The Judgment of History
In 1929, shortly before he was to leave Germany to become cardinal secretary of state, the then papal nuncio and future pontiff, Eugenio Pacelli, expressed his apprehension about Hitler: “This man is completely obsessed,” he said. “All that is not of use to him, he destroys; all that he says and writes carries the mark of his egocentricity; this man is capable of trampling on corpses and eliminating all that obstructs him.” Four years later, when Hitler became chancellor, Pacelli’s prophecy was fulfilled.
The Catholic Church’s record during the Nazi era has long been the subject of intense discussion, not all of it edifying. Part of the problem is that emotion and speculation, rather than documented facts, have too often driven the debate.
Most of the controversy has focused on the church’s reaction to the Holocaust, when Pacelli himself ruled as Pope Pius XII (1939-58). Still, the preceding papacy of Pius XI (1922-39) is of equal importance, especially as it casts light on subsequent events and decisions. Those years encompass the early part of Hitler’s dictatorship, when Cardinal Pacelli was second in command at the Vatican, serving as Pius XI’s secretary of state.
Any informed treatment of that era has to begin with the primary sources. The great value of Pope and Devil by Hubert Wolf, a respected priest-scholar at the University of Münster, is that it draws heavily upon the Vatican archives now available—those from the entire pontificate of Pius XI and (some) from Pius XII’s.
Pope and Devil begins with the years of Germany’s Weimar Republic, where Pacelli served as nuncio (1917-29). His reports to Rome reflect a pre-conciliar mind-set, but also stand out for their intelligence and prescience. In 1923, for example, after Hitler’s failed putsch, Pacelli sent a dispatch to Rome warning of the future dictator’s hatred of Jews and Catholics. The following year he called Nazism “perhaps the most dangerous heresy of our time”—a remarkable comment considering the church’s fear and loathing of Communism.
By the time Pacelli became secretary of state, in 1930, the Vatican had been fully apprised of the danger of Hitler’s movement. Why, then, did the Vatican sign a concordat with Germany in 1933, just six months after Hitler came to power? For the same reason the Holy See offered diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union even earlier: because it wanted to secure religious freedom and uphold the rights of the church as an institution. Were those rights suppressed, the church would never be able to defend Catholics—let alone non-Catholics—who looked to it for protection.
The Vatican did not regard either venture as a friendship pact, but rather as bulwarks against ruthless totalitarian movements.
This and more becomes clear in the book’s outstanding treatment of the concordat’s origins, context and reverberations. For years, critics of the Vatican have accused the “Roman party,” led by Cardinal Pacelli, of sacrificing the Catholic resistance in Germany in exchange for the concordat. According to this narrative, Pacelli’s supposed machinations also explain why the German bishops qualified their hard-line stance against National Socialism. Now, using the new archives, Wolf refutes the charge, vindicating Pacelli. Claims that Vatican officials were behind the dissolution of the Catholic Center Party, as well as the latter’s earlier decision to vote for the Enabling Act (which helped Hitler consolidate his power), “have absolutely no basis in fact.” The party “acted completely independently” of Rome, writes Wolf. The same is true of the German episcopacy’s decision to moderate its declarations, after the Nazis took power. In fact, had Cardinal Pacelli had his way, “Hitler would have paid a heavy price for the Center’s consent to the Enabling Act and the bishops’ retraction of their condemnation.”
Wolf does not, however, let the Vatican off there. An underdeveloped theology toward Judaism prevailed at the time, and Wolf believes it hampered even good men like Pius XI. Though justly praised for his famous 1938 declaration, “Anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually, we are all Semites.” Both that statement and a similar one 10 years earlier were weakened by simultaneous cautions against Jewish faith and culture. Pius XI’s 1928 statement condemned “with all its might” that “particular hatred which today commonly goes by the name of anti-Semitism.” But what precipitated it were efforts by the Friends of Israel, a Catholic organization, to cleanse the traditional Good Friday liturgy of its insensitivities toward “unbelieving” Jews. After internal discussion and debate, the pope refused, believing any such changes might compromise the church’s evangelical mandate. The Friends of Israel organization was dissolved—albeit with the accompanying condemnation of anti-Semitism—and its ecumenical concerns were not properly addressed until the Second Vatican Council.
Valuable as his book is, Wolf occasionally trips up. He misses numerous papal statements and interventions on behalf of Jews, suggests that the Vatican ignored Edith Stein’s plea to warn the faithful about the evils of Nazism (that was done in abundance) and claims there was a “lack of response” from Rome to Kristallnacht (the historian Martin Gilbert notes the Vatican did protest the pogrom, earning the Nazis’ wrath). And it is a serious error to write that the concordat “gave Hitler’s government its first agreement under international law.” That agreement, signed on July 20, 1933, was preceded by Germany’s trade agreement with the Soviet Union (May 5); the Four-Power Pact with France, Britain and Italy (June 7); and a separate Anglo-German exchange pact. The League of Nations recognized Germany’s new government before the concordat was signed; and the Haavara agreement on emigration—between Germany and Palestinian Jews—was completed in August 1933, one month before the concordat was finally ratified. The latter was hardly an isolated international event.
Further, though Hitler rejoiced over the concordat’s signing, he later railed against it as a means of anti-Nazi subversion; for one thing, it was being used as a vehicle to shield Jews.
Pope and Devil, while imperfect, makes an important contribution to Catholic historiography. The disputes it explores are likely to continue, even after the wartime archives of the Vatican are fully released. But progress is being made. The historian John Lukacs once said that the job of a good historian is not to fix truth once and for all, but to correct history’s untruths so that posterity will have a better chance of coming closer to it. In Pope and Devil, Professor Wolf has helped us do just that.