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The opening scenes of Pope vs. Hitler, a new National Geographic Channel docudrama, juxtapose two young Catholics receiving sacraments in pre-World War I Europe. Young Adolf Hitler is portrayed as uninterested and resentful as the bishop confirms him, while Eugenio Pacelli is vested during an ordination rite.
Even if the actor playing the former might be mistaken for almost any teenager today, one has to wonder what forces turned this young Austrian Catholic into one of history’s moral monsters, a man who vowed to “crush the Church like a toad.”
For the next two hours, writer and director Chris Cassel takes the viewer on a wild ride between Hitler’s Germany and Pacelli’s Rome, in an examination of a heretofore hidden part of the history of World War II: that Pacelli, as Pope Pius XII, was deeply involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler when it was clear that “tyrranicide” could prevent the Holocaust and the destruction of Europe.
Heretofore hidden, that is, until historian Mark Riebling put forward the thesis in his 2015 book Church of Spies. Riebling’s book, the fruit of 18 years of research, was the inspiration for the National Geographic special, Cassel told an audience in New York Thursday night. The docudrama premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT.
Viewers won’t find here a thrashing of Pius, as seen in several works over the past five decades, which have branded the wartime pope as a Nazi sympathizer at worst or a weak, intimidated acquiescer who kept silence in the face of the persecution of the Jews.
Rather, the question that concludes the 120-minute mix of dramatized Vatican espionage and scholarly interviews is “Would it have been right for the leader of the Catholic Church to commit murder, even if it was the murder of someone so evil?”
Murder is the wrong word, though, as the hoped-for plot would not have been the killing of an innocent but, rather, in line with the just war theory. The film gives a nod to St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote on the justification of tyrranicide.
But, pointed out Father George W. Rutler, author of Spiritual Combat 1942–1943, tyrannicide has to be an action of the people, not simply a personal whim.
“I don’t think there was any guilt on the pope’s part,” Father Rutler said during a panel discussion after a screening of the film at the Sheen Center for Thought & Culture in lower Manhattan. “I just think he was hoping to have this action done in the most direct and appropriate way.”
The Vatican plot, of course, did not succeed, and Hitler met his demise—at his own hand—only when he saw that Germany was going to be defeated.
But the pope was not the only one trying to get rid of the Führer. There were about 40 plots to kill the dictator, Cassel said. The well-known ones are dramatized in the film, including the 1944 “July Plot” led by Claus von Stauffenberg, a repentant Catholic.
Cassel, himself a Catholic, said that the sheer number of attempts on Hitler’s life stands in opposition to stereotype of 1930s- and 1940s-era Germans as “mindless Hitler drones.” There was, he said, a “fairly strong Christian underground in Germany.”
“Hitler never killed faith and never killed the independent spirit of these people,” he said. “There was a decent German.”
The documentary does give Pius’ critics a chance to voice their opinions, but one is definitely left with a good impression of Pope Pacelli.
In fact, one panelist at the Sheen Center, Gary Krupp, president of the Pave the Way Foundation, said that the October 18, 1943, deportation of Jews from Rome would have been far worse had Pius not intervened.
“Pope Pius XII sent his nephew to meet with the governor-general of Rome and threatened to speak out vehemently against the arrest of the Jews in Rome and the Nazi movement,” said Krupp, who says he has been uncovering documents in the Vatican archives in support of the late pope. Krupp’s foundation works for better relations among religions. The Nazi governor-general, he said, knew that if he had not stopped the arrests and Pius carried out his threat, “it would have caused riots all over Catholic Europe.” The remaining 11,000 Jews living in Rome were thus spared.
Riebling said that one concern Pius had that led to his greater discretion was about the possibility of schism in the Church.
“If he made German Catholics choose between the Pope and Hitler, most German Catholics would have chosen Hitler, not because he was genocidal, necessarily, but because he was German,” Riebling said.
“He was not silent,” Krupp insisted. “Anybody who has a computer can go to the archives of the New York Times from 1939 to 1958 and search ‘Pius XII and Jews’…. You will see hundreds of articles, with not one negative article.”