Can a sober assessment of history rehabilitate the WWII pontiff?
World War II and the Holocaust
Although he found Nazism abhorrent, the new pontiff was eager to preserve Vatican neutrality during wartime. More to the point, Pius did not consider himself morally neutral between 1939 and 1945, but he wanted to remain politically impartial. He hoped, however unrealistically, that the Vatican could mediate a peace settlement and prevent a recurrence of the 1914-18 disaster.
As it happened, the carnage of World War II would dwarf that of the earlier conflict and contribute a new word to the English language: genocide. With the benefits of hindsight, and some documentary evidence, historians now emphasize that above all Pius’ political instincts were that of a diplomat. However much he lamented the sufferings of the victims of the war, he showed himself to be far more prudent than prophetic — he was worried about the Church’s survival but also did not want to provoke reprisals against Jews or endanger clandestine actions on their behalf.
Pius was accused of silence from the very beginning of the war, although this had nothing to do with not speaking out about the killing of Jews.
He was criticized for not condemning the mass murder of Polish priests beginning in the fall of 1939 — part of the Nazi policy of liquidating all members of the Polish leadership and intelligentsia. Further criticism of the pope’s failure to speak out on behalf of a terrorized and starving Polish population increased during the war, prompting this scathing protest by exiled Polish bishop Karol Radonski in 1942: “[T]he people, deprived of everything, die of hunger, and the pope remains silent as if he did not care about his sheep.” Again, not only did criticisms of Pius’ silence begin at an early date, initially they had little or nothing to do with Jewish victims of the Nazis, but rather a predominantly Catholic population.
In truth, Pius was hardly silent during the war, but his protests against the mass killing of civilians were couched in a humanitarian tone and often expressed in theological terms within a larger document or address.
His general statements during war, beginning with his 1939 encyclical Summi Pontificatusunambiguously condemned killing because of race or nationality. This was not silence, but it was not very specific either, and it did not constitute an explicit indictment of the Third Reich. Pius’ 1942 Christmas message serves as an excellent example of this kind of general, but unmistakable, even if insufficient condemnation. In the middle of the message’s fifty-six paragraphs one can see a clear rejection of mass murder.
Here, Pius mourns the murder of “hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.” The New York Times lauded Pius as a “lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.” During the war, the Nazis found this to be excessive criticism; for the western Allies it was not nearly enough.
Pius knew details about the Final Solution by late 1942, as did Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. Despite the urging of the American and British governments, the Pope issued no forthright condemnation of the emerging genocide. For his part Stalin did not care what Pius said. In his boundlessly cruel cynicism, the Soviet dictator had already put his thoughts on record: “How many divisions does the Pope have?”
Stalin had a point, and more importantly, few leaders, including Jewish ones, had a full appreciation of the scale and speed of the Nazi extermination process as it was unfolding. According to historian Christopher Browning, in mid-March 1942 75-80% of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were still alive; a year later, 75-80% of them were dead.
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