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Not Hitler’s Pope

Hitler, the War, and the Pope

By Ronald J. Rychlak

Publisher: Genesis Press (662-329-9927)

Pages: 493

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Vincent A. Lapomarda

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

The arguments for and against Pope Pius XII’s role during the Holocaust of World War II have been circulating since the publication of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy (1963), down through John Cornwell’s polemic, Hitler’s Pope (1999). At this stage of the controversy, if recent publications are indicative, it is clear that the debate on Pius will not end quickly. This work by Ronald J. Rychlak, a professor at the University of Mississippi Law School, is one of the most solid presentations published by a scholar since Michael O’Carroll’s study on Pope Pius XII twenty years ago.

Rychlak, of course, is no stranger to the controversy surrounding Pope Pius XII. (In the Oct. 1998 issue of the NOR, he wrote a challenging piece, “Why Pope Pius XII Was Right,” which readers may recall.) Approaching his study as a lawyer and a historian, his primary concern is to employ objective evidence as the fundamental criterion in dealing with the issues relating to his subject. Whether or not readers ultimately agree with Rychlak’s conclusions, the book is clearly a carefully crafted historical analysis of the controversy. Unlike Cornwell, Rychlak delves into sources favorable and unfavorable to Pius XII. Thus, he establishes his credibility as a historian by gathering and evaluating all the available sources before presenting his own version of what actually happened.

The book begins with a Foreword by the late John Cardinal O’Connor of New York, who offers a strong defense of Pius XII, and concludes with an epilogue on Cornwell’s recent diatribe against the Pope. Rychlak sets up a chronological analysis of the papacy of Pius XII and comes to grips with the basic questions that have been raised, especially over the past generation, regarding the Pope’s place in history. In doing so, the author integrates significant primary sources, including the works published by the Holy See, and authoritative secondary sources, including works by Jewish historians Pinchas Lapide and Jeno Levai, in addition to Catholic historians such as Pierre Blet, Robert Graham, and Margherita Marchione. What is particularly enriching about Rychlak’s study, when compared to Cornwell’s book with its 25 pages of notes, is that it contains more than 170 pages numbering in excess of 2,000 endnotes. In this respect, then, Rychlak’s is a very serious, systematic, scholarly study in contrast to what the English journalist Cornwell has produced.

“To evaluate properly his performance,” Rychlak writes of Pius XII, “one must begin by looking at all the evidence in context.” To this end, 18 chapters concentrate on the background of Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, and the world into which he was born during the 19th century. The author then shows the relationship of this papal diplomat to the Vatican, and of this state to the world powers in the 20th century. Such chapters help the reader understand the complexity of the problems that confronted Pacelli during his papacy, especially during the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Unlike many historians who have studied the period, Rychlak does not lose sight of the struggle for survival in which the Church was engaged against the Nazis, who were bent on wiping out Christianity itself. In this way, the author gives a balanced presentation of what the Church under Pius was able — and unable — to do in confronting Hitler’s reign of terror. While Rychlak’s statistics on what the Church suffered during the war might differ, documents show that some 4,000 priests were killed by the Nazis, including at least 850 Poles at Dachau, about 780 from various nations at Mauthausen, not to mention another 120 shot in France. At the same time, one cannot overlook the more than 230 women religious who were murdered and many more who were imprisoned in concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, including almost 400 nuns at Bajanowo. And all this does not include the Nazi harassment of the Catholic clergy, laity, and religious as well as the closing of Catholic schools before World War II, violations which occasioned the rebuke of Pope Pius XI in Mit Brennender Sorge (March 14, 1937), an encyclical composed under the direction of Pacelli as Papal Secretary of State.

With such an appreciation of the depth and breadth of the struggle between Catholicism and Nazism, which included the destruction of churches, convents, and schools during the war, Rychlak confronts the major issues that relate to Pope Pius XII. On the one hand, he shows that Pius (1) was not anti-Semitic, (2) was not a blind anti-Communist, (3) was not a creature in the hands of Hitler, (4) was not an appeaser in the pursuit of peace, and (5) was not afraid to risk his life for the Church. On the other hand, the author establishes that the Pope (1) was knowledgeable of the Final Solution during the war, (2) was wise to avoid issuing a public condemnation of the persecution of the Jews, (3) was convinced that the best way to help the Jews was to avoid a public display of his actions, (4) was more helpful than any other international agency, person, or state in helping the Jews during the Holocaust, and (5) was correct in not excommunicating the Nazi leader.

What is truly illuminating about Rychlak’s study is that he focuses on the significance (in a section he calls “The Real Answer”) of the Pope’s first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus (October 20, 1939), and how it told the world about the papal plan of action during the war. In particular, with respect to the Jews, his paragraphs dealing with race (nos. 45 to 50) show that the Church is open to all nationalities and races according to the teachings of the New Testament, as expressed by St. Paul himself (Col. 3:10,11). In light of the controversy over the “lost” encyclical on anti-Semitism, which Jesuits such as John LaFarge and his European colleagues had drafted for Pope Pius XI, readers may be surprised to learn that Pius XII actually integrated parts of that draft into his own first encyclical, excluding, understandably, its racist and anti-Semitic statements that characterized the position of many Catholics at that time. In this way, the Pope was demonstrating the Vatican’s regard not only for those who were Catholic but also for those who were not. In fact, a closer reading of the encyclical reveals that, contrary to Pacelli’s detractors, Pius was very concerned with the way in which both the Communists and the Nazis had carved up Poland (nos. 101-106). And, with respect to the Nazi leader himself, to use Rychlak’s own words about Summi Pontificatus, “This encyclical shows that Pius XII did not waiver in his approach to Hitler and the Nazis.”

Despite the Pope’s critics, it is clear that the Nazis did not think that the Pope was silent about the fate of the Jews. Even though Pius avoided an explicit public condemnation of their actions, they got the message of his implicit condemnation when the Pope spoke in defense of those who were being persecuted because of their race or nationality in his 1941 and 1942 messages at Christmas. Even the priests imprisoned at Dachau felt the reprisals for the Pope’s words in more severe treatment at the hands of SS agents in the concentration camp. No less a witness that Bishop Jean Bernard of Luxembourg, a prisoner at Dachau, gave such testimony in his personal memoir of those years. If Cornwell’s book makes Pacelli out to be a pawn in the hands of Hitler, Rychlak’s analysis of the evidence and its relationship to the issues raised by the controversy over Pope Pius XII finds no basis for such an interpretation.

In fact, to strengthen his own study of Pius XII, Rychlak brings Cornwell’s work under close scrutiny and demonstrates conclusively that its author is totally lacking in credibility. “To reach his conclusions,” he states, “Cornwell disregards much recent scholarship and provides quirky interpretations of well-known facts.” While Rychlak carefully demonstrates the various ways in which Hitler’s Pope has not proven its case against Pius XII, he uses his skill as a professor of law to expose the many shortcomings of Cornwell’s alleged research into the many pages available from the transcripts in the Vatican office of Fr. Peter Gumpel, S.J., the deputy postulator in the cause of Pius XII. Thus, with a chart in his concluding chapter, Rychlak shows how Cornwell’s allegation of “explosively critical material” is a distorted reading of Vatican depositions about Pacelli and how these transcripts are objectively quite contrary to the picture of Pius XII that one finds in Hitler’s Pope.

Consequently, with his legal expertise, Rychlak has proved to be a formidable historian by skillfully refuting those who have gained headlines by attacking Pius XII without solid evidence. The style of Rychlak’s book might seem too polemical for some readers, but they need to remember the explosive nature of the controversy and the seriousness of the issues that have surrounded Pius XII during these last forty years. Anyone who reads Hitler, the War, and the Pope will find that it moves along swiftly without the distraction of footnotes; instead, the reader may refer to the endnotes at the back of the book.

Certainly Rychlak’s study can be regarded as one of a handful of essential studies on the role of Pius XII during the Second World War. If Lapide was able to show that the Pope saved from 700,000 to 860,000 Jews, Rychlak must be recognized for providing solid evidence from Jewish and non-Jewish sources contemporaneous with the Second World War, in addition to those published afterwards, acknowledging the efforts by the Church under Pius XII to help persecuted Jews. Therefore, Rychlak’s study should help to defuse the uproar which has intensified during the past year over Pius XII and the Holocaust and to introduce more reason than emotion into the discussion of the major issues of his papacy and the cause for his beatification.

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