- How did Pope Pius XII respond to World War II, the Holocaust, and the Nazi and fascist regimes? Find out in this explosive book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David I. Kertzer.
- If you want to know the truth about Pope Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler, you need to read The Pope at War. Buy it here.
The Pope at War (2022) follows the first years of Eugenio Pacelli’s papacy. Based on documents released by the Vatican in 2020, the book reveals the never-before-told story of the pope’s secret negotiations with Hitler.
Introduction: Get a history lesson about a “great” pope and learn why sometimes silence is the worst crime of all.
Table of Contents
History remembers Pope Pius XII in one of two ways: he’s either known as “Hitler’s Pope,” or as a hero to the Jews during World War II.
In 2020, the Vatican released millions of documents by and about Pope Pius XII that had never before been made public. These documents reveal new insights into the man beneath the regalia. They also reveal a new character in the drama of the Axis leaders and their negotiations. This “Nazi Prince” acted as a go-between during a series of secret negotiations between the pope and Hitler.
What emerges is a more complete understanding of why this pope made the decisions he did. We also get a larger, longer-lasting story – the criminality of silence when you’re in a position of power.
In this summary, we’ll look at the lead-up to Pacelli’s election as pope, the secret negotiations at play, his inaction at the height of wartime, and how everything fell out at the end.
The death of a pope
Sometimes you can see the future coming a mile away. Eugenio Pacelli, who served as secretary of state to Pope Pius XI, left a very distinct impression on those he interacted with. From ambassadors to statesmen to fellow cardinals, people viewed him as a devout and pious man but essentially lacking in will or character. Those opinions should have been a warning sign.
At the beginning of 1939, an aging and ailing Pope Pius XI was going head-to-head with Il Duce, otherwise known as Benito Mussolini. Disgusted with his racial policies and fearful of his connection with Hitler, Pius XI was preparing an encyclical along with a speech. Both would take a hard-line stance against Nazism and the anti-Jewish laws of Italy’s fascist regime.
Unfortunately for the world, on February 10, just days before the speech was to occur, the pope succumbed to his deteriorating health and died. Pacelli was immediately petitioned by representatives of Mussolini to put a stop to the printing and distribution of his predecessor’s speech. Pacelli agreed that it would be best to destroy any existing copies.
The papal conclave which followed saw Eugenio Pacelli elected as pope. He took the name Pius XII after his predecessor even though the two men shared very little in common in terms of personality and character.
Pope Pius XII was determined to be the pope of peace. He wanted to strengthen the church in terms of morality and piety. He was a conservative, in this way, and he viewed the church’s role as independent of nationalism. One day he’d give a speech based on Romans 13:1 which commands Christians to submit to the authority of their governments.
These early days of Pius XII’s papacy were prophetic of what was to come. His immediate withdrawal from his predecessor’s plans along with his focus on peace without regard to justice were early signs of how he’d manage the rest of the war.
While he generally demurred from taking political stances, Pius XII was anxious to participate in brokering peace. One of his first acts was to attempt to bring together a peace meeting. He was given platitudes by Mussolini and Hitler who ultimately rejected his idea, and no such meeting occurred.
But meetings of another sort did occur.
The secret files
When the Vatican first began releasing files on Pius XII in 1965, four Jesuit editors worked to actively expunge all evidence of the pope’s secret negotiations with Hitler. Then, in 2020, the Vatican unsealed millions of those original documents. Through these, we’ve learned of secret meetings between the pope and Hitler’s envoy, the so-called “Nazi Prince.”
The Nazi Prince was a prince named Phillipp von Hessen – one of Hitler’s trusted associates. Married to Princess Mafalda, daughter of the king of Italy, von Hessen had a foot in both nations and was active in helping maintain the relationship between Hitler and the pope.
The first secret meeting resulted in a few changes. The pope brought to the prince’s attention the poor treatment of Catholics in Germany. Not only was there propaganda actively harming the church’s reputation, but Catholic education had also been suppressed. The pope requested the restoration of the church’s ability to operate in Germany.
Hitler would only consider the terms provided the pope made all of his proposals and requests through the secret channel they had built with von Hessen. After this first meeting, Hitler had the German media ease up its “persecution” of the church.
A quick word on that persecution: The Nazi party in Germany had unearthed case after case of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. Pope Pius XII ordered records of such cases in Austria to be destroyed. He assured Hitler that the church would deal with cases harshly but that ultimately he hoped Germany would keep quiet about such things.
In the second meeting, von Hessen brought up the topics of racial issues and the German clergy’s outspokenness. He requested the pope continue to remain silent on Germany’s policies towards the Jewish people, and he asked that the pope rein in his people so that they’d stop saying anything against Germany. The pope acquiesced.
By the third meeting, war had begun in earnest and Hitler’s policies toward the German Catholic clergy were considerably different from what he’d promised. Pius XII requested that the church’s freedoms be restored.
Regardless of what had been promised on Hitler’s part, Catholics in Germany continued to suffer.
The war escalates
In situations like this, there’s no such thing as neutrality. By insisting on silence, the pope was effectively choosing a side.
His pattern throughout the beginning of the war was to leave room for the churches in each nation to respond to their individual governments as they saw fit. His motto could easily have been, “It’s best to remain silent.”
When Hitler invaded Poland, the Polish people wrote to the pope begging for him to speak out against this atrocity. The pope remained silent, though he was visibly uncomfortable at the level of brutality happening in the war.
For a moment, Pope Pius XII seemed to have had enough. After Hitler invaded Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, the pope was upset and worried. The people of those nations cried out to him for help and he responded by sending the leader of each nation a telegram expressing his heartfelt prayers and regrets. In the telegrams, he affirmed his belief in the injustice of what was happening, albeit in very mild terms. The pope used the Vatican’s newspaper to publish his telegrams as a sort of statement of his policies.
Mussolini was angered by the telegrams and called out the pope directly. Uncomfortable about the backlash, Pope Pius XII actively silenced the Vatican paper and made sure never to publish anything that spoke out against Hitler or Mussolini going forward.
It could be assumed that the pope was a fearful, cowardly man. It could also be assumed that he was a friend of Hitler’s. Both assumptions would be wrong, or at least, incomplete. Everything that has come to light about the pope suggests that he truly wanted to be the pope of peace. He was anti-Semitic, as so many in the church were, but he wasn’t pro-gas-chamber.
The pope’s priority above all was the church. He saw the war as a temporary state and was looking beyond the war at the future of the church. He wrongly assumed that the leaders of the world at that time would be Hitler and Mussolini, so he capitulated to their whims in order to maintain the church’s positive relations with the governments.
In the next section, we’ll get a better idea of how the pope viewed his world by seeing what he prioritized during the war.
The pope’s priorities during the war
While the pope remained silent on the issues of nations falling, soldiers dying, and innocent people being slaughtered, one subject he felt strongly enough to speak on was the issue of purity.
He gave a speech to 4,000 girls all dressed in white about the importance of fighting immorality. Throughout the war years, he continued to encourage young women to dress modestly and remain pure.
Another topic of great importance was the issue of the nation’s entertainment. The pope denounced the government’s lack of intervention and moderation of entertainment programs on television. Young people were being exposed to immoral behavior on variety shows and in movies, and yet the government did nothing.
When he wasn’t crusading on behalf of moral positions like the purity of young girls and the lack of virtue in television, he was busy having a movie made.
To understand the movie, you first have to understand the prophecy of Saint Malachy. Back in the twelfth century, Saint Malachy purportedly had a vision of 112 future popes. He named them all with cryptic phrases. The 106th pope was called the Pastor Angelicus, the angelic shepherd.
This pope was, of course, Pius XII who took to heart his name and entitled the movie about his life Pastor Angelicus.
Of course, the pope was also concerned about war. At the forefront of his mind was a rumor he’d heard that Hitler wanted to eventually do away with the Vatican. The pope asked Mussolini and many others if this was true and they all told him that it wasn’t. Nevertheless, he remained fearful of the possibility.
The tides turn
The landscape of the war began to change after the United States joined the Allies. In his third Christmas speech in 1942, the pope spoke out against the atrocities being committed by the Axis powers. Of course, it was couched in verbose sentences and located all the way on page 24 of his speech, so it didn’t make much of an impact.
Surrounding nations continued to criticize the pope despite his speech, which he found upsetting. For a pope so used to silence, he no doubt considered his speech to have been a hard and strong statement. It wasn’t.
As the Allies began to chip away at Axis gains, the pope found himself in communication with envoys from Britain and America. He made requests that no troops of color be stationed in Rome should there be an Allied occupation. He hoped it would be America rather than Britain that did the occupying because America would eventually leave. He pleaded on behalf of his city that Rome be spared from bombings. These were his concerns.
The Allies promised nothing regarding bombing Rome except that they’d stay away from churches and Vatican city. On the other hand, at one point in the war, Mussolini had hundreds of church bells melted down and turned into artillery.
When the Allies first bombed Rome, they managed to keep all but one church building safe. In the aftermath, the pope visited the damaged basilica and hosted prayers there. He valued being seen in moments like these and shepherding his people during difficult times.
But the one subject he continued to remain silent on was Germany’s policy toward Jewish people. The unsealed files from 2020 show that the pope had confirmation of Germany’s wholesale killing of Jewish people. It wasn’t speculation to him, it was a confirmed fact. And when asked about it by the Allies, the pope kept it all secret.
He was complicit in his silence during Germany’s invasions of sovereign countries. He was complicit in his silence during Hitler’s racial solutions within Germany and Austria. And worse, he was complicit in his silence concerning Rome’s Jewish population.
Best to remain silent
When Italy surrendered conditionally to the Allies, allowing them to land on Italy’s southern tip, Germany rolled in and began occupying Italy to keep the Allies from advancing.
With Germans occupying Rome, Hitler’s policies of rounding up and exterminating Jewish people continued. In Rome, right outside Vatican City, Nazis gathered up over 1,200 people and kept them in an old college building for two days.
During those two days, Pope Pius XII frantically searched the lists and identified over 200 Jewish people who’d converted to Catholicism. Their baptisms confirmed, he was able to have them freed.
For this reason, many hail him as a hero – a real Pastor Angelicus. On the other hand, Jewish families sent letters and cried out to him for help. His reply was that the Vatican was doing everything it could.
Over 1,000 Roman Jewish people were put on a train and sent directly to Auschwitz. The strong were separated from the weak and sent to a labor camp where most of them died. Those deemed too weak were marched directly into the gas chambers. Records suggest that there may have been some survivors of the event – a grand total of 16 survivors.
Throughout all of this, the pope remained silent.
We know the rest of the story of the war. Hitler was systematically beaten back and beaten down by the Allied nations. Mussolini was executed and his body given to the people of Italy who’d never wanted a war to begin with.
The pope, now with the ability to see the lay of the land, became more outspoken. He no longer had a Hitler or a Mussolini to worry about. There were no more consequences to becoming an outspoken leader.
A year after the liberation of Rome, an association of Catholic youths celebrated him as the defender of the church and the one who saved Rome. Some years later, after his death, the church began the process of beatification, or declaring him a saint.
While Pius XII was declared venerable in 2009, Pope Francis put an end to the process of sainthood in 2014 due to there being insufficient miracles attached to his name.
There is a time for silence and there are conditions under which peace should be pursued. But that time and those conditions didn’t exist from 1939 to 1943. Whether it was anti-Semitism, pacifism, or a combination of both that kept Pius XII silent during Hitler’s atrocities, it’s difficult to forgive that silence.
Millions of people died in the war, labor camps, or gas chambers while the leader of the largest, most powerful religious organization on Earth remained silent. It’s impossible not to wonder how things might have been different had he used his power to speak out against what was happening to the Jewish people.
Was Pope Pius XII a hero or a villain? It probably depends on where and when you’re standing – but with hindsight and the evidence of those unsealed documents, it can absolutely be concluded that, whatever his reasons, the pope actively aided in Hitler’s murders by keeping silent when speaking up could have helped.
David I. Kertzer is the Paul Dupee, Jr., University Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, where he formerly served as provost. He is the author of twelve previous books, including The Pope and Mussolini, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a National Book Award finalist. In 2005 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Kertzer and his wife, Susan, live in Rhode Island and Maine.
History, Religion, Spirituality, Nonfiction, World War II, Biography, Politics, Italy, Germany, War, Holocaust, European Theater – World War II – Invasion and Occupation, Papacy and Papal History, Vatican City – History, Catholic Church, Memoirs, Leaders and Notable People
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations xvii
Cast of Characters xix
Prologue: The Twisted Cross xxxiii
Part 1 War Clouds
Chapter 1 Death of a Pope 3
Chapter 2 The Conclave 18
Chapter 3 Appealing to the Führer 27
Chapter 4 The Peacemaker 41
Chapter 5 “Please do not Talk to Me about Jews” 51
Chapter 6 The Nazi Prince 58
Chapter 7 Saving Face 69
Chapter 8 War Begins 79
Chapter 9 The Prince Returns 86
Chapter 10 A Papal Curse 94
Chapter 11 Man of Steel 101
Chapter 12 A Problematic Visitor 112
Part 2 On the Path to Axis Victory
Chapter 13 An Inopportune Time 129
Chapter 14 An Honorable Death 139
Chapter 15 A Short War 144
Chapter 16 Surveillance 154
Chapter 17 The Feckless Ally 167
Chapter 18 The Greek Fiasco 176
Chapter 19 A New World Order 183
Chapter 20 Hitler to the Rescue 191
Chapter 21 The Crusade 205
Chapter 22 A New Prince 217
Chapter 23 Best to Say Nothing 227
Part 3 Changing Fortunes
Chapter 24 Escaping Blame 247
Chapter 25 Papal Premiere 255
Chapter 26 Disaster Foretold 263
Chapter 27 A Thorny Problem 274
Chapter 28 An Awkward Request 279
Chapter 29 The Good Nazi 294
Chapter 30 Deposing the Duce 303
Chapter 31 Musical Chairs 317
Chapter 32 Betrayal 330
Part 4 The Sky Turned Black
Chapter 22 Fake News 347
Chapter 34 The Pope’s Jews 359
Chapter 35 Baseless Rumors 373
Chapter 36 Treason 388
Chapter 37 A Gratifying Sight 408
Chapter 38 Malevolent Reports 427
Chapter 39 A Gruesome End 441
Final Thoughts: The Silence of the Pope 472
Archival Sources and Abbreviations 485
Illustration Credits 591
The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler by David I. Kertzer is a groundbreaking and riveting book that reveals the truth about the controversial pope and his actions during World War II. Based on newly opened Vatican archives and other sources, the book paints a new and dramatic portrait of Pius XII, who repeatedly compromised his moral leadership in order to preserve his church’s power.
The book covers the period from 1939 to 1945, when Pius XII was pope and faced the challenges of war, fascism, and genocide. It shows how he dealt with the dictators Mussolini and Hitler, who both sought his support and approval. It also exposes how he failed to speak out against the persecution and murder of millions of Jews, despite knowing the extent of the Holocaust. The book reveals the secret negotiations, intrigues, and betrayals that marked the Vatican’s relations with the Nazi and fascist regimes, as well as the pope’s attempts to influence the course of the war.
The book is based on extensive research and analysis of thousands of never-before-seen documents from the Vatican and other archives. It offers a comprehensive and authoritative account of one of the most important and controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church and the world. The book is written in a clear and engaging style, with vivid descriptions and compelling characters. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the papacy, World War II, or the Holocaust.