Here We Go Again

June 2001By Vincent A. Lapomarda

Vincent A. Lapomarda is Coordinator of the Holocaust Collection at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts.

The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965.  By Michael Phayer. Indiana University Press. 301 pages. $29.95.



In attributing the alleged “silence” of Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) about the Jews during the Holocaust to a diplomatic strategy designed to preserve Germany as a bulwark against Communism, this book reminds one of a performance filled with smoke and mirrors. Written by a professor of history at Marquette University, this study relies more on German sources than on Vatican ones in trying to show how the Catholic Church changed her attitude toward the Jews between 1930 and 1965. Of the some 1,050 endnotes used to document its 12 chapters, barely one-twentieth deal with the multi-volume collection Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relating to the Second World War, completed twenty years ago. This is particularly relevant since more than half of Phayer’s study concentrates on the years of the Holocaust. In this respect, his book is unlike Under His Very Windows by Susan Zuccotti, another revisionist, published earlier this year. At least Zuccotti, despite her opposition to Pius XII, did employ many of the documents in the later volumes of those Vatican sources in expressing her view of what the Holy See did and did not do to help the Jews and other victims of the Nazis.

That Pius allegedly failed to speak out “unequivocally” in defense of the Jews is a theme that constantly emerges as an unproven assumption throughout Phayer’s study. While Phayer seems to want to put defenders of Pius in a benevolent frame of mind by expressing his disagreement with Rolf Hochhuth’s view that Pius was “cold-hearted” and with John Cornwell’s view that the Pope was “antisemitic,” Phayer’s own view is equally as out of line with the historical record. In charging that Pius was silent because he was more interested in trying to bring about a Germany that could protect Europe against Communism, Phayer has unwittingly fallen victim to the Communist-inspired propaganda waged against the Catholic Church after World War II — that the Church’s leaders collaborated with the Nazis.

To see how wrong Phayer’s interpretation is, one need only read the preliminary conclusion of the commission of Christian and Jewish historians appointed in October 1999 to investigate the aforementioned documents published by the Holy See. “We are struck by the paucity of evidence to this effect and to the subject of communism in general,” it declared with respect to the allegation that the Vatican’s reaction was determined by its opposition to Communism. “Indeed, our reading of the volumes presents a different picture, especially with regard to the Vatican promotion of the American bishops’ support for the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union in order to oppose Nazism.” Obviously, Phayer was unable to distinguish between the Vatican’s opposition to the brutalities of the Communist regime in Russia, which the Holy See had condemned just as harshly as it had condemned the Nazi regime in Germany during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, and the deep concern which that Pope and his successor had for the welfare of the Russian people.

This shortcoming of Phayer’s work is also indicative of other aspects of the book which render it almost completely lacking in credibility. That it is not completely lacking is due to the author’s constructive contribution focusing on what European Catholics, particularly in Germany, did during the Second World War to help rescue Jews. These efforts are portrayed as exceptional and are, unfortunately, employed to attempt to demonstrate the author’s thesis about the alleged shortcomings of Pius XII and Europe’s Catholic bishops during the Holocaust. “In the absence of Vatican leadership, no European bishop had the courage to follow the example of Berlin priest Bernard Lichtenberg and protest publicly,” Phayer declares. This allegation is a good example of just how outrageous his analysis of the evidence is, especially when one recalls the strong defense of the Jews articulated by Antonio Santin (1885-1981), the courageous Bishop of Trieste, Italy, in resisting the Nazi roundup of Jews following the fall of the government of Mussolini in the summer of 1943.

Not unrelated to the comparison with Lichtenberg is an earlier statement: “In all of Europe, only one member of the hierarchy, Poland’s Archbishop Twardowski forfeited his life for hiding Jews.” Since Archbishop Twardowski (1886-1944) is the one who consecrated Bishop Eugeniusz Baziak, the prelate from whom Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) received his episcopal ordination on September 28, 1958, there may be more than a passing interest in what Phayer declares. In fact, the present Pope was one of the last bishops appointed by Pius XII before his death on October 9, 1958. As it turns out, not only is Phayer’s statement in apparent contradiction to his earlier one regarding Lichtenberg, but it is false because Twardowski did not die because he was found to be hiding Jews, even though he did protect them in his archiepiscopal city.

What Phayer has to say about Europe’s prelates might seem interesting, but it is not at all accurate. Though Susan Zuccotti might appear to be in complete agreement with Phayer (they were part of the same panel discussing Pius XII and the Holocaust at the January 2001 meeting in Boston of the American Catholic Historical Association), she evidently parts company with him when she credits the bishops and archbishops of Italy, rather than Pius, for the Church’s interventions on behalf of Jews. Yet, despite Phayer’s attempts to downgrade the European bishops in general, he is forced to concede that those prelates, among them bishops in the papal diplomatic corps, did exercise effective interventions on behalf of Jews in Hungary, Rumania, Slovakia, and elsewhere.

To focus further on Phayer’s distortion of the historical record, the case of Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, is instructive. “Although Roncalli always said that all of his work for Jews came at the direction of Pope Pius, it is difficult to take it in the literal sense,” Phayer states. Phayer is apparently asking his readers to believe that Roncalli’s words are meaningless. But consider the testimony of the late Pinchas E. Lapide, a consul for Israel, who visited Roncalli when the latter was Patriarch of Venice in 1957. Responding to Lapide’s expression of gratitude for all that Roncalli had done to save Jews, the future pope said: “In all these painful matters, I referred to the Holy See and afterwards I simply carried out the Pope’s orders: first and foremost to save human lives.” This quotation is from Lapide’s book, Three Popes and the Jews, a study whose interpretation of historical data is out of harmony with Phayer’s. Significantly, Lapide’s work, like a number of other works favorable to Pius XII, is not listed in Phayer’s bibliography.

There is still more evidence why the reader should have reservations about the quality of Phayer’s research, which at times emphasizes style over substance. Paramount is the allegation that Pius was aware of the impending Nazi roundup of Italian Jews in Rome on October 16, 1943, but did nothing to intervene on behalf of the Jews. The facts are quite different and no less a person than Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi criminal knowledgeable in these matters, recorded in his diary, which was made available in 2000, that Pius was quite active at that time attempting to thwart the deportation of the Jews from the Eternal City.

Another claim repeated by revisionist historians like Phayer regards the slaughter of non-Catholics by the puppet regime of Croatia during World War II. That canard, often brought up against the Catholic Church’s dealing with that Nazi satellite, is also a reflection of Communist propaganda. Having been carefully reviewed by such scholars as C. Michael McAdams and Vladimir Zergavic, the number of Jews, Serbs, and others who perished in that country have been found to be wildly exaggerated.

Not altogether unconnected with Croatia is the charge that, after the war, the Holy See helped Nazi criminals escape justice. “By allowing the Vatican to become engaged in providing refuge for the Holocaust perpetrators, Pius XII committed the greatest impropriety of his pontificate,” Phayer declares. That such an allegation is based on discredited documents published by Virgilio Scattolini at the time of Italy’s fight against the Communists in the 1948 election is evidently unknown to Phayer. Those documents duped American agents in Italy, such as Vincent La Vista, who unwittingly used them to file intelligence reports to the U.S. Subsequently, Scattolini was convicted in a court proceeding in Italy for his fabrications which had been designed to discredit the Holy See. Phayer uses these same distortions to blame Pius XII and the Vatican for the questionable actions of nationalist clerics residing in Rome, such as Alois C. Hudal, a German bishop, and Krunsolav S. Dragonovic, a Croatian priest. Even if these men were involved in helping Nazis escape justice in the chaotic aftermath of World War II, the Holy See, not to mention U.S. intelligence itself, certainly did not know all that is known today about such Nazi criminals as Klaus Barbie, Ante Pavelic, and Franz Stangl. In reality, neither Hudal nor Dragonovic were formal representatives of the Holy See any more than was Msgr. Jozef Tiso, the discredited head of the puppet state of Slovakia, whose actions the Pope could not control because, like Hudal and Dragonovic, Tiso was guided by nationalist ambitions, not by the goals of the Vatican.

Consequently, it can be said that Phayer has demonstrated a surprising degree of intellectual naïveté in his analysis of the evidence by allowing himself to be duped by documents devoid of authenticity. Contrary to his inability to come up with a concrete directive from Pope Pius XII encouraging Catholics to save Jews, an increasing number of historians, Jewish as well as Catholic, agree that the Catholic Church under that Pope’s leadership saved more Jews than any other international agent or agency. Pius’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (Oct. 20, 1939), and his secret instruction to his bishops, Opere et caritate (Dec. 23, 1940), provided exactly the form of “Vatican leadership” that Phayer alleges was lacking. So too did his Christmas Messages of 1941 and 1942, which pleaded for Jews and other victims of Nazism, thereby evoking from no less than The New York Times praise for the Pope on two different occasions as “a lonely voice” in the midst of the war. And these major documents do not account for the number of times that Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano came out in defense of the same victims, Jews and non-Jews, thereby conveying, at least to Catholics, if not to all Europeans, their moral obligations during the Nazi reign of terror.

In the final analysis, perhaps only his incomprehensible and unremitting opposition to Pius XII can account for Phayer’s inability to recognize the Pope’s unequivocal and courageous interventions on behalf of the Jews, which even the Nazis themselves did not fail to grasp. How else can one account for Phayer’s unproven allegations, summarized in his epilogue as Pius XII’s “fixation on diplomacy,” “failure to assist Jews,” and “the inflexibility of his personality”? Instead of allowing his views to be shaped by the available evidence, Phayer has gone out of his way to make use of sources that support his viewpoint to demonstrate that Pius XII, compared to his predecessor, Pius XI, and his successor, John XXIII, failed in his leadership of the Catholic Church regarding her relationship with the Jews before, during, and after the Holocaust. Entrapped by his preconceptions in advancing his revisionist agenda, Phayer is unable to accept the objective evidence demonstrating how Eugenio Pacelli as Pius XI’s Secretary of State was very persistent in articulating the Vatican’s opposition to the Nazis and in his defense of their victims, just as he was as Pope throughout the Second World War.

Contrary to the false impression given by Phayer’s study, it was Pope Pius XII’s support of new scriptural and theological developments that opened the doors to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and to the new Catholic attitude toward the Jews resulting from that council’s historic document, Nostra Aetate, published in 1965.



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