Rome, Italy · July 20, 1933

On this date in 1933 in Rome, represen­ta­tives of German Pre­si­dent Paul von Hin­den­burg and Pope Pius XI (1922–1939), among them Vati­can Sec­re­tary of State Euge­nio Pa­celli (later Pope Pius XII), announced that a con­cor­dat (treaty) had been forged between the Holy See and the German Reich. The Reichs­kon­kor­dat was a major propa­ganda coup for the Nazis, in power nearly six months. It gave the impres­sion that the Nazi regime of German Chan­cel­lor Adolf Hitler, who had acquired quasi-dicta­torial powers through the Enabling Act of March 23, 1933, posed no threat to Ger­man churches, not­with­standing the omi­nous opening lines in the con­cor­dat that stated rela­tions between the two en­tities must be regu­lated “in a way acceptable to both parties.”

Within the week Pacelli, the chief author of the con­cor­dat, was forced to defend the Holy See in the first of two arti­cles in the Vati­can’s newspaper, L’Osser­va­tore Romano. Soon after rati­fi­ca­tion the Vati­can began reporting breaches of the con­cor­dat. Catho­lic critics with­in Germany were forced to mute their responses to the state’s inter­fer­ence in reli­gious matters and to mis­deeds Nazi radi­cals com­mitted against the Church and its organi­za­tions. In time the Holy See issued the papal encyc­lical Mit Bren­nender Sorge (“With Burning Con­cern”). Written in German, not the usual Latin, it was read in all German Catho­lic churches on Palm Sunday 1937, a day when church atten­dance was highest. Pius XI’s en­cyc­lical con­demned the pagan­ism of Nazi ideo­logy, the myth of race and blood, and the bas­tard­ized Nazi con­ception of God. It warned Catho­lics that the growing Nazi ideo­logy, which exalted one race over all others, was in­com­patible with Catholicism. Over 300,000 copies were circulated.

The day after Palm Sunday, bullies from the German secret state police (Geheime Staats­polizei, known by its acronym Gestapo) raided church offices and seized every copy they could lay their hands on. Pri­vately Pacelli fumed over “the actions of the German Govern­ment at home, their perse­cu­tion of the Jews, their pro­ceeding against poli­tical oppo­nents, [and] the reign of ter­ror to which the whole nation [is] sub­jected”—this to the British am­bas­sador to Rome. With the excep­tion of Pius XI’s 1937 en­cyc­lical, the Holy See’s dif­fer­ences with Nazi Germany were gen­er­ally not aired in public. Some histo­rians have char­ac­ter­ized Pacelli (Pius XII) and his papacy as having an “ambig­u­ous record” and responding weakly to the Holo­caust, which is what the newly opened Vati­can archives suggest according to the most recent visi­tors who have mined its con­tents. Despite the urgent pleas of priests, rabbis, and Allied diplo­mats during the war in Europe, Pius XII refused to con­demn, in the words of one of the pope’s most recent bio­graphers, “the Nazis’ ongoing exter­mi­na­tion of Europe’s Jews,” including the depor­ta­tion of more than 1,000 Roman Jews to the Auschwitz-Bir­kenau exter­mi­na­tion camp in 1943, of which only 16 survived.

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

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

Above: Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (seated, center) at the signing of the Reichs­kon­kordat on July 20, 1933, in Rome. Seated to Pacelli’s right is German Vice-Chan­cel­lor Franz von Papen. Between 1933 and 1939 Pacelli issued dozens of pro­test vio­lations of the Reichs­kon­kordat, which at the out­set he had hoped would pro­tect the rights of Catho­lics under the new German govern­ment of Adolf Hitler. Pacelli’s actions as sec­re­tary of state and later as Pope Pius XII have gen­erated con­tro­versy, par­tic­u­larly on the sub­ject of the Holo­caust. An entire library of books has been built either defending Pius XII’s papacy or taking him to task (the “Pius Wars”). His detrac­tors have accused him of every­thing from anti-Semi­tism to col­luding with the Nazis (“Hitler’s pope”). Based on newly opened Vatican archives and new explo­sive material, David Kertzer, author of The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler (2022), has con­cluded, “As a moral leader Pius XII must be judged a failure.” Other people insist the Catho­lic Church did more than any other reli­gious body to save Jewish lives, occa­sion­ally through Pius XII’s per­sonal inter­ven­tion; e.g., Pius in­structed papal diplo­mats to aid per­se­cuted Jews in Nazi-occu­pied nations, he contri­buted money to aid des­per­ate Jews, he opened Catho­lic facil­ities in the Vati­can and in other parts of Rome and Italy to shelter thou­sands of Jews from the Nazis, and he gave direct face-to-face orders to pro­tect Jews from the Nazis. In the end, with Pius XII’s help a remark­able four-fifths of the Jewish popu­la­tion of Catholic Italy escaped Hitler’s Final Solution.

Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII), Germany, 1922Pacelli's coronation as Pope Pius XII, Vatican, March 12, 1939

Left: Pacelli, Apostolic Nuncio (ambas­sador) to Bavaria (1917–1925), pays 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 when he was Vatican secretary of state.

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