Pope Pius XII (1876-1958) became pope in in 1939, mere months before Hitler invaded Poland, starting World War II. He had a tense relationship with the fascist dictators of the Axis Powers and the government leaders of the Allies. Throughout the war, Pope Pius received requests from Jewish leaders and ambassadors of Allied countries to denounce the Nazi Party, and the systematic murders of millions of men, women and children. Nevertheless, for most of the war, Pope Pius XII refused to criticize Nazi Germany. When, by chance, he decided to voice any dissatisfaction with Hitler’s policies, he reduced his complaints to vague generalities about war and death, never mentioning the Jews.
Only after 1942 did Pope Pius XII begin to use his powerful diplomatic influence to save Jewish lives. When Germany sent its military to occupy Rome in 1943, thousands of Jews were hidden in Vatican buildings and its affiliate monasteries and convents. The pope, along with the Allied Powers and various other organizations and political leaders, were able to pressure Hungary into ending the deportation of its Jewish population to Germany in 1944. Pope Pius XII also convinced thirteen countries in South America to accept Jewish refugees and he aided thousands of Bulgarian Jews to reach what would soon become Israel. With all of these deeds, however, Pope Pius XII rarely, if ever, condemned Hitler in a verbal public speech or a published editorial.
Even though the pope did not openly refute or question Hitler, Pope Pius XII took a very different stance toward the leader of Nazi Germany from the shadowy realm of espionage and subterfuge. Before Germany invaded France, the pope encouraged a plot to assassinate the Nazi Führer, but before the conspirators could enact their plan, a separate assassin failed to kill Hitler. Security understandably tightened as a result of the attempt, and the conspirators working with the pope lost their nerve. Next, a man named Josef Müller, a member of the German resistance, made contact with Pope Pius XII and they began to conceive of another plot. This time they planned to blow up Adolph Hitler’s airplane. This assassination attempt also failed and the Gestapo arrested Josef Müller in 1943. The last assassination attempt Pope Pius gave his blessing to (but was not a participant of the conspiracy), was the Valkyrie plot spearheaded by Colonel Claus von Stauffenburg. The colonel planted a bomb in the same room as the Führer on July 20, 1944, but as always, Hitler stubbornly refused to die to any hand but his own. The Führer survived and Stauffenberg was executed the very next day.
Pope Pius XII remains a widely controversial person, and the debate on his deeds and misdeed will not end soon. Critics of the pope point out that he never challenged the Holocaust during WWII, and he only began aiding Jews once the war was nearing its end. On the other hand, Pope Pius was aware of, and sometimes involved in, multiple plots to assassinate Adolph Hitler spanning from 1939-1944, and he did, indeed, eventually help multiple thousands of Jews to escape the clutches of the Nazis. There is no simple answer on how to judge Pope Pius XII’s thoughts and actions.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- “Pope Vs. Hitler,” directed by Christopher Cassel, 2016.