A year or so ago, my friend Liz Lev, the best English-speaking guide in Rome, was taking a group of American tourists through St. Peter’s Basilica. Seeing the bronze statue of Pope Pius XII, one of the tourists said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “Oh. Hitler’s Pope.” As Liz remarked later, that Pius XII was some sort of anti-Semitic crypto-Nazi had become the common wisdom.
Whence this preposterous calumny? Although the Pius Wars were launched in 1963 by Rolf Hochhuth’s mendacious play, The Deputy, it wasn’t until John Cornwell stuck the label “Hitler’s Pope” on Pius XII in his 1999 book of that title that the calumny got into general circulation. Cornwell’s account was subsequently demolished by Ronald Rychlak in Hitler, the War, and the Pope – to the point where Cornwell was compelled to concede that he was no longer confident in his judgment on Pius. But Cornwell’s moniker – “Hitler’s Pope” – stuck.
Rabbi David Dalin’s new book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope (Regnery), is a courageous attempt to rebut Pius’s critics by a Jewish scholar who believes that Pius XII should be honored as one of those “righteous gentiles” who saved Jewish lives during Hitler’s reign of anti-Semitic terror. In addition to reminding a 21st century audience that Pius XII was uniformly praised by Jewish leaders between the end of World War II and his death in 1958, Rabbi Dalin demonstrates the falsity of the key charges against Eugenio Pacelli: that he was an anti-Semite; that he had helped Hitler consolidate his power by negotiating the German concordat of 1933; that he favored Nazi Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union; that he was indifferent to the suffering of European Jewry.
In addition to recounting the numerous ways in which Pius XII helped save hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives (including hiding Jewish refugees from Rome at the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo), Dalin also shows how the Pius Wars have gotten enmeshed in several other debates: the debate within the Catholic Church about its nature and mission, and the debate within the wider society on the role of revealed religion and traditional morality in public life. Pius-bashing, it seems, can be both a useful way to press certain internal Catholic agendas and a tool to promote certain explicitly anti-Catholic agendas. The Big Lie, it seems, has a protean quality to it.
Dalin is at his most innovative in his portrait of the man who really was Hitler’s favorite cleric: Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a genuine anti-Semite with real blood on his hands. He had become Grand Mufti of Jerusalem through an incomprehensibly stupid decision by the British authorities in mandatory Palestine; but that didn’t prevent al-Husseini from taking Nazi Germany’s side in the war, to the point where he eventually moved to Berlin. There, he was feted by Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the so-called “Final Solution”to the “Jewish question.” Perhaps the most chilling moment in Dalin’s book comes when a disguised Hajj Amin al-Husseini visits the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he urges the guards and the executioners to “work more diligently.” Hitler had a clerical supporter, to be sure: but it wasn’t Pius XII, it was Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a precursor of contemporary Islamist terrorism.
The Myth of Hitler’s Pope is a kind of lawyer’s argument for the defense, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. If he succeeds in denting the myth that confronted Liz Lev in St. Peter’s, David Dalin will have done everyone who cares about truth a genuine service. There remain, of course, many questions in need of careful exploration – questions about the past with serious implications for the future. How does the pope’s role as a global moral witness co-exist with the diplomacy of the Holy See, which must “play” according to the established rules-of-the-game? How does the “universal pastor of the Church” address a situation in which many of his spiritual sons and daughters are manifestly in the wrong? Those are questions worth debating. The question of whether Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust is not.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.