of the Holy Father which view all aid to those who are unhappy and unjustly (unworthily or dishonorably) suffering with a humane and Christian eye.

This response was telegraphed to Cardinal Hinsley on December 3rd.  Were Pacelli’s comments about the health of Pope Pius XI accurate? David Kertzer’s soon-to-be-published book reveals that the pope suffered a heart attack on November 25th. We will return to this point—the pope’s health and the impact it had on the ability of Secretary of State Pacelli to maneuver—later in this lecture.

On December 10th, illustrious figures that included Cardinal Hinsley; William Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury; Lord Rothschild; Clement R. Attlee, leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons; Sir Alan Anderson, Conservative MP; and General Evangeline Booth, representative of the Salvation Army, gathered at the invitation of Sir Frank Bowater, Lord Mayor of London, at the Mansion House.  A resolution “offering whole-hearted support” for the Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees was “unanimously adopted.”  The Baldwin refugee fund for victims of religious and racial persecution, first announced by former prime minister, Lord Stanley Baldwin, 1st Earl of Baldwin, during a radio address on the evening of December 8th, was expressly meant to provide financial aid to both Jews and “non-Aryan Christians:”

Tonight, I plead for the victims who turn to England for help, the first time in their long and troubled history that they have asked us in this way for financial aid…the number of these so-called non-Aryan Christians, who, according to German law, are regarded as Jews, certainly exceeds 100,000; in addition there are some half a million professing Jews, and no words can describe the pitiable plight of these 600,000 human souls. What can be done to help?

A brief article in the New York Times, entitled, it is interesting to note, Pope Backs Britons on Aid to Refugees, appeared that same day.  According to the article, “one of Pope Pius [XI]’s rare messages to an interdisciplinary body was read at a meeting representing all faiths and political parties, called by the Lord Mayor of London, at the Mansion House today to support the Earl Baldwin Fund for the victims of religious and racial persecution.”

It was Lord Rothschild who read the Vatican telegram to the assembled.  Before reading the telegram, Lord Rothschild remarked that “Cardinal Hinsley had written to Rome on his behalf,” and that “everyone respected the Pope for his courage and unswerving adherence to the principles which the whole civilized world knew must be maintained if civilization was to persist.” The Vatican telegram, as reproduced in the London Times, read as follows:

The Holy Father Pius XI’s thoughts and feelings will be correctly interpreted by declaring that he looks with humane and Christian approval on every effort to show charity and to give effective assistance to all those who are innocent victims in these sad times of distress. [Signed] Cardinal Pacelli, Secretary of State to His Holiness.

Cardinal Hinsley’s presence at the Mansion House meeting made headlines, as did the fact that Pacelli’s message was read at a high-level public meeting with the specific purpose of support for Jews—I remind us that Lord Baldwin’s December 8th radio appeal was quite clear as to the need for funds for approximately 500,000 Jews and 100,000 “non-Aryan Christians.”  Yet, here we have an unambiguous example that Pacelli, despite being informed about the horrendous details of the pogrom in Germany, was not encouraging of a public statement by the Holy See condemning Nazi Germany specifically, or the November pogrom specifically, or singling out suffering Jews specifically by name—even when asked to do so by a prince of his own church.  He was comfortable only with a statement broad enough to apply to all “innocent victims.”

Let us return for a moment to the issue of the pope’s health and one major implication of it: Pacelli’s personal response could dictate the Holy See’s official institutional response in the months before Pius XI’s death on February 10, 1939. On December 6, four days before the Mansion House gathering, Pacelli received Italian ambassador to the Holy See Bonfiacio Pignatti, who implored him, on behalf of Mussolini, “to instruct all of Italy’s bishops not to criticize the anti-Semitic campaign.” Of that meeting, Pignatti wrote, “Cardinal [Pacelli] observed that it would be very easy to give the advice I was suggesting orally, but that having to put it in writing would be more difficult.” In the end, Pacelli agreed to do so in the case of the diocese of Rome and to “study the best way to take care of Italy’s other dioceses.” In this context, it should come as no surprise that Pacelli was not willing to aggressively and specifically condemn the 9-10 November Nazi pogrom against Jews. Pacelli was only willing to authorize (on behalf of the pope) a reminder of the church’s broad commandment and mission to aid the suffering and the persecuted. It is quite the understatement to say that in these troubled times, such a response was not enough.


The Vatican archives also offer us glimpses into the broader popular response to the plight of European Jewry. In the interest of time, I have chosen only a few. On December 7, 1938, Berlin Protestant Gerda Erdmann took it upon herself to write to Pope Pius XI. “Please permit me, as a non-Catholic Christian, to address you regarding a matter that has called much attention: the question of the Jews (Es handelt sich um die Judenfrage). With this letter, I want to make a suggestion which seems to me could be a solution to this [and one] coming from Christianity,” she wrote, satisfaction and eagerness dripping from her pen. “It is basically God’s hand that weighs so heavily on the Jews; God’s judgment has reached them as has already occurred several times before, during history since the time of Christ. Since that time, God’s message through his son is: Jews are guilty.” Erdmann took many more lines to explain why, in her perception, “Jews [were] guilty.” Her solution: “…huge empty territories are available (for instance in South America…) where:

“if the Jewish immigrants were baptized in their new homeland…the local population would in every way show their acceptance and open their doors. There would be no closed gates. The children of the baptized would be raised since childhood in the Christian faith; they would grow up within the church and the nation, end up in mixed marriages and create a new population. Among the colorful racial mixture overseas, the entire European Jewish people would be absorbed without danger. The refreshing influence of European intelligence could be a gain in many places.”

Erdmann understood herself as a faithful Christian and understood her solution as a Christian one:  “What a great and beautiful task opens up for world Christianity! What a bright future! United, Christianity can achieve a colossal purpose of love for they fellow man…A task achieved, which will go down in history as a shining example of selfless Christian love performed for the Honor and Glory of God,” she concluded. When I first came across this letter in the Vatican archives, I could not resist sending it to several close colleagues under the heading: “with friends like these, who needs enemies?”

Most letters came from Jews begging for help, and left wanting. In December 1938, German Jew Franz Knüppel wrote to the Secretariat of State on the eve of his forced expulsion from his current residence in France. The recipient of many such letters daily, Secretary of State Pacelli directed his undersecretary to contact the nunciature in France, for, as his undersecretary put it, “the abovementioned gentleman is not known by the Secretary of State;” and thus his undersecretary would “therefore leave it up to [the nuncio] to judge whether it is opportune to deal with Mr. Franz Knüppel’s request in the way that he wishes.” In short-hand, the process was as follows: when a letter requesting aid arrived in the Secretariat of State, if Secretary of State Pacelli did not know the individual personally, he asked his undersecretary to forward it to the appropriate nuncio, to handle as he saw fit. This in and of itself is a revelation about how the Vatican bureaucracy and communications between Catholic countries and the Vatican worked at this juncture.

In the interest of allowing for time for questions, I will conclude. I fear I have thoroughly depressed this audience; as a Catholic, I certainly depress myself when I see, document after document, diplomacy and self-interest and even anti-Semitism chosen over the basic value of charity and love of neighbor. A tiny handful of Catholics—unfortunately neither Pope Pius XI nor Pope Pius XII among them—did see the light. With regard to Nazi and Axis crimes against Jews, Cardinal Hinsley is one of them. “Words are weak and cold; deeds and speedy deeds are needed to put a stop to this brutal campaign for the extermination of a whole race,” Cardinal Hinsley told his audience at the World Jewish Congress. His words were not weak and his heart was not cold. Thank you.

[1] Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 8, Verse 11: “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their place at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Kenneth Barker, General Editor. The NIV [New International Version] Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 1450.


[2] Book of Revelation, Chapter 2, Verse 9: “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” Kenneth Barker, General Editor. The NIV [New International Version] Study Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 1927.