Pope and Devil: the Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich, by Hubert Wolf, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. 316 pp. $29.95.
Between 2003 and 2006, the Vatican opened its archives from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922–1939). This made available millions of pages about Eugenio Pacelli, who served as papal nuncio in Germany from 1917 until 1929 and as Papal Secretary of State from 1930 until he became Pope Pius XII in 1939. Today, unfortunately, he is known to many as “Hitler’s Pope” due to his perceived silence about the genocide during the Second World War. This book should go a long way towards changing that.
In Pope and Devil, Hubert Wolf reports on this newly available material and gives the reader a fresh view of Pacelli and the Vatican’s response to the rise of Nazism. The first part of the book focuses on Pacelli’s years in Germany. As nuncio to Bavaria, Pacelli’s first task was to present Pope Benedict XV’s peace plan to the German government. Unfortunately, it was not accepted. Wolf argues that this “traumatized” Pacelli and the lesson he took from it was about the need for the Holy See’s “absolute neutrality in political and military conflicts.” Here Wolf comes up short.
During the war, Pius XII cooperated with the Allies by providing them with information about German troop movements and by supporting extension of the Lend-Lease Program to the USSR. He also involved himself in German efforts to overthrow Hitler at the start of World War II. Late in the war, President Roosevelt thanked the pope for the “frequent action which the Holy See has taken . . . to render assistance to the victims of racial and religious persecutions.” These facts overwhelm Wolf’s after-the-fact psychoanalysis.
In fact, of greatest interest in this first section of the book are Pacelli’s reports back to Rome in which he expresses his concern over the rise of National Socialism and his horror over the spread of antisemitism. As early as 1923, he warns of Hitler’s hatred of Jews and Catholics. The following year he calls Nazism “perhaps the most dangerous heresy of our time.”
The second part of Wolf’s book deals with the 1928 condemnation by the Roman Holy Office of that “particular hatred which today commonly goes by the name of anti-Semitism.” Wolf explains that this came about as a result of a Catholic reform movement that aimed to facilitate Jewish conversions, in part by purging the reference to “the perfidious Jews” in the Good Friday liturgy. Pope Pius XI approved the statement condemning antisemitism, but the Church did not change the Good Friday prayer until the 1960s.
Wolf argues that a 1928 change in the liturgy would have helped combat antisemitism better than did the direct statement by the Roman Holy Office that year or Pope Pius XI’s 1937 anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge. It should be noted, however, that when the Good Friday prayer was written, “perfidious” did not have the pejorative connotation that it now carries—it simply meant “non-believing.” Thus, this was a prayer that people who did not believe in Jesus as savior be converted so that they could share in eternity. That is a far cry from the type of antisemitism that would come to dominate Germany in the following decade.
The most important section of Wolf’s book is his examination of the connections between the German bishops, the Catholic Center Party, and the negotiations leading to the concordat (the agreement signed by representatives of Germany and the Holy See not long after Hitler’s rise to power). Critics often claim that Pacelli stripped the German bishops and the Center Party of their power and signed the concordat in order to strengthen the papacy. As this reviewer wrote in an academic paper published in 2001, that thesis never stood up to close scrutiny. In 2001, however, one had to rely on witnesses and circumstantial evidence to disprove the thesis. Wolf’s book sets it aside, once and for all, with archival documents. Pacelli, far from manipulating the Church in Germany, was disappointed when the Center Party and the German bishops undercut his diplomacy with preemptive concessions to the Nazis.
When this reviewer first heard of Pope and Devil, it was from a colleague who had written very favorably about Pope Pius XII. That colleague was thrilled because of the contents of the primary documents that Wolf analyzed. Those documents do indeed exonerate Pius of the charges of antisemitism or culpable negligence. Nevertheless, there is a disheartening aspect to this book.
This is the third book to appear in English written by authors who have studied the newly available archival documents. The other books are Peter Godman’s Hitler and the Vatican and Gerhard Bessier’s The Holy See and Hitler’s Germany. All three of these books reveal archival documents that reflect well on the pope and the Vatican’s leadership during the war. Nevertheless, due to their preconceived notions about Pius XII, both Wolf and Godman try to explain away much of that new evidence. They also miss or ignore numerous papal statements, actions, and interventions on behalf of Jews.
Wolf, for instance, suggests that the Vatican ignored both Kristallnacht and Edith Stein’s plea for intervention with the new German government. He is wrong on both counts. Moreover, he writes that the concordat was Hitler’s first agreement under international law. In reality, the concordat was preceded by agreements that Hitler’s Germany had reached with the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and Italy. Additionally, the League of Nations recognized Germany’s new government before the concordat was signed, and Palestinian Jews even signed an agreement with Hitler’s Germany before the concordat was ratified. Errors and oversights like this reflect a certain inability to look beyond assumptions that were formed based upon older, less reliable evidence.
Wolf’s Pope and Devil is important because of the attention it draws to archival evidence that many people have not previously seen. That evidence seriously undercuts arguments that are often offered against Pope Pius XII. It is just too bad that the author does not have more faith in the evidence that he uncovers.
Ronald J. Rychlak
University of Mississippi