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Manfred Gerstenfeld on Pius XII and the Destruction of the Jews

Filed under: Europe and Israel, World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

The stream of books on Pope Pius XII continues. Dirk Verhofstadt, a Belgian journalist and author, recounts the major issues concerning this pope’s conduct during World War II. He bases his findings on the abundant literature on the subject. This is mainly a descriptive book that brings together much existing information on a great variety of historical issues.

The book begins before the war and then focuses on the persecution of the Jews in many countries. The final section deals with a number of issues, including the role of the Allies during the war, the policy of the Catholic Church, and finally the attitude of Pius XII and other, postwar popes toward the Holocaust.

Verhofstadt comes to the conclusion that Pius XII was guilty of moral failure. He substantiates this by quoting historians such as Carlo Falconi and Saul Friedländer, as well as the Catholic theologian Hans Küng (408-409). According to Verhofstadt, during the first half of the twentieth century the Vatican opted in favor of fascism and Nazism and against communism, socialism, and liberalism.

This choice, Verhofstadt claims, caused Pius XII to remain silent when the Jews were discriminated against, persecuted, deported, and finally murdered. As he puts it in the book’s harshest condemnation: “The interests of the Catholic Church were apparently more important than the lives of millions of Jews in Europe. Their extermination was the price the Catholic Church was willing to pay in order to protect its position and strengthen it” (418).  He adds that, while the crimes against the Jews were committed by the Nazis, this could only happen with the large-scale collaboration of Christians in Germany and the occupied countries.

The importance of this book is that it enables the reader to verify much of what is reported in the news media about Pope Pius XII. In December 2009, the current pope, Benedict XVI, praised Pius’s “heroic virtues” together with those of Pope John Paul II. This moved Pius another step on the path to beatification and ultimately sainthood. After criticism mainly from Jewish sources,[1] the Vatican issued a statement saying that the praise concerned the wartime pope’s “Christian life” and not “the historical impact of all his operative decisions.” For an outsider this seems to indicate that Benedict considers that Pius was a good Catholic leader despite the fact that he remained silent about the genocide of the Jews.

The historian Robert Wistrich of the Hebrew University was the only Israeli on the Vatican-appointed International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission of six scholars, which examined the record of Pope Pius XII during the Shoah. Established in 1999, it suspended its work in 2001 because of the Vatican’s lack of cooperation.

Wistrich stresses that there is much more of historical interest than Pius’s record regarding the extermination of the Jews during the Holocaust. Much will come to light about his neutral attitude toward the German crimes against the Poles, a predominantly Catholic nation. Another issue likely to surface is Pius’s attitude during the war toward the Catholic puppet state in Croatia, which cruelly murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and tens of thousands of Jews.[2]

Similarly, a matter for historical consideration is the Vatican’s postwar support of the “Rat Run,” which helped Nazi war criminals, among them the Croatian Ante Pavelić, escape to Latin America. Accordingly, an evaluation of Pius XII’s policy during and after the war should not be limited to his silence on the genocide of the Jews.

The pope remained largely neutral about the German atrocities against the Polish people. Nor did he condemn the genocidal Catholic Croatian fascist state and its leader Ante Pavelić. This state massacred 350,000 non-Catholics, including thirty thousand Croatian Jews. There is compelling evidence that the Vatican was instrumental in permitting Pavelić to escape from Italy to Argentina in 1947.[3]

Aharon Lopez, a former Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, stated that it is imperative to give historians the time and access to all the relevant material. That would have to include the still-sealed archives. He added: “Any other approach by the Church would indicate that it was ignoring the feelings of the Jewish people on the sensitive subject of the beatification. I believe this to be the best test to determine whether a new attitude indeed prevails in the Church’s thinking, and whether it truly desires to undo the past’s injustices.”[4]

The debate among historians on Pius XII’s moral character will continue in the coming years. It will develop new impetus when ultimately the full archives of the Vatican are opened, which will probably happen near the middle of this decade.

Benedict’s statement on Pius XII gives this debate a major new dimension. It highlights the desire to make Pius a saint, mainly based on how he safeguarded the Church’s interests. While whitewashing the pope’s failings as much as possible, the German Father Peter Gumpel, the postulator of his beatification, has been pushing to accelerate the beatification process. These pressures explain the unprecedented diplomatic efforts of the Vatican to try and convince Yad VaShem to modify the text of the caption under the picture of Pius in its museum.

Beatification and sainthood are part of an internal religious process in which outsiders should have no say. However, the Church is well aware that the beatification of Pius XII may produce strong protests from many circles and not necessarily only from Jews.

In an article in this journal, Sergio Minerbi wrote: “The visit of Benedict XVI [to Israel in May 2009] could have improved the relations between the Vatican and Israel, but was biased by a pro-Palestinian stand. Vatican policy may bring the Jewish-Catholic dialogue to an insurmountable impasse.” Given the latest developments, Minerbi’s supposition has gained credibility

One additional issue should be mentioned. The book’s author is the brother of Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian liberal prime minister. That may explain why this Belgian leader has been very outspoken in a number of apologies for the Belgian authorities’ wartime behavior toward the Jews.[5] In the Dutch-speaking areas, Verhofstadt’s book will provide an almost unlimited supply of negative facts about Pope Pius XII when the subject returns to the news.

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[1] “AJC Disappointed by Vatican’s Latest Move to Honor Pope Pius XII,” AJC News, 19 December 2009; “ADL Deeply Troubled by Move to Put Pius XII Back on Track for Sainthood; Calls for Suspension of Process until Archives Are Opened,” ADL press release, 21 December 2009; “Wiesenthal Center Shocked at Pope Pius Sainthood Moves,” AFP, 21 December 2009; “World Jewish Congress Criticizes Decision to Beatify Pope Pius XII,” World Jewish Congress, 21 December 2009.

[2] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Robert Wistrich, “Reassessing Pope Pius XII’s Attitudes toward the Holocaust,” Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism, 89, 1 November 2009.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Manfred Gerstenfeld, interview with Aharon Lopez, “Jewish-Vatican Relations: The Possible Beatification of Pius XII and Other Unresolved Issues,” in Manfred Gerstenfeld, Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: JCPA, 2003).

[5] (viewed on 24 December 2009).

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DR. MANFRED GERSTENFELD is chairman of the Board of Fellows of the JCPA and an editor of JPSR.