The Case Against Pius Xii

Like attacking a toothache that refuses to go away, historians continue to probe the character of Pope Pius XII and his refusal to issue an unambiguous condemnation of the Nazis' "final solution." What did the pope know about the Holocaust and when did he know it? Was his caution warranted? How many lives--Jewish and Christian--did he save by relying on diplomacy rather than moral rhetoric? Such questions require care in using archives, intellectual skill in interpreting documents and dispassionate judgment in assessing the peculiar circumstances of European politics in the dark age of Adolph Hitler. Unfortunately, none of these virtues are evident in "Hitler's Pope," a scalding new biography of the wartime pope by British journalist John Cornwell.

First excerpted in the glitzy pages of Vanity Fair, and serialized in the Sunday Times of London, Cornwell's unrelieved attack on the wartime leader of the Roman Catholic Church has provoked heated headlines and sharp rejoinders in the European media. The book itself, just published by Viking Penguin, is a classic example of what happens when an ill-equipped journalist assumes the airs of sober scholarship.

The title says it all. According to Cornwell, Eugenio Pacelli (the pope's given name) was a vain, "beady-eyed" and overweeningly ambitious careerist who dominated Vatican policy long before he himself was elected to the papacy in 1939. Without a shard of evidence, Cornwell asserts that Pacelli single-handedly created an "absolutist" papacy where none had previously existed--and in so doing personally wreaked havoc on a world-wide scale. As a young papal diplomat, Cornwell argues, Pacelli struck a treaty with Serbia that inflamed the tensions that led to World War I. As a papal nuncio (ambassador) in Germany until 1927, and later as Vatican secretary of State, Pacelli betrayed the anti-Nazi Catholics of Germany and colluded with Hitler in establishing the Vatican concordat (treaty) with the Third Reich, thereby contributing morally to the outbreak of World War II as well. Above all, Cornwell writes, Pacelli harbored a "secret antipathy" toward Jews and thus became "an ideal Pope for the Nazis' 'Final Solution'. "

The credibility of Cornwell's accusations depends in large part upon the credibility of the story he tells about himself. An ex-seminarian who left and lately returned to the church, Cornwell set out--he says--to prove that critics of the pope were wrong. Using his academic title as a "senior researcher" with a science institute at Cambridge University, he gained "unprecedented" access to the "secret" archives of the Vatican Secretariat of State. There, in a "dungeon"-like room he discovered documentary evidence of the pope's "racial and religious" hatred of Jews.

Overcome with "moral outrage," he proceeded to write "the secret history of Pius XII." In fact, the Vatican archives Cornwell perused are open to any inquirer with an academic connection. (Amending what he wrote in his book, Cornwell insisted to NEWSWEEK that he was nonetheless the first to open certain folios, which the Vatican archivist denies.) He also examined testimony given in connection with the pope's beatification process, which is under the direction of Jesuit scholars in Rome. These are private documents, but hardly secret: I have seen them myself. And what he cites from these materials in no way supports his portrait of a moral "hypocrite."

Cornwell's evidence that Pacelli was anti-Jewish rests chiefly on his bizarre interpretation of a report Pacelli sent in 1919 to the Vatican from Munich, where he was papal nuncio. In the report, Pacelli describes how a shabby cadre of young communists, together with a gang of young women "with lecherous smiles," took temporary control of the city and established a soviet there just two years after the Russian revolution. He goes on to note that the leaders were all Russian Jews, and describes one of them as "pale, dirty, with drugged eyes, hoarse voice, vulgar and repulsive" who treated Pacelli's priest-representative with contempt. This language, says Cornwell, constitutes anti-Semitic stereotyping, proof of Pacelli's "secret" hatred of Jews, and helps to explain his indifference to the Holocaust.

Throughout his book, Cornwell insists that Pius courted the fascists as a way of thwarting the communists. But he ignores the contrary evidence in the books cited in his own bibliography. For example, he does not mention the pope's support for American lend-lease to communist Russia or his threat of "dire consequences" for any U.S. bishop who opposed Roosevelt's declaration of war against the Axis powers, though this meant an alliance with the Soviet Union.

Despite the papacy's policy of political neutrality during the two wars, there is ample evidence that the Nazis saw Pius XII--rightly--as their enemy. Cornwell makes nothing of the fact that Allied planes dropped 88,000 copies of the pope's first encyclical over Germany, in the hope that Pacelli's guarded anti-Nazi message would get through to the people. But Cornwell does acknowledge that Pius XII put himself and the church at great risk the following year (1940) by secretly agreeing to aid anti-Nazi German generals in their dangerous plot to overthrow Hitler. Yet he insists that Pacelli was Hitler's pope. In the end, Cornwell's assertion that he began his book as a defense of the Pius XII is difficult to accept. Most of his sources are secondary and written by Pacelli's harshest critics. Errors of fact and ignorance of context appear on all most every page. Cornwell questions Pacelli's every motive, but never doubts those who tell a different story. This is bogus scholarship, filled with nonexistent secrets, aimed to shock.