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Not Hitler’s Pope

What history taught Pius XII about resisting tyrants
Not Hitler's Pope

This year marks the 80th anniversary of one of the landmark moments in the recent history of the Catholic Church—the signing on July 20, 1933, of a concordat between the Vatican and Hitler’s Nazi regime. What makes this event so significant is that it constitutes the starting point for bitter accusations regarding the Catholic Church’s alleged failure to condemn the tyrannical, totalitarian Third Reich and the Holocaust that flowed from it. Ever since the appearance of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, “The Deputy,” in 1963, the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII have been excoriated for their silence before the horrors of the Holocaust.

Recent revelations, based on interviews with a Romanian spymaster, indicate that Hochhuth may have been the dupe of a clever KGB plot to undermine the influence of the Vatican after World War II. But for the last half century, Hochhuth’s charge has put the Vatican on the defensive, particularly during the last decade, when a firestorm of international controversy accompanied Pope Benedict XVI’s approval of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints’ recommendation to name Pius XII “venerable,” a step towards possible canonization. That move triggered new rounds of recrimination about the Vatican’s alleged callousness toward Hitler’s victims, especially Jews, and about the historical issues surrounding Pius XII’s dealings with the Nazis.

Yet lately the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial began softening its view of Pius XII. The wall text criticizing him for not speaking out against Nazi treatment of the Jews has been retitled from “Pope Pius and the Holocaust” to “The Vatican and the Holocaust.” Significantly, Pius’s message of Christmas 1942 is now highlighted, in particular his declaration that “hundreds of thousands of persons, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin, have been consigned to death or slow decline.”

The New York Times at the time observed of Pius XII’s Christmas address, “This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent.” Pius XII’s message was carefully analyzed by Reinhard Heydrich’s branch of the SS, which saw the pope’s message as an attack on the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitism. Calling the Christmas address “a masterpiece of clerical falsification,” the SS reported that the “Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order” and noted his assertion that “all peoples and races are worthy of the same consideration.” “Here,” they argued, “he is clearly speaking of the Jews.”

Piux XII was not, as the title of one book about him charges, “Hitler’s Pope.” And the 80th anniversary of the Reichskonkordat is a timely occasion for a fresh look at how that agreement between the Vatican and Nazi Germany came about.


The concordat with Germany was signed by Pope Pius XI. But it was formulated and negotiated by his close aide, the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Maria Giuseppi Pacelli, who would succeed him as Pope Pius XII. Regulating relations between the Vatican and various nations, concordats in no way amount to official endorsement of a regime. Nonetheless, popular opinion has typically treated them as such.

In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, the Vatican used concordats to safeguard the Church’s financial and geopolitical interests. Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli devoted their energies to protecting the confessional status of the Catholic Church in education and guaranteeing the independence of organizations such as Catholic Youth.

In Germany, no earlier concordat existed. Before German unification under Bismarck in 1871, the Vatican had negotiated treaties with several of the German states, including Bavaria and Prussia, yet no formal agreement with either Wilhelmine or Weimar Germany followed. Because of this lack and fears for the German Church after Hitler came to power in January 1933, Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli sought to normalize relations with Berlin. They worried that the Nazis might turn their secular ideology into a substitute religion that would displace Christianity and become the equivalent of a German national church. They also understood that many German Catholics viewed themselves as a persecuted minority ever since Bismarck’s Kulturkampf in the 1870s. A deal with the new German state would demonstrate the patriotism of German Catholicism.

Already by the mid-1920s, the Vatican recognized the blasphemous evil of Nazism: the worship of the state, the deification of Hitler, the atheistic secularism of the Nazi ideology. But Pius XI and Pacelli felt any condemnation of the movement would rebound against the Church.

One option for dealing with Nazism was off-limits—a papal bull, an official condemnation by the Pope of the Nazi regime. According to Oxford University historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, the leading British scholar of the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation, the use of a papal bull excommunicating a secular ruler was rejected because of the Church’s experiences during the Counter-Reformation. In The Reformation: A History, MacCulloch argues that the 1570 papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I of England “was so generally recognized as a political blunder that it was even remembered in the 1930s when the Papacy considered how to react to Hitler’s regime.”

Honest, idealistic, and fanatically puritanical, Pope Pius V (1566-72) issued a papal bull, Regnans in Excelis, to deprive Elizabeth I of her title as Queen and absolve her subjects “from any type of duty” to her. In his capacity as “Prince over all nations and kingdoms,” Pius V proclaimed that Elizabeth was “a servant of vice,” “a heretic and abetter of heretics,” and merely the “pretended queen of England.”

What followed was a terrible backlash in Tudor England: a wave of persecution against English Catholics, the execution of hundreds of priests, the definitive secession of the Church of England from Rome, the fatal identification of Catholicism with treason, and the loss of tens of thousands of formerly faithful Catholics who decided to remain loyal to the temporal order.

The Vatican is not a sound-bite culture, and the backfires of 1570 taught Cardinal Pacelli during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. As MacCulloch notes, “discreet voices in the Vatican privately recalled the bad precedent” and reminded Church leaders of what had happened.  Much of Cardinal Pacelli’s measured response to Hitler and Nazism rests on this historical experience.

As John Connolly, a scholar of modern European Catholicism at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1945, after Pacelli became Pius XII he pondered and ultimately rejected a condemnation of Hitler. On the eve of World War II, Father John Oesterreicher, a Catholic convert of Jewish descent born in Moravia, and Karl Thieme, a German Catholic, implored the Vatican to release Catholic German soldiers from their oaths of loyalty to Hitler on the grounds that he was about to launch an unjust war. Writing in April 1939, Osterreicher argued that Catholics are “not bound in obedience” to a ruler if the ruler “launches war in criminal fashion.”

The proposal garnered no support. Pacelli—now Pius XII—told to a confidant that a papal bull condemning Nazism or excommunicating Nazis who were Catholics would help neither Catholics nor Jews. And just what Pius XII feared took place in Holland in July 1942. Without informing the Vatican, the cardinal of Utrecht issued a pastoral letter condemning the persecution of Dutch Jews. The Nazis responded by arresting all baptized Dutch Jews, including the philosopher-nun Edith Stein, and sent them to extermination camps.

Fast-forward to a scene decades later and a continent away. During the 1976–83 rule of the military junta in Argentina, the Catholic Church was urged to denounce the regime. Today’s Pope Francis I—then Jorge Bergoglio—served as the provincial of the Jesuit order in Argentina during the 1980s and chose instead to exert indirect pressure on the junta. In The Jesuit, the authorized biography of Bergoglio written by Argentinian journalist Sergio Rubin, Bergoglio revealed that he had hidden people on church property to evade the dragnet. He even once slipped his identity papers to a dissident who resembled him, thereby allowing the man to flee the country. But he never openly confronted, let alone condemned, a regime that was torturing, kidnapping, and murdering thousands of “state enemies.” Rather than castigate the junta for its human rights violations, he publicly supported the regime and sermonized about the need for “patriotic” Catholics.

Bergoglio preferred to operate off-stage, in the wings, ever conscious—like Pope Pius XII—that a public confrontation might incite the wrath of the regime. If Pius XII had spoken out more forcefully, his statements might well have endangered Italian Jews in hiding who were secretly sheltered in the Vatican. Bergoglio harbored similar anxieties about Argentines on the run from the junta. Bergoglio’s seeming failure to oppose state terror publicly was a strategic, pragmatic decision to adopt a surreptitious approach against overwhelming tyrannical power.

In the Nazi era, similarly, the Vatican didn’t wish to inflict on the German Church what had happened when the papacy previously resorted to bulls of excommunication; it preferred to resist through back channels. In his groundbreaking study Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War, Owen Chadwick, dean of historians of Vatican-German relations during the Nazi era (and a non-Catholic), expressed the Papal strategy as follows:

History is long, tyrants are short. They rise, and kill people and suppress monasteries, and close churches. But protest will change nothing; and soon the tyrants come to a bad end, and the Church shakes itself after the persecution … We bow to the storm, and put down our heads, and wait. For we have faith, and know that our day will come.

This view was not just the Vatican’s. In 1925 the Soviet foreign minister, Georgy Chicherin, a friend of the future pope since Pacelli’s days as papal nuncio in Germany, argued that communism would defeat capitalism, but the church might indeed endure and prevail against all secular ideologies. “Rome will prove a harder nut to crack. If Rome did not exist, we would be able to deal with all the various branches of Christianity. They would capitulate before us. Without Rome, religion would die.”


Given the disastrous results of official papal condemnations of national rulers when last issued in the late 16th century, in 1933 a concordat rather than a papal denunciation seemed to Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli a wiser course with Germany’s new leader. They believed that the time to deal with Hitler was when the Third Reich was not yet firmly established: just as Mussolini had needed the endorsement of the Church in Italy to secure his position, so they believed would Hitler in Germany, which was still nominally led by President Paul von Hindenberg. This was a serious misreading of the German situation and an equally serious misjudgment of Hitler.

The Vatican’s desire to broker a deal also arose from its opposition to communism and “godless Russia.” Pope Pius XI had served in Poland during the conflict between Poland and Russia just after World War I, and like many traditional conservatives he viewed communism, with its proclaimed atheism, as the Catholic Church’s most dangerous enemy. Cardinal Pacelli had shared this view ever since his stint as Germany’s papal nuncio during the 1920s, shortly after the communist uprisings in Munich in 1918-19 that temporarily seized power. Pacelli believed German and Italian fascism could function as an effective bulwark against Marxism-Leninism. Most European democracies harbored similar views about the choice between fascism and communism. Hitler ingeniously exploited this belief leading up to World War II: the appeasement policies of various European governments owed much to a perception of Hitler’s non-negotiable anti-communism. The bombshell announcement of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in August 1939 abruptly shattered that illusion.

A lapsed Catholic who regarded all branches of Christianity as degenerate offspring of Judaism, Hitler nonetheless saw a treaty with the Vatican as a title to moral legitimacy and as a diplomatic coup, an act of recognition by the most influential nonpolitical institution in the world. So in the spring of 1933 he made all the right public noises about respect for the church and the state’s jurisdiction being limited to temporal affairs. Privately, he crafted his plan for eliminating all domestic enemies, whereby neutralizing the Catholic Church in Germany would represent a valuable opening move.

The Holy See realized that the Third Reich was an aggressive, power-mad regime. Cardinal Pacelli told Ivone Kirkpatrick, British charge d’affaires at the Vatican, that he viewed the Nazi regime with disgust. Kirkpatrick informed the British Foreign Office that Pacelli “deplored the action of the German government at home, their persecution of the Jews… their reign of terror to which the whole nation was subjected …” Yet Cardinal Pacelli justified the concordat on the grounds that he had to face the reality of the Nazi regime and gain diplomatic leverage with a signed document, for if the German government violated the concordat, Ivone reported, then “the Vatican would have at least a treaty on which to base a protest.”

Given the reputation of the Holy See for glacial speed, negotiations for a concordat in the spring of 1933 proceeded with uncharacteristic haste. Within two weeks of official meetings, the agreement was finalized. In theory it granted much that the Vatican sought: guaranteed independence of the Catholic schools, firm protection for the Catholic press, financial support for Catholic clergy, and state recognition of the rights of special Church institutions such as the Catholic Youth organizations. The concordat’s primary purpose was to safeguard the Church’s activities to administer the sacraments and celebrate Mass: if its sacred, divine functions could proceed, Pacelli reasoned, then the Church could outlast the Nazi regime as it had survived a long list of threats to its existence in the past.

However pleased Hitler was with the Reichskonkordat for the respectability it lent his regime, he didn’t take long to begin violating its terms. By early 1934, the freedom of the Catholic press was infringed, Catholic schools were closed, and in the next two years the Catholic Youth organizations were absorbed into the Hitler Youth movement. Protests from German bishops and the Vatican alike were ignored by the Nazi government.

In light of these treaty violations, Pacelli determined that he had grounds to act. In 1937, after consultations with the German bishops, Pacelli drafted a sharply worded papal encyclical. Putting aside his preferred diplomatic approach, he affirmed that he now had no illusions about the Nazis, who were “false prophets with the pride of Lucifer.”

The encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge, usually translated as “With Burning Anxiety,” owed something to Pius XI’s acerbic directness, but the Germans accurately attributed most of it to Pacelli. He spoke fluent German, and the encyclical was published in German—and meant to be read by German Catholics—instead of the Latin usual for Church documents. Quite clearly, it was designed to send a message, and the Nazis took it as an insult.

Mit Brenneder Sorge was drawn up in Rome, smuggled into Germany by couriers to avoid confiscation, and issued in March 1937 on Palm Sunday. It was read from every Catholic pulpit in Germany. The encyclical represented the most blistering indictment of Nazism by any government or major institution before World War II. While the encyclical specifically skewered Nazi Germany for breaking the concordat, the document also attacked the Nazi doctrines of racism and paganism. Pacelli used strong language, with Hitler himself charged with “aspirations to divinity” and labeled “a mad prophet possessed of repulsive arrogance.”

The German government reacted with immediate outrage. Hitler suppressed the Catholic press, confiscated all copies of the encyclical, and forbade German newspapers to print or report it. The German ambassador to the Vatican, Diego Von Bergen, lodged a formal protest against what he called an unacceptable interference in German domestic affairs. Speaking for the Pope, Cardinal Pacelli dismissed the protest and reaffirmed every accusation leveled in Mit Brennender Sorge.

Relations between the Vatican and the Reich deteriorated, as the Vatican watched with dismay the dramatic events of 1938: the Anschluss with Austria in March, the Munich agreement to carve the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in October, and the terror of Kristallnacht in November, when the Nazis unleashed the fury of the mob against the Jewish community in Germany.

With war on the horizon, Cardinal Pacelli and Pius XI vainly issued a series of diplomatic protests. After the Munich pact, the Vatican announced, “In the past nations had been offered as matrimonial presents; today they are being traded away without their consent.” Regarding the persecution of the Jews, Pius XI told Belgian pilgrims visiting the Vatican that Christians should not “take part in anti-Semitism because in Christ we are all Abraham’s descendants … Spiritually we are all Jews.” In September 1938, when Mussolini instituted anti-Semitic legislation in Italy, Pius XI declared scathingly, “Catholic means universal, but not racialism, nor nationalism, nor separation … One wonders therefore why Italy has felt the need in an unfortunate spirit of imitation to copy the example of Germany.”


Looking back, let us remain vigilant about our own all-too-ready surrender to what Lord Acton identified as “the tyranny of the present.” The Vatican and Pope Pius XII have endured a half-century of sustained criticism for failing to combat the Nazi horrors. Yet it is only fair to ask: who spoke louder at the time? In the mid-1930s, the European powers counseled caution in the hope that Hitler would prove himself a moderate statesman. Even when the regime showed its true face to the world in 1937–38, calls to avoid rash action prevailed. After the Munich pact, Western statesmen voiced support for appeasement; President Roosevelt sent Prime Minister Chamberlain a simple congratulation for the agreement: “Good man.” The list of leading European statesman and intellectuals taken in by Hitler during these years is a long one: Lloyd George, ex-president Herbert Hoover, and G.B. Shaw, among others. Even the otherwise perspicacious Winston Churchill admired Hitler’s “patriotic achievement.”

Some publications in Britain and France, and even in the Catholic press, did raise their voices in protest against Hitler more loudly than did the Vatican, at least before Mit Brennender Sorge in March 1937. The press organs on the left, particularly the Marxist left, condemned the Third Reich unequivocally—at least until the Nazi-Soviet pact. In the U.S., liberal Catholic magazines such as America and Commonweal also criticized Hitler during the early and mid-1930s more strongly than did the Vatican.

July/August 2013Nonetheless, to hold the Vatican and Pius XII guilty of inaction regarding Nazism, when they did speak out after 1937 against the evils of racism and rampant nationalism, is unhistorical. One may contend that a clear condemnation of National Socialism was part of the church’s duty as a teacher on faith and morals. Yet just as plausibly, one can argue that saving lives by not provoking a megalomaniacal dictator like Hitler was more judicious than delivering a grand moral gesture.

The Vatican recognized in the 1930s that it wasn’t living in the Middle Ages. In the Age of Faith, the papacy’s powers were far-reaching and excommunication represented a plausible deterrent to a tyrant, as the German Emperor Henry IV discovered when he had to beg forgiveness at Canossa. But the disastrous blowback when Pope Pius V deployed the ultimate power of a papal bull against Queen Elizabeth I remained seared in the Vatican’s institutional memory. That misfire led to Catholicism being equated with treason in the mind of the English public. No evidence suggests that a similar condemnation of Nazism would have had much effect other than to turn the full force of Hitler’s terror against the Church, while failing to help Jews or other victims of Nazi racism.

The concordat of July 1933 and the Vatican’s subsequent response to Nazism emerged from its historical experience. The Church’s institutional memory is measured not in years but in centuries. Its policy towards Hitler and Nazism was rooted in the conviction that it would ultimately endure this temporal evil as it had others in the past. Imperfect though it was, the conduct of the Vatican in the face of Nazism is no cause for shame when compared to that of its contemporaries. According to the eminent British historian Martin Gilbert, a scholar of World War II, the Christian churches saved a half million Jewish lives during the Holocaust, with the majority of those rescued by Catholic clergy and laity receiving the support of the pope. An estimate that “hundreds of thousands of Jews were saved by the entire Catholic Church under the leadership of Pope Pius XII,” Gilbert stated in an August 2003 interview, “would be absolutely correct.”

Eugenio Pacelli was a diplomat by training and a man of caution by temperament. Whether he was a “saint” or not is for Vatican officials to decide. Certainly there is much to debate. This, however, should be clear: to dub Pius XII “Hitler’s Pope” is almost as absurd as calling Hitler “Pacelli’s Puppet.”

John Rodden is the author of George Orwell: The Politics of Literary Reputation, among other books. John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.