Pius XII, the Vatican and the moral imperative to do good - Christmas 1942"


"Pius XII, the Vatican and the moral imperative
to do good - Christmas 1942".

Paper presented at the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research, 17-20 December 2012.


Why bother having a presentation on Pope Pius XII in a conference looking at the “big picture” of World War II and the Holocaust and, in particular, the end of 1942, judged as the beginning of the “turning” of the war?  The Vatican State was tiny, economically and militarily insignificant, and physically tied to Fascist Italy for all its utilities, access to road, train and air travel.  However, I argue that it was there that the Vatican’s insignificance ended.  For many of the approximately 600 million Catholics on the planet, the Vatican, or rather, the Pope mattered.  As the visible representative of Jesus Christ on earth, the Pope was the human face and voice to a religious tradition that extended back over nineteen centuries.   

Since the loss of the Papal States over the period 1860 to 1871, the moral stature of the Pope had risen considerably.  Throughout the war years an increasing number of governments and governments-in-exile sought representation with the Holy See.[1]  Their reasons may not have been spiritual, but all of them recognised the value of having a place at the Pope’s table and the impact this would have on their domestic and international policies.  Not even Hitler was prepared to break the Reichskonkordat before the “Final Victory” lest German Catholics be alienated from their general collaboration with the regime.

German, Austrian, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian and Italian Catholics prayed for Pius XII at Mass in the same way Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians, Dutch, French and Belgians did.  Catholics in the Philippines, Japan, French Indo-China, across the British Empire and in North America, South America and Africa also joined together in prayer for the one popularly known as “the Holy Father”. 

German soldiers on the Eastern Front went to field Masses celebrated by over 500 Wehrmacht chaplains, many using the prayer book supplied by the German bishops.[2]  Australian soldiers in New Guinea did exactly the same.  While the religious identity of Catholics under arms was secondary to their corporate identity as soldiers of their particular countries, there was a shared common identity as Catholics that bespoke a common language in the area of religious practice and core belief.  Of course, the practice of that core belief remains seriously problematical because of “conventional” military participation in atrocities and war crimes.

Within the camps, ghettoes, prisons and other killing centres of German-occupied Europe were thousands of Catholics – some religious, some non-religious.  It is important to note that the first European genocide of World War II was in Poland, directed against mostly non-Jewish Poles.  By war’s end about 2.5 million non-Jewish Poles were dead[3] – the vast majority of them Catholics.  Among this number were six bishops, 2,030 priests, 127 seminarians, 173 religious brothers and 243 religious sisters and nuns.[4]   KZ Dachau was designated the collection point for Catholic priests. Between 1940 and liberation in late-April 1945, about 2,600 priests and a small number of bishops, were incarcerated.  Most died.  Since the end of the war over 100 Catholics murdered by the Nazis were recognised as martyrs and have been canonized or beatified.  Among the most famous were Saints Maximillian Kolbe, Titus Brandsma, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein) and Blessed Bernard Lichtenberg.[5]

Finally, the overwhelming number of those recognised as “Righteous among the Nations” by Yad Vashem were Christians, the majority of whom were Catholics.[6]

None of the remarks made above seeks to denigrate or belittle the enormity of the Jewish tremendum of the Shoah.  What they are designed to do is to help outline some of the background to the history of the 1942 Christmas Address of Pope Pius XII.

What did the Pope know of the murder of European Jewry by 1942?

Nineteen forty-two was the turning point for the Jews of Europe. Since the outbreak of war in September 1939, the European Jews who found themselves under German domination joined the Jews of Germany and Austria as the primary victims of Nazi violence. Dispossessed, despoiled, and deported, walled up in ghettos, stripped of all legal protection, persecuted at whim and exploited as expendable slave labour; the Jews lived in a terrifying and murderous isolation from the rest of humanity. No other victim group of the Nazis was as isolated and vulnerable as the Jews and no other group had been systematically slaughtered for simply being alive.

José Maria Sanchez observed that the memory of atrocity propaganda in the 1914–1918 war made many people skeptical of rumors of German killing. Stories of men, women, and children being herded to their deaths were simply too fantastic to believe.[7] The papal secretary of state, Luigi Maglione, told the American envoy, Harold Tittmann, in October 1942 that
reports of severe measures taken against non-Aryans have also reached the Holy See from other sources but that up to the present time it has not been possible to verify the accuracy thereof. However, the statement adds it is well known that the Holy See is taking advantage of every opportunity offered in order to mitigate the suffering of non-Aryans.[8]
I believe it is possible to read Maglione’s comment as a general, nonspecific, awareness of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.

This raises another issue. Maglione’s possible skepticism could also have been due to the erratic nature of wartime postal services, diplomatic and otherwise. A cursory glance at the documents recorded in Actes et Documents demonstrates something of the volume of mail that arrived in Rome throughout the war. A further examination reveals that information often arrived in piecemeal fashion at different times from different places. Information dispatched from occupied countries could take months to reach the Vatican, if it reached it at all. The Allied blockade of Europe, the constant threat of spies intercepting messages, the fragility of diplomatic pouches and the constant disruption caused by the war impeded communications to the extent that letters, always written in neutral and guarded language, took long and circuitous routes to reach the addressee.[9]  Nonetheless information from across the continent was reaching Rome with a high degree of consistency and accuracy.

Actes et Documents also reveals considerable activity on the part of papal diplomats such as Angelo Roncalli in Istanbul, Angelo Rotta in Budapest, Giuseppe Burzio in Slovakia, and many others who relayed information to Rome in ever-more graphic dispatches.

There was also a popular and enduring myth that the Vatican had a vast network of informants who passed information to the pope. In fact the pope relied on the translation of BBC broadcasts made by the British minister, D’Arcy Osborne, to get the most up-to-date reports on the war. Even so, Pius, along with many others in the Vatican, read the reports with the same degree of skepticism as they read the Axis press.[10] What is clear however is that the nature of reports grew steadily worse as the war dragged on. It was the near impossible task of independent verification that slowed the curial responses as well as a terrible mental inability to believe that such things were possible.  However, this does beg the question as to how long this “inability” could last in the face of the deluge of similar stories emerging “from the East”.

Pope Pius XII was not alone in finding reports of organized mass killing hard to believe. The war that was being waged across the Continent was beyond anything Pacelli could bring himself to imagine. Again, he was not alone in this regard. The pope had no army and no power to enforce his will beyond appeals to the Tradition of the Catholic Church and the belief embraced by millions that he was the visible head of the Church on earth. Beside this was the element of unbelief that the mass murder of Europe’s Jews was indeed state-sponsored policy. Most Italians, including the educated classes, had little understanding of, and even less sympathy for, anti-Semitism, especially the German variety. Consequently, there was great skepticism over the true nature of the “Jewish Question” or the “Final Solution.” This was also true for many within the Vatican advising the pope on appropriate action.

Pius, by now familiar with stories of German savagery, also knew of the genocidal activities occurring in Catholic Croatia against Orthodox Serbs and Yugoslavian Jews.[11]  Michael Phayer contends that Pius was anxious not to impugn the new Croatian state with accusations of mass murder, and risk alienating a Catholic state. The Vatican entrusted the issue of dealing with the regime’s murderous policies to the young Alojzije Stepinac, archbishop of Zagreb who protested long and loud against the slaughters of both Orthodox Christians and Jews.[12]  It appears that Rome was prepared to believe that the outrages of the Ustaše were an aberration of Ante Pavelic’s new state. Pius knew of the killings and knew that Catholic priests and some members of religious orders were involved. The pope’s representative in Croatia, Abbot Giuseppe Marcone, had written to Maglione in July 1942 describing how difficult it was to get information about the Jews in Croatia. He added that the Germans were applying pressure on the Pavelic regime to deport the Jews into Germany. Marcone claimed that two million Jews had been deported and killed already.[13]

Rome also had some idea of the extent of the euthanasia program operating in Germany. Pius, according to the German Ambassador to the Holy See, Diego von Bergen, had asked for masses to be celebrated for those “inmates of insane asylums and homes for the aged in Germany [who] have been eliminated by being put to sleep or by restriction of food rations.”[14]

By June 1941 at the latest, Rome knew for certain that Europe’s Jews were being herded into ghettos and concentration camps, forced to perform backbreaking labor, and deprived of most of the basic amenities needed for subsistence living. In fact the Vatican had, by June 1941, nearly as clear a picture of the scope of killing as the British and Americans. Details may have been accented or nuanced differently, but the substance of the reports bore an alarming similarity. Of course, it was impossible for Pius to compare notes with Churchill or Roosevelt, but it did suggest that the news that Osborne and Taylor[i] brought to the Holy See was not unfamiliar. From an ever-widening range of sources, including the well-informed Polish minister, Kazimierz Papee,[15] news of increased anti-Jewish persecution, new racial laws and the suspension of negotiations for Brazilian visas was reported to Rome, along with the appeals for help in lifting the Allied blockade around Greece in order to let food ships reach Piraeus and Patras.[16]

It was not only news of mass murder “in the East” that reached the Vatican. Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna wrote to the pope and Maglione in February 1941 telling them that the Reich government had changed its policy of enforced migration to one of wholesale deportation to Poland without regard to age or religion.[17]  Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania enacted more repressive anti-Jewish legislation, all of which was reported to Rome, along with news of more deportations, subhuman living conditions in transit camps, and incidents of brutality and inhuman repression.

The Church responses to the situation in Vichy France represented some of the most tortuous logic employed to avoid a blanket condemnation of the anti-Semitic measures legislated by the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, Xavier Vallat. Protests at anti-Jewish persecution, particularly when it involved baptized Jews, were sent to Rome, along with details about the appalling conditions of the transit camps and prisons. When anti-Jewish laws (Ayranization of Jewish property, racial definitions, arbitrary arrest and threats to “mixed” marriages) were enacted, protests from French Jews led Vallat and the Nuncio, Valerio Valeri, to refer the matter to Rome. In effect, Vallat wanted a Roman interpretation of the Vichy regime’s anti-Semitism. I doubt he would have bothered if he suspected the answer from the Vatican was other than the one he wanted. Rome’s response was a combination of traditional anti-Jewish theology and diplomatic jargon that avoided a head-on confrontation with the Vichy government:
In principle there is nothing in these measures which the Holy See would find to criticize. The Vatican considers that a state applying such rules is making legitimate use of its power, and that the spiritual power should not interfere in the internal policy of states in such matters. Moreover, the Church has never professed that the same rights should be accorded to all citizens or recognized as theirs.
The only “defense” of the Jews offered was a warning that any attempt to classify baptized Jews as Jews and not Christians would constitute a “contradiction between French law and the doctrine of the Church.”[18]  This was one time when a direct word from the pope could have had a significant impact on the fate of French Jews caught in Vichy France. Instead, a mangled and utterly inadequate pseudotheology was used to justify a blatantly discriminatory law.  All this paled in the face of the massive round-up of French and foreign Jews in the summer of 1942, news of which was relayed to Rome within days of each part of the aktion.[19]

What changed the trickle of news into a flood was the German invasion of Russia on 21 June 1941. Operation Barbarossa heralded a fundamental change in the Nazi approach to the “Jewish Question.” The mobile killing units—the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile gas vans, and the wholesale massacres carried out with the help of local anti-Semites—meant that knowledge of the extermination process was becoming more and more widespread. Much of that knowledge was piecemeal and could not be verified by independent agents, but a pattern emerged of deportation, concentration, and unparalleled brutality, including mass murder. Italian soldiers fighting with the Wehrmacht became occasional unexpected witnesses to Nazi killing of Jews, and, generally, found German behavior toward Russians, Jews, and Christians, abhorrent.[20]   Among the Italians were chaplains, one of whom, Pirro Scavizzi, wrote to Pius in May 1942 describing the situation of the Jews in the Ukraine—“nearly all dead”— and for the Jews of Poland and Germany—mass murder. While some of the details were more myth than fact, the substance of the letter was accurate. In an audience Scavizzi had with the pope, the priest wrote that Pius wept like a child as he listened to accounts from Russia.[21]

From Ukraine, the archbishop of Lwów, Andrezey Szeptyckyj, wrote to Pius on August 29, 1942. His letter typified the horror that many of the bishops of eastern Europe witnessed first-hand. Szeptyckyj had originally welcomed the Germans as liberators and had, with other Ukrainian dignitaries, written to Hitler in February pledging commitment to Ukrainian-German cooperation. At the same time, he wrote to Himmler deploring the anti-Jewish “actions” and the drafting of a Ukrainian militia to assist with the killing.

Szeptyckyj told the pope:
Today the whole country agrees that the German regime is evil, almost diabolical, and perhaps even more so than the Bolshevik regime. For at least a year no day has passed without the more horrible crimes being committed, assassinations, stealing, rapes, confiscations, and extortions. The Jews are the first victims, more than two hundred thousand of them having been killed in our small country.[22]
The outcome of the correspondence with Pius is unclear; certainly there was no public word from Rome.[23]  In November 1942, Szeptyckyj issued a pastoral letter condemning all forms of killing and the bloodlust that unrestrained murder can induce. Similar statements against wholesale murder were made in pastorals issued by the archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac, in July and October 1943. Again, there was no reaction from the Vatican that could offer either of these bishops as models of Catholic leadership.[24]

When lone episcopal protests were made, they were isolated and not taken seriously by the Germans. The united protest made by the Dutch bishops in July 1942 became the catalyst for the deportation of baptized Jews, including Edith and Rosa Stein.[25]  Protests made by French bishops, in particular Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège of Toulouse and Bishop Pierre Marie Theas of Montauban, infuriated the Vichy government and prompted Xavier Vallet to complain to the pope.[26]  The New York Times reported shortly after that Pius had written to Pétain indicating that he supported the actions of the French cardinals and bishops on behalf of the Jews. Unfortunately this letter is not contained within Actes et Documents.[27]  German reaction to the French bishops’ protests elicited a curious response from von Bergen in Rome. On August 18, 1942, he wrote to the Foreign Office in Berlin telling them to take no notice of protests from the nuncio or the French bishops. “No more far-reaching importance should be attached to this step than to other, similar steps which the Vatican has taken for humanitarian reasons in response to requests, no matter whence they came.”[28]

By mid-1942, the information was incontrovertible: Jews in German-occupied territory were facing a deadly future. But it was still far from clear whether the killing was intended to physically remove every Jew from the German sphere of influence. What was clear to Nuncio Orsenigo in Germany was that the Nazi government would listen to no appeal on behalf of Jews by the Church, no matter how senior the cleric might be.[29]

The position of the Nuncio in Berlin was curious. Orsenigo frequently complained to Montini and Maglione in Rome that it was near impossible to get any information on the fate of deportees. I find it difficult to believe that a man in close communication with the bishop of Berlin should be so out of touch with information already available to the German bishops. Margarete Sommer, head of the Hilfswerk beim Ordinariat Berlin (Special Relief Work of the Diocese of Berlin), had, with von Preysing’s knowledge, written a comprehensive memorandum on the situation of deported Jews, baptized or not. The report was composed on February 14, 1942, five months before Orsenigo’s letter to Montini in July 1942, where he claimed it was difficult to get news. Sommer gave explicit descriptions of the process of killing Jews. She named ghettos (Lodz, Riga, Kovno, and Minsk), methods of killing (machine-gunning of people lined up before open pits), and the manner of death of many believers (Jews reciting psalms and Catholics praying the Rosary and kissing the crucifix).[ii] In a letter to the pope written in June 1942, Archbishop Gröber described scenes parallel to those mentioned by Sommer. It would appear that information was at hand if one was willing to see it.[30]

The two instances where Vatican intervention was vigorous were in Italy and Slovakia. Italian reluctance to obey their German allies and surrender Jews living under Italian administration found a ready response in the Vatican, which exerted pressure on Mussolini.[31]  Il Duce did not pursue the matter and Italian military personnel mostly ignored and often subverted German attempts to deport Jews who were often helped to safety to the Italian zones in southern France, Slovenia, Dalmatia, and Greece.[32]  Slovakia was different. Its head of state was a Catholic priest, Josef Tiso. When the Slovakian parliament passed anti-Jewish laws in September 1941, the papal chargé d’affaires, Monsignor Giuseppe Burzio, was instructed to protest.[33]  Maglione summoned the Slovakian minister in Rome, Karel Sidor, and expressed his anger at the passing of the laws.[34]  The protest did nothing to stop preparations for deportations that were planned for March 1942. When Burzio reported to Rome that some 80,000 Slovakian Jews were to be sent to Poland he was instructed to go directly to Tiso and appeal to his priestly sentiments. The appeal came to nothing and the deportations went ahead. With mounting frustration, Burzio continued to report his efforts to halt the trains. He concluded his report by saying that the deportees sent to Poland “at the mercy of the Germans is equivalent to condemning a great part of them to death.” Maglione wrote on the telegram: “I do not know what steps to take to stop this madness! And the madness of these two: Tuka who acts, and Tiso—a priest!—who lets him do it!”[35]  His frustration was shared by Domenico Tardini, in the Secretariat of State, who wrote: “It is a great misfortune that the President of Slovakia is a priest. Everyone knows that the Holy See cannot bring Hitler to heel. But who will understand that we can not even control a priest?”[36]

In the Christmas address of 1941, Pius spoke with unaccustomed force to the enemies of the Church. While his language was his usual nonspecific form, the pope condemned the idea of total war and the violations of the natural and moral law that were binding on all humanity. The continuing persecution of the Catholic Church, despite all protests, was a source of great anxiety to the pope, who “in order to avoid even the appearance of being moved by partisanship . . . [had] maintained hitherto the greatest reserve.” For those hoping for a ringing denunciation of Nazi evil, the build-up led to a disappointing conclusion. Pius appealed to the Catholic people throughout the world to be wary of any confusion—the truth was only to be found within the Catholic Church. Only a return to true religion would safeguard the world. His blessing was imparted to all humanity, especially prisoners, deportees and “to the millions of wretched who, at every hour, must bear up under the gnawing pangs of hunger.”[37]  In the ensuing twelve months, the voices pleading with him to speak plainly and unambiguously on behalf of the victims of the war, and in particular the Jews, grew more insistent.

By November 1942, the pope had effectively the same information on the murder of Europe’s Jews as the Allied governments. The final pieces of information that unequivocally confirmed the industrialized killing process, and that became the catalyst for American and British actions, were telegrams from the American Legation in Berne to the U.S. secretary of state, Cordell Hull, in Washington. Howard Etling, the vice-consul, had been approached by Gerhardt Riegner, secretary of the World Jewish Congress based in Geneva. Riegner told Etling in great detail of the German extermination plans.[38]  Riegner had contacted the Swiss nuncio, Filippo Bernardini, in March with details from a number of sources outlining the deliberate extermination of the Jews. The memorandum prepared by Riegner, passed on to Rome by Bernardini, was not included in the published Actes et Documents, nor does it appear that it was acted on.[39]  What does appear throughout Actes et Documents is an increasing number of documents related to papal concerns to spare Rome from Allied bombing.[40] 

Riegner’s news came at the same time that both the American and British governments, in conjunction with a Brazilian initiative within the Vatican, were applying greater pressure on the Holy See to issue a clear condemnation of Nazi atrocities.  

On 3 August 1942 Harold Tittmann cabled the ambassador Leland Harrison in Switzerland with a message for the State Department.  After stating that he had “called attention to the opinion that the failure of the Holy See to protest publicly against Nazi atrocities is endangering its moral prestige and in undermining faith both in the church and in the Holy Father himself” Tittmann said he had been approached by the Brazilian ambassador to the Holy See, Hildebrando Pompeii Accioly with a proposal that the United States join in a “concerted (not collective but rather simultaneous) demarché to persuade the Pope to condemn publicly and in specific terms the Nazi atrocities in German-occupied areas.”[41]  It is important to note that apart from the British, no other statement made specific mention of Jews. 

Accioly indicated to Tittmann that notes had been sent to the representatives of the United Kingdom, Yugoslavia, Belgium, Poland and the countries of Latin America.  Tittmann was not confident such a move would move the pope, but he believed it was worth trying.  Washington agreed and authorized a formal note on 4 August.[42]  Notes from Poland, Belgium, Brazil, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Netherlands, the French National Committee, Yugoslavia, Norway, Uruguay, Peru and Cuba were duly presented to the Secretariat of State in mid-September.[43]

The Vatican response to the demarche was not altogether positive.  Tittmann wrote of divided opinions in the Vatican.  Pius believed he had already spoken clearly in defense of all victims of aggression.  Further, he believed that to speak using names and places would only serve to make things worse for the Jews, Poles and other persecuted people as well as lead to great resentment in Germany.[44]  In any case the pope believed he had been effective to some extent because the Germans understood exactly what he meant – German censorship of papal speeches was his proof of this.[45]

On 26 September, Myron Taylor delivered the most graphic report of the killing of the Jews to Cardinal Maglione. Contained within the memorandum were details of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, mass executions at specially prepared camps such as Belzek (sic), continuing deportations across Europe, and the belief that there were no Jews left alive in eastern Poland or occupied Russia and a very few left in Lithuania. Taylor asked: “I should like to know whether the Holy Father has any suggestions as to any practical manner in which the forces of civilized public opinion could be utilized in order to prevent a continuation of these barbarities.”[46]  Maglione’s reply was staggering: “I do not believe we have the information to confirm—in particular—this very serious note. Is it not like that?”[47]  It begs the question of just what did the cardinal think happened to the 80,000 Slovakian Jews deported to Germany and how much more information did he need to confirm the substance of Taylor’s report?

Two weeks later, Maglione communicated a formal reply to Taylor’s letter. The secretary of state could not have made the reply without at least the tacit approval of the pope. In his response, the cardinal said that “reports concerning severe measures taken against Non-Aryans” had reached the Holy See “from a number of different sources.” He did add that the Holy See was taking every possible action to help mitigate the sufferings of the non-Aryans.[48]  The comment of Harold Tittmann, chargé d’affaires, was blunt:
 I regret that [the] Holy See could not have been more helpful but it was evident from the attitude of the Cardinal that it has no practical suggestions to make. I think it is perhaps likely that the belief is held that there is little hope of checking Nazi barbarities by any method except that of physical force coming from without.[49]

Maglione’s virtual denial of atrocity evidence further pointed to the Vatican’s obsession with secrecy and caution, which mirrored the same refusal to exchange information that characterized relations with many of the bishops in Europe, including curial cardinals.[50]  Would his response have been any different if the victim group was not Jewish? I fear the answer would have been “no.” The pledges of humanitarianism made throughout the war by the pope and senior members of the Curia were beginning to look very thin.

The secretary of state was the servant of his master and acted according to the will of Pius XII. Did Pius really believe that he was being wise and astute in allowing the Americans and British, the only powers outside Europe able to actively influence the direction of the war, to believe that the Vatican did not know or believe the ever-growing number of reports of extermination, gas chambers, prussic acid, and mass graves?[51]  Was there a fear of communicating knowledge of any Vatican rescue activity to diplomats such as Osborne or Taylor lest it compromise individuals or agencies acting with papal authority and approval? Certainly Osborne kept pressing for a papal statement in defense of the Jews. In one exchange between Maglione and the British minister, less than a fortnight before the Christmas address of 1942, the cardinal commented:
After discussing concerns about bombing of civilian targets, Osborne asked ‘But why has the Holy See not intervened against the terrible massacre of the Jews?’ I replied that the Holy Father had in his messages already claimed for all humanity, without distinction of race or confession, the right to life, to a peaceful existence, and sufficient participation in the goods of the earth. He [Osborne] was unaware, I added, of how much the Holy Father had done and was doing to alleviate the suffering of the poor Jews. They send good wishes and thanks to the Holy See frequently for what the Holy See has done for them. The Minister insisted on this point: it is necessary for the Holy See to intervene for the massacring of the Jews to stop.[52]
I suggest that the pope was exercising his customary wariness and desire for total certainty while ensuring that nothing compromised the façade of his public neutrality and his private support for attempts to help and rescue. I also suggest that his course of action was unduly influenced by the fear that an outspoken word would compromise the faith and integrity of too many Catholics who were benefiting from the persecution of the Jews either as active participants or bystanders. If this was the case, I must judge Pius’ strategy a diplomatic and pastoral disaster of unprecedented proportions. In many ways, this dilemma represents the greatest argument for the speedy opening of the Vatican archives relevant to Pacelli’s papacy.

I have hedged my bets because I believe there is simply insufficient documentation to reach a satisfactory conclusion. While I agree with Phayer that the evidence before the Vatican was substantial enough to warrant a clear condemnation of Nazi atrocities by October–November 1942 at the latest, I differ on areas of responsibility. Historians simply do not know at this point what role Pius had in the formulation of Maglione’s reply to Osborne, or to the Americans, Taylor and Tittmann. In any case, the erosion of the pope’s moral authority and credibility was growing worse. Phayer offers a cogent argument for suggesting the charge of “renunciation of moral leadership” finally pushed Pius into playing “catch-up” with the United Nations in condemning the extermination of European Jewry.[53]

December 1942: The Christmas Address

From the end of October, the war news began to change. Stalingrad was holding out against the Wehrmacht; the British had taken El Alamein; the Allied forces had landed in North Africa; the threat of Allied bombs falling on Italian cities had grown, and, significantly, the “Nazi war on Jews” was given substantial press.[54]  However, the reality was still grim.  Martin Gilbert’s summary of the situation at the end of the year is worth considering.
The Axis powers were in retreat in Libya, on Guadalcanal and New Guinea, and at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus.  Partisan activity, though savagely suppressed, was also proving more and more effective.  Yet at the same time, as well as maintaining its position in Tunisia, the Axis were still in full control of vast expanses of territory, and of hundreds of millions of captive people throughout Europe and Asia.[55]
Osborne kept passing BBC reports to Pius in the hope that Pius would say something in the Christmas address. The Allied governments had agreed to a joint declaration on behalf of the Jews. Amid much suggestion and countersuggestion between London, Washington, and Moscow, a statement was hammered out. It was released in the three capitals on 17 December 1942.[56]

Despite Osborne and Tittmann’s persistent urging Pius XII declined every request to endorse the Joint Declaration.

Osborne was only able to hand a copy to Maglione on 29 December, although the details of the communiqué were known before Christmas. The British minister conveyed the hope of His Majesty’s government that “the Pope might endorse the Declaration in a public statement.” Failing that, the British government asked the pope to use his influence “either by means of a public statement or action through the German Bishops, to encourage German Christians, and particularly German Catholics, to do all in their power to restrain these excesses.”[57]  Maglione replied that the Holy See could not publicly mention particular atrocities, but only atrocities in general; privately it “had done everything possible.”[58]

Pius XII broadcast his Christmas address on the eve of the feast. His words were transmitted by Vatican Radio across the globe. It was a long speech – 5000 words that took 45 minutes to read – reported in full in the New York Times on Christmas day. The pope addressed his text to “My dear children of the whole world,” telling them that “the Church would be untrue to herself, ceasing to be a mother, if she turned a deaf ear to her children’s anguished cries, which reach her from every class of the human family.” This was a clear recognition of the new level of “crimes against humanity” committed by warring parties. It was a general description, but one that covered the horrors now well known from Europe. This was also the first and clearest acknowledgement that the information concerning the Jewish tragedy passed on to Rome by nuncios and ambassadors had reached the pope.[59]  However, lest anyone be under the impression that the bishop of Rome was going to lend his aid to one side over another, Pius stated very concisely that the Church “does not intend to take sides for any of the particular forms in which the several peoples and States strive to solve the gigantic problems of domestic order or international collaboration, as long as these forms conform to the Law of God.” To the astute listener—the German Foreign Office listened carefully to the broadcast—the phrase “conform to the Law of God” was a telling indictment of Nazism and communism.

Pius spoke of the Church’s responsibility to “proclaim to her sons and to the whole world the unchanging basic laws,” made all the more necessary because of the suffering of so many people known to the pope, who felt himself bound to them “by an immense desire to bring them every solace and help which is in any way at our command.”[60] He went on to denounce authoritarian systems of government that denied the dignity of the human person, “herding” them as “if they were a mass without a soul,” and called on all who desired peace and justice to find the truth that, “even in matters of this world . . . the deepest meaning, the ultimate moral basis and the universal validity of ‘reigning’ lies in ‘serving.’”[61]  Turning directly to the war, Pius proceeded to name “not a few who call themselves Christians” who “share in the collective responsibility for the growth of error and for the harm and the lack of moral fiber in the society of today.” All peoples of goodwill are called to work for the restoration of society so that it is brought back “to its centre of gravity, which is the law of God” and “service of the human person” through the “common life.” This was the vow owed by humanity to all who had died in the war, to mothers, widows, orphans, and exiles.

Toward the end of the address, the pope made his most explicit reference to the destruction of the Jews: “Mankind owes that vow to the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race [stirps], have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”[62]  It has been on this paragraph that much ink has been spilt. The pope was clear in his own mind that he referred to “Poles, Jews and hostages.”[63]

Editorials in Britain and America expressed a satisfaction that even though the pope was “more than ever a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent,” he had spoken like “a preacher ordained to stand above the battle, tied impartially . . . to all people and willing to collaborate in any new order which will bring a just peace.”[64]  Diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic and those immured within the Vatican mused that the speech was most likely the best they would ever get, but agreed that it was clear enough to read references to the deportation and murder of the Jews and a rounding condemnation of totalitarianism.[65]

On the Axis side, Mussolini sneeringly remarked that the pope’s address was “all platitudes” worthy of the parish priest of Predappio.[66]  The RSHA in Germany interpreted the speech as “one long attack on everything we stand for . . . God, [the Pope] says, regards all peoples and races as worthy of the same consideration. Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews.” Von Ribbentrop instructed von Bergen to inform Pius that any sign of the Vatican’s renouncing its usual neutrality would be met with retaliation from Germany. Bergen responded by saying that “Pacelli is no more sensible to threats than we are.” In protest the German legation to the Holy See boycotted the pope’s Christmas Eve Mass in St Peter’s.[67]  Berlin was also concerned that copies of the pope’s address were being secretly smuggled around the Reich by resistance circles. As Germany prepared for “Total War,” any threat to internal cohesion and morale had to be crushed without mercy.[68]

Konrad von Preysing, bishop of Berlin made comment on the pope’s speech in a letter he wrote to Pius on 6 March 1943 asking the pope to speak out against the Fabrikaktion where the Jewish partners of non-Jewish spouses were rounded up for deportation and would probably go to the fate alluded by the pope in his Christmas address.[69]  Pius replied on 30 April and counseled von Preysing to do whatever he could for Non-Aryan Christians and the Jews since he understood the local situation better than the pope.[70]

From London the Polish Government-in-exile responded with dissatisfaction to the pope’s message through the President, Wladislas Raczkiewicz who appealed for a stronger word directed at the Germans who had massacred the Jews and driven the Polish Church into the catacombs.[71]

The speech brought the strongest reaction in Holland in March 1943.  Archbishop Johannes Jong of Utretcht and his fellow bishops urged Dutch Catholics to publicly confront Nazism.  Moved with concern for young Dutch men deported to Germany for forced labour, for Catholics of Jewish descent and for all believers of all religions and for the shame brought on the nation through the work of collaborators, the bishops stated clearly:
Conscience cannot allow collaboration in such things. If the refusal to collaborate implies sacrifices for the individual, then he must be strong and steadfast in the knowledge that he is doing his duty before God and man.  The church does not wish to take sides in the conflict between States and people attempting to solve immense problems of national collaboration, but only as long as they respect divine law.  With the mandate of Christ as guardian of Christian principles, it must not fail to proclaim inviolate the word of God, which is to obey Him rather than man.[72]

The moral authority cited by the Dutch bishops was Pope Pius XII and the Christmas message of 1942.  “However, unlike the Christmas address, the Dutch letter went farther and ‘named names’”.[73]

There is a degree of convergence between the public word stated by Pius in the Christmas address and the private activities that were continuing with the limited resources at the Vatican’s disposal. Where the convergence becomes a divergence is in the early months of 1943, when it was much clearer that an Allied victory was possible, and more and more reports of horrendous persecution of the Jews reached Rome. Pius XII had achieved a moderate diplomatic victory in his appeal to end the slaughter of innocents of whatever race: the Nazis were still killing Jews and other Untermenschen, but they were aware that the pope knew something of what was happening in the East. This was sufficient to have parts of the Nazi hierarchy annoyed, but few in Berlin doubted for a moment that the “Final Solution” would be in any way affected. What would startle the “desk killers” into a reappraisal would be a direct intervention of the pope into the actual machinery of death. Such were the fears felt in the Willhelmstrasse in the summer of 1943 when Himmler gave the order for the application of the Endlösung in Italy.

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Corti, Eugenio (1997) Few Returned: Twenty-eight days on the Russian Front, Winter 1942–1943 (trans.) Peter Levy, University of Missouri, Columbia.
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Gilbert, Martin (1989) (Rev Ed), Second World War, Fontana, London
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---        Paul on Pius blog - http://paulonpius.blogspot.com.au
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[1] A vivid example of this was the 1941 visit of Ante Pavelic to Rome.  See ADSS 4.348, 351, 352, 356, 358, 364.  Despite the Vatican’s efforts to present Pavelic’s visit as purely private the fact of the visit was largely seen as a de facto endorsement of the regime.  Both Croatia and Slovakia unsuccessfully requested Vatican diplomatic recognition. 
[2] Lewy (2000), pp 236-239.
[7] Sanchez (2002), pp 44-45.
[8] FRUS 1942.3 Leland Harrison to Cordell Hull, 16 October 1942, p 777.
[9] The US charge d’affaires to the Holy See, Harold Tittmann recorded that telegrams to and from Washington could take up to at least a week one way.   Vatican neutrality forbad diplomatic “guests” from using Vatican Radio or telegraphic services for coded messages.  Therefore Tittmann had to communicate with Washington via Geneva.  Vatican diplomats could contact the Holy See directly.  See Tittmann (2004), pp 84-85.
[10] Chadwick (1986), pp 201-2.
[11] See for example ADSS 8.162, 216, 261, 289, 347, 502, 557.
[12] Phayer (2008), pp 9-14.
[13] ADSS 8.431.
[14] DGFP D.13.347
[15] See Dariusz Libionka (2008), pp 270-293.
[16] ADSS passim
[17] ADSS 8.14 and 15
[18] Friedlander (1966), 92, 97-8; ADSS 8.165, 189.
[19] ADSS 8.165, 189, 440, 443, 449, 452.
[20] Corti (1997), pp 102, 108-110.
[21] ADSS 8.374
[22] ADSS 3.2.406
[23] See ICJHC Preliminary Report 26 October 2000, Question 10.
[24] Kent (2002) p 48.
[25] Moore (1997), 127-9; Tablet (London) 29 August 1942.
[26] ADSS 8.440, 454, 463.  See too The New York Times (NYT) 29 August 1942, 3 September 1942, 9 September 1942; Tablet 5 September 1942.
[27] NYT 10 September 1942; Burleigh (2007) pp 247-8.  See ICJHC, Question 20 and note 36.
[28] Cited in Friedlander (1966), 111-112. See also Tablet 19 September 1942, 17 October 1942.
[29] ADSS 8.438.
[30] Akten Deutscher Bischöfe über die Lage der Kirche 1933-1945, 5.774.
[31] ADSS 9.38, 75, 152, 240, 346.
[32] See Zuccotti (1987) chapter 5.
[33] ADSS 8.153.
[34] ADSS 8.199.
[35] ADSS 8.326.  See too ADSS 8.332.
[36] ADSS 8.426.
[37] NYT  24 December 1941.
[38] Breitman (1998) chapter 9.
[39] ADSS 8.314.
[40] There are 16 references to appeals to spare Rome from bombing in the period November –December 1942 (ADSS 7) .
[41] FRUS 1942.3 p 772.
[42] Ibid, pp 772-3
[43] ADSS 5.449, 465, 466, 467, 468; 7.53; FRUS 1942.3 pp 774, 776.  Other Latin American countries delivered notes but these are not recorded in ADSS.  See too Phayer (2008) pp 48-9.
[44] FRUS 1942.3 pp 776-777; Tittmann (2004) pp 117-22
[45] Chadwick (1986) p 212.
[46] FRUS 1942.3, p 776.
[47] ADSS 8.493.  Compare these remarks to those made in March 1942 on the news of the fate of Slovak Jews. ADSS 8.326.
[48] ADSS 8.507
[49] FRUS 1942.3, pp 778-9.
[50] Zuccotti (2000), p 111.
[51] ADSS 3.2.406; 8.374, 565, 573
[52] ADSS 7.53
[53] Phayer (2008) pp 49-50.
[54] For example see The Times (London) for the period 4-14 December 1942.  Almost every edition of the paper carried at least one significant article on the murder of the Jews.
[55] Gilbert (1989), p 389.
[56] The Times (London) 18 December 1942. The full text can be accessed here: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/lords/1942/dec/17/persecution-of-the-jews-allies (Accessed 04.10.2012)
[57] ADSS 8.578.
[58] Chadwick (1986) p 217.
[59] “The 1942 Christmas Message of Pope Pius XII entitled ‘The Holy Season of Christmas and Sorrowing Humanity’”, Catholic Mind , January 1943, pp 45 -60.  Italian text, AAS (1943) pp 9-24.  Online text: (Italian original)  http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/pius_xii/speeches/1942/documents/hf_p-xii_spe_19421224_radiomessage-christmas_it.html (Accessed 04.10.2012) (English) http://www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/p12ch42.htm (Accessed 04.10.2012)
[60] Ibid, p 46.
[61] Ibid, 54, 58.
[62] Ibid, p 59.
[63] FRUS 1943.2 pp 911-2; Tittmann (2004) pp 123-4.
[64] NYT  25 December 1942.
[65] Chadwick (1986) pp 219-20; Phayer (2008) pp 57-8.
[66] Ibid, p 218. Predappio was Mussolini’s home village.
[67] Phayer alledges that Pius “attempted to placate the German ambassador, Diego von Bergen, by pulling him aside and assuring him that his remarks were intended for the Soviets and Stalin rather than the Germans”. Phayer (2008) p 63.
[68] Rhodes (1973) pp 272-4.  In May 2002 French Protestant pastor Françoise de Beaulieu, a former Wehrmacht radio operator in Zossen (the OKW Headquarters outside Berlin), spoke of his arrest in December 1942 on the charge of distributing illegal copies of the Pope’s Christmas Address. At his court martial in April 1943 he was spared the death penalty but given a prison sentence for spreading a “subversive and demoralizing document” as well as being “spiritually attracted to Jewish environments and sympathetic towards Jews”. Zenit May 14, 2002.
[69] ADSS 9.82.
[70] ADSS 2.105.
[71] ADSS 7.82.
[72] NYT  14 March 1943.
[73] Phayer (2008) p 60.




[i] Godolphin Francis D’Arcy Osborne was the British minister accredited to the Holy See (1936–47) and Myron Taylor was the personal representative of President Roosevelt (1940–45) and President Truman (1945–47). Neither the United Kingdom nor the United States had formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican. On Osborne, see Chadwick (1986), passim; on Taylor’s mission to the Vatican, see John Conway (1975).
[ii] ADB 5.742, Report of Margarete Sommer, February 14, 1942.

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