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History hasn’t looked kindly on the Catholic Church during WW II. The conventional narrative is not the whole story

The Pope wanted Hitler dead: The secret story of the Vatican's war to kill the Nazi despotAdolf Hitler, Pope Pius XII (Credit: Wikimedia)
Excerpted from “Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler”

At six in the morning on Sunday, 12 March, a procession snaked toward the bronze doors of St. Peter’s. Swiss Guards led the line, followed by barefoot friars with belts of rope. Pius took his place at the end, borne on a portable throne. Ostrich plumes stirred silently to either side, like quotation marks.

Pius entered the basilica to a blare of silver trumpets and a burst of applause. Through pillars of incense he blessed the faces. At the High Altar, attendants placed on his shoulders a wool strip interwoven with black crosses.

Outside, police pushed back the crowds. People climbed onto ledges and balanced on chimneys, straining to see the palace balcony.

At noon Pius emerged. The cardinal deacon stood alongside him. Onto Pacelli’s dark head he lowered a crown of pearls, shaped like a beehive. “Receive this Tiara,” he said, “and know that you are the father of kings, the ruler of the world.”

Germany’s ambassador to the Holy See, Diego von Bergen, reportedly said of the ceremony: “Very moving and beautiful, but it will be the last.”

*

As Pacelli was crowned, Hitler at tended a state ceremony in Berlin. In a Memorial Day speech at the State Opera House, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder said, “Wherever we gain a foothold, we will maintain it! Wherever a gap appears, we will bridge it! . . . Germany strikes swiftly and strongly!” Hitler reviewed honor guards, then placed a wreath at a memorial to the Unknown Soldier. That same day, he issued orders for his soldiers to occupy Czechoslovakia.

On 15 March the German army entered Prague. Through snow and mist, on ice-bound roads, Hitler followed in his three-axel Mercedes, its bulletproof windows up. Himmler’s gang of 800 SS officers hunted undesirables. A papal agent cabled Rome, with “details obtained confidentially,” reporting the arrests of all who “had spoken and written against the Third Reich and its Führer.” Soon 487 Czech and Slovak Jesuits landed in prison camps, where it was “a common sight,” one witness said, “to see a priest dressed in rags, exhausted, pulling a car and behind him a youth in SA [Storm Troop] uniform, whip in hand.”

Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia put Europe in crisis. He had scrapped his pledge to respect Czech integrity, made at Munich six months before, which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said guaranteed “peace in our time.” Now London condemned “Germany’s attempt to obtain world domination, which it was in the interest of all countries to resist.” Poland’s government, facing a German ultimatum over the disputed Danzig corridor, mobilized its troops. On 18 March, the papal agent in Warsaw reported “a state of tension” between the Reich and Poland “which could have the most serious consequences.” Another intelligence report reaching the Vatican called the situation “desperately grave.”

Perhaps no pope in nearly a millennium had taken power amid such general fear. The scene paralleled that in 1073, when Charlemagne’s old empire imploded, and Europe needed only a spark to burn. “Even the election of the pope stood in the shadow of the Swastika,” Nazi labor leader Robert Ley boasted. “I am sure they spoke of nothing else than how to find a candidate for the chair of St. Peter who was more or less up to dealing with Adolf Hitler.”

*

The political crisis had in fact produced a political pope. Amid the gathering storm, the cardinals had elected the candidate most skilled in statecraft, in the quickest conclave in four centuries. His long career in the papal foreign service made Pacelli the dean of Church diplomats. He had hunted on horseback with Prussian generals, endured at dinner parties the rants of exiled kings, faced down armed revolutionaries with just his jeweled cross. As cardinal secretary of state, he had discreetly aligned with friendly states, and won Catholic rights from hostile ones. Useful to every government, a lackey to none, he impressed one German diplomat as “a politician to the high extreme.”

Politics were in Pacelli’s blood. His grandfather had been interior minister of the Papal States, a belt of territories bigger than Denmark, which popes had ruled since the Dark Ages. Believing that these lands kept popes politically independent, the Pacellis fought to preserve them against Italian nationalists. The Pacellis lost. By 1870 the pope ruled only Vatican City, a diamond-shaped kingdom the size of a golf course. Born in Rome six years later, raised in the shadow of St. Peter’s, Eugenio Pacelli inherited a highly political sense of mission. As an altar boy, he prayed for the Papal States; in school essays, he protested secular claims; and as pope, he saw politics as religion by other means.

Some thought his priestly mixing in politics a contradiction. Pacelli contained many contradictions. He visited more countries, and spoke more languages, than any previous pope—yet remained a homebody, who lived with his mother until he was forty-one. Eager to meet children, unafraid to deal with dictators, he was timid with bishops and priests. He led one of the planet’s most public lives, and one of its loneliest. He was familiar to billions, but his best friend was a goldfinch. He was open with strangers, pensive with friends. His aides could not see into his soul. To some he did not seem “a human being with impulses, emotions, passions”—but others recalled him weeping over the fate of the Jews. One observer found him “pathetic and tremendous,” another “despotic and insecure.” Half of him, it seemed, was always counteracting the other half.

A dual devotion to piety and politics clove him deeply. No one could call him a mere Machiavellian, a Medici-pope: he said Mass daily, communed with God for hours, reported visions of Jesus and Mary. Visitors remarked on his saintly appearance; one called him “a man like a ray of light.” Yet those who thought Pius not of this world were mistaken. Hyperspirituality, a withdrawal into the sphere of the purely religious, found no favor with him. A US intelligence officer in Rome noted how much time Pius devoted to politics and how closely he supervised all aspects of the Vatican Foreign Office. While writing an encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ, he was also assessing the likely strategic impact of atomic weapons. He judged them a “useful means of defense.”

Even some who liked Pacelli disliked his concern with worldly power. “One is tempted to say that attention to the political is too much,” wrote Jacques Maritain, the French postwar ambassador to the Vatican, “considering the essential role of the Church.” The Church’s essential role, after all, was to save souls. But in practice, the spiritual purpose entailed a temporal one: the achievement of political conditions under which souls could be saved. Priests must baptize, say Mass, and consecrate marriages without interference from the state. A fear of state power structured Church thought: the Caesars had killed Peter and Paul, and Jesus.

The pope therefore did not have one role, but two. He had to render to God what was God’s, and keep Caesar at bay. Every pope was in part a politician; some led armies. The papacy Pacelli inherited was as bipolar as he was. He merely encompassed, in compressed form, the existential problem of the Church: how to be a spiritual institution in a physical and highly political world.