Pius XII: the legends and the truth
Jewish opinion was reserved about the recent Vatican document expressing repentance for the Christian record at the time of the Holocaust. The key complaint was that the role of Pius XII had not been criticised. Sir Owen Chadwick, author of Britain and the Vatican in the Second World War, has made a study of those years. THE Vatican document on the Holocaust issued last week is inadequate, for how should it be otherwise? Then why issue it? The case for saying nothing about the Holocaust is strong. No one can be convincingly repentant about someone else?s crime ? or in this case someone else?s failure to resist crime as bravely as they should. If they cannot be convincing by the nature of the exercise, the words will sound hollow; and hollow words are better not spoken. My father might have hampered those thugs in murdering your father, I am very sorry about it and will try to do better myself if someone ever tries to murder you ? the notion of such a speech is preposterous.
But there is a still stronger case for not making repentant noises about a crime which you did not commit or a failure to resist crime in which you did not share. The Holocaust is the most brutal thing that ever happened. There are still people who suffer from it. There are still people living who remember fathers or mothers or brothers or sisters who died in some camp in eastern Europe though they were innocent of wrong. Nothing that anyone could ever say in the way of apology or sorrow or repentance can ever be adequate; anything that is said is bound to be resented. If you wish to avoid resentment (which is a good thing to avoid), say nothing.
The historian has a further reason for doubting, a reason not shared by those who care nothing about history. These are events which happened from 57 to 53 years ago. For the historian that is a short time. For a people?s memory it is not short; and a people?s memory forms legends easily, it deals in crude terms and not in subtleties, and it can have little chance of understanding what happened except in mere outline ? because it cannot get inside the state of mind that afflicted the people of the time as they lived in the midst of murder.
In this case legends grew unaided because there was a real failure on the part of many churchmen; because something horribly wrong really happened; and they also grew because propaganda fostered them ? propaganda in the first instance by Stalin?s men in the Cold War, when the Vatican appeared to be part of the American anti-Communist alliance and Stalin wished to shatter the Pope?s reputation. There was an Italian general election of 1948 which the Communists had a chance of winning and all the West thought it disastrous if Italy went politically to the East; and the anti-Communists, aided by the Vatican and American money, used unscrupulous tactics to see that the Communists did not win. Stalin had a political need to make this Pope contemptible.
So the fables came. It is still believed by many people that Pope Pius XII was a friend of the Nazis, or that he said nothing at all against racial murder during the war, or that he was so frightened for his own skin or his own palace that he was too timid to say anything whatever, or that he arranged Vatican money to help monsters like Eichmann to escape to South America.
If you issue a document which repents Catholic failure, you enter a realm which at base is a question of history, of what happened, and why, and need it have happened? You do not correct the legends. You cannot even try. So no one will believe you if you do. History is much too complex to be painted with a brush that daubs a few crude red or purple lines. The legends are a daub, you cannot refute them with a different daub, they cannot be covered up by shovelling on whitewash. The only thing that corrects them is more history; and history takes time, too long a time for people?s comfort, but it is the nature of history that it is only little by little that the truth about the past is found. No Vatican documents of the sort issued last week can mark a stage in a slow and steady enquiry into truth. That is not the purpose of such a publication.
The document is least sufficient on Pius XII himself. It says about him nothing that is not true for the historian. It records how he helped many Jews privately, how Italian Jews afterwards respected him and were grateful to him, how wise he was. All true, though we doubt whether even the wisest can be wise every day. Yet once we are in history we cry for other things that are not said. This is a controversial Pope. There may be moments even in a statesman?s life when wisdom is not the first quality in demand, when what a moral situation needs is an explosion and let wisdom be damned.
In The Tablet last week Roland Hill, an informed and sympathetic observer, blames the Pope for the moment in October 1943 when an SS detachment under Eichmann?s chief assistant, Danneker, whom an unwise but accurate Frenchman had already called sale Boche to his face, tried to round up the Jews in Rome. They caught over 1,000 and sent them off on a train to Poland. The Pope did and said nothing except telling his Secretary of State to press justice on the German ambassador. Roland Hill wonders whether he should have acted far more dramatically ? by going to the Termini railway station and seeing off the death-bearing train with protest and prayer.
BUT if Roland Hill or I had been in the Vatican that October day, I do not believe that either of us would have acted as he suggested. When the SS arrived there were some 7,000 Jews in Rome. Six out of seven had slipped into hiding, many of them in church property, monastic cellars, even nuns? enclosures. The important thing to achieve (and the only thing achievable) is that there shall be no more ransacking, that the SS and their masters shall be satisfied that they have done what can be done. At such a tense moment neither Roland nor I would have risked drama. There is a legend building up because it is so hard to get inside the event.
Let us make a real charge sheet, and not a legendary canard, about Pius XII: first, he was not quite the right man in the right place. He was elected in 1939 when war loomed, specially because he would be neutral between the nations. That was necessary, because he was the first and only Pope to be elected when the Fascists ruled Rome. Three years later the world had changed. This was a quiet man, shy, other-worldly, rather remote from ordinary people but charming at need, trained in that world at the end of the nineteenth century when the Vatican walls felt very high, like a sanctuary against a hostile world, good at languages and cultured, but very hesitant in making decisions. His personality reminds one of those icon figures now on view at London?s Royal Academy in the Holy Russia exhibition ? heaven-bent, contemplating haloes, static, distant.
Secondly, this hesitancy led to a real charge. By the end of September 1942 he had no doubt that Jews were being murdered in eastern Europe on a huge scale. Like everyone else he had no idea how many: no one could believe the wilder estimates (which actually were short of the truth). But the evidence now made it certain and not rumour, nor an atrocity story for purposes of propaganda. It happened. He knew. He must speak. What he was to say went through draft after draft after draft. It took nearly three months of indecision before on Christmas Eve he used his broadcast to condemn all persecution for reasons of race. It is wise to think before one speaks, it is very wise to think deeply before one speaks, but there are moments in history when it is better just to speak without thinking.
There is a third charge that is real. He kept Mgr Orsenigo as his nuncio in Berlin. Orsenigo was even weaker than the British ambassador Sir Neville Henderson in the last years of appeasement ? though, to be fair, Henderson represented a power which had bombers and Orsenigo a power which had not. The Pope knew how weak with the Nazis he was. The Pope was a personal friend of Preysing, the tough Catholic Bishop of Berlin; and Preysing?s opinion of Orsenigo was none too episcopal. Yet the Pope kept Orsenigo in Berlin throughout the war. Was it that anybody in Berlin was better than nobody, and if he recalled Orsenigo he would never be allowed to send a replacement? Or did it suit his still nature to keep, as responsible for papal relations with Nazis, a clergyman so likely to put up with whatever happened? But these, and more like them, are historical questions which cannot be argued in a papal document for today. We need to accept that though no such message can possibly satisfy those whom it is intended to please, this document does mark one more step in the Church?s post-war condemnation of anti-Semitism, and as such is to be welcomed wholeheartedly despite just a query about its history.