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Weissman writes: "Will the new pope listen to the more liberal scholars still pleading for patience? Or will he follow the more authoritarian hardliners who want to sanctify 'loyalty to the Holy Father' while celebrating Pius XII as 'the veritable savior of Europe's Jews?'"

Pope Pius XII. (photo: Vatican)
Pope Pius XII. (photo: Vatican)

Pius XII, the Nazis, and the KGB: How Saintly Was He?

By Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

02 April 13


rom taming the Vatican bank and bureaucracy to dodging his role in Argentina's Dirty War, the new Pope Francis faces a host of thorny challenges. But the most telling could be what he does about impending efforts to beatify Pius XII, the controversial leader of the Catholic Church during and after the Second World War. Beatification would be the last step before naming Pius a saint, and the rhetoric will only grow more deafening. Was the wartime pontiff "Hitler's Pope," as the British writer John Cornwell called him? Or was he, as his defenders claim, the saint who saved the Jews.

The evidence so far supports neither of these clichéd portrayals. As the Vatican diplomat Eugenio Pacelli and then as pope, Pius pursued a complicated strategy to defend his Church against the Nazis – and against Soviet Communism, which he saw as an even more dangerous threat to "Christian Europe." To seriously probe his strategy and its impact, historians still need greater access to Vatican archives and time to put what they find into the larger context. What did Pius do and not do to affect the outcome of the war and Hitler's attempt to eradicate European Jewry? Did Pius do as much as he could have, not just to save Jews, but also to protect German and Eastern European Catholics? In what measure did his public silence stem from necessity, or choice, or a skewed perspective? And, not to be forgotten, what was his role in promoting the Cold War and helping Nazi war criminals flee to Latin America?

From its beginning in 1965, the Vatican's effort to canonize Pius have encouraged strident and sweeping polemics filled with faith, ideology, and tantalizing scraps of fact and fiction. But existing narratives, no matter how sincerely and convincingly argued, remain woefully incomplete, as a group of Catholic historians and theologians protested in what was supposed to be a secret letter to Pope Benedict in February 2010.

"The movement to press forward at this time the process of beatification of Pius XII greatly troubles us," they wrote. "Currently, existing research leads us to the view that Pope Pius XII did not issue a clearly worded statement, unconditionally condemning the wholesale slaughter and murder of European Jews. At the same time, some evidence also compels us to see that Pius XII's diplomatic background encouraged him as head of a neutral state, the Vatican, to assist Jews by means that were not made public during the war. It is essential that further research be conducted to resolve both these questions."

Led by the Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union, the scholars feared that beatifying Pius before they and others could do the necessary digging might seriously harm Jewish-Catholic relations. "Throughout the course of the war, Pius named almost every victim group except one – Jews," wrote one of the signers of the letter, Paul O'Shea, in his trailblazing "A Cross Too Heavy: Pius XII and the Jews of Europe." O'Shea sees the reason in Pacelli's earlier history in the Church. "Centuries of Christian Judeophobia and anti-Semitism found their culmination, not in papal protest, but in sad papal neglect."

For Catholics themselves, the pro-Pius polemics also reflect "a battle over authority and how it is exercised in contemporary Catholicism," writes O'Shea. "If it is admitted that the pope failed to speak and act clearly when he had undeniable proof of the murder of European Jews, would this seriously damage papal authority today?" It certainly could. But where liberal Catholics see this as a reason to rethink the whole question of papal authority, conservative traditionalists take it as a goad to deny the possible problems and fast-track Pius into sainthood. That's just how authoritarian minds work.

Will the new pope listen to the more liberal scholars still pleading for patience? Or will he follow the more authoritarian hardliners who want to sanctify "loyalty to the Holy Father" while celebrating Pius XII as "the veritable savior of Europe's Jews?" Without a lot more solid evidence, this premature approbation would be a hard sell to most Jews, and could come back to haunt the Church and further disillusion the faithful. But Pope Francis may well run the risk. Though he enjoys warm relations with Argentina's large and influential Jewish community, he has almost always sided with the traditionalists in promoting greater discipline within the Church. Indeed, keeping his Jesuit troops in line was one of the big issues for him when he turned against the liberation theologians during Argentina's Dirty War.

While waiting to see how Pope Francis handles his predecessor's beatification, the rest of us can help reduce the rhetorical heat by better understanding three of the sillier claims that the pro-Pius polemicists never stop repeating. Without question, courageous Catholic priests, nuns, prelates, and lay believers all over Europe saved huge numbers of Jewish lives during the Holocaust. Many Jews, including Albert Einstein, understood that early on and emotionally expressed their gratitude to Pius as the world's leading Catholic. But not even an Einstein could have discerned how much Pius even knew of the rescue efforts, especially those outside of Italy. Closely related, the polemicists keep insisting that Pius saved 860,000 Jews. The number comes from a well-meaning Israeli named Pinchas Lapide, who never substantiated his claim. Neither has any serious historian. And, turning the argument on its head, the polemicists pose the rehabilitation of Pius almost as payback to the Soviet KGB for what his most vocal Jewish defender, Gary Krupp, calls "the greatest character assassination of the 20th Century." On his very anti-polemical blog, historian Paul O'Shea, looks closely at this and other of Krupp's assertions.

Having spent a good part of my journalistic career chasing down covert operations of the CIA and KGB, I love this story and should probably devote an entire column to it. But, in short, a defector from the highest ranks of Romanian and Soviet bloc intelligence, Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa, claims that the KGB set out to "frame" the staunchly anti-Communist Pius as a pro-Nazi anti-Semite. They called their campaign "Operation Seat 12," says Pacepa, and it included Rolf Hockhuth's play "The Deputy," which he first presented in 1963 and which is widely credited with stirring up much of the polemic against Pius. I have no problem believing that the KGB would – and could – have done all this, but did they? Pacepa offers no corroborating evidence. Neither does any credible historian, not even with all the recent access to Soviet intelligence files. And I find it passing strange that Pacepa defected in 1978, worked closely with American intelligence, and waited until 2007 to make his explosive "revelation," which some observers call "the Black Legend." Pro-Pius publications then ran with the story, while the journal of former spies and Cold Warriors, "Whistleblower," devoted its entire September 2012 issue to Pacepa and what sophisticates used to call in counterfeit Russian, "Disinformatzya." This June, he will release a new book called "Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategy for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism." He co-wrote the book with Ronald J. Rychlack, one of the most industrious polemicists pushing the cause of Pius XII. How very convenient – and so 1950s.

Will this concerted campaign speed up his beatification? We'll see. But whatever Pope Francis decides, the true picture of Pius XII will emerge soon enough in the evidence that historians dig up and digest.

A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France, where he is researching a new book, “Big Money: How Global Banks, Corporations, and Speculators Rule and How To Break Their Hold.”

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