Will the ‘Hitler’s pope’ slur be put to rest?

Some good news at last for the Catholic Church in the pages of yesterday’s Observer, no less, reporting on the forthcoming publication of a book by Gordon Thomas, entitled The Pope’s Jews, which will, it is hoped, lead to a re-evaluation of the role of Pope Pius XII in the Holocaust. 

Until the publication of Ralph Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Representative, Pius XII’s reputation as a friend and protector of the Jews stood high. But it is important to remember that the play is a polemic and a drama, not history. I have not read John Cornwell’ s now famous book, Hitler’s Pope, but that certainly carried on the work of the play, and the criticisms of Cornwell’s approach are well known. But even though many scholars have taken Cornwell to task, the implication of the title – which is quite brilliantly defamatory – has stuck.

To complain that the media has misrepresented the Catholic Church, is, to some at least, to show signs of persecution mania. But, if the media does misrepresent the figure of Pius XII, surely all, not just Catholics, ought to be disturbed by this. History should not be manipulated; it is perilous to let it be so; it was the manipulation of history, among other things, that made the Holocaust possible. One of Hitler’s favourite claims was that the Bolshevik revolution was led by Jews. Yes, there were Jews who were Bolsheviks (though to what extent they were at all Jewish is debatable) but to claim that the Bolshevik revolution was some sort of Jewish plot is simply laughable. As laughable as claiming that Pacelli was Hitler’s Pope – or at least it would be laughable if it were not so dangerous. It is equally absurd and dangerous, to deny the Holocaust ever happened – which is why in some countries Holocaust denial is quite rightly illegal.

This new book claims to examine hitherto neglected primary sources, and that is greatly to be welcomed. The relationship between Catholics and Jews before the Second World War is surely best to be discovered via the ephemera of the period, and careful plodding through leaflets, newspapers, sermons, devotional manuals, holy pictures and parish newsletters. It would be here that one would have to look for a culture of anti-Semitism woven into Catholic daily life. I have spoken to people who were young in the 1930’s and asked them if they remember ever hearing Jews referred to, for example, as “Christ-killers” in Catholic discourse, and have always drawn a blank. If Pius XII had been anti-Jewish, that would have made him stand out dramatically from the milieu that produced him. In fact, in 1930’s Italy, despite the racial laws introduced by Mussolini, there were very few convinced anti-Semites, even among the Italian fascists.

Oddly, though he is accused of being a Nazi sympathiser, no one ever seemingly accuses Pius XII of being a fascist sympathiser. Yes, he did business with Mussolini, but the Vatican kept its distance from the regime, had several notable conflicts with it, and did nothing to prop it up when it tottered. Nor did the Vatican intervene to save the Italian monarchy after the War, something they might well have tried to do. Cardinal Schuster of Milan tried to save Mussolini’s life in the closing weeks of the War, but sadly failed to do so. He acted, not as a fascist sympathiser, but as a humanitarian.

The concept of Hitler’s Pope is not simply a slur against Pius XII, it is a slur directed at the Church and indeed all Catholics. But it is something that all who care about history and historical method should find outrageous.