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The Vatican and World War II

The Second World War involved much more than the production of weapons, the deployment of military forces, and the clash of enemies on land, at sea, and in the air. Nations maneuvered to preserve their interests on diplomatic battlefields as well, and even the Roman Catholic Church -- with its extensive extra-national presence around the globe -- had no choice but to participate in the jousting of the earthly realm, if only to maintain its neutrality.

In most books dealing with the Vatican during World War II, the recurring thread is that of the Holy See's relationship with Hitler's Germany and in particular the Vatican's knowledge of and response to the Holocaust. Almost every account agrees that the Pope's public pronouncements about the Holocaust during the war amount to little more than a few vague generalities couched in ambiguous language, notably a single sentence in his twenty-six-page Christmas message of 1942. This, however, along with the Pope's private statements and his personal attitude, prove open to many shades of interpretation by a parade of authors with their own perspectives and opinions.

Perhaps the most charitable interpretation advanced by scholars of the Vatican's public stance during the war is that by its strict and uncompromising neutrality it avoided taking hopeless steps which would have stripped the Holy See of all power to influence events and indeed would have merely lengthened the lists of Hitler's victims.

On the other hand, the most damning interpretation of events, as registered by more than one author, charges the Vatican intentionally turned a blind eye to the destruction of the Jews, Gypsies, and others in order that the Church would be certain to retain its international position in the event of a German victory, or even to help preserve a strong and unified Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism.

At this point it's important to emphasize that this survey makes no judgment about the issues or the varying interpretations of them. Rather, this is merely a listing of the most important and accessible titles relating to the history of the Vatican's place in the global conflagration of the Second World War. Where notes appear, they are simply thumbnail descriptions of the words and conclusions of the authors themselves. Just as the authors investigated the evidence and evaluated the facts to draw their own conclusions, so that same exercise is left to readers.

Alvarez, David and Robert A. Graham. Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage against the Vatican, 1939-1945. London: Frank Cass and Company, 1997

Blet, Pierre. Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican. Paulist Press, 1999

Chadwick, Owen. Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986
   The British minister to the Vatican was stranded there throughout much of the war, during which time he maintained a diary. This is a rather gentlemanly approach to that period in which Chadwick is content to tell what happened -- largely as seen through the diary -- without investigating too deeply why it happened or what its broader meaning might be. The author is sympathetic to the Pope's position but fails to draw any strong conclusions. According to one commentator, "Like Pius XII, Professor Chadwick is silent."

Cornwell, John. Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. New York: Viking, 1999
   In the newest, most vociferous, and most documented indictment of the Pope, Cornwell moves beyond blaming Eugenio Pacelli (as Papal Nuncio in Germany before the war, as Vatican Secretary of State, and eventually as Pope Pius XII) for sins of omission, going so far as to accuse him of anti-Semitism and fear of Bolshevism to the extent of willingly sacrificing anything and anyone to the Nazis in order to ensure the Church retained its full share of power. While Cornwell unearths fresh evidence, raises new questions, reopens old ones, and strives to demonstrate consistent patterns of behavior, in the end he offers no smoking gun and all remains subject to interpretation.

Falconi, Carlo. The Silence of Pius XII. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1970

Friedlander, Saul. Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980
   Originally published in 1964, Friedlander's work was the first to present the documents of the German Foreign Office relating to the Vatican, primarily the reports of the German ambassadors at the Holy See. His was a careful, scholarly effort to assemble and review those materials while recognizing they formed only a small part of the diplomatic record and indeed could not be verified for accuracy until the Vatican archives became available. Based on that limited evidence, Friedlander raised some carefully qualified but troubling questions about the Pope's relationship with the Nazi state, but emphasized that the questions could not be answered without further study.

Graham, Robert A. The Vatican and Communism in World War II: What Really Happened?. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996

Lapide, Pinchas E. The Last Three Popes and the Jews. New York: Hawthorne Books, 1967
   Very sympathetic toward the Vatican; called "an enthusiastic exoneration" of the Pope's wartime record.

Lewy, Guenter. The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964

Morley, John F. Vatican Diplomacy and the Jews during the Holocaust, 1939-1943. New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1980
   A nation by nation review of Vatican relations with Romania, France, Slovakia, Germany, Poland, Croatia, and Italy during the first years of the war, plus numerous lengthy translations of Vatican diplomatic communications. Reviewing the overall wartime record, Morley indicts the Holy See for what he sees as its failure to do "all that it was possible to do."

Rhodes, Anthony. The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, 1922-1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973
   A broad survey beginning in 1922, but also a comparatively superficial account in which Rhodes tends to ignore some issues which other authors mark as key elements in understanding the Vatican's conduct and motives. Rhodes' descriptions of a few points are flatly contradicted by other accounts. Fully aware of others' accusations, Rhodes concludes the Holy See steered the only possible safe course during the war.

Scholder, Klaus. The Churches and the Third Reich. London: 1987, 1988 (Two volumes)

Some of these titles are still in print while others are not. Even the out-of-print items are fairly accessible and can be tracked down through secondhand dealers without too much difficulty.

Reviewed 12 December 1999
Copyright © 1999 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone


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