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The pope who thought he could negotiate with Hitler

Pope Pius XII, pictured in 1940, secretly met with an emissary of Nazi Germany, according to an account David I. Kertzer found in newly opened Vatican archives. The pope agreed not to interfere in Nazi activities in exchange for protections for Catholics. (Mondadori/Getty Images)
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Of all the thorns in the side of the many apologists for Pope Pius XII, Brown University professor David I. Kertzer is probably the most formidable. Avoiding the strident tone of Garry Wills’s “Papal Sin” or John Cornwell’s aggressively titled “Hitler’s Pope,” Kertzer’s books about the papacy are models of calm, uncluttered prose, prodigious research, and the ability to appeal to both a scholarly and a general audience. In his new book, “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler,” Kertzer brings all of his usual detective and narrative skills to bear. The story isn’t an inspiring one.

The reputation of Pius XII has not worn well since his death in 1958. His detractors see a pontiff indifferent to the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis and a weak spiritual leader intimidated by Adolf Hitler and manipulated by Benito Mussolini. Pius’s defenders say this view paints a radically distorted picture of a man who was caught between the need to protect his church, with its 40 million German Catholics, and the barbarism of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

By the mid-1960s, the Catholic Church could no longer ignore the clamor. Between 1965 and 1981, a 12-volume compilation of the Holy See’s World War II documents was released by the Vatican. It has long been suspected, though, that evidence not flattering to Pius XII was held back. In 2019, Pope Francis decided it was time to admit outside historians to the archives. The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” and “The Pope Who Would Be King: The Exile of Pius IX and the Emergence of Modern Europe,” Kertzer was in Rome at the door of the archives on the day the relevant files were opened for study. The result is the most comprehensive account of the Vatican’s relations to the Nazi and fascist regimes before and during the war, the temporizing of the pope, and the opportunities for moral courage that were lost.

It seems remarkable in retrospect that Pius XII ever thought he could come to terms with Hitler. Days after the pope’s coronation in 1939, the German dictator showed the world how much the Munich Pact meant to him when he invaded Czechoslovakia and incorporated it into the Reich. Yet Pius XII, hesitant and often out of touch with hard realities, believed he could negotiate with a man he perceived as a needed bulwark against communism. The fate of Europe’s Jews never entered into his thinking.

It is disturbing to read of the new pope’s decision to shelve the encyclical attacking racism and antisemitism that his predecessor, Pius XI, had planned to release the day before his death, and of his warm birthday greetings to the Führer in April 1939, six months after the horror of Kristallnacht. These and other sorry facts have long been known, though.

Truly shocking is Kertzer’s discovery in the archives of an account of a secret meeting between the pope and a representative of the Reich, King Victor Emmanuel’s German son-in-law, only weeks before the invasion of Poland. The Vatican has carefully kept all mention of this meeting out of the official record, and only with the 2020 opening of those files has it come to light.

In that meeting, Pius XII agreed to avoid involvement in what he called “partisan politics” in the Reich, which would have included the activities of the Gestapo, the Nazi euthanasia program and the reign of terror visited on the Jews, in return for an end to restrictions on parochial-school education and attacks on his clergy. “No one here is anti-German,” the pope told Hitler’s emissary, according to a Vatican transcript. “We love Germany. We are pleased if Germany is great and powerful. And we do not oppose any particular form of government, if only the Catholics can live in accordance with their religion.” The pope personally repeated this message to Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, soon after the defeat of Poland and the closing of churches and convents there.

Kertzer’s depiction of Vatican politics during the war is even more heartbreaking. Pius XII continued to believe that he could tame an inferno of hate if he remained committed to diplomatic overtures and placating language, and he declined to condemn the invasion of Catholic Belgium, the Netherlands or France. Polish pleas for help went unanswered. He was outspoken about the Allied bombing of Rome, but about the roundup of Rome’s Jews in 1943, he said nothing. He refused to excommunicate Hitler, Heinrich Himmler or Mussolini, all nominal Catholics to the day they died. Though Pius XII talked of martyrdom on occasion, he had no intention of moving in that direction.

“The Pope at War” is more than an examination of one man’s failings, though. Among the book’s many satisfactions is the wide net the author casts with ably drawn portraits of the German diplomats, Italian politicians, ambassadors and nuncios, cardinals and Vatican bureaucrats with whom the pope interacted. This is a chronicle with very few heroes. One, a French cardinal, Eugène Tisserant, tried to persuade Pius XII to speak out against Nazi genocide, to no avail. “I fear that history will have much to reproach the Holy See for,” he remarked in 1940. How prescient were those words.

John Loughery is the author of four biographies, including “Dagger John: Archbishop John Hughes and the Making of Irish America” and “Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century.”

The Pope at War

The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler

By David I. Kertzer

Random House. 621 pp. $37.50