How to kill the myth of Hitler’s Pope

Pius XII during a radio broadcast in 1947 (AP Photo/Luigi Felici)

My thanks to all those who contributed to my earlier blog about Pius XII and the Holocaust. There were some informative and helpful posts. Indeed, as a result of one of them I was prompted to watch the interview with Sir Martin Gilbert. An authority on Churchill as well as the Holocaust, Gilbert also happens to be Jewish. He was in no doubt that Pius XII did everything he possibly could to save Jewish lives. In a kindly, but completely authoritative way, Gilbert dismissed the play by Hochhuth (translated as The Deputy) as a work of polemical fiction, which made no attempt to present the documentary evidence that existed. “I didn’t find the Hochuth play historical in any way,” he concluded.

Asked by the interviewer about John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope, Gilbert dismissed it out of hand; the title deliberately “sets the reader on a certain course”. He added that he also felt “quite offended by the cover” which purports to show Pius being saluted by Nazi officers – when in fact the photo was taken during the Weimar Republic at the time that he was papal nuncio.

I was mulling over all this when the Telegraph dropped through the letterbox (I confess we are not a Guardian household). It had an item, illustrated with the same mischievous photo, and the headline: “Hitler’s Pope saved thousands of Jewish lives.” A new claim that Pius XII may have arranged the exodus of about 200,000 Jews from Germany after Kristallnacht has been made by Dr Michael Hesemann, a German historian carrying out research in the Vatican archives. Sir Martin Gilbert himself, described as “a British historian and the world’s leading expert on the Holocaust”, is quoted as saying that the Pope should be considered as a “Righteous Gentile” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust remembrance authority. All this is covered more fully in Simon Caldwell’s report so I won’t comment further, except to say that what Gilbert indicated during the interview mentioned above, viz that the more material that comes to light, the more it will vindicate Pius XII, seems to be confirmed.

A final remark before I move on to other, even more contentious topics (such as “Is Christopher Hitchens a secret Catholic?”): it is a mild and charitable suggestion that would kill the myth of Hitler’s Pope once and for all. Harold Bloom, professor at Yale and a great Shakespeare scholar, is on public record as saying that he would like to buy up all the copies of his one attempt at novel-writing that are still lurking on public bookshelves somewhere in the world – and bin them. He is dead right in his critical judgment. I have tried reading this novel, called A Gnostic Fantasy, and found it – well, completely unreadable. Could John Cornwell take note of this laudable aspiration? If you want to completely destroy the reputation of a good, even saintly man, you could not do it more devastatingly than by inventing a title like “Hitler’s Pope”. “Mao’s Pope” or “Stalin’s Pope” don’t come near the depth or force of this slur. And Bloom didn’t pretend his novel was anything other than fiction.