fb-pixel Skip to main content

A deadly silence

Assessing the moral failings of Pope Pius XII during World War II

Boris Séméniako for The Boston Globe

The passing of three-quarters of a century has cleared up almost all the mysteries buried in the rubble of World War II. Among those few that remain, one retains enormous intellectual, emotional, and spiritual power: the role of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican in the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy and in the destruction of European Jewry in roundups, mass killings, and concentration camps.

Now we have the definitive answer. “The Pope at War” comes after a Brown University scholar plowed through thousands of pages of Vatican documents newly released by Pope Francis, and it helps us sort out the question of whether the pontiff was a silent collaborator with the dictators or a quiet conspirator against them — and whether by his silence he promoted antisemitism or whether by his actions he mounted a subtle campaign to aid the Jews at the hour of their greatest peril.


The answer, David I. Kertzer tells us in nearly 500 pages of spellbinding detail, is far more nuanced than the usual narrative, with the result that his book is far more interesting, far more revelatory, and far more relevant to today’s struggles than the many scores of earlier volumes that set out to resolve one of history’s most persistent and perplexing questions.

In the end, Kertzer concludes that Pius was a “moral failure,” having failed to move beyond his determination to preserve the role, power, and prerogatives of the church and to view the catastrophe outside the windows of the Vatican and across the continent of Europe as a mortal threat to the values he espoused, in theory and then in reluctant, opaque, highly subtle, almost grudging public statements.

His goals repeatedly changed but always were complementary: To preserve the church for a future with Germany as the dominant power in Europe as Nazi forces swept through Central Europe, Belgium, and France. To preserve the place of the church in its home base of Italy as Benito Mussolini’s ties with Adolf Hitler hardened. To keep Communism out of Italy as Soviet military power advanced. To assure that Rome, and especially the Vatican, wasn’t bombed or attacked on the ground as the Allies began their march to liberate Europe.


Much of this was justified by fears that if he spoke out for the Jews, or railed against the Nazis, or questioned the motives and methods of Mussolini, he would alienate or endanger Catholics.

Silence was easier, safer, more prudent. Silence was deadly.

Pius XII stands out, not as a moral sentinel or beacon, but as a tragic interregnum between Pius XI (who loathed Mussolini and Hitler and who earned their loathing in return) and John XXIII (regarded then as now largely as a hero to Catholics and Jews alike). Mussolini had in mind an ideal successor to the earlier Pius, lobbied for him, and breathed a sigh of relief when on the third ballot Eugenio Pacelli became the new vicar of Christ and, as it turned out, the wartime pope. Hitler — among many other things, a superb judge of character — rushed to congratulate the new pontiff.

Kertzer shows us, through documents and prodigious outside research, how Pius swiftly developed a strategy for addressing an embattled continent at a time of military and moral conflict: Stay steady, stay quiet, focus on matters of faith rather than matters of state, emphasize the uplifting virtues of peace as a “sublime Heavenly gift that is the desire of all good souls” and as the “fruit of charity and justice.”


His verdict: “It was a view heavily identified with Hitler and Mussolini, who had long complained that the Versailles Treaty ending the Great War could never be a true peace, for, they argued, it was unjust.”

Therein lies the key to understanding the three great continental figures of this time — the men in brown shirts and black shirts and the man who tried but failed to fit in the shoes of the fisherman — and therein lies the key to understanding how, and why, the war unfolded.

Throughout, Kertzer shows us, Pius turned a blind eye: to Mussolini’s views about the plight of the Jews (he concentrated on saving the lives of Catholics who once were Jews or were the children of Jews); to the fate of Poland (he worried that speaking out would endanger the country’s Catholics and their schools and churches); to the Nazi invasion of Belgium and France (he thought silence the best tactic for keeping Italy out of the war); and to the rampages and ravings of Hitler (he wanted to preserve the possibility of a papal intervention for peace). None of these strategies availed.

The pope’s difficulties multiplied with the German invasion of Russia, as he naturally felt rancor for the godless Communist country but wondered, “If I were to talk about Bolshevism — and I would be very ready to do so — should I then say nothing about Nazism?”


It is such tortured, tortuous handwringing that led to no action at all at a time when silence was complicity and when not to act was in fact to act decisively. He knew what was happening, and he knew the consequences and the implications, though he did find occasion, in his Christmas message of 1942, to speak of “hundreds of thousands of people who, through no fault of their own and solely because of their nation or their race have been condemned to death or progressive extinction.”

It was a start, though Kertzer tells us that that statement was a “well-buried passage” in a long, 24-page speech and that “the pope nowhere mentioned either Nazis or Jews.” In any case there was little if any follow-up, and the result was the greatest tragedy of Pius’s years as pope. It was one of the missed opportunities of the ages, and while it may not have caused the calamity of the rage and ravages of the dictators and the industrialized death of the Holocaust, it did nothing to impede them.

THE POPE AT WAR: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler

By David I. Kertzer

Random House, 672 pages, $37.50

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.