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. Son of a Vatican lawyer, Pacelli took the name Pius XII. Pius’ actions during the Holo­caust are contro­ver­sial. Critics have accused him of every­thing from anti-Semi­tism, to cozying up to or out­right col­luding with Fascists and Nazis, and to his failure to publicly con­demn the Nazis for the murder of Europe’s Jews. His defenders argue that his mostly silent diplo­macy saved hun­dreds of thousands of innocent victims and Jews from Nazi terror and Nazi genocide in Italy and the rest of Europe.

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 1933 Reichs­konkordat. Put simply, tensions between the Holy See and the Nazis have a long history.

In his first encyclical letter as pope, issued a month and a half after the German inva­sion of Poland, Pius XII 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 main­tained a public front of neu­tral­ity, indif­fer­ence, or silence while German atro­cities were com­mitted out­side Italy. Privately and occa­sion­ally publicly the pontiff 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. (The word “concordat” describes the Vati­can’s agree­ments with secular govern­ments.) 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 (e.g., in con­vents), and gave direct face-to-face orders to protect Jews from the Nazis. In 2009 Bene­dict XVI (German-born pontiff from 2005 to 2013) approved a decree recog­nizing Pius’s “heroic virtues,” a first step toward saint­hood, a step that angered many Jews. The decades-long con­tro­versy over his war­time papacy is thought to have halted his ele­va­tion to saint­hood not­with­standing his “heroic virtues.” Bene­dict’s suc­ces­sor, Pope Francis, announced in early 2019 that the Vati­can’s Secret Archive on Pius XII would be opened in March 2020 after years of pres­sure from his­to­rians and Jewish cam­paigners like Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holo­caust memo­rial and museum. “The church isn’t afraid of history,” Francis told staff at the Vati­can archives. Yad Vashem wel­comed Pope Francis’ deci­sion to allow visitors to access sealed docu­ments about Pius XII, saying that it will “enable objec­tive and open research as well as com­pre­hen­sive dis­course on issues relating to the con­duct of the Vati­can in par­tic­u­lar, and the Catholic church in general, during the Holocaust.”

Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador) Eugenio Pacelli, Bavaria, Germany 1922Eugenio 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

Continue Reading