Few topics are as hotly contested, David Kertzer argues, as Pope Pius XII’s “decision to avoid direct public criticism of Hitler or his regime, and to remain publicly silent in the face of the Holocaust.” With the 2020 opening of Pius XII’s archives, scholars have been granted access to new information about his thinking and actions, which have again become the subject of intense scrutiny. No finding, Kertzer argues in an excerpt from his new book on the subject, has been as dramatic as the discovery of lengthy, secret negotiations between Pius XII and Hitler. They reflect, among other things, the pope’s apparent indifference to the fate of the Jews.
Pius XII and Adolf Hitler had no affection for each other. Yet each man had his own reasons for initiating these talks. The pope placed the highest priority on reaching a deal with the Nazi regime to end the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church in the Third Reich and in the lands that it conquered. For his part, Hitler saw an opportunity to end the papal criticism that had become such an irritant under the previous pope. As [the Nazi emissary Prince Philipp] von Hessen had told the pope, Hitler saw only two potential impediments to reaching an understanding: “the [Jewish] question” and the involvement of Catholic clergy in German politics. Priests and bishops should not be permitted to utter any criticism of Nazi policies.
There is no indication that the pope ever brought up the Nazis’ campaign against Europe’s Jews as an issue. (Nor, for that matter, was the pope then expressing any opposition to Mussolini’s own “racial laws” as long as they affected only Italy’s Jews.) As for Hitler’s second concern, the pope repeatedly denied that the Catholic clergy was involved in the political realm. If the pope in fact thought it proper for the Catholic clergy to criticize any of the Nazi regime’s policies other than those that directly affected the Church, he did not insist on the matter.