Whether one agrees with the specific conclusions of the author or not, one has to admit that the book delivers on the promise of its subtitle. In readable, dispassionate language (which is itself highly unusual for a book on this topic!), the author takes the reader through the major issues of the controversy surrounding Pius XII as raised by the scholarly and journalistic literature, and consistently clarifies and sheds light on them.
José M. Sánchez, a professor of history at St. Louis University, is, in his own words, a practicing Catholic, whose love for the church, I believe, comes through in these pages. Yet this love does not blind him to the human and therefore sinful dimension of church life. Sanchez strives to be neither a critic nor a defender of Pius. Rather, he has set for himself the task of analyzing and evaluating how the leading critics and defenders of the pope marshal their arguments and weigh the vastly complex and often ambiguous documentation historical scholarship has to deal with. As he admits at the outset, this is no small task, given the increasingly polemical nature of the controversy. He comes, I believe, about as close to achieving his goal as can be humanly expected.
I suspect that this very sense of balance may limit the enthusiasm of those who have taken firm stands on either side of the controversy. Yet it makes this book the best short introduction to the issues yet published, to my knowledge. On these grounds alone, all of us who range along the spectrum from defenders to critics (some would say apologists and demonizers) have reason to be grateful. Sanchez is also quite effective in setting the decisions and statements of the sometimes somewhat enigmatic central figure of the controversy into the historical setting of the situations and challenges that presented themselves, week by week and year by year, to the pope for response.
He also sketches quite well the painfully limited options and resources actually available to the wartime pope for dealing with not just a European warwhich World War I, in retrospect, essentially wasbut a world at war, and within that context the systematic murder of a whole people such as had never before been even contemplated, much less attempted. Sánchez makes the telling point that while numerous reports were received in the Holy See (as in the allied capitals), they were received largely anecdotally and along with large numbers of reports of other atrocities, large and small, committed by the Nazis and, indeed, some by the allies.
One begins to appreciate in these pages the cruelty of the choices daily thrust upon the man, Pius, who was charged with a sacred obligation to preserve the church in a time of regnant evil, and who also wished desperately to help as many of the millions of suffering human beings as possible. Quite often, as Sánchez so well describes, these two goals were contradictory. To choose the one would mean to abandon the other. Hence, what appears to some critics as weakness and indecisiveness, Sánchez shows, was often simply that the pope had no good choices, sometimes not even less harmful ones to make, at least as he would most likely (judging often from documents revealing his anguish in his own words) have understood the situation day after ever more complex and chaotic day.
Sánchez first presents the papal priorities as they existed at the beginning of the war, and then shows how these were tested with ever greater urgency during its course. He examines the evidence presented in the scholarly literature (often going back to check the original documentation, with clarifying results) regarding what Pius would have known about the Holocaust (and when) and what he said about the war as it raged on. Here, he very helpfully puts on the record the strong series of protests and revelations of what was going on that came out from the Vatican press and especially Vatican Radio during the early years of the war, until intense pressure from Mussolini (pressured in turn by the Germans) forced the pope to order a retreat into more neutral language in describing events.
Having established what the pope actually saidwhich in itself effectively demolishes any argument that the term the silence of the pope has any historical value whatsoeverand something (though by no means all) of what the pope, the Vatican and its nuncios actually did to help Jewish and non-Jewish victims of Nazi persecution, Sánchez examines one by one the reasons various scholars (and journalists) cite in their books for the public posture of neutrality the Vatican stuck to throughout the war, even while behind the scenes clearly supporting the allied cause against the Nazi Axis.
He shows the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments, ranging from what he calls the three least likely (the pope was an anti-Semite, which Sánchez shows has no cogent grounds at all; the pope feared for the destruction of the Vatican and of Rome itself; and he feared for his own life) to what is more likely (the need to protect German Catholics from Nazi persecution; the cautious style of Vatican diplomacy; and fear of communism). These, too, in Sánchez’ estimation, fall short of explaining what the Vatican did and did not do during the war. More serious as candidates are the fact that Pius wanted to preserve the options of mediating the end of the war and his belief, clearly documented, that he felt a papal protest would fall on deaf ears in the Nazi government (which was likely correct) and that such a protest would have made things worse for the victims, Jewish no less than others (which is where the sharpest point of the controversy lies). As Sánchez argues, however, while this is the heart of the matter, it is in fact not something that can ever be resolved. Since it did not happen, what would have occurred as a result will forever remain speculation.
As it turned out, tragically, it is hard to imagine that things could have been worse for the Jews. But this is not something that could have been grasped by the pope, and was not grasped for that matter by either the British or the American governments which had far better intelligence, and the ability to analyze intelligence, than the Vatican could even dream of during the war.
Sánchez is also quite helpful in setting Pius’s decisions in the context of his personality, of the spiritual and temporal mindset of his training and how he would have understood the facts and events as they came before him. Along the way, the author bursts some favorite bubbles of both defenders and critics. The claim by the Israeli diplomat Pinchas Lapide that Pius XII was instrumental in saving...as many as 860,000 Jews from certain death at Nazi hands, for example, is shown to be undocumented and unsupportable, no less than the critics’ charge of silence. On the latter, Sánchez is rather good at teaching the reader the rudiments of what I call the Vaticanese of the periodi.e., how the papacy at that point tended to address itself in general to the problems of the time, but in a way that could be and was understood by those to whom it was addressed. The evidence that the Nazis saw Pius as an implacable foe and understood his generic condemnations of the murder of innocents by reason of race to mean their genocidal policy against the Jews, for example, is clearly shown.
Sánchez helpfully evaluates, without entirely resolving in my mind (and perhaps not in his own, though he does share his judgments with the reader), issues that both critics and defenders utilize in their argumentation, such as how to interpret the crucial meeting in September 1943 between the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Maglione, and the German ambassador to the Vatican, Ernst von Weizsäcker, on the morning after the first night of what was to have been a systematic roundup of all the Jews of Rome. Read one way, the Weizsäcker report of the meeting seems to say that Maglione offered only the mildest of criticism, not even requiring Weizsäcker to send a report of the protest back to Rome. Read another way, it was a clear threat that Weizsäcker downplayed in his report but that came through loud and clear anyway. Bolstering the latter interpretation is the fact that there were no more roundups after that first night, so that the large majority of the Roman Jewish community survived, most by hiding in the city’s numerous convents and monasteries.
The Jews hiding in the religious houses, a number of them directly linked to the Vatican, were in fact fed by trucks from the Vatican that regularly brought food to them. There is so much eyewitness testimony to this fact on the record that it is incontrovertible today, though Susan Zucotti, in her book, has tried to brush the fact aside. I myself heard this story from a sister of Sion, then a young nun, who went out to meet and unload the truck. Margherita Marchione’s books on Pius similarly contain records of numerous other firsthand testimonies on this. Here, however, Sánchez is not very effective in challenging the Zucotti mythology.
Sánchez does fall prey to some myths himself, however. For example, he swallows uncritically Michael Phayer’s unsupported claim that the Vatican (rather than some Catholic priests not acting in any sense as agents of the Holy See, which was the actual case) knowingly aided German and Croatian war criminals to escape from Europe after the war. Phayer in his book and Sánchez in his turn simply refer to the feverish conspiracy-theorizing of Mark Aarons and John Loftus in their totally discredited book, Unholy Trinity (1991). But others have been gulled by that particular scam, too.
Still, throughout Pius XII and the Holocaust, Sánchez shows a general sense of balanced, informed judgment regarding the complex issues he narrates so well for his readers. He presents fairly the arguments of others, even when he disagrees, searching for the meat and leaving out the fat of polemics, allowing readers to make up their own minds even when that might be a different conclusion than that to which Sánchez himself comes.