Rome, Italy March 2, 1939

On this date in 1939 in Vatican City, Roman Catholic Cardi­nal Eugenio Pacelli was elected pope on his sixty-third birth­day. His coro­nation took place ten days later. Pacelli took the name Pius XII. Pius’ actions during the Holo­caust are contro­ver­sial. Critics have accused him of every­thing from anti-Semi­tism to col­luding with the Nazis. His defenders argue that his mostly silent diplo­macy saved hun­dreds of thousands of innocent victims and Jews from Nazi terror.

Before being elected to the Papacy six months before the out­break of World War II in Europe, Cardi­nal Pacelli had lived twelve years in Bavaria, the birth­place of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party, serving as Apos­tolic Nuncio for all Ger­many. He was well aware of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic prac­tices and their extraor­di­nary pen­chant for bru­talizing their enemies. Reacting to wide­spread criti­cism of the Vati­can’s con­cor­dat with Hitler’s govern­ment in July 1933—an agreement that he, as then-Vatican State Secre­tary, had been instru­men­tal in drafting—the future pope pri­vately told the Brit­ish ambas­sador in Rome that the Catho­lic Church deplored the actions of the Ger­man govern­ment at home, their per­se­cution of Jews, their pro­ceeding against poli­ti­cal oppo­nents, and the reign of terror to which they subjected Ger­many and Austria. Between 1933 and 1939 Pacelli issued fifty-five protests of vio­la­tions of the Reichs­kon­kordat.

In his first encyclical letter as pope, issued a month and a half after the German inva­sion of Poland, he called for the restora­tion of that coun­try’s inde­pen­dence, denounced racism, and called for love, com­pas­sion, and cha­rity to pre­vail over war. For much of the war, Pius XII main­tained a public front of neu­tral­ity, indif­fer­ence, or silence while German atro­cities were com­mitted out­side Italy. Privately and occa­sion­ally publicly he inter­ceded to help Jews; for example, in July 1944 he pushed the Hunga­rian regent, Adm. Miklós Horthy, to cease his govern­ment’s depor­ta­tion of Jews to Nazi death camps. When the German SS (or Schutz­staffel, the elite mili­tary unit and special police force of the Nazi Party) began fer­reting out Jews from inside Italy in 1943 in places where the Wehr­macht (regular German armed forces) held sway, such as in Benito Mussolini’s so-called Republic of Salò in North­ern Italy, Pius XII directed the Catho­lic Church to make sub­stan­tial efforts to save Italian Jews. In the end, four-fifths of the Jewish pop­u­lation of Italy escaped slaughter—a remarkable record of moral courage.

Eugenio Marìa Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli (Pope Pius XII), 1876–1958

Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli at signing of Reichskonkordat, Rome, July 20, 1933

Above: Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (seated, center) at the signing in Rome of the July 20, 1933, treaty that out­lined the respec­tive roles of the Catholic Church and state in the German Reich—the Reichs­kon­kordat. Seated to Pacelli’s right is Hitler’s vice-chan­cel­lor, Franz von Papen. Between 1933 and 1939 Pacelli issued dozens of protest vio­lations of the Reichs­kon­kordat, which he had hoped would pro­tect the rights of Catho­lic lay people, Catho­lic clergy, and Church pro­perty during Hitler’s admin­is­tra­tion. Pacelli’s actions as sec­re­tary of state and later as Pius XII have gen­erated con­tro­versy, par­tic­u­larly on the sub­ject of the Holo­caust. An entire library of books has been built either defending his papacy or taking him to task. His detractors have accused him of every­thing from anti-Semi­tism to col­luding with the Nazis (“Hitler’s pope”). Others claim the Catho­lic Church did more than any other reli­gious body to save Jewish lives, occa­sion­ally through the pope’s per­sonal inter­ven­tion; e.g., when Pius XII instructed papal diplo­mats to aid per­se­cuted Jews in occu­pied nations, contri­buted money to aid des­per­ate Jews, opened Catho­lic facil­ities in the Vati­can and in other parts of Rome and Italy to shelter thou­sands of Jews from the Nazis, and gave direct face-to-face orders to protect Jews from the Nazis.

Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador) Eugenio Pacelli, Bavaria, Germany 1922 Eugenio Pacelli's coronation as Pope Pius XII, Rome, March 12, 1939

Left: Pacelli, Apostolic Nuncio (ambassador) to Bavaria (1917–1925), is seen paying a visit to a group of bishops in 1922. Pacelli was simultaneously Apostolic Nuncio to Germany (1920–1930).

Right: Pope Pius XII on his day of coronation, March 12, 1939. Pacelli (1876–1958) took the same papal name as his prede­cessor, a title used exclu­sively by Ital­ian popes. When Pacelli was elected pope, the Nazi regime registered strong pro­tests and called Pius XII the “Jewish Pope” because of his earlier condemnation of German race laws.

Coronation of Pope Pius XII (in Italian), March 12, 1939