Another Tack: Pius's pious pretension

I’ve got a terrible confession to make – I don’t want to go to heaven. It’s not that I don’t relish rewards in the afterlife. It’s just that if Pope Pius XII is there, especially if exalted to saintly status by courtesy of his current Vatican successor, then in the immortal words of Huck Finn: “I can’t see no advantage in going where” the former Eugenio Pacelli purportedly went. Like Huck, I’d rather be where Tom Sawyer ends up, because with Tom there’s never any pious pretension of infallibility.

But in Pius’s case sanctimonious affectation enveloped profound immorality – like failing to advise staunch Catholics in Germany, Poland and elsewhere in Europe that it’s not nice to condemn people to extermination merely because they were born to Jewish parents. Characteristically Pius and his adherents proffered handy excuses – prime among them that Pius’s expedient “neutrality” saved his church from Nazi retribution (even if said church worships an altruistic self-sacrificing Christ).

British author John Cornwell, a committed Catholic and one-time candidate for the priesthood, aimed to prove Pius’s innocence in face of charges that he had betrayed the Jews during their darkest hours. Cornwell was even allowed to peruse bits of the secret Vatican archives, the vast bulk of which the Holy See still refuses to open to scrutiny. (Even the 1999 Vatican-appointed International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission was denied full access. Only pre-1923 papers were made available. In reaction, the commission suspended its work in 2001, after producing no findings on the papacy during the Holocaust.)

Following exhaustive research, Cornwell related, “by the middle of 1997 I was in a state of moral shock. The material I had gathered amounted not to an exoneration but to an indictment… The evidence was explosive. It showed for the first time that Pacelli was patently, and by the proof of his own words, anti-Jewish. It revealed that he had helped Hitler to power and at the same time undermined potential Catholic resistance in Germany. It showed that he had implicitly denied and trivialized the Holocaust, despite having reliable knowledge of its true extent. And, worse, that he was a hypocrite, for after the war he had retrospectively taken undue credit for speaking out boldly against the Nazi persecution of the Jews.”

Cornwell’s full account can be read in his spellbinding 1999 book, significantly entitled Hitler’s Pope. The Vatican was up in arms upon its publication and, while it couldn’t issue a death-fatwa, it proceeded to launch a veritable crusade against the hapless author. No effort was spared to discredit him. Today, nearly a decade after the event, the Internet still bristles with anti-Cornwell vituperation. By 2004 it got so bad that Cornwell partially undercut the thrust of his momentous effort. But the would-be disciples of St. Pius couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle.

It’s out there for all to read, both on-line and in the well-annotated hard copy, making it therefore superfluous to revisit the wartime conduct of Hitler’s pope in this column. Less, however, is known about Pius’s postwar record, when the excuse of fearing Hitlerian vengeance could no longer serve him. After V-E Day, obviously free of Fascist and Third Reich intimidation, Pius’s deeds had to attest to his innermost predispositions.

IT’S THUS particularly telling that on November 20, 1946 – according to a letter exposed in 2005 by Corriere dela Sera – Pius forbade the return of Jewish children and babies who were baptized by French Catholics during the Holocaust. These tots were variously hidden and their baptisms were hardly voluntary. Nevertheless, Pius ordered that the youngsters “be kept in Catholic custody.”

Perhaps even more significant is the fact that Vatican City and its many extraterritorial buildings in Rome became protective semi-official asylums for numerous wanted war criminals. The virtual exodus to Arab destinations and the Americas of Nazis and their collaborators would have been impossible were the highest Vatican echelons genuinely faultless or clueless. Ecclesiastical networks helped in the initial escape, subsequent concealment, creation of fake identities, acquisition of forged documentation, travel arrangements, financing and resettlement. It was a massive undertaking, unlikely without at least tacit papal consent.

Prewar, Austrian cleric Alois Hudal was ordained a bishop by Cardinal Pacelli, and later embarrassed the Vatican with his unabashedly ardent pro-Nazi pamphlets. Postwar, as Vatican representative to German-speaking internees in Italy, Hudal facilitated the flight of Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl, Gustav Wagner, Alois Brunner and many more of the bloodiest butchers.
Declassified US Army Counterintelligence Corps reports explain how Church-aided ratlines – underground smuggling systems – worked. The Croatian case is instructive. Father Krunoslav Draganovic, secretary of the Confraternity of San Girolamo in Rome, was in contact with Pius and senior Vatican Secretariat of State officials. Although Draganovic was infamous for avid Ustasha (Croatia’s Nazi-clone movement) sympathies, the Vatican officially requested he be permitted to visit Ustashi POWs.

Draganovic and his San Girolamo priests, whose ratline was larger than Hudal’s, moved the Ustashis from Trieste, to Rome, to Genoa and on to neutral countries – primarily Argentina – where they lived out their days unpunished and unnoticed. Virtually the entire Ustasha leadership got away.

A MORE corrosive yet largely inconspicuous post-war papal intrusion manifested itself in occupied Germany. The Vatican placed itself at the vanguard of attempts to foil Germany’s denazification. German Catholics were directed not to cooperate with Allied denazification tribunals, while the Church supplied Nazi businessmen and civil servants with testimony to the effect that they were mere nominal party members, small cogs in the machine. Thus many Third Reich stalwarts were acquitted and remained honchos who called the shots in daily life (see Tom Bower’s Blind Eye to Murder).

This time too Pius invoked an excuse – fear of communism. Nazis evidently were less objectionable than Bolsheviks, who in Pius’s mind were inextricably associated with Jews. The dual antipathy was already expressed soon after World War I, when Archbishop Pacelli was dispatched to Munich as a papal nuncio. Cornwell discovered a letter from Pacelli describing a group of revolutionaries who sought to exploit postwar chaos. “Their filth was completely nauseating,” Pacelli wrote, “resounding screams, vile language, profanities. Absolute hell… and in the midst of all this is a gang of young women, of dubious appearance, Jews like all the rest of them, hanging around the offices with provocative demeanor and suggestive smiles… vulgar, repulsive, with faces both intelligent and sly.”

For Cornwell, “This association of Jewishness with Bolshevism confirms that Pacelli, from his early 40s, nourished suspicion of and contempt for the Jews for political reasons. But the repeated references to the Jewishness of these individuals, along with the catalogue of stereotypical epithets deploring their physical and moral repulsiveness, betray a scorn and revulsion consistent with anti-Semitism.”

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