St. Louis’s statue of Pius XII: A double-standard

When we take a principled stand against a connection to racism, we should take just as principled a stand against a representation of anti-Semitism
Pope Pius XII, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, reigned from March 1939 until his death in 1958. (Courtesy of PerlePress Productions))
Pope Pius XII, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, reigned from March 1939 until his death in 1958. (Courtesy of PerlePress Productions))

Over the past several days, the campaign to rid the city of St. Louis of the statue of its namesake (Louis IX, King of France, 1226-70) has gathered steam. Louis IX was honored with sainthood not only in recognition of his crusades against Muslims, but for ordering the confiscation and public burning of 12,000 copies of the Talmud in 1242. To the Church, the Talmud was “the root of Jewish evil,” which undermined Christianity’s interpretations of passages in the Torah. William of Chartres observed of Louis IX, “Jews he hated so much that he could not bear to look on them.” By removing his statue, Jews will no longer have “to look on” him.

But the campaign to topple the statue of St. Louis has overlooked the city’s statue to another renowned anti-Semite, Pope Pius XII (1939-58), seated grandly before the Pius XII Memorial Library of St. Louis University, a Jesuit school. The conjunction of statue and library is jarring because it was he, as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, secretary of state to his predecessor Pius XI, who said nothing when Nazis burned “Jewish and other non-German books” all across Germany, in May 1933. Indeed, it was Pacelli who played the central role in drawing up the 1933 Concordat with the Hitler regime, which, according to his biographer John Cornwell, left the Nazis “free to resolve the Jewish question” and “helped seal the fate of Europe,” by guaranteeing the Church’s nonintervention. Nor did Pacelli, now Pius XII, protest in October 1943, when the German SS rounded up Jews in the former ghetto of Rome, loaded them in freight cars, and shipped them from the railway station to Auschwitz — where Nazis were burning Jews, not Jewish books. In March 2020, the Vatican finally opened its archives, revealing that, in 1942, the pope was able to confirm, from his own sources, the mass murder and massacres of Europe’s Jews — and, exactly 700 years after the burning of the Talmud under the orders of Louis IX, Pius XII chose not to reveal what he knew.

The statue depicts Pius XII blessing the faithful. Clearly, one should not place a blindfold on the image, because he recognized the evil, but one could attach a gag — conveying his refusal to speak about it. Or one could add a backdrop of the infamous sign, “Arbeit Macht Frei” — as he looks the other way.

To be sure, St. Louis University is a private school. But Yale has erased the name of John C. Calhoun, an apologist for slavery, from a residential college, and Princeton is expunging the name of Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school, “due to [his] racist thinking.” Surely, St. Louis University should do as much.

In 2000, a group of colleagues and I confronted some of these issues when our professional association, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), suddenly decided to move its annual meeting from the Adam’s Mark Hotel in St. Louis, where it was scheduled to be held, to St. Louis University, even at the risk of a loss of $625,000 for breach of contract — and even though the website of the new venue featured only the Pius XII statue and the library memorializing him — the heart-and-soul of the school.  In choosing to change the site of the meeting, the leadership was responding to a threatened boycott against the hotel, organized by Jeffrey Sammons, an African American historian, who was not a member of the OAH, but was slated to speak on a panel.

The boycotters were acting in support of a lawsuit filed by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) against the Adam’s Mark Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, charging it with discriminating against black college students. As the result of what the Daytona Beach hotel claimed was students’ destructive acts at the 1999 Black College Reunion there, it was now allegedly requiring participants to wear identifying wristbands, charging them more, etc. Donald Spivey, another leader of the OAH boycott, explained, “I’m African American. Do you really think that I should step foot into an Adam’s Mark Hotel, knowing what I know?” Another African American historian added, “If you don’t break the contract, then you’re basically sleeping with racists.” Justifying the move, David Montgomery, OAH president, stated: “We cannot conduct serious historical work if the setting is not conducive to bringing all historians together.”

In response, I drew up and sent the OAH leadership a “Statement of Concerns,” signed by several colleagues, which characterized the new site as an “unfortunate, … exclusionary choice.” In deciding to relocate, the leadership argued that “All OAH members must be able to participate fully and freely in its conventions.” Yet they had elected to move, in effect, from the Adam’s Mark to the Pius XIIth. We conveyed our discomfort that in order to participate in the meeting, we would now have to “speak beneath the crucifix”—featured in every room—which, “for 2,000 years … has been inextricably tied to the Church’s deicide libel against the Jews.” We added that “we cannot imagine the OAH holding sessions in rooms adorned with [the Confederate] flag.” Indeed, while some scholars refused to attend any meeting held anywhere in South Carolina, whose capitol flew the Confederate flag, Sammons and Spivey would not take planes “that so much as stop” in the state.

Another African American boycotter of the OAH convention at the Adam’s Mark remarked, “Meeting sites are inherently political.” And Sammons observed, “It would be absolutely hypocritical to take an intellectual position [in one’s scholarship] and to go against it in practice.” Agreed — and that is why, my colleagues and I explained, we opposed moving the meeting to a university whose “core institution … is dedicated to the memory of Pius XII.” We pointed out that “as recently as five months ago, the Church was still aggressively promoting [his] canonization … and the whitewashing of his record during the Holocaust.” Only two years before, the Vatican had issued “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah,” which, the eminent Israeli historian Robert Wistrich was “shocked” to find, characterized Pius XII only “as an active opponent of Nazi antisemitism,” and depicted “the Catholic hierarchy, from the Holy See on down, answer[ing] the Nazi war against the Jews with principled and consistent opposition.”

Although our statement elicited considerable correspondence between the leadership and us, they would not take any steps toward addressing our needs. Their position was only that they “feel extremely grateful to the university;” that it “share[s] our commitment to racial justice … is decisive.” That was all that mattered. The executive director, evading our argument, simply noted, “We [the leadership] didn’t see religious imagery as an obstacle to holding the annual meeting” at St. Louis University. And taking a position, startling for a historian, David Montgomery, the president, wrote to me that he “see[s] no profit in cataloguing the historic sins of those churches.” Sammons, who led the boycott to move the meeting out of the Adam’s Mark, merely wrote a letter to Montgomery congratulating him — he and his group were “proud of the manner in which the OAH has responded.” By contrast, we were not so proud. It appeared to us that a double-standard was alive-and-well, and indifference to anti-Semitism persisted. Hopefully, by challenging the statue celebrating Pius XII, we can show this is no longer the case.

About the Author
Dr. Eunice G. Pollack is the author of 'Racializing Antisemitism: Black Militants, Jews, and Israel, 1950 to the Present' and coeditor (with Stephen H. Norwood) of the two-volume 'Encyclopedia of American Jewish History.'
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