Friday, May 1, 2009

Hitler's Pope

by John Cornwell

Alright, I just finished this one last weekend.

First, the title is inflammatory, which bother's me. It's a common publisher's trick: Put "Hitler" or "Shakespeare" in your book's title and it will sell more. The actual text of this book is much fairer to the character of Pius XII than this title implies.

Anyway, Pius XII became Pope in 1939 and therefore bears the brunt of historical scrutiny in regards to what the Vatican did and did not do during the Holocaust. The author of this book points out the dishonest back-and-forth that has gone on between this Pope's supporters and detractors, with most texts being extremist reactions to the other side, making them either unfairly judgmental or blindly supportive.

Because Cornwell purports to offer a more balanced assessment of Pius XII, the title seems dishonest. But enough about that.

In the end Cornwell does indeed come down on the side of condemning Pius XII and calls him "Hitler's Pope" not because he was Hitler's pawn per se, but because his attitudes, personality, priorities and circumstances made him an inadvertent enabler of Hitler's rise to power. In other words, there couldn't have been a Pope more suited to Hitler's agenda.

These are, of course, controversial things to say. Bear in mind that I am not saying them, just reporting on a book that I read.

I am inclined to take Cornwell's position, however, but not because this book says things that I want to believe. I am not Catholic, but I am also not some anti-religious cynic who latches on to every bit of slander thrown towards the Vatican. I am inclined to believe Cornwell because he has written a fine piece of academic history: rigorously researched, well-organized, includes many interpretations of events, admits faulty knowledge, and supports arguments by finding suitable examples and counter-examples. I believe what this book says because it is very convincing, and not emotionally tainted.

This does mean the book is a bit dry. I can stomach dry history. Maybe you can't. I found it fascinating at first because I was learning so much about Vatican politics and history, subjects I knew basically nothing about before now. This is one of those books that reminds me that history is so much more intricate and intersting and nuanced than your war-obsessed high school teachers ever let you realize.

Anyway, Cornwell takes a different approach to the Pius XII controversies in that he writes a biography of the man, not so much a chronicle of the events. This is a useful approach because Eugenio Pacelli, the man who would become Pius XII, was an influential Vatican politician well before he ever became Pope and his influence on Church history - and the Vatican's relationship with Germany - began decades before World War II.

There is a lot of content covered in here, and even summarizing it would exceed the scope of this blog post. I feel the most important points to stress are that Pacelli is painted as a driving force in the Vatican's push for autocracy and heirarchy. This coupled with a legitmate fear of violent, atheistic communism caused him to make the same mistake nearly every world leader made during that era: They assumed Facism was the lesser of two evils when compared to Communism.

After that, Pacelli's silence during the holocaust is a many-layered thing. First there was the reality that the Vatican, being surrounded by Facist Italy, simply did not have the diplomatic freedom to speak its mind without fear of reprisal. The Pope certainly had no military solution against Mussolini or Hitler if they ever decided he was causing too much trouble by weilding his moral authority, and this is fair enough.

Second, however, is evidence of mild anti-semitism in Pacelli, distorted as it was by the mistaken belief that a Jewish conspiracy lie behind international Communism. The argument that Pacelli kept quiet against the Facists for the sake of peace falls apart when compared with his vocal stance against oppressive Communist regimes after WWII. In the years after the Holocaust, Pius XII demonstrated the Catholic Church's historic ability to resist inhumane oppression on a global scale, so why not the Nazis? (Bear in mind I am oversimplifying matters in ways the Cornwell does not).

Anyway, if you like your history dry and well-researched, and want a definitive volume on this subject, I highly recommend this book.