Letter suggests Pope Pius XII knew about Nazi atrocities but remained on the sidelines
Why didn't the Catholic Church do more to speak out during WWII?
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What was the Catholic Church doing during the Holocaust? I had never spent much time thinking about the question but I really should have. The institution had plenty of power and members, and the pope’s public statements at the time could have helped turn global sentiment against the Axis powers. But I don’t recall ever coming across the Church’s role during that time period in any class I’ve ever taken.
Maybe that’s because the Vatican was officially neutral during World War II. But given the invasion of Poland (which is highly Catholic) and other similarly Catholic nations, and Pope Pius XII’s statements condemning antisemitism—and despite the Church assisting people who were being persecuted by the Nazis—there was arguably more it could have done. (In 1963, playwright Rolf Hochhuth published a play called The Deputy, a Christian tragedy, all about Pius XII’s supposed inaction during World War II. The 2008 book Hitler's Pope (affiliate link) probably didn’t help his image either.)
When the pope spoke at the time, it was in general terms. Violence is bad and the like. He didn’t single out the Third Reich. He didn’t explicitly talk about how Jews were being targeted.
It’s also possible, however, that the Vatican just didn’t realize how truly abominable the Holocaust was until it was too late. Even in 1942, the details regarding death camps were not well understood by many around the world.
Now, a new letter discovered by in-house Vatican archivist Giovanni Coco suggests that Pope Pius XII likely knew the extent of the horrors at that time (gift article)… and still chose to remain on the sidelines.
Coco began studying the letters of Pius XII after Pope Francis opened the previously sealed archives in 2019, nearly a decade before they would likely have been unsealed anyway. He said at the time, “The church is not afraid of history.” Given that Pius XII was pontiff between 1939-1958, those archives were likely to contain lots of insight into what he believed about the Nazi invasion.
Coco says he found a letter from a German priest (who was part of the resistance against Nazis) to the pope’s secretary that documented just how many people were apparently being murdered in the camps. Given the priest’s stellar reputation, the information would almost certainly have been relayed to the pope. The fact that the letter was in the pope’s personal papers suggests he was aware of it.
Addressed to Pius’s secretary, the Rev. Robert Leiber, the letter was written by a German Jesuit priest, the Rev. Lothar Koenig, who was a member of a German resistance movement. In the letter, which was dated Dec. 14, 1942, Father Koenig sought to tell the Vatican about “the state of the persecution of the church in Germany, above all,” said Mr. Coco, who has been cataloging Pius’s personal papers at the Vatican.
The letter included an appendix with the number of priests imprisoned at the Dachau concentration camp near Munich; mentioned the Auschwitz death camp in Poland in a reference to another, as yet undiscovered report; and told of the thousands of Poles and Jews being murdered by the Nazis at Belzec.
The letter said that 6,000 people (“above all Poles and Jews”) were being murdered in “SS-furnaces” each day at the Belzec concentration camp. The camp’s memorial website says that 450,000 Jewish people, most from Poland, were killed there between March and December of 1942.
If the pope knew about the atrocities, why didn’t he say more? Coco believes the pope was worried “about what could happen to Catholics in Poland, in Eastern Europe, in the Third Reich, all those territories under Nazi control.” He worried that Catholics might be persecuted in the same way Jews were. So instead of using his platform to more forcefully condemn Nazis and defend Jewish people, he may have chosen silence so as to not draw attention to his own people.
He may have also feared that outright condemning the Nazis would cause Axis nations to break with the Church, alienating Catholics and potential Catholics in those countries. That theory suggests a self-serving pope prioritized the Church’s membership numbers over the lives of those murdered by the Nazis. It’s also possible he believed he could “negotiate” with Hitler, as if diplomacy could stop a violent dictator.
If any of those ideas are true, it would be both an act of cowardice and a historical injustice given the pope’s influence.
Another theory is that the pope couldn’t verify the accounts he was hearing, so he didn’t want to jump the gun. But a different scholar says this letter from Koenig was far from the only piece of writing relaying the realities on the ground to the pope; in fact, it would have carried more weight given its source.
All of this takes on even more meaning given that the Vatican has previously moved to make Pius XII a saint. (He’s passed two of the four necessary stages to be declared one.) Pope Francis put a hold on that, though, until historians have a chance to more thoroughly examine the recently unsealed archives. At this point, if Pius XII becomes a saint, you have to wonder what would ever take a candidate out of the running.
Ultimately—and not for the first time—all of this brings into question the Church’s supposed virtue. Why do so many people want to belong to an institution that has repeatedly been on the wrong side of the simplest moral questions? History almost never shines a positive light on the Catholic Church. At various times, they’ve been against science, against sex, against marginalized communities, and against transparency. They’ve waged wars against their enemies. They’re practically synonymous with child sexual abuse, harboring thousands of priests with tens of thousands of victims. They’ve often resisted those victims receiving justice, arguing against lookback windows that eliminate or widen statutes of limitations in those cases.
The idea that the Vatican’s leader may have looked the other way during World War II, despite knowing what Hitler was doing, isn’t a shock so much as the latest piece of evidence that the Church has no business pretending it has any moral authority.
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