September 14, 1999
book, Hitlers Pope, by John Cornwell, just
published by Viking and excerpted in Vanity Fair, renews the
old charge that Pope Pius XII was anti-Semitic and did little or nothing to
save Jews from Adolf Hitler during World War II. Mr. Cornwell, a Catholic,
says he started out to defend Pius from the charge, gained access to
Vatican archives, and says what he found there changed his mind, leaving
him in a state of moral shock.
Mr. Cornwell contends that Pius, born
Eugenio Pacelli, wanted to strengthen the papacy against democratizing
forces within the Catholic Church. So he cut deals with Hitler and
undermined the strong German Catholic opposition to National Socialism.
Obsessed with Communism, he ignored the plight of the Jews, for whom he
had a lifelong contempt. He thought they deserved their dark
In a key sentence, Mr. Cornwell himself
mischievously inserts the word deserved; Pius, he tacitly
admits, did not use it. Citing a 1938 Vatican document, he writes:
And now, blinded by their dream of worldly gain and
material success, they [the Jews] deserved the worldly and
spiritual ruin that they had brought down upon
So Mr. Cornwell is paraphrasing a Vatican
paper, apparently a draft of a papal encyclical that was never issued. Pius
himself didnt even write the document, but Mr. Cornwell artfully
imputes anti-Semitism to it, then infers that this reflects Piuss
personal attitude. What scholarship! By such methods you can prove
anything you like.
Mr. Cornwell also leans heavily on a
single unflattering sentence Pius wrote in 1919 (20 years before he
became Pope), describing a Russian Jewish Communist he saw in Germany:
Pale, dirty, with vacant eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar, repulsive, with
a face that is both intelligent and sly. To Mr. Cornwell, this
somehow proves that Pius felt a suspicion of and contempt for the
Jews ... a scorn and revulsion consistent with anti-Semitism. If
you find one Jew repulsive, you must be willing to see all
Jews persecuted, right?
It gives a Catholic no satisfaction
to accuse a Pope of acquiescing in the plans of Hitler, Mr. Cornwell
writes. Oh? On the contrary, it seems to give many Catholics satisfaction,
not to mention profit. Can you imagine a major New York publisher or
magazine welcoming a book in defense of Pius XII?
The charge has been refuted many times,
for those who care. But Piuss name has nevertheless remained the
target of unstinting slander, often by disaffected Catholics.
Father Pierre Blet, a French
priest-historian who knows the Vatican archives as well as any man alive, cites
case after case on which Mr. Cornwell has ignored the evidence of
Piuss opposition to National Socialism (which he called
diabolical) and of his efforts to help Jewish refugees. He
notes that Nazi propaganda ... portrayed Pius XII as an enemy of
But we neednt rely only on the
archives. Piuss saintly life is attested by the most authoritative
character witness: Israel Zolli, chief rabbi of Rome during World War
Under the personal influence of Pius,
Zolli became a Catholic. Unlike many who converted in order to escape the
Germans, he deferred his formal conversion until after the war, not
wanting to abandon his people during their ordeal.
But when the war ended, Zolli and his
wife joined the Catholic Church, taking Eugenio
Piuss Christian name as their own baptismal name. As a
priest recently remarked to me, He must have seen Christ in
Converting to Catholicism is a difficult
step for a Jew, especially for one who holds a prominent position. And
Zolli paid for it: he was widely reviled as a traitor to the Jews. One
leading American rabbi even charged that he had been bribed to
Its inconceivable that Zolli would
have honored Pius by taking his name if he had thought that Pius was in
any way favorable to Hitler. After the war, in fact, many leading Jews
praised Pius for his wartime protection and rescue efforts. One of them
was a future Israeli prime minister named Golda Meir.
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