The Secret History of Pius XII

By John Cornwell

Viking. 430 pp. $29.95

Reviewed by Tad Szulc

The title tells the tale. And a chilling tale it is: Eugenio Pacelli, then the Vatican's all-powerful secretary of state, made it possible for Adolf Hitler to achieve total power in Germany and, as Pope Pius XII, went on to appease him, maintaining inexplicable public silence as the Nazis destroyed and massacred millions of European Jews before and during World War II. In other words, the pro-Germany and "anti-Judaic" Pacelli -- who had spent 13 years in Munich and Berlin as papal nuncio -- bears, according to this most important book, awesome personal responsibility for the evil of Hitler and, consequently, for opening the way for the war and the Holocaust.

Had Pius XII publicly condemned Hitler's acts -- and even top Germany military commanders in Italy secretly urged him to do so toward the end of the war -- many millions of lives might have been saved. But this ascetic, self-righteous pontiff had concluded as a matter of faith that Nazism was preferable to Godless communism, thereby throwing his lot in with Hitler. Even in the early '30s, Pacelli saw Stalin, not Hitler, as the satanic foe of humanity.

If true, this tale redefines the entire history of the 20th century -- to say nothing of the morals of the papacy and of the Roman Catholic Church in Pacelli's own dictatorial hands -- and should certainly dissuade Pope John Paul II, or his successor, from beatifying and canonizing Pius XII, for which a preparatory process is now underway in Rome. It would defy morality as well as respect for the memory of the martyred generations to bestow sainthood upon the man whom John Cornwell, the author of this remarkable book, describes as "a deeply flawed human being."

Sadly, the conclusions and revelations presented by Cornwell in his meticulously researched Hitler's Pope, many of them based on materials from heretofore closed Vatican, Italian, German, British and French archives and other unimpeachable sources, leave little doubt that Eugenio Pacelli was the Fuhrer's best imaginable ally. He was the decisive one when Hitler made his bid for supreme power in March 1933: Pacelli intervened directly in Germany's domestic politics by forcing the Catholic Center Party, which had the votes in parliament to block him, to disband altogether. This handed Hitler automatic victory.

For Pacelli, the quid pro quo was Hitler's acceptance of a concordat with the Holy See, granting it full control of the Church in Germany although, on the Fuhrer's insistence, "all" political activity by the Catholic clergy was banned. And Cornwell writes that "Pacelli had been fully informed . . . of the persecution unleashed against the Jews at the very point when he was to enter into substantive negotiations for a concordat with its perpetrators." Indeed, at a Cabinet meeting after the signing, Hitler voiced his confidence that the concordat would be "especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry."

Pius XII's silence about Nazi war-making and about the "Final Solution" mass murders of Jews and even of German Roman Catholic priests is, of course, well known and has enveloped the Church in a bitter public controversy for nearly 60 years, one augumented by the staging in 1963 of Rolf Hochhuth's play "The Deputy." Cornwell comments that while the play's characterization of Pacelli as a heartless, avaricious cynic was "ludicrous," it nevertheless triggered the "pursuit of authentic documentation" on the subject. Specifically, it led to the ground-breaking publication by the Vatican of 11 volumes of the Holy See's wartime documents.

However, Pacelli's central role -- played quite possibly behind the back of his trusting mentor, Pope Pius XI -- in turning Hitler into Germany's undisputed leader stands as a major historical discovery by Cornwell, who reconstructs these events in a careful, step-by-step fashion. A highly respected Catholic English journalist and currently senior research fellow at Cambridge University, Cornwell is also the author of A Thief in the Night, an account of the still mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978, after three weeks on St. Peter's throne. Cornwell had been invited by top Vatican authorities to investigate it, and his Roman friendships from that time have clearly served him well in the Pacelli enterprise. Cornwell himself provides, quite candidly, the genesis of his historical coup:

"I applied for access to crucial material in Rome, reassuring those who had charge of the appropriate archives that I was on the side of my subject. Acting in good faith, two key archivists gave me generous access to unseen material: depositions under oath gathered thirty years ago for Pacelli's beatification, and also documents in the office of the Vatican Secretary of State. . . . By the middle of 1997, nearing the end of my research, I found myself in a state I can only describe as moral shock. The material I had gathered . . . amounted not to an exoneration but to a wider indictment. . . . My research told the story of a bid for unprecedented papal power that by 1933 had drawn the Catholic Church into complicity with the darkest forces of the era. . . . From an early stage in his career Pacelli betrayed an undeniable antipathy toward the Jews, and his diplomacy in Germany in the 1930s had resulted in the voluntary disbanding or betrayal of Catholic associations that might have challenged Hitler's regime and thwarted the Final Solution."

In the end, who was Eugenio Pacelli? Even Cornwell's investigatory talents provide no clues to the real personality and motivations of that pious, immensely secretive, arrogant and manipulative figure with no friends, who never consulted his subordinates before and during his 19-year pontificate, and who left no paper trail in the form of diaries or illuminating correspondence. There is no reason to believe that Pacelli had a sinister secret agenda, and Cornwell himself affirms that he was "no monster," his case being "far more complex, more tragic." It remains unclear whether Pacelli actually understood that his diplomatic maneuvers led to Hitler's supremacy, but it is a fact that, in effect, he supported Hitler until the very end.

When Hitler escaped a bomb assassination attempt in November 1939 -- after the invasion of Catholic Poland -- Pius XII sent him his "special personal congratulations," according to John Toland's classic biography of the Fuhrer. The pope's wartime silence was invaluable to Hitler in terms of propaganda; and, as Cornwell reports in another of his discoveries, Pacelli welcomed at the Vatican the Catholic Croat Fascist chief Ante Pavelic, whose militias had liquidated tens of thousands of Orthodox Serbs, Muslims and Jews in German-occupied Yugoslavia. The pope refused to receive the Grand Rabbi of Jerusalem, who had hoped to make a plea for Jewish lives, but the rabbi was warmly received in Istanbul by the papal nuncio, Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII (an incident Cornwell has overlooked).

Cornwell's summation is that Pacelli was "Hitler's pawn. He was Hitler's pope." He goes on to say that Pacelli's life was a "fatal combination of high spiritual aspirations in conflict with soaring ambitions for power and control" and that "his is not a portrait of evil but of fatal moral dislocation -- a separation of authority from Christian love. The consequences of that rupture were collusion with tyranny and, ultimately, violence."

Finally, Cornwell is absolutely right to say that "the beatification process for Pacelli is fraught with political significance, both within and outside the Church," and that "if it succeeds, Pacelli's policies will be dramatically confirmed -- endorsing the modern ideology of papal power and justifying Pacelli's wartime record." There is cause, moreover, for concern in this realm. In his 1998 statement on the history of offense against Jews, John Paul II, the Polish pope who survived the German occupation -- and who is the most pro-Jewish pope in history -- pointedly exonerated Pacelli's wartime conduct, stressing that the latter had nothing for which to apologize, and emphasizing "the wisdom of Pope Pius XII's diplomacy." If nothing else, this fact alone makes Cornwell's valuable book extremely timely.

Tad Szulc is the author of 19 books, including "Pope John Paul II: The Biography."