Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. By John Cornwell. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.426 pp. (Paper), $15.00.
Anyone interested in the papacy must read this fascinating book. It is an eye opener regarding the inner workings of the Vatican.
Cornwell, an award-winning journalist and a Roman Catholic, was given access to secret Vatican and Jesuit archives. His stated goal in writing this book was to exonerate the memory of Pope Pius XII, “I was convinced that if his full story were told, Pius XII’s pontificate would be vindicated” (p.xi).
Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli, ruled Catholicism with an iron hand, and was one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful pope in modern times.
Pacelli was papal nuncio in Germany from 1917 to 1929. After he left Germany to become Cardinal Secretary of State, he continued to negotiate with the Germans on a Concordat. In 1933, after years of haggling, he signed an historic agreement with Hitler that eliminated the Catholic political pafiy in Germany clearing the way for Hitler to become the country’s undisputed leader.
Pacelli became pope in 1939, just before World War II began. Cornwell shows that Pacelli knew of Hitler’s Final Solution in I94O, that he was repeatedly urged to make a statement denouncing the slaughter of Jews, and that he held fast in his resolve not to make such a statement.
What if Pius XII had denounced the killing of the Jews by the Nazis? Would it have made a difference? Cornwell relates accounts where relatively minor demonstrations by Catholics in Germany played a role in a cessation of the euthanasia that had begun. Therefore, massive Catholic opposition to the final solution surely would have saved millions, for the Nazis could not have begun or maintained the war without the support of nearly 40 million Catholics in Germany.
Being half-Serbian, I found the chapter entitled “Friend of Croatia” to be fascinating. Cornwell wrote, “The tally almost defies belief. By the most reliable reckoning, 487,000 Orthodox Serbs and 27,000 Gypsies were massacred between 1941 and 1945 in the Independent State of Croatia. In addition, approximately 30,000 out of a population of 45,000 Jews were killed: 20,000 to 25,000 in Ustashe death camps and another 7,000 deported to the gas chambers” (p. 253). While these numbers pale in comparison to the six million Jews and eleven million total people exterminated by the Nazis, they are still staggering.
Not a few Catholic priests carried guns and killed many Serbs. Cornwell writes, “Priests, invariably Franciscans, took a leading part in the massacres. Many went around routinely armed and performed their murderous acts with zeal. A Father Bozidar Bralow, known for the machine gun that was his constant companion, was accused of performing a dance around the bodies of 180 massacred Serbs at Alipasin-Most. Individual Franciscans killed, set fire to homes, sacked villages, and laid waste the Bosnian countryside at the head of Ustashe bands. In september of 1941, an Italian reporter wrote of a Franciscan he had witnessed south of Banja Luka urging on a band of Ustashe with his crucifix” (p.254).
Pacelli was aware of the forced conversions (most serbians are Eastern orthodox; most Croatians, Roman Catholics) and the mass murders obstensibly in the name of catholic expansion. Yet he did nothing to stop them. In fact, he had a number of warm audiences with people whom he knew to be involved in the massacres (see p. 260).
The old addage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” surely seems to fit here. These words from the back cover are quite telling in that regard, “Cornwell tells the full, tragic story of how narcissism, long-standing personal antipathy for the Jews, and political and spiritual ambition combined to make Pius the most dangerous churchman in history.”
The final sentence of the book is quite gnpping. “Having come to the end of my own journey through the life and times of Pacelli, I am convinced that the cumulative verdict of history shows him to be not a saintly exemplar for future generations, but a deeply flawed human being from whom Catholics, and our relations with other religions, can best profit by expressing our sincere regret” (p. 384).
My only reservation with the book is that Cornwell endorses pluralism. He implies that there is no absolute truth. When he speaks of progressives and traditionalists in the Catholic church, it is clear he favors the former position.
I give this book my highest recommendation. It is an outstanding book historically, psychologically (as a character study), theologically, and sociologically.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society