Promoting Pius XII

Ten years ago, on a cold winter morning in New York City, the Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, established to investigate Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust, met for the first time to discuss its future work. I was the only Israeli historian among the six scholars (3 Catholics and 3 Jews) designated by the Vatican and leading Jewish organizations to study this hotly contested issue. A little under two years later, the project was abandoned as a result of the Holy See’s unwillingness to release materials from its own archives that could help clarify issues that our team of scholars raised in our provisional report. Already at that time, in the last years of Pope John Paul’s pontificate, there were moves afoot to place Pius XII on the fast track to sainthood, but they were probably slowed down by Israeli and Jewish protests and a desire by Church authorities to prevent a serious rupture in Catholic-Jewish relations.

At issue was the silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust and his indirect complicity in the Nazi mass murder of Jews. These allegations, which first emerged around 1964, had prompted the Vatican to publish eleven volumes of its own documents (edited by four trusted Jesuit scholars), most of them appearing in the 1970s. It was these documents in Italian, German, French, Latin, and English that we were originally asked to review. The million or so unpublished documents from the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) according to the Vatican’s most recent estimate, will only be available in about four year’s time.

It is in this context that we need to see the recent decree on the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, just signed by Pope Benedict XVI. Most Jews have interpreted this act as yet another signal that the Vatican is determined to beatify the controversial wartime pope – whom some even consider to have been anti-Semitic – regardless of what the historical evidence may indicate. The sharp response of Jewish leaders to Benedict’s decree prompted the Vatican’s Press Office Director, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., to release a conciliatory note distinguishing between the historical judgment of Pius XII’s actions (still an open question) and the saintly Christian life he apparently led. In particular, Father Lombardi was concerned to disclaim any notion that this decree was “a hostile act towards the Jewish people” or an obstacle to Catholic-Jewish dialogue. In the light of the pope’s forthcoming visit to the Synagogue of Rome, this was a politically astute and welcome reassurance.

Nevertheless, the decree on Pius XII still raises concern not only about the continuing drive to beatify the wartime pontiff but also about the present pope and the state of relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.

Regarding Pius XII, I personally have never seen him either as “Hitler’s Pope” (the theory of British historian John Cornwell – a “lapsed” Catholic), or as the “Righteous Gentile” evoked by Rabbi David Dallin. My own provisional conclusion drawn from the study of thousands of documents is that the mass murder of Jews was fairly low on his list of priorities. Of course, much the same could be said of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, but they did not claim to be the “Vicar of Christ” or to represent the Christian conscience.

Pius XII strikes me as a polished diplomat far more worried about the Allied bombing of Rome than about the thousand Roman Jews who were being deported by the Germans to their deaths in Auschwitz, virtually under the windows of the Holy See. True, other Roman Jews were discreetly given sanctuary in ecclesiastical establishments in and around Rome after October 1943, but it remains unclear if this was the result of a direct papal instruction. In some instances we know that Pius XII did try to intervene against Nazi or racist anti-Semitic legislation, but in general this was almost always on behalf of baptized Jews since they were protected by the Church as Catholics. Pius’s rare references to the mass murder of the Jews were invariably veiled and very abstract, as if he found it difficult to utter the word itself. Was it fear of further German reprisals? A latent anti-Semitism? Was it his visceral anti-Communism which also led him to hope for a Nazi victory in the East? Or perhaps the desire to spare German Catholics a conflict of conscience between their loyalty to Hitler, the fatherland, or their Church? Whatever the reasons, this was hardly heroic conduct.

So why has Benedict XVI chosen to take this step now? Why risk unnecessary damage to Catholic-Jewish relations? My own inclination is to think that the present pope regards Pius XII as a soulmate – both theologically and politically. He shares with the wartime pontiff an authoritarian centralist world-view and a deep distrust of liberalism, modernity, and the ravages of moral relativism. He was 31 years old when Pius XII died in 1958, and already then regarded him as a venerated role model. Moreover, the German-born Joseph Ratzinger (today Benedict XVI) certainly knew that Pius XII (an artistocratic Roman) was also a passionate Germanophile, surrounded by German aides during and after the war, fluent in the German language, and a great admirer of the German Catholic Church. Not only that, but Ratzinger probably knows that Pius XII personally intervened after 1945 to commute the sentences of convicted German war criminals. This solicitude for Nazi criminals contrasts sharply with Pius XII ignoring all entreaties to make a public statement against anti-Semitism even after the full horrors of the death camps had been revealed in 1945.

In this context it is profoundly unsettling to think that the ultraconservative Benedict XVI and his entourage can identify so completely with Pius XII as a man of “heroic virtue.” The present pope, no doubt, deplores anti-Semitism, though his statements on the subject have been noticeably less robust than those of his predecessor, John Paul II. At Yad Vashem last summer he expressed no personal regret as a German for the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah, even though he had once been a member of the Hitler Youth. True, he had little choice in the matter. However, he was disturbingly vague about the truly monstrous German role in the Holocaust. Earlier this year Benedict also showed remarkably poor judgment (to put it charitably) in reinstating an unrepentant Holocaust-denying British bishop into the mainstream Catholic Church, an action he only retracted after worldwide Jewish and Catholic protests.

These serious mistakes appear to follow a pattern and may even indicate a regression from the real progress in Catholic-Jewish relations under Benedict’s predecessor. One can only hope they are not irreversible since the stakes are high and no sane person can be interested in undermining the bridges across the abyss that have been so painstakingly constructed.


Prof. Robert S. Wistrich is the director of The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, January 2010).

Pius XII

Friend to the Jews - Pius XII's real wartime record:

Catholic Church Did Much To Save Jews During WWII:

Earlier this year Benedict also showed remarkably poor judgment (to put it charitably) in reinstating an unrepentant Holocaust-denying British bishop into the mainstream Catholic Church, an action he only retracted after worldwide Jewish and Catholic protests.

Benedict has said he did not initially know that Bishop Williamson was a Holocaust denier and I believe him.

Lets pray...

Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews

O God, Who dost manifest Thy mercy and compassion towards all peoples,
have mercy upon the Jewish race, once Thy Chosen People. Thou didst
select them alone out of all the nations of the world to be the
custodians of Thy sacred teachings. From them Thou didst raise up
Prophets and Patriarchs to announce the coming of the Redeemer. Thou
didst will that Thine only Son, Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior,
should be a Jew according to the flesh, born of a Jewish maiden in the
Land of Promise. Listen to the prayers we offer Thee today for the
conversion of the Jewish people. Grant that they may come safely to a
knowledge and love of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Messiah foretold by
their Prophets and that they may walk with us in the way of salvation.

Promoting One's New Book

Prof Wistrich,

I would like to suggest that your little blurb, disguised as an article, would be more truthfully entitled: "Promoting My New Book."

For those readers who would like to honestly ponder the question of PIUS XII's  'Heroic Virtue' a few links are provided.

The third link which suggests that 7,000 out of 8,000 Roman Jews were hiding in the Vatican itself gives a little different slant to the righteous professor's pompous assessment of Pius being more concerned about the Allied bombing of Rome than the fate of its Jews.

The Fog of War can be so confusing, especially to historians with headlines to fabricate and books to sell.

@ capo

Thank you for the links my friend.
Any questions from anybody???

@ Traveller

Traveller, I do not entirely disagree with your view. In fact, I tend to get rather aggravated by leftists myself, whether Jews or Gentiles, who like to attack anything that is or seems Christian to them, including their every attempt at discrediting the pope and thereby all Catholics, and then they try to claim Jesus for their own claiming He was some kind of a proto-Marxist revolutionary. Though I am a Protestant, I do not approve of the way some like to portray faithful Catholics as backward idiots and I find it quite repulsive, in fact. Yes, many Catholics during the second world war have helped the Jews and Karol Wojtyla was one of them. Those who say otherwise are by all means vicious liars with their own agendas. Yet I cannot agree that questioning or opposing the Vatican is necessarily an attempt at destroying the social fabric of Western people. Abuse, lies and corruption ought to be exposed by honest men and women. Even Lord Acton, himself a Catholic, said that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The pope claims absolute spiritual authority, does he not? Uncompromising self-criticism has been one of the great products of our civilisation, for better or for worse - and wars and conflicts have unfortunately been a result of that. I do not think the pope - or any religious leader for that matter - should be above the law or be made an exception for. The fact that pope have often received and continue to receive such special treatment makes them all the more suspicious and subject to criticisms, some of which I agree are undoubtedly unfounded and done out of a general hatred of the West or Christianity. In the case of many but not all non-Christian Jews, whether religious or not, you can be sure that is what drives them. The mixture of the supposedly Christian faith with political and earthly ambitions as well as its abuse of power and its claim to represent Christendom throughout the centuries, however, have put the Vatican in a position where it is an easy target. But if it does indeed possess the keys of St Peter and the Gospel truth, then it should not have anything to fear and ought to behave as a church rather than as a worldly state and provide answers. At least, that is how I look at it.

By the way, my fellow countryman, beste wensen voor 2010! :)

Belgium and the Holocaust

The Belgian authorities have destroyed archives and records relating to
the persecution and deportation of Jews in Belgium in the 1930s and
1940s. Some of this happened as recently as the late 1990s. More here.

Dear Mr Wistrich

Mr Wistrich, most states release classified documents after a defined number of years. I believe, the US release these documents after 50 years. Are you so special that laws of another state have to be mended? Can you name me some other states that invite members of another state to investigate jointly the behaviour of one of its own leaders? Do you think the state of Israel would be ready to act in the same way? No. I believe the Catholic Church shows its strength by letting others investigate its own weaknesses. Mr Wistrich, can you be as humble?

And the truth shall set you free...

Traveller, I am amazed that you tell Mr Wistrich to shut up. You do realise that the Vatican is as much a political entity as it is a religious one, don't you? If you have any doubts about that, please look up the Lateran Treaty.

I join Mr Wistrich in asking why the supposed Vicar of Christ and his church should be so secretive? If his church is indeed the one, holy and apostolic church then it should have nothing to hide.

Moreover, it is only right that people should demand honesty from an entity that claims spiritual authority over millions of people worldwide and is accountable to no authority, apart from God.

"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said." -- John 18:20-21

"Therefore, since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God." -- 2 Co 4:1-2

If the Holy See represents God on earth, let it reveal us the truth!

@ pale rider

My friend, I am sick and tired to have people accusing others without proof.
Pope Pius XII was extremely intelligent, probably the most intelligent Pope of the 20 th century.
He was convinced of the nazi and communist threats. He was accused, because of his anti-communist stand, by the left for the non-proven crime of being anti-semitic.
Today, after 60 years of accusations there is still no proof.
Why is it so life threatening important that the Vatican releases the papers now when every country in the world has a policy of releasing papers after so many years without changing those time periods.
If the present Pope is so stupid to declare a war criminal as a saint, and after 4 years the truth comes out then and only then the 2 Popes can be accused.
The Jewish community has already restricted our freedoms to the tune of holocaust denial crimes. They should really shut up about frredom of information and such.
I repeat what I said before, the Vatican has no obligation to dance to the Jewish tune. Right is right and accusing somebody during 60 years without proof is not my idea of Justice.
I am not defending the Catholic church or the Vatican, I am defending a person, dead since decades, who is still accused without proof.
If he was guilty and the 1 million papers released after 4 years prove it, accuse him and judge him. Until such time he is innocent.

@ traveller

Traveller, I do not approve of false accusations either. I honestly have no opinion on the person of Pius XII. I am familiar with both the negative and positive evaluations of his pontificate but would rather refrain from making judgements for the time being. Yet the problem is exactly that people cannot properly investigate the matter. It ought not be forgotten that the Vatican is both a political entity and a religious institution. That does set it apart from other states, in my view. And since the pope is considered to be Christ's representative on earth, and the Vatican's citizens mostly consist of high-ranking clergy, it goes without saying that few if any of its inhabitants will question its history. In fact it seems that they are not too eager to even let members of the Catholic Church investigate the issue. In view of this fact and the Vatican's combined spiritual and political influence throughout history, I think it is rather normal that people want to know what exactly its role has been. I think this was never what the church was intended to be like but I'm afraid that would get us too far off-topic.

@ pale rider

I am against the RCC as worldly power. I am very sure that the RCC sins against the basic teachings of Christ.
But these are matters of a 2000 year old power game.
The question of Pius XII is a basic question of the rights of a free citizen for an honest and just treatment.
The teachings of Christ have basically been used and abused by the RCC through its history of powerplays, but that has nothing to do with the question of an anti-semitic Pius XII.
Pius XII has done a remarkable balancing act during a time of extreme danger.
Pray tell me which religious leader has strongly objected to the holocaust during '40/'45 from inside Europe? I know of a few heroic priests and they were killed. Pius XII had NO chance to change anything and anybody claiming otherwise is a certified idiot.
Pius XII did what he could and saved a number of Jews, converted or not. All the rest is slander or ignorance.
Why is Pius XII attacked without any proof while some Jewish organizations financed the election of a Vichy politician like Mitterand with a proven anti-semitic record? Mitterand was a socialist and friend of a certain intelligentia with no scruples whatsoever. The result was the opening of the French foreign policy towards the Arabs. Did you hear any Jewish organizations about that?
The continuous attacks on Pius XII serve other purposes and coïncide with the attacks on the Christian/Jewish culture of Europe. It's a leftist attack and we shouldn't be trying to bow our heads in shame because there is nothing to be shamed about. I for one do not give in to the perpetual attacks on our Christian heritage and my criticism on the RCC is between me and the RCC and no other religious leaders are invited to interfere.

One more remark

Leftist Jews seem to have lost track of history. They don't realize that the relentless attacks on figures like Pius XII weaken the resolve and backbone of the normal average European people who start thinking that their leaders, let alone church leaders, are liars and cheaters. This is disruptive of the European social fabric and undermines the moral authority of the church. If the RCC or one of its leaders acts criminally, and they did in the past, by all means punish them, but don't slander them because of marxist aims, because my fashionable marxist idiots, your culture and way of life will be damaged by your relentless lies and attacks, exactly like in 1917, but this time there will be no Christian Saviour anymore, you will have killed them off.

Prof. Wistrich on Pius XII

Prof. Wistrich is to be thanked for his temperate and informative assessment of the Pius XII beatification controversy and Benedict XVI's relationship to it. It is unfortunate that Pope Benedict has been in retreat from the candor of his famous 2006 Regensburg address (

Historical candor regarding Papal behavior during World War II is no less important than candor regarding conversion by the sword in the name of obedience to the prophet Mohammed.

With anti-Semitism -- disguised as hostility to Israel -- the present policy of the European Union, it is to be regretted that the Catholic Church seems bent on "going with the flow" instead of acting as a beacon of good moral sense.

@ Mr. Wistrich

In your 6th paragraph you give yourself a bunch of valid reasons for the silence of Pius XII and then you conclude that he was not heroic. Would he have been heroic by sacrificing a couple of hundred thousand or million catholics? The holocaust was an extreme expression of human evil. It is time that the Jewish people realize that sacrificing more people to their own memory would not have solved the holocaust, it would have aggravated it. Pius XII was a specialist in German affairs and behavior like none other in Europe or for that matter in the world. Notwithstanding the horrors he knew and felt he didn't lose his head and did the right thing, he even helped Jews, even "bad" Jewish converts whom, you know that very well, converted for saving themselves. You, of all people, should know what an accusation of intent is worth, nothing but falsehoods and no proofs.
The Vatican is a Catholic institution and will release papers when they want to release papers, not when the Jewish rabbi's decide what they should do. I would like to read the published accusations by American Jews against Roosevelt when the Americans refused the Jewish refugees arriving by ship in the US ports. That didn't cost anything, was not dangerous and was utterly scandalous, when the Japanese themselves accepted those same Jews. Notwithstanding this really scandalous behavior of the US government I never read any accusations of Roosevelt for that crime against Jewish people. That was an act of cowardice and a criminal act against humanity.
But no, the pope, trying to play a dangerous balancing act and still helping where he could, was the perfect target for unfounded accusations, while Roosevelt was too dangerous to tackle.
Mr. Wistrich, this witchhunt, lasting since decades and never proven by anything should stop. Go after real culprits, after real criminals and leave the Pope in peace.
Pope Ratzinger didn't do anything wrong in his life, he is a prudent scholar whose every word and deed is put under a magnifying glass at every turn. If he declares Pius XII a Saint or a devil is a Catholic decision and should not concern you until such time that you actually find some wrong actions on the part of Pius XII, whoch you couldn't find so far.
If the Vatican says that they will release the papers in 4 years than they will release them in 4 years. If they are released and you find something wrong in them the present Pope can be considered an idiot and you can accuse all you want. Meanwhile Mr. Wistrich please do yourself a favor and shut up until after 4 years and 1 milion documents you find something to really talk about. And BTW, if you still find nothing after all that I am expecting a public apology here.
For your information I am educated a Catholic but I am definitely not a member of that church anymore, nor of any church. I just cannot stand loose accusations and injustice.