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One of the enduring controversies of the Catholic Church has been its role, or perhaps more appropriately its lack of role, in speaking out against the Holocaust. Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, has been accused of cowardice, anti-Semitism, a lack of concern for worldly affairs, a bias towards Germany, an inclination towards dictatorialism that made him partial to Fascist societies like Franco's Spain and Hitler's Germany.

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.
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on 5 April 2015
Good read. A factual account of the man behind the public persona
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on 20 February 2017
Interesting account. Should be read with Dalin's book "the myth of Hitler's pope".
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on 27 September 2014
The author selects his vocabulary with the intention of setting Pius XII In an unfavourable light. What he has succeeded in doing, in my opinion, is in showing a man who, in his anxiety to resist the efforts of Communism in Russia, Mexico and Spain to destroy his Church, made an alliance with a power which, although hostile to Communism, was equally hostile to the Church of Rome and indeed to all forms of religion, and thereby rendered himself powerless to make an effective stand against it.
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on 6 August 2016
Even the picture on the cover is misleading. Note that the two soldiers in steel helmets are not wearing Nazi insignia (an eagle and swastika on the right breast). In fact the photo was taken in 1927 and shows the future pope leaving a reception for the president of the Weimar Republic.
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on 25 January 2000
Book Review "Hitler's Pope: the Secret History of Pope Pius XII" by John Cornwell (Published by Viking, 1999)
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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on 23 July 2008
Cornwall's book is a tremendous research effort and highly readable. He starts out trying to disprove accusations that Pope Pius XII stopped his church from protesting Nazi atrocities. But the research leads to a far more painful truth. For any who promote the separation of government from religious values, this book poses hard questions. The Church's agreements with fascist rulers involved a trade: government support for religious institutions, in exchange for church silence on political affairs. As the 1933 Concordat with Nazi Germany said,

"In consideration of the guarantees afforded by the conditions of this treaty, and of legislation protecting the rights and freedom of the Catholic Church in the Reich ..., the Holy See will ensure a ban on all clergy and members of religious congregations from political party activity."

Cornwall explores the unfolding implications of this split between loyalties. As Hitler later said, "When they attempt by any other means -- writings, encyclicals, etc. -- to assume rights which belong only to the state, we will push them back into their proper spiritual activity." And as Pope Pius XII would later explain, the Church must avoid "being compromised in defense of Christian principles and humanity by being drawn into purely man-made politics ... the Church is only interested in upholding her legacy of Truth. ... The purely worldly problems, in which the Jewish people may see themselves involved, are of no interest to her."

Cornwall is the best kind of scholar, driven by a personal and spiritual need to understand the truth. The questions he pursues are directly relevant today, for Christians, Muslims, or anyone. To what extent has the goal of protecting religion from the world served to protect governments from moral opposition? What have we learned about the role and aim of religion in the world?

--author of Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story
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on 13 April 2000
Take two subjects of perennial interest - World War Two and the papacy - and combine them. You should be on to a winner. John Cornwell almost does it here - but not quite. To take the positive side first, the book is awesome in its detail and the apparent thoroughness of its research. The negative side is that this isn't a "warts and all" picture, but one that concentrates almost exclusively on the "warts". Hindsight is used far too often and John Cornwell makes the fatal mistake of judging one period by the standards of another. The picture of Pius XII that emerges to the reader who can pick his or her way through all this is one of a rather sad man whose priorities were in entirely the wrong order at a time when it was vitally important to have them right. I'm not sure that that's what John Cornwell intended.
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on 25 August 2014
Fascinating book on overlapping power interests of the Vatican and national-socialism, originally intended by the author as an apology, but turning out to be an indictment of the gifted Eugenio Pacielli (Pope Pius XII).
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on 25 May 2011
Shocking and astounding in equal measure if I was not already an ex Roman Catholic I would be after reading this book!
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