Review of Jacques Kornberg, The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 4 (December 2015)

Review of Jacques Kornberg, The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 405 Pp., ISBN 9781442628281.

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Pacific Lutheran University

“When Words are not matched by Actions”

“The Pope at times cannot remain silent. Governments only consider political and military issues, intentionally disregarding moral and legal issues in which, on the other hand, the Pope is primarily interested in and cannot ignore…How could the Pope, in the present circumstances, be guilty of such a serious omission as that of remaining a disinterested spectator of such heinous acts, while the entire world was waiting for his word?” (301)

These are strong words, uttered by Pope Pius XII to Dino Alfieri, the Italian Ambassador to the Holy See. Which heinous acts was the Pope willing to denounce? In this case, Alfieri had explained to Pius XII that Il Duce was displeased that in May 1940, Pius had sent a letter of commiseration to Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands upon their invasion by Nazi Germany. In The Pope’s Dilemma, Jacques Kornberg takes the reader on an odyssey to examine the reasons why Pope Pius XII might have chosen silence and inaction over outright condemnation of Nazi atrocities committed during the Second World War. Kornberg’s work represents a monumental compilation of materials, both primary and secondary sources, reflecting a lifetime of study on the role that organized religion plays in our world. Written clearly and argued persuasively, one might hope that this work would be the definitive end to the “Pius Wars,” however, one can assume that this just might engender further responses from both sides of the battle.

Kornberg-PopesKornberg takes on both sides of the Pius War, questioning the various ways in which scholars have sought to either support Pius’s reactions to the Nazi regime or have tried to find fault with Pius’s response (or lack thereof). At the book’s outset, Kornberg asks the fundamental question that has frustrated both sides of the scholarly debate: “why was the pope unable to deal with radical evil?” (3) Kornberg argues that, in his view, the papacy of Pius XII was a moral failure out of “calculated acquiescence;” meaning that the pope willingly allowed Nazi atrocities to happen “because of his own priorities and responsibilities as head of the Roman Catholic Church” (8-9). Kornberg then tracks how Pius’s reputation drastically plummeted in the 1960s, in no small part to the wildly successful play by Rolf Hochhuth, Der Stellvertreter, (The Deputy) which depicted a cold, calculating Pius who sat silent in the face of Nazi crimes for “reasons of state” (16). With this incendiary play, debates raged: was Pius complicit with the Nazi regime due to his silence or was Hochhuth’s play no more than a deeply flawed portrayal of the Pope? Kornberg takes the reader through the play, the reactions and counter-reactions to it and links this to the role of Vatican II in further sealing the demise of Pius’s reputation. A new era was opening up for the Church under the leadership of the charismatic and charming Pope John XXIII and Kornberg dryly notes that in this new climate, “it was inevitable that Pius XII’s reputation would sink like a stone” (35). At issue here was the question of mission: what was the Catholic Church’s role? Was it to serve as a voice of morality to the world, was it to concern itself primarily with pastoral care, or was it to be a mixture of both of these? Raising these questions allows Kornberg to move on to his next chapter, addressing the options of Eugenio Pacelli and his role in the drafting of the Reichskonkordat.

Kornberg takes readers through the historiography of the 1960s-1970s debate between Klaus Scholder and Konrad Repgen. Scholder denounced the role of then Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli for sacrificing Catholic opposition to the Nazi regime in his single-minded quest for a treaty between the Holy See and the German Reich. On the other side of the debate was Konrad Repgen, who interpreted Pacelli’s actions in a much more favorable light, arguing that the Cardinal Secretary of State was attempting to keep the Catholic Church’s institutions protected in the face of a ruthless dictatorship. Kornberg neatly walks readers through the works of other prominent historians, such as Ludwig Volk, Hubert Wolf, Gerhard Besier, Martin Menke, and many more to summarize their findings that Pacelli, and his predecessor, Pope Pius XI, had both determined that the Vatican’s top priority was to find guarantees that the institutions of the Church would go on. To achieve that end, they followed the German Catholic populations’ lead, deciding to reach an accommodation with Hitler’s regime. This allowed German Catholics to believe that they could be both “good Catholics” while simultaneously behaving as “good Germans.” But, how were German Catholics to behave in the face of war?

Kornberg’s third chapter analyzes Pope Pius XII’s wartime papacy. Cardinal Pacelli was elected pope in March 1939. Two weeks later Hitler seized control of what was left of the Czech state. For the new pope, he was now face-to-face with the totalitarian aims of Hitler and Mussolini and, as war raged, how would the new pope respond? Chapter Three focuses on Pius’s interactions with some of the Catholic belligerent states- Slovakia, Croatia, France, Italy, and Hungary, with the premise that the pope was revered there and should have had some kind of palpable influence over Catholics living in these territories. What emerges, in each case, are examples of local church leaders expressing concern–or even outrage–that Catholics of “Jewish descent”(converts to Catholicism), were going to be impacted by anti-Jewish legislation and deportations. Pius XII feared moving too far ahead of local Catholic popular opinion, so he chose not to challenge Catholics, never urging them to go beyond defending narrowly defined Catholic interests. In each country Kornberg presents, Pius listened to local church leaders, thought about local Catholic consensus, and opted to not alienate Catholics and risk losing them for the Church. Reinforcing the structures of the church, providing sacramental care for local Catholics, trumped publically intervening to save the lives of persecuted minorities such as the Jews. Perhaps the most indicting of all the examples in this chapter, refers to Pius moving heaven and earth to protect Rome from destruction. While Jews of Rome were being deported, Pius spoke out eloquently against the potential destruction of the seat of Christianity. To Pius, Rome was sacred, eternal, and it was his mission to use his spiritual and moral authority to become “the Savior of the City” (121). Through his actions, Pius XII had ensured that Catholics would have access to the instruments of the sacraments, preserving the institutions of the Catholic Church all while remaining silent regarding the round ups of Jews throughout Rome.

Chapter four presents the special case of Poland, an overwhelmingly Catholic country, site of unimaginable brutality during the war- against both Catholic Poles and Jews. Surely, the pope would have an obligation to condemn Nazi aggression and the consequent victimization of the Polish population at the hands of their oppressors? Kornberg reveals, however, that the pope opted to hold back, carefully weighing his concerns. Foreign diplomats pressed the pope to utter an open, forthright condemnation of Nazi aggression against Poland, yet, when the pope did speak out, on October 20, 1939, his words were primarily a prayer for Blessed Mary’s intervention in Poland. The pope’s silence was incomprehensible to many who were suffering, but the pope maintained that German retaliation such as was being carried out in the Warthegau region of conquered Poland, kept him from saying more. Again, as in chapter three, we see the pope following the lead of local bishops, the general Catholic consensus, and opting to keep Catholic institutions functioning so as to provide pastoral care to those Catholics who desired it. The pope feared more than anything else that the Church would not be able to provide care for the souls of the people (155) and people was defined as Catholic people, not Jews.

What were the attitudes of Pius XII towards the Jews? This has been hotly contested by historians since at least 1964 when Guenter Lewy argued that traditional antisemitism precluded a true sense of moral outrage in Vatican circles. Beginning with an exploration of Pope Pius XI’s attitudes towards Jews, Kornberg unpacks many of the statements issued by Pius XI (pope from 1922-1939) and his Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli. For both men, Kornberg demonstrates a strong linkage between fears of communism and Jewishness added on to the pre-existing Catholic Church beliefs in supercessionism and charges of deicide. Both men also used condemnatory language regarding modern day Jews rather than trying to emphasize to their listeners that Catholicism and Judaism had a shared heritage. At a time when Jewish lives were in extreme peril, Pope Pius XII chose to speak only in general terms of suffering where all involved in war were victims. Anti-Jewish decrees were seen as a way of protecting Christian society from the “harmful influences of the Jews” and did nothing to inspire Catholics to protest the transformation of Jews into second class citizens in whatever nations they lived. Pope Pius XII “continued to speak of the guilt of the Jews and their continued hostility to the church. In doing so he did nothing to prevent Catholics from looking upon Jewish distress with indifference, and to continue to acquiesce to the German government’s persecution of the Jews, and ultimately to the destruction of European Jewry” (184).

Because so many historians have accused Pius of silence in the face of such utter destruction, Kornberg looks to earlier popes and their responses to similar crises such as the Armenian genocide or the use of poison gas against civilians in Ethiopia. What Kornberg presents is strong evidence that Pius was one of a piece- examining the policies of Leo XIII, Benedict XV, and Pius XI reveals that each of these popes, when faced with mass atrocities, weighed the advantages and disadvantages to the Church and always chose the option that promised Catholic unity and reinforced papal authority. In one exceptional case, that of the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, then Pope Pius XI issued an ambiguously worded letter, which then led French Catholics to declare that they were immune to papal influence and that the French state was a sacred concept to them. In this instance, papal authority was shown to be without teeth and the limits of papal authority had been revealed. In the case of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia and its use of mustard gas against civilians, Pius XI urged conciliation on the part of Ethiopia, recognizing that the Italian people supported the conquest and he feared a further weakening of his authority over Catholics in Fascist Italy. Towards the end of Pius XI’s life, he began to publically address the racism of the Nazi regime. In an encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (With Deep Anxiety), in March 1937, the pope condemned the exaltation of one race over another, stressing the common humanity of all, but the true intent of the encyclical was that Pius linked Nazi racism with an effort to establish a national church based on German blood, thus supplanting the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. Racism had also by this time been uncoupled from antisemitism as Pius had argued that Catholics had a right to defend themselves against the corrupting power of secular, liberalized, emancipated Jews (226).

What then were Pius XII’s priorities? Why did he refuse to condemn Catholics who participated in atrocities or those who sat passively by the side allowing such despicable acts to be implemented? Here again, Kornberg takes the reader through the historiography of papal apologists as well as papal detractors. Did Pius XII favor Germany due to his trepidation regarding the spread of Communism? Kornberg argues effectively that, no, Pius encouraged American Catholic support of lend-lease material to the Soviet Union, that he refused to press Germany for a separate peace in the face of growing Communist power, that he engaged in an active plot to unseat Hitler from power. If Pius did not view Germany as a bulwark against Communism, was he silent about Nazi atrocities in order to preserve his role as diplomatic mediator at war’s end? Here again Kornberg argues that no, Pius XII’s diplomatic efforts to avert war ended in failure and that, following the invasion of Poland, his diplomacy was largely ignored. Another explanation offered by the pope’s defenders with regard to his silence is that he worried that if he spoke out, then worse things would happen to the victims. Kornberg examines Pius XII’s own explanations for his silence and finds that Pius cited two different reasons: as “common Father” to all Catholics on each side of the war, he thought he had to remain impartial; the second explanation, regarding potential retaliation against victims of Nazi aggression as it turns out referred to the suffering of the Polish Catholic Church and the threatened loss of sacramental life in Poland.

So, what were the pope’s priorities then? Kornberg places Pius’s top priority in his pastoral responsibilities of a universal church. His goal was to not alienate any Catholics from the Church and, hence, from potential salvation. Therefore, he concluded that he could not challenge Catholics to choose between their loyalty to the Church versus their loyalty to their State. Taking the long view of history, the Pope was envisioning a time when the war was over and Catholics from all of the warring nations would have to be reunited in the Church. Any Catholics who had participated in atrocities could receive forgiveness and salvation if they were truly repentant. Kornberg concludes that a great sacrifice was made in this decision: “Pope Pius XII looked the other way when human rights were being trampled on, and when Jews were deported to face unprecedented horrors, and continued to look the other way when Catholics participated in these crimes” (264). Religious values of the “good” trumped the moral imperative.

Finally, Kornberg brings the reader back to his opening question: why did the pope retreat before radical evil? To that, Kornberg responds with a thorough examination of Church doctrines ranging from the creation of the early Church under the Apostles, to the writings of St. Augustine, to the time of Pope Pius XII. The manuals that would have been available for Pius to consult would have been the culmination of centuries of teaching, and those manuals would have stressed that human beings are prone to sin and weakness but, through the power of the sacraments, provided by the Church, salvation was still a possibility. For Pius, as head of the Church, his primary responsibility as he saw it, was to provide access to the sacraments so that the faithful could be saved. This meant that the Pope could not overly burden the consciences of ordinary Catholics whose weak faith might result in their damnation. Weighing ‘greater evils” versus “lesser evils,” this type of casuistry led Pius XII to engage in “calculated acquiescence to mass atrocities when committed by fellow Catholics in order to hold out to them the prospect of God’s forgiveness and grace” (274).

Pius XII, at the war’s end, could feel that he had done his duty: he had preserved the institutions of the Church. Unfortunately his claims of being a moral authority who spoke truth to power and encouraged Catholics to resist evil were only words. Words not matched by actions.