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Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius Xii Hardcover – 15 Sep 1999
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In the early 1990s, John Cornwell undertook a study of one of the most controversial Popes in Catholic history: Pope Pius XII. Known as the "icebox Pope", Pius XII, the Roman born Eugenio Pacelli, was elected Pope on the eve of the Second World War and ruled with unprecedented power and autocracy until his death at the height of the Cold War in 1958. Pacelli refashioned the role of Pope as a position of unrivalled absolutist power, in his papal edicts and dealings with the most influential figures in 20th-century history, from Hitler and Stalin to Roosevelt and Churchill. Most controversially, Pius was accused of contributing to the fate of the Jews under the Nazis in his sympathetic dealings with Hitler as papal nuncio to Germany throughout the 1920s.
The result of Cornwell's decision to write about Pius is his magnificent and shocking book Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.The author explains that he had initially set out to vindicate Pius's career and as a result obtained access to hitherto restricted documents held at the Vatican. The results of his research, however, left him "in a state I can only describe as moral shock." Cornwell's study "told the story of a bid for unprecedented papal power that by 1933 had drawn the Catholic Church into complicity with the darkest forces of the era ... from an early stage in his career Pacelli betrayed an undeniable antipathy towards the Jews ... his diplomacy in Germany in the 1930s resulted in the betrayal of Catholic political associations that might have challenged Hitler's regime and thwarted the Final Solution." The subsequent account is an engrossing read, revealing a picture of a fascinating but repellent figure, who fashioned an aura of saintliness in the pursuit of ever greater power and authority.
Wherever an authoritarian or reactionary decision was taken by the Church Pacelli was there, signing the Serbian Concordat that aided the onset of the First World War, signing the Reich Concordat with Hitler in 1933, trivialising the Holocaust and even supporting Croatian Fascism throughout the Second World War. Hitler claimed that the Concordat of 1933 would help the Nazis "in the developing struggle against the international Jewry", a situation compounded by Pius's destruction of Catholic opposition to Nazism and refusal to speak out against the Holocaust.
Hitler's Pope brilliantly captures the ascetic, fastidious Pius, from his hypochondria and querulousness to his offhand anti-semitic and racist remarks--such as his request that the Allies should desist from deploying "coloured" soldiers in the relief of Rome in 1944. Cornwell is "convinced that the cumulative verdict of history shows him not to be a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, and our relations with other religions, can best profit by expressing our sincere regret." -- Jerry Brotton
About the Author
John Cornwell is Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, and an award-winning journalist and author. His THIEF IN THE NIGHT: THE DEATH OF POPE JOHN PAUL I (1989) was a world best-seller. He has written on Catholic issues for many publications including The Sunday Times, the Independent, the Observer and the Tablet.
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This book attempts to stip away a lot of the myths surrounding the issue, most importantly concerning Pacelli's negotiating of the Reich Concordat in the 1920s, an issue which led directly to the dissolution of the Catholic Centre Party, one of the major obstacles in Hitler's path to power. Pacelli firmly believed that the Church had no business getting embroiled in political issues, that the Church should be above all such worldly affairs. As a result of this attitude he pursued a strictly neutral stance throughout the war, refusing to condone or condemn one side or the other, even when the evidence of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews of Europe was becoming impossible to ignore.
Pacelli pursued a very authoritarian church, with all power stemming from the Pontiff, unlike the more collegiate course that was occasionally offered as an alternative. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals, all had very little power to act indendepently of their Pope - and their Pope insisted that all representatives of the Church remain above politics. As a result of this attitude, Pacelli was far more sympathetic to the authoritarian states than the democracies - his attitude towards Mussolini, Franco and Hitler is telling.
I'm sure this is not the final word on this issue - the author himself has actually distanced himself from some of his conclusions here, admitting that it is difficult to see, even with the benefit of history, what good could have come from Pacelli speaking out; that his scope for action was limited; that the Pope himself was in a difficult position, in the middle of the capital of Italy, a country at war, an ally of Hitler, that Hitler even contemplated invading the Vatican and abducting the Pope.
But the inevitable damning fact is that the Church could have spoken up and damned the consequences. It did so in Hungary and Poland, where direct action and influence from the Catholic Church had enormous impacts. The Catholic Church was in an unrivalled position to influence the hearts and minds of millions upon millions of people within Europe, within Germany and Italy and all the Axis countries, and it failed to draw upon that currency, even when Jews were being taken from the very heart of Rome, right beneath the Pope's gaze.
My overall impression was this was a fascinating and well-written book. It raises many fundamental dilemmas, especially for Catholics.
I found the first chapters on the early life of Pacelli a little tedious because the author really had very little interesting material to give us. There were few startling revelations. I think this may be because the Vatican "machine" will have had time to delve into his past and "sanitise" it from an early stage.
In fact the early chapters are mainly the public history of the Vatican in Pacelli's youth, with Cornwell merely speculating as to how this might have affected Pacelli personally.
The middle section is more assured about Pacelli's move into public life as Papal Nuncio in Germany. There is a lot more evidence for Cornwell to utilise. The broad picture is clear. Pacelli was blinkered by his Vatican-centric view of the world in which nothing else mattered except the maintenance of Papal authority over the Catholic Church. This section includes what are probably Cornwell's key findings: letters by Pacelli to the Vatican using vile racist language to describe Jews.
While not wishing to condone such sentiments in any way, I wish Cornwell had explored the context of Pacelli's remarks. We live in an era of anti-racism and equal opportunities legislation. Back in Pacelli's day, even "good" people were so steeped in racist, sexist opinions as to be unaware of them. Pacelli was not the only racist in the 1920's. His racism was instinctive and built in. Was he totally to blame for it? Probably not. Did he realise that his opinions would facilitate the implementation of the Endlösung? Probably not.
As he went on to negotiate the Concordat with Hitler in spite of mounting evidence of Nazi brutality against Jews as well as Catholics, we can see Pacelli's foolishness exposed. He had the naivety to assume he could manipulate Hitler, when in fact it was the other way round.
Pacelli's War record is also fairly discussed. He was not all bad: he seems to have been reluctantly involved in an early 1940 German plot against Hitler, but he lacked courage to push it forcefully. Without his push it ran out of steam.
His deafening silence as the Holocaust unfolded is well portrayed.
One thing I wish Cornwell had expanded on was his single sentence saying that the Vatican "played no part in the Post-war settlement."
I think this is hugely significant and needs expanding on. One can readily assume Pacelli wanted a place at The Table in 1945. Even if Stalin wouldn't have him, he could have had a major voice, but did the Americans and British cold-shoulder him for being such a pusillanimous pest during the War? It is interesting to speculate how the Vatican could have influenced the nuclear arms race, the United Nations, etc, if it had been allowed to take a more active stance.
Pacelli's final years show him as a Howard Hughes type recluse who withdrew from normal human interactions. He had no friends, only subordinates. He had his hands wiped with disinfectant by his favourite nun after every audience with ordinary people, in case he caught any germs off them.
The moral of the book is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The real target of the book is the current Pope, John Paul II. In fact there is a whole chapter on him at the end. He has turned out the same arrogant autocrat as Pius XII. He is rapidly using up the reservoir of respect for him around the world, with his crude attempts to drag the Church back to the 19th Century.
This book might be very influential in the debates, which are sure to rage when the next Pope comes to be chosen. The Catholic Church may not be a democracy, but it survives on respect. If its adherents loose that respect, then it is doomed.
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