Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust

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Pope Pius XII was head of the Roman Catholic world during the Second World War. His leadership during the Holocaust has been a particularly controversial topic. Like many people in history, the legacy of Pius XII is complex.

Some critics have called Pius XII “Hitler’s pope.” They claim he and his advisors knew about the Holocaust and did little to stop it. Supporters say Pius XII did manage to save Jews at the risk of persecution of Catholics by the Nazis.

When Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, Pius XII was a prominent cardinal in the Church. That same year, Pius XII, as a cardinal, spearheaded an agreement between the Vatican and Nazi Germany. The essence of the document was to guarantee Catholic rights in Germany in exchange for non-interference in German politics by Catholic authorities.

This led to years of ambiguity in the relationship between the Nazis and the Vatican. It also paved the way for the collapse of  Catholic political opposition to the Nazis, in the form of the powerful German Catholic Center Party and labor unions.

Pius XII was elected as pope in  March 1939, just months before the outbreak of war. Historically, the Vatican’s policy had been to remain neutral during conflict. When the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Pius XII issued a statement decrying Polish suffering, but did not explicitly condemn the attack. Some historians argue that although Pius XII recognized Germany as the aggressor, he was trying to prevent attacks on Polish Catholics. Another theory is that the Pope was virulently anti-Communist and saw Nazi Germany as a bulwark against Soviet expansion.

Recently released archives suggest that Pius XII knew of the mass slaughter of Jews by the fall of 1942. However, the pontiff also claimed that the Vatican was unable to confirm the reports on Nazi murder to enquiring American officials. Vatican advisors downplayed the reports of atrocities, suggesting that the sources of the information were “Jews and Orientals” who could not be trusted because “they lie and exaggerate.” https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/researchers-find-evidence-pope-pius-xii-ignored-reports-holocaust-180974795/

In a radio message on Christmas Eve in 1942, Pius XII made a reference to hundreds of thousands of people doomed to death and extermination, based solely on their nationality or race. The speech was in Italian and did not explicitly mention Jews or Nazis. There is debate on what message the Pope was sending in his speech. https://www.timesofisrael.com/researchers-say-vatican-archives-show-pope-pius-xii-knew-of-wwii-killing-of-jews/

Thousands of Jews were hidden in local churches and monasteries in Italy and throughout Europe. Indeed, some Jews were hidden in the Vatican. This would have been difficult to do if Pius XII had expressly forbid it. Yet, on October 16, 1943, over 1,000 Jews were taken from the Jewish ghetto next to the Vatican, and then, without protest by the Vatican, deported to extermination camps. Only 16 survived.

Pius XII remained Pope until his death in 1958.

About the Author
Mark Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Canada. He has a degree in history and loves writing about the subject. Mark particularly enjoys Jewish history, as it encompasses a massive time span and many regions of the world.
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