Reasonable Reads: “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy” by José M. Sánchez

The first two installments in our “Reasonable Reads” series featured reviews by Chris of works of fiction, neither of which he particularly enjoyed. It seemed about time to shake things up a bit, namely by having (a) me take a look at some (b) nonfiction that (c) I would actually end up recommending to you as something worth reading. On that note, I hereby offer up my thoughts on Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy by José M. Sánchez, a masterfully nuanced and methodical look at one of the greatest controversies in twentieth century world history.

I realized as I stumbled upon Pius XII in the religion section of my local library that I really didn’t know much about the fraught question of the papacy’s attitude toward Nazism during the Second World War beyond the fact that there was a question and that it was fraught. I remember hearing criticism of Pius in the wake of Benedict XVI’s decision to move him one step closer to being declared a saint in December of 2009. I suppose that at the time I had meant to do some digging and develop a more informed opinion, but somehow I never got around to it. When I came across Sánchez’s book and was reminded that I still knew very little about an episode that clearly elicits strong views to this day, I decided that it would worth it to finally bring myself up to speed.

Of course, one worries going into any book that purports to be a primer on a contentious topic that it will fail to present the facts of the matter as objectively as possible and instead serve to advance one particular reading at the expense of other plausible interpretations. Any work of history will necessarily have to emphasize certain events and deal less extensively with others, but the likelihood that it is actually partisan propaganda masquerading as neutral scholarship is directly related to the volume and intensity of the public debate surrounding its subject matter. I was happy to discover that Sánchez, a professor of history at St. Louis University in Missouri, is not a shill for any particular camp and is in fact extremely even-handed in his analysis. While the writing is hardly scintillating and often ponderous, Pius XII lives up to its billing as a concise and accessible guide to “understanding the controversy.”

Sánchez starts off by tracing the development of that controversy:

[Pius, who served as pope from 1939 to 1958,] was universally praised by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as the spiritual leader not only of Catholics but of Western Civilization itself… Four years after his death, in the late winter of 1963, that image was tarnished by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who published his play, Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy)… Hochhuth created a sensation by charging Pope Pius with violating the moral charge of his high office by not speaking out publicly and forcefully in defense of the Jews against the Nazi machine of destruction in World War II. (Sánchez, 1-2)

From there he moves to an overview of the available historical sources, an attempt to understand what and how much Pius knew about the Holocaust as it was unfolding, and a meticulous consideration of the various hypotheses that have been adduced as explanations for Pius’ behavior.

The issue of how informed the Pope was about what was really going on in Europe turns out to be central to Sánchez’ conclusions about how he ought to be judged by history. Ultimately, Sánchez maintains that Pius’ failure to offer an unequivocal public denunciation of the extermination of the European Jews was not rooted in anti-Semitism or sympathy for the agenda of Hitler and the Nazis, but rather than it was motivated by a desire to “not make things worse” and to prevent reprisals against Catholics (including Jewish converts) living in Germany or in territories occupied by the Germans.

To those who would reply that nothing could have been worse than the Holocaust, Sánchez notes that the gift of hindsight can easily blind us to the fact that the ultimate Nazi objective of slaughtering all the Jews in Europe was unknown to virtually everyone outside of Hitler’s inner circle until the end of the war. The Holocaust was the worst act of genocide in the history of the modern West, a crime against humanity utterly without precedent; who could blame those who failed to deduce that the persecution of some Jews was only a prelude to the mass murder of them all for not comprehending the Nazis’ horrific schemes sooner?

Did Pius know that these killings were simply the first step in the German plan to kill all the European Jews? To move from the fact of persecution, to the knowledge that they were killing many, to the belief that they were going to kill all is a big leap. It was not commonly believed by the Allied leaders, who with their espionage services were probably in a better position to know German aims. John Conway says that ‘it is possible to agree… that, like the majority of educated men in Western Europe, the Pope could not conceive of iniquity on such a scale, which was a failure of imagination, rather than of nerve.” (45)

Yet he does not argue that ignorance suffices to explain the lack of a strong public protest, nor does he excuse all of Pius’ actions during the war. (For example, he is sharply critical of Pius’ failure to denounce the campaign of forced conversion and ethnic cleansing directed against the Orthodox Serbs by the ostensibly Catholic government of Croatia under the fascist Ustasha, who we can only assume might have been actually cowed by a papal rebuke.) Instead, he contends that Pius’ personality and background as a Vatican diplomat led him to follow a path of (perhaps excessive) caution in his dealings with the Axis powers. He explains how Pius appears to have nurtured a hope throughout the war that the Vatican would eventually be called upon to mediate the conflict, and that he evidently held fast to this belief in the face of mounting evidence that there was in fact no chance whatsoever that a diplomatic solution was possible:

All historians agree that Pius wanted to mediate the war and therefore was less critical of the Germans than he should have been… Michael Marrus says that as time went on, Pius “clung to the wreckage of his prewar policy” of diplomatic mediation even when it no longer had a chance of success… It should, however, be pointed out that Pius did not consider his policy one of indifference to the warring powers. He told Cardinal Faulhaber that his attitude was not one of neutrality, which he said was ‘passive indifference,’ but rather one of impartiality, ‘which judges according to truth and justice.’ This is a subtle distinction that gets lost in the great moral issues of World War II. (111-112)

A subtle distinction indeed – one that reminds me of my own effort to draw a subtle distinction between “centrism” and “moderation.” It seems that Pius was on to something here, at least in a philosophical sense. Yet it is clear that this stance was impractical, not least of all because of the fact that neither side was interested in seeking the Pope’s mediation. When the deadliest war in human history is raging all around you, isn’t it at least possible that trying to stay completely out of it will be seen as an act of cowardice? Even if you are not actually a coward?

Just as I’ve argued that the pursuit of moderation necessarily involves negotiating the tension between the need to appear open-minded and willing to engage with anyone and the reality of having to sometimes admit that one side is right and the other wrong, the pursuit of “truth and justice” during World War II presented Pius with a moral dilemma that was simply too much for him to handle.

Since we can never know what might have come to pass had someone other than Pius occupied the Chair of Peter during the Holocaust, we can never really know whether his silence was due primarily to his own introspective and deliberative nature, or to situational factors that would have backed even the most resolute and decisive pontiff into the same unfortunate corner. Sánchez writes that

[the] dilemma was compounded by the geographical existence of the Vatican in Fascist Italy. In the Lateran Accords that ended the Roman Question and provided for mutual recognition between the Italian state and the Holy See, the Holy See promised to maintain neutrality in conflicts between states, at the same time reserving to itself the prerogative to speak out on moral questions – another dilemma in itself. (38)

While it might seem self-evident that these objectives are bound to come into conflict in the course of almost any armed dispute, Sánchez observes elsewhere that World War II was, again, completely unlike the wars that had come before it. This was not a struggle over competing territorial claims or political legitimacy: it was a cosmic clash of good and evil. The diplomatic protocols that Pius had internalized over his long career as a papal ambassador were now moot. If even a man who had decades of political experience couldn’t get it right, why should we assume that someone else would have done any better?

I thought about Pius as I read news reports of the current Pope’s condemnation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and by all governments. How would Francis have acted if he were the leader of the Church during the Holocaust? Or perhaps the more tantalizing question is: would Pius have denounced the Assad regime if he were leading the Church today? The questions raised by Pius XII and the Holocaust are ones that are highly relevant in our own time, and in fact may never cease to be relevant.

Sánchez is a scrupulous historian who is consistently aware of the limitations of his project, and his work is thought-provoking and carefully researched. The sole weakness of the book – or perhaps some may see it as yet another strength – is its almost mechanical prose, which repeatedly crosses the line from clear and systematic argument into what seems like the dry recitation of a bulleted outline. The chapter entitled “Vatican Diplomacy Has Always Been Cautious” begins by reporting how “Pius’ defenders [argue] that he was simply following papal tradition in exercising a cautious diplomatic policy…” The one called “A Crisis of Conscience for German Catholics” opens by saying that “[o]ne of the strongest arguments critics have made is that Pius did not protest against the Nazi terror because such a protest would have caused a crisis of conscience for German Catholics…” The first sentence of “Pius Wanted to Serve as Mediator in the War”? “From the time of the loss of the Papal States in 1871, the papacy attempted to play a role in mediating conflicts between states.” In summarizing his judgments about the various possible explanations for Pius’ failure to explicitly denounce the killing of the Jews, Sánchez begins three paragraphs with the formulation, “Argument X does/does not appear to have substance.” I certainly learned a lot from this book, but I felt at times as if I were reading a study guide for an AP Twentieth Century Vatican History exam.

That said, I suppose it’s only natural for authors trying to bring civility and levelheadedness to an otherwise combustible controversy to err on the side of pedantry, and I certainly don’t think it would be fair to dismiss the book on those grounds alone. Pius XII and the Holocaust is in fact an exemplar of the very notion of reasonable read. It deservedly becomes our first enthusiastic recommendation.

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2 thoughts on “Reasonable Reads: “Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy” by José M. Sánchez

  1. Many authors have written about the role played by Pius XII during World War II. Some of those writers believe Pius should be a saint because of the good that he did during the war, others believe he was a coward for not standing up more forcefully and directly to Hitler, and others believe he was anti-semitic. Before being called back to the Vatican to serve as the secretary of state prior to becoming Pope, Pius served for many years as a diplomat in Germany. Some believe that the affection he developed for Germany, its people, and its culture had an impact on the way he responded to the atrocities committed by the Germans.

    There is one incident in particular that comes to mind, and that was in October 1943 when the Nazis rounded up more than a thousand Jews residing in Rome, loaded them onto trains virtually within view of the Vatican, and shipped them off to Auschwitz. There is evidence that Pius had contemporaneous knowledge that it was occurring. Could he have stopped it? What if he, dressed in his white garments, had stood in front of the train? Seems unlikely and even impossibly foolish, doesn’t it? Maybe. But can you imagine John XXIII doing it? Or John Paul II? Or Francis?

    • This episode is actually described and discussed in the book. It evidently features as the main event in “The Deputy,” and so there’s a sense in which it lies at the center of the entire controversy. It’s certainly interesting to ponder how Francis might have reacted had he been Pope when it happened!

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