1939 was not an easy year to become Pope. The Vatican in its wisdom elected Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli as its pontiff. Pacelli had spent much of his church career in Germany and, as Cardinal Secretary of State, had been responsible for drawing up treaties with the nascent Nazi government, so seemed like the right man for the job.
Pius XI had seen fit to enter into the skin-saving Lateran Treaty with fascist Italy in 1929 and so Pius XII’s descision to vigorously pursue something similar with Hitler may charitably be seen as a concomitant act of preservation, with the bonus of extending Canon law (a sort of catholic and more benevolent version of Sharia) over his flock within the Reich.
By 1942 the extent of the Holocaust became unavoidable. Pius condemned plans of “death or progressive extinction” for some races, but did not mention where this was taking place, or who was undertaking it, despite the extensive reports bombarding him from Catholics in Eastern Europe facing extinction along with millions of Jews. For many his silence and inaction condemns him.
For the last half century, debate has raged over Pius’s links with the Nazis, particularly in relation to the Holocaust. The Church has defended him, and declared him ‘venerable’ in 2009 largely due to his efforts to protect Jews.
Critics – most famously John Cornwell in the trenchant Hitler’s Pope – have attacked him for not doing enough to help Jews or Polish Catholics and cite the pontiff’s removal of Vatican censure on the far-right group Action Francais as evidence of his ani-semitism. Yet his death was widely mourned by Jewish communities across the world, and Cornwell later retracted the most polemical arguments in his book.
The debate over whether Pius XII’s weakness was motivated – either by pusillanimy or a willing complicity with Nazi genocide – rages on.