Pope Pius XII and the Nazis—A Fresh Viewpoint
DID he do the right thing by not speaking out? The controversy over Pius XII’s silence on Nazi atrocities during World War II has raged intermittently for three decades. Critics say that a papal protest to the Nazis might have saved millions of lives. But the present pope, Paul VI, insists that “an attitude of protest and condemnation would have been not only futile but harmful.”
But why bring the matter up again? Is it not just whipping a dead issue? No. The Vatican itself is keeping it alive. Officials have even set aside their fifty-year-delay policy on publishing archive documents. They realize that, unless people do understand, critics have a most powerful argument to illustrate moral failure in the Church.
Many sincere Church members want to know the answer. They know that even Pope Paul VI was very much involved in matters back there as a close aide to Pius. Thus a Jesuit committee has been publishing selected documents from the Vatican archives since 1965. The latest, titled “The Holy See and the War Victims,” came out in April 1974. Does it provide any fresh insights?
A Deeper Issue
News reports give the limelight to documentary evidence that the Vatican had received much information about Nazi atrocities from a very early date. But much more significant is another little-noticed item. It shows that one of Pius XII’s trusted aides raised an issue that probes much deeper than the question of why the pope did not speak out against the Nazis. “Monsignor” Domenico Tardini (later a cardinal) is reported to have asked in exasperation:
“That the Holy See cannot make Hitler behave, everybody understands. But that it cannot keep a priest on the leash—who can understand this?”
Shallow debate over how much good the voice of Pius XII would have done has all but obscured this far more fundamental issue. Honest Christians are forced to face the question: How could Nazi atrocities even have been committed in the first place if it were not for the cooperation of the people and their spiritual leaders? Ninety-five percent of Germans back there were either Catholic or Protestant. Nearly 32 million, over 40 percent, were Catholic, as was almost the entire population of Germany’s European allies, Austria and Italy. Even among the dreaded S.S., almost a fourth were still Catholic in 1939, despite S.S. leadership pressures to resign.1
Pius XII himself lays bare this very issue in a recently published private letter to the priest who caused “Msgr.” Tardini’s exasperation. As president, the priest, Jozef Tiso,* ruled the Nazi protectorate of Slovakia throughout the war (1939-45). Pius wrote “Monsignor” Tiso that he had hoped that the Slovak government and people, “Catholic almost entirely, would never proceed with the forcible removal of persons belonging to the Jewish race,” and the fact that “such measures are carried out among a people of great Catholic traditions, by a government which declares it is their follower and custodian,” distressed him greatly.—April 7, 1943.2
But how could any form of cooperation with the Nazi racial extermination program even be considered among a people who the pope himself said were ‘Catholic almost entirely and of great Catholic traditions’? Surely the moral teachings of the Church would make it unthinkable for “Msgr.” Tiso and his flock to have any part in genocide! History shows whether they did. Honest-hearted church members certainly desire an explanation for such conduct as well as that of the other so-called “Christian” nations involved with the Nazis.
The Vatican’s own Cardinal Eugène Tisserant* supplies one reason with the candor and openness of a private letter* to a friend. After the fall of France in 1940, he wrote complaining to Cardinal Suhard of Paris that “Fascist ideology and Hitlerism have transformed the consciences of the young, and those under thirty-five are willing to commit any crime for any purpose ordered by their leader.” But how could these Church-trained consciences be so easily “transformed”? After all, Hitler had been working on them only about seven years, while the Church had been training its flock for well over a thousand!
“Vital Point of Christianity”
Surely Pope Pius could do something about this Nazi encroachment into traditional Church territory—the human conscience! But Cardinal Tisserant mourns:
“Since the beginning of November , I have persistently requested the Holy See to issue an encyclical on the duty of the individual to obey the dictates of conscience, because this is the vital point of Christianity.” (Italics added)
However, history reveals no papal statements during the war on this “vital point of Christianity.” In fact, Tisserant went on to make the melancholy forecast: “I fear that history may have reason to reproach the Holy See with having pursued a policy of convenience to itself and very little else. This is sad in the extreme.”3
No doubt the pope’s “policy” of diplomatic care in dealing with the Nazis did ensure the “convenience” of survival for the Vatican and the Church. Pius himself advised the German bishops that “the danger of reprisals and pressures,” or worse, called for “restraint” in their pronouncements “in order to avoid greater evils. This is one of the motives,” he wrote, “for the limitations” he put on his own declarations.—April 30, 1943.4
This explanation helps us to understand why Pius conducted himself as carefully as he did. But it leaves unexplained this: Why ministers, priests and their flocks stood by to witness, cooperated with, or actually committed the Nazi atrocities—almost to the last person. What happened to their consciences?
Church and Conscience
The answer must lie with the training those consciences received. How was a loyal Catholic, for example, to understand Pius XII’s own December 8, 1939, pastoral letter, Asperis Commoti Anxietatibus, addressed to chaplains in the various armies of the warring nations, of whom over 500 served in Hitler’s army? He urged the chaplains on both sides to have confidence in their respective military bishops, viewing the war as a manifestation of the will of a heavenly Father who always turns evil into good, and “as fighters under the flags of their country to fight also for the Church.”5 (Italics added)
This perplexing contradiction is demonstrated again by the pope’s letters to the bishops on both sides. In an August 6, 1940, letter to the German bishops, Pius expressed his admiration for Catholics who “loyal unto death give proof of their willingness to share the sacrifices and sufferings of the other Volksgenossen [fellow Germans].”6 Yet just nine months before, the pope had addressed a similar message to the French bishops, counseling them that they had a right to support all measures to defend their country against these very same “loyal” German Catholics!7 Italian Church metropolitans received like counsel just before Italy joined the war against the Allies.8
Thus when the head of the Church did speak on matters affecting conscience, as did almost all of his clergymen, he applauded the consciences of those who ‘loyally’ served in military forces of any stripe. In fact, when the Vatican’s Berlin correspondent for the official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, once asked Pius XII whether he would protest the extermination of the Jews, the pope told him that he could “not forget that millions of Catholics serve in the German armies. Shall I bring them into conflicts of conscience?”9
Were Protestant churchmen any less responsible? Well, note what the Ecclesiastical Council of the German Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, the largest Protestant body, telegrammed personally to Hitler on June 30, 1941:
“May Almighty God assist you and our nation against the double enemy [Britain and Russia]. The victory shall be ours, to gain which must be the main point of our aspirations and actions. . . . in all her prayers [the Church] is with you and with our peerless soldiers who now are about to eliminate the root of this pestilence with heavy blows.”10
With this kind of direction from their “shepherds,” what else could the flocks do? What they actually did do speaks for itself, does it not?
Was Hitler’s low estimate of the churches away back in 1933 correct? He boasted scornfully that “the parsons . . . will betray their God to us. They will betray anything for the sake of their miserable little jobs and incomes. . . . Why should we quarrel? They will swallow anything in order to keep their material advantages.”11 (Hitler’s government did continue large state subsidies to the major churches throughout the war.)12
To bring home the reality of what Hitler was saying about the churches, a person only needs to ask himself: “If I had been a sincere church member in Germany, Austria, or Italy during that period, what would my spiritual leaders have advised me—and what would I have done?” Suppose you were to say: “I would not have served Hitler.” What would you have faced, not from the Nazis, but from your own spiritual leaders?
Consciences Face the Church
Search as he would, Catholic scholar and educator Gordon Zahn could find documented evidence of just one among 32 million German Catholics who conscientiously refused to serve in Hitler’s armies. Aside from churchmen prosecuted for political opposition to the Nazis, he found a total of seven persons between Germany and Catholic Austria who conscientiously refused to take the military oath.13 You probably wonder why there were so few.
Zahn answers that his extensive interviews with people, who knew these men produced the “flat assurance voiced by almost every informant that any Catholic who decided to refuse military service would have received no support whatsoever from his spiritual leaders.” Ironically, those few who did refuse and stuck to it were actually an embarrassment to their “spiritual leaders.”
For example, in requesting clemency from the Nazi court for a priest who refused, Archbishop Konrad Gröber of Freiburg wrote that the priest was “an idealist who has grown ever more estranged from reality. . . . who wanted to help his Volk and Vaterland but who proceeded from the wrong premises.”14 Others were denied Communion by prison chaplains for violating their “Christian duty” to take the Nazi military oath.15
The documented case of an Austrian peasant, Franz Jägerstätter, illustrates what a church member actually faced from his spiritual leaders. Jägerstätter was finally imprisoned for his stand at Linz, Austria, and later beheaded. The Catholic prison chaplain writes that he had “tried to make it clear to him that he must keep his own and his family’s welfare in mind even in following his personal ideals and principles”—just as Jägerstätter’s village priest had argued long before Jägerstätter was imprisoned. “He seemed to have come around to seeing my point,” says the chaplain, “and promised to follow my recommendation and take the [Nazi military] oath.”16
Did this advice come from a Nazi? No—it came from a priest in good standing long after the war! But that was not the only pressure from spiritual leaders. Bishop Fliesser of the same Linz diocese reveals that he, too, had “known Jägerstätter personally,” and argued “to no avail” that Jägerstätter was not responsible “for the actions of the [Nazi] civil authority.” The bishop said that his was “a completely exceptional case, one more to be marveled at than copied.” Bishop Fliesser was writing to a priest after the war in explanation of his refusal to allow publication of Jägerstätter’s story in the Linz diocesan paper. The story might “create confusion and disturb consciences,” he said.
Thus Bishop Fliesser viewed a man who followed his conscience as an “exceptional case”—not to be copied. “I consider the greater heroes to be those exemplary young Catholic men, seminarians, priests, and heads of families who fought and died in heroic fulfillment of duty,” he continued. Even the Nazi’s court-appointed attorney Feldmann used this argument in an attempt to get Jägerstätter to compromise, noting the millions of Catholics, including clergy, engaged in combat with a “clear” conscience. Finally, Feldmann recalls, he challenged him to cite a single instance in which a bishop in any way discouraged Nazi military service.17 He knew of none. Do you?
Then, returning to the rejected article titled “Heroic Consistency,” Bishop Fliesser spoke reproachfully of “the Bibelforschers [Jehovah’s witnesses] and Adventists who, in their ‘consistency,’ preferred to die in concentration camps rather than bear arms.” He said they were influenced by an “erroneous conscience,” and that “for the instruction of men, the better models” are the “heroes” who fought, influenced by “a clear and correct conscience.”18
Hence, even after the war, an Austrian bishop in good standing still viewed as “correct” the consciences of church members who allowed themselves to be herded into Nazi armies to slaughter fellow church members. Those who faced death in the concentration camps rather than serve the Nazis, the bishop implies, were errant cowards. What do you think?
The Church backed Bishop Fliesser’s view of these Christian Bibelforschers with deeds under Hitler’s government. The Passau, Germany, Catholic diocesan gazette of May 6, 1933, reports that the Church accepted an assignment from the Nazis to report any Bavarian Jehovah’s witnesses who still practiced their faith after they were banned the previous month.19
Significantly, the courageous stand of these particular Christians had some influence on the Catholic Franz Jägerstätter. Gordon Zahn reports that his village pastor noted that “Franz had often spoken with admiration of their faithfulness,” and villagers who knew him made much of the fact that he “spent hours together discussing religion and studying the Bible” with his Bibelforscher cousin, the only non-Catholic in the village.20
Even Nazi defamation programs against the Jews did not cow the Witnesses from their conscientious obligation to express Christian kindness toward anyone. Former editor of the Danzinger Informator, J. Kirschbaum, wrote in the Yiddish New York daily, Der Tog of July 2, 1939, reporting that in Danzig, Poland, “when like an epidemic all kinds of food stores began to post the well-known signs ‘Juden unerẅunscht’ (Jews not wanted),” the Witnesses provided “their Jewish neighbors or mere acquaintances with food or milk without asking any reward for it.”
This Jewish editor also marveled at the German Witness children who, in contrast to their Catholic and Protestant schoolmates, conscientiously “refuse to salute the Swastika and to use the salute ‘Heil Hitler!’ and all the threats against the children . . . are of no avail. The children declare clearly and distinctly, that God alone may be hailed by ‘Heil!’, but no man, since such action is blasphemy.”
Why the Contrast?
In the face of such historical facts, thinking Christians must ask: Why could an organization with all the resources and well over a thousand years to train the consciences of the faithful produce evidence of just one German Catholic among 32 million (.000003 percent) whose conscience would not allow him to fight for the Nazis? Yet among the 19,000 German Jehovah’s witnesses in 1933, “a higher proportion (97 per cent) suffered some form of persecution than any of the other churches,” according to historian J. S. Conway. They are first on the “List of Sects Prohibited Since 1933” circulated by Gestapo headquarters on June 7, 1939.—The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45, pp. 196, 370.
Why were Jehovah’s witnesses so persecuted? In contrast to some churchmen persecuted for anti-Nazi political activity, Conway reports that their resistance “was centred chiefly against any form of collaboration with the Nazis and against service in the army. Basing their case on Biblical commandment, they refused to take up arms even against the nation’s enemies. . . . they were thus all practically brought under sentence of death.” (P. 198; italics added) The Nazis actually did execute 203 of the 253 Witnesses sentenced to death, 635 died in prison and 6,019 received prison sentences totaling over 13,924 years.
But were not the Catholics and Protestants who served Hitler under the same “Biblical commandment”? Yes, they were, just as the spiritual leaders in Jesus’ day knew God’s law. Yet Jesus marveled: “How ingeniously you get round the commandment of God in order to preserve your own tradition!”—Mark 7:9, Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
You can observe for yourself “how ingeniously” today’s religious leaders “get round the commandment of God,” by turning to the New Catholic Encyclopedia under the heading “Pacifism.” There, among other things, this encyclopedia asserts: “Nor is there any intrinsic contradiction between a just war and Christ’s command that we love our enemies. A just war expresses hatred of the evil deed rather than of the evildoer. . . . Catholics are certainly free to form their own opinion whether the conditions required for justification are likely to be fulfilled in any future war . . .”—1967 ed., Vol. 10, p. 856; see also “War, Morality of.”
How does this ‘ingenious’ reasoning work out in practice? Well, how many wars can you find in history involving Catholic or Protestant populations—for any cause—that failed to meet the “conditions required for justification,” so that the flock refused to fight for their political masters? If the churches faced the same circumstances today as they did under the Nazis, do you honestly believe they would perform differently? Can European and American Catholics, for example, feel secure in the belief that the millions of Polish, Hungarian and Czech Catholics would not attack their brothers in the faith, should there be an East-West confrontation? Or is the more realistic view that expressed in the Catholic magazine, St. Anthony Messenger, that priests and ministers “often convey the impression that they will bless any war or adventure the leaders of the state decide to launch”?—May 1973, p. 21.
Yet Christ Jesus, whose disciples they say they are, gave this rule of Christian discipleship: “By this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” He also told a disciple seeking to defend him by force—certainly a “just” cause: “Put back thy sword into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.”—John 13:35; Matt. 26:52, Catholic Confraternity Version, 1941 Edition.
Thus if you were asked to identify those who are truly worthy to bear the name “Christian” today, using the guidelines established by Jesus himself, could you honestly select any of Christendom’s churches? Who have, in actual practice, displayed the identifying mark of real love set out by Christ himself? Who do “not love in word, neither with the tongue, but in deed and in truth”? (1 John 3:18, Catholic Confraternity Version) The historical evidence speaks for itself. Honest persons will think it over. Many are now taking advantage of the help that Jehovah’s witnesses freely offer to develop a Bible-trained Christian conscience that will not fail under test.
1. Internal S.S. report, National Archives, Washington, T-580, roll 42, file 245.
2. The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators, Anthony Rhodes, 1973, p. 347.
3. Tisserant to Suhard, June 11, 1940 (stored in the Bundesarchiv at Koblenz, R 43 II/1440a).
4. Documentation Catholique, Paris, Feb. 2, 1964.
5. Published in Seelsorge und kirchliche Verwaltung im Krieg, Konrad Hoffmann, editor, 1940, p. 144.
6. Pius XII to the German bishops, copy in the Diocesan Archives at Regensburg.
7. Quoted in Was sagen die Weltkirchen zu diesem Krieg? Zeugnisse und Urteile, Matthes Ziegler, 1940, pp. 109-112.
8. Message of April 24, 1940, quoted in Der Vatikan und der Krieg, Alberto Giovannetti, 1961, p. 300.
9. Statement on March 11, 1963, in Berlin, published in Summa iniuria oder Durfte der Papst schweigen?, Fritz J. Raddatz, editor, 1963, p. 223.
10. Kirchliches Jahrbuch für die Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland 1933-1944 (Gütersloh, 1948), pp. 478-9.
11. The Voice of Destruction, Hermann Rauschning, 1940, pp. 50, 53.
12. Article 17 of the Concordat Between Germany and the Holy See, July 20, 1933, Documents on German Foreign Policy, Series D, Vol. VIII, pp. 896f.
13. German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, Gordon Zahn, 1962, pp. 54, 55.
14. Copy in files of the Freiburg Archdiocesan chancery.
15. Franz Reinisch: Ein Martyrer unserer Zeit, Heinrich Kreuzberg, 1953, p. 86.
16. In Solitary Witness, Gordon Zahn, 1964, p. 75.
17. Ibid., p. 86.
18. Letter of February 27, 1946, in St. Radegund, Austria, parish “Jägerstätter file.”
19. Oberhirtliches Verordnungsblatt für die Diözese Passau, No. 10, May 6, 1933, pp. 50-51.
20. In Solitary Witness, Gordon Zahn, 1964, pp. 108-110.
“Throughout his life he was active in parish work . . . condemned to death [after the war] as the Slovak ‘Quisling,’ and executed despite powerful appeals for clemency.”—New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967 ed.) Vol. 14, pp. 173, 174.
Dean of the Sacred College of Cardinals until his death in 1972.
Found by Germans looting the Paris archbishop’s palace and later authenticated by Tisserant.
[Picture on page 18]
How is it possible that men with church-trained consciences were willing to commit any crime ordered by their leaders?
[Pictures on page 19]
Who was responsible?
[Picture on page 20]
[New York Post, August 27, 1940, Blue Final Edition, p. 15]
Nazi Army Praised
German Catholic Bishops Loyal
[New York Times, December 7, 1941, Late City Edition, p. 33]
‘WAR PRAYER’ FOR REICH
Catholic Bishops at Fulda Ask Blessing and Victory
[New York Times, September 25, 1939, Late City Edition, p.6]