Papal Response to Nazism

Frank J Coppa. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 2. Detroit: Gale, 2010.

The Holy See’s attitudes and actions toward Nazi Germany developed over the course of the decades of the early twentieth century. The following is a detailed sketch of the major figures and writings which make up that history.

Benedict XV

After the First World War and the peace treaties which followed, Pope Benedict XV (1914-1922) and his secretary of state, Pietro Gasparri, were sympathetic to the Germans, whom they believed had been treated unfairly. They noted that many of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, under the terms of which the Central Powers surrendered, had been violated to the detriment of German people. Furthermore, they did not understand why the Allies forbade union or Anschluss (annexation) of the German Republic and the truncated Austrian state, which they feared might not survive on its own. These views were shared by Eugenio Pacelli, who was appointed nuncio to the Weimar Republic but was temporarily stationed in Munich while he negotiated a concordat with Bavaria. All three men understood the right-wing reaction against the treaties and the Allies who had imposed them. This sentiment was shared by Achille Ratti, who became Pope PIUS XI in 1922 and retained Gasparri as secretary of state and Pacelli as nuncio to Germany. However, the new pope was disturbed by the pagan, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian aspects of the Nazi Party, which had been formed in January 1919 and joined by Adolf HITLER in September of that year. Pius XI’s concerns and suspicions grew following the unsuccessful Hitler-Ludendorff Munich Putsch of November 1923.

Pius XI

Through his secretary of state, Pius XI made inquiries about the program and policies of the Nazi Party. His worst fears were confirmed by Pacelli’s November 14, 1923, report on the Putsch and the party. Pacelli described the anti-Catholic nature of the National Socialist movement and its leader, Adolf Hitler. Pressed by the Vatican for additional information, the nuncio issued a second report in which he related that the Nazis were against not only the Jews but also the Church and Catholics, and pointed to the violent, vicious, and vulgar campaign of the folkish press, which he duly condemned. He also wrote home in March 1924 to describe the wave of anti-Catholicism unleashed during the course of the Ludendorff trial, in which the general was acquitted.

At this juncture the pope and his nuncio to Berlin shared the sentiments of those German bishops who found Catholicism and Nazism incompatible. At the end of March 1931, the bishops of the Prussian provinces and Bavaria issued joint pastorals condemning the National Socialist Party and forbidding Catholics to join any such movement that espoused principles contrary to the Faith. The bishops especially found fault with article 24 of the party program, which insisted all creeds were subordinate to racial considerations. Equally odious, in their view, were the exaltation of nationalism over religion, the recognition of violence as a legitimate political weapon, the agitation for nondenominational education, the furtherance of artificial birth control, and the blatant anti-clericalism of its leaders. Subsequently, the Fulda Episcopal Conference of August 17-19, 1931, banned membership in the party and forbade clergy from offering Communion to those wearing the swastika. Pius, for his part, found blasphemous the suggestion that Jesus was not a Jew. The elaboration of Nazism’s anticlerical and anti-Semitic policies led Pius XI to reconsider his attitude toward Anschluss between Germany and Austria, which he had once earlier favored.

The Role of Pietro Gasparri

Before and after Hitler attained power, at the end of January 1933, there was a consensus among Vatican officials that Hitler and his movement were dangerous, but there was also disagreement on how best to cope with that danger. Gasparri, who during the First World War had outlined the policy of so-called impartiality, called for a conciliatory course toward Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. This policy allowed the Holy See to make moral distinctions between principles and practices without becoming politically involved or taking political stances. To enter into political conflict with these dangerous dictatorships, Gasparri warned, would be to risk great harm to the Church, its leaders, and its members. He therefore urged the papacy to refrain from condemning Hitler’s party so long as it did not wage war on either the Holy See or the hierarchy in Germany. This view was shared by a majority in the secretariat of state, which Gasparri had long dominated, as well as Pacelli, who agreed on the need to temper moral outrage with diplomatic pragmatism. However, Pacelli did so more quietly and diplomatically than his mentor Gasparri, because he was aware that this conciliatory course clashed with the more confrontational one of Pius XI. Indeed, the divergence between the pope and his secretary of state led to the latter’s ouster at the end of 1929 and replacement by Pacelli.

Despite Gasparri’s removal, the new secretary of state concurred with him that they should accommodate the Nazis by accepting the dissolution of the Catholic Center Party in return for a concordat. Pius XI, who continued to distrust Hitler and the Nazis, had real reservations about the conclusion of a concordat with them. Nazi harassment of the Church and the persistent pressure of Pacelli led Pius to relent and sanction negotiations for an agreement, which was rapidly concluded after negotiations opened in April 1933. It was even more rapidly violated by the Nazis, who in turn aroused the anger of the pope. Despite the misgivings and doubts of Pius XI, Pacelli deemed the concordat necessary to preserve the Catholic Church in Germany. Pius XI, however, increasingly questioned the value of the concordat and refused to remain silent when confronted with the pagan, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian policies the Reich espoused. Between 1933 and 1936, Pius launched over thirty protests against Nazi actions, denouncing them as evidence of “true paganism.” Pius was particularly shocked by the abortive Nazi coup of July 25, 1934, in Austria and the murder of Chancellor Englebert Dollfuss, and he applauded Benito MUSSOLINI’s movement of troops to the frontier in order to prevent a possible German intervention. At the close of 1935 the pope deplored the sad events in the Reich.

The Axis and Mit Brennender Sorge

Scandalized by the Nazi regime’s racism, Pius XI rejected the contentions that clerical anti-Judaism served as a precursor to Nazi anti-Semitism, and that the Jewish question was an internal political issue and not a religious one. The pope considered racism anti-Christian and immoral, and he felt the need to say so. In 1936 the increased collaboration between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, which had been dubbed the Axis by Mussolini, so disturbed Pius XI that he let it be known. When Hitler sent Pius a congratulatory message on the anniversary of his coronation in 1936, the pope responded by complaining of developments in the Reich, and he sought to disrupt the Rome-Berlin Axis. Pacelli’s attempts to moderate the strong papal opposition to the Nazi regime had only limited effect. In 1937 the pope issued the encyclical Mit brennender sorge, denouncing the evils of Hitler’s Germany. Secretly dispatched to the Reich, it was read in all Catholic parishes on Palm Sunday 1937, and it launched the Vatican’s harshest criticism of any political regime to date. With deep anxiety and increasing dismay, Pius revealed his outrage at witnessing developments in the Third Reich. In the encyclical, written in German so as to have the greatest circulation and impact, the pope cataloged the errors of the Nazi regime.

Although Pacelli, under papal orders, played a part in drafting this critical encyclical, he sought to prevent a break between Berlin and the Vatican. The secretary of state continued to follow the advice of his mentor Gasparri, who warned of the unfortunate consequences, for the Church at large and for Catholics in Germany, that would inevitably follow upon provoking Hitler. The growing rift between the Reich and Rome disturbed Pacelli and his allies in the Curia, including the secretariat of state, which feared Nazi retribution and worried about the future of Catholicism in Germany. Thus, when Pius XI seriously considered renouncing the Reich Concordat, Pacelli used all his power of persuasion to prevent him from doing so. He later acknowledged the pope was so indignant about what was happening in Germany that he did not see how the Holy See could continue to maintain diplomatic relations with such demonic a regime. Pacelli in turn responded that these relations were important for preserving the Church in the Reich and for maintaining contact with the German bishops. For the moment the pope allowed Pacelli to prevail, but his subsequent actions indicate he was not convinced by the arguments his secretary of state made in favor of a more conciliatory course toward the “pagan” Nazi regime. In 1938 Pacelli proposed traveling to Berlin to negotiate a settlement with the Reich, but his offer was ignored by both Berlin and the Pontiff.


In April 1938 the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries, presided over by Pius XI, condemned the pernicious racism championed by Nazi Germany in a document which the Catholic press deemed a virtual encyclical against racism. Pius deplored the extension of anti-Semitism to Austria following the Anschluss of March 1938, which also saddened him both as Pontiff and as an Italian. Not surprisingly, Pius XI repudiated Cardinal Theodor Innitzer and the Austrian bishops, who rejoiced at the union of Germany and Austria, obviously seeking accommodation with the Nazis. In April of the same year, L’Osservatore Romano made it clear that the bishops’ statement did not have the Vatican’s support, and on Vatican Radio Fr. Gustav Gundlach, a German Jesuit, denounced the pro-Nazi pastoral letter as inspired by a false, politically motivated Catholicism. Meanwhile, Cardinal Innitzer was summoned to Rome, lectured by an angry pope, and constrained to retract his approval of the Anschluss. During the Führer’s May 1938 visit to Rome, Pius left for Castel Gandolfo, closed the Vatican Museum which Hitler had hoped to visit, and did not invite any member of the German party to Vatican City. From Castel Gandolfo Pius XI lamented that it was out of place to hoist in Rome the emblem of a cross not of Christ.

Humani Generis Unitas

In June 1938, as the Axis threatened to bloom into a full-scale alliance between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and as Mussolini embraced Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the pope could no longer contain his sense of outrage. He determined to take further steps to denounce Nazi Germany’s racism and anti-Semitism. Skirting Pacelli and his conciliatory secretariat of state, the pope secretly commissioned the American Jesuit John La Farge, author of numerous works decrying the evil of racism, to draft an encyclical demonstrating the incompatibility of Catholicism and racism. He did not consult Pacelli or include him in the meeting with La Farge, even though he had been by the pope’s side only moments earlier. The pope was apparently convinced his secretary of state would oppose the encyclical. Pius outlined what he wanted to say and, aware of his deteriorating health, asked the Jesuit to produce the encyclical as soon as possible. When told of the pope’s desire to receive a draft quickly, Fr. Vladimir Ledochowski, General of the jesuits, suggested that La Farge collaborate with two of his brother Jesuits, Frenchman Gustave Desbuquois and the German Gundlach. Together the three prepared a draft and in late September 1938 placed the projected encyclical, titled “The Unity of the Human Race,” in the hands of Ledochowski for transmission to the pope.

Humani generis unitas condemned anti-Semitism and maintained that Catholics could not be permitted to remain silent in its presence. The encyclical written for Pius XI noted that the struggle for racial purity led to a struggle against the Jews, a struggle the papacy deplored in itself; moreover, it warned that anti-Semitism could serve as an excuse for attacking the sacred Person of the Savior Himself, and thereby lead to a war against Christianity. The Redemption opened the doors of salvation to the entire human race, the encyclical continued, providing for a universal Kingdom in which there would be no distinction of Jew or Gentile, Greek or barbarian. Perhaps most disconcerting to those like Pacelli, who counseled moderation, the encyclical called for ecclesiastical action against racism. It specified that it was the task and duty of the Church, the dignity and responsibility of the Chief Shepherd and of his brother shepherds whom the Holy Ghost has placed to rule the Church of God, that they should illuminate for mankind the true course to be followed, the eternal divine order in the changing circumstances of the times.

The antiracist sentiments expressed in the draft of the encyclical reflected the pope’s own stance. Pius XI branded the Fascist Ayran Manifesto of July 14, 1938 a “true form of apostasy,” and he urged Catholic groups to combat it and initiated a chorus of opposition to the racism of Nazi Germany and its imitation in Fascist Italy. In August 1938, when Pius XI visited the College of the Propaganda Fide, he warned the students there to shun “exaggerated nationalism,” which he characterized as a real curse. In early September he announced that the Vicar of Christ could not remain silent in the face of grave errors and violations of human rights. Italy’s racist legislation represented an attack on the Church’s teachings. “No, it’s not possible for us Christians to participate in anti-Semitism,” the pope told a group of visiting Belgians on September 6, 1938. “Spiritually, we are Semites.”

The pope’s confrontational approach toward the fascist regimes worried some in the Vatican, especially members of the secretariat of state, who feared that he would break with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and precipitate disastrous consequences for the Church. These individuals called for a more diplomatic course, and they hoped for the election of a more conciliatory successor to the then seriously ill Pius XI. They were also responsible for the conclusion of an agreement with Fascist Italy on the racial issue. According to Fr. Angelo Martini, a Jesuit who was granted access to the relevant Vatican documents, a “pact” of August 16, 1938, provided that, in return for the Fascists’ favorable treatment of Catholic action in Italy, the papacy would leave the so-called Jewish question entirely to the regime. It seems inconceivable that the pope would adhere to such a pact, which clearly violated his convictions—and indeed he did not. The conciliatory group also apparently convinced the General of the Jesuits to moderate the tone of Humani generis unitas.

When the authors of the encyclical received no word of its receipt by the pope, they suspected foul play. Fr. La Farge wrote the pope, who belatedly learned that the encyclical had been delivered but kept from him. Only when the angry pope demanded its release did it reach him. Reportedly Pius received it on January 21, 1939, but is not certain if he actually saw or read it before his death on February 9-10. It is most likely he did not. The draft of the encyclical, with a note attached, from Msgr. Domenico TARDINI indicating Pius XI’s desire to receive the document promptly, were found on the desk of the deceased pope.

Pius XII

Following the death of Pius XI, the division within the Vatican concerning the appropriate policy toward the Axis powers persisted, with a majority in favor of a course that was less confrontational and more conciliatory than the one the late pope had pursued. The influential secretariat of state remained steadfastly faithful to Cardinal Gasparri’s dictum that it was foolhardy and dangerous for the Church to arouse the anger of the Nazis, who could wreak havoc on the Faith. This sentiment was reflected in the conclave of March 1939, which opened as Europe was on the brink of another war. The cardinal electors sought a peacemaker and protector, and on the third ballot of a short conclave the conciliatory majority quickly elected the diplomatic Pacelli, who was widely known to favor conciliation rather than confrontation vis-à-vis the dictatorial regimes. The new pope did not disappoint them by failing to live up to this reputation.

Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII on March 2, 1939, immediately made a sustained effort to improve relations with the Nazi state. He received the German ambassador on March 5, before all others, and assured him that friendly relations would be restored between the Vatican and the Reich. He confided his intention also to the Italian foreign minister, confident that his desire for peace would quickly be transmitted from Rome to Berlin. Determined to fulfill his promises and achieve a détente with the Reich, he shelved his predecessor’s encyclical against the racism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, which might have provoked brutal retaliation. Although Pacelli was a self-acknowledged Germanophile whose housekeeper, private secretary, and confessor all hailed from the Reich, his primary motivation and concern remained the preservation of the Church and Catholicism in Germany.

Although initially skeptical of Pacelli, and assuming he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, the Nazis were surprised and pleased by the friendly course he pursued, prompting the German foreign minister to proclaim Pacelli a real pope. One of his first actions was to gather the German cardinals and reveal his intention to send a personal letter to Hitler to announce his accession, which he then proceeded to do. As the clouds of war thickened, and Nazi Germany showed itself increasingly bellicose, the pope proclaimed his impartiality in territorial and political disputes—a diplomatic device he borrowed from Gasparri and Benedict XV, who had utilized it during the First World War. He protested neither the virtual dismemberment of the Czech state by the Nazis, nor the demands they made on Poland and the subsequent attack of that Catholic country launched on September 1, 1939. Critics such as playwright Rolf Hochhuth, author of “The Deputy,” saw this as the first step of Pius XII’s so-called silence, which culminated in the pope’s failure publicly and openly to denounce the Holocaust. Hochhuth’s play unleashed a barrage of criticism of the pope and the Church: For example, assertions that Pius was indifferent to the plight of the Jews, that he did absolutely nothing to assist them, and that this failure was a function of pervasive ANTI-JUDAISM and anti-Semitism in the Church. In response, such criticism gave rise to a countermovement of writers who rejected the charge that Pius XII was “Hitler’s pope” and dubbed him instead the “Angelic Shepherd.” Thus was born the so-called Pius War. The controversy continued unabated, and at the turn of the twenty-first century sparked a heated debate upon the proposal of his beatification.

Papal Impartiality

The record reveals that Pius XII publicly adhered to his impartiality, as he refused to proclaim support for one side or the other, much to the regret of the French ambassador to the Holy See, François Charles-Roux, who denounced the pope for employing a policy of diplomatic finesse rather than one of rigid ethical principles. In fact, however, the pope recognized the need to denounce evil and did so in a number of his public speeches, all the while preserving his political neutrality. In his first encyclical (October 20, 1939), Pius XII rejected the claims of absolute state authority propounded by the totalitarian powers, but this denunciation was general rather than specific. He also expressed disapproval of aggression against a peaceful nation, but later assured German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop that the small nation he had referred to was Finland, which had been a victim of Soviet aggression. In his Easter message of 1941, he lamented the evils afflicting not simply those engaged in combat but entire populations, without specifying either perpetrators or victims. In a number of his encyclicals he indirectly revealed the Church’s opposition to Nazi policies. For example, his Mystici corporis Christi of June 1943 stressed that the Church embraces all peoples, “whatever their nationality or race,” thereby expressing the truth that the Catholic Church transcends boundaries of race or territory.

These and other statements represented an apparent compromise between the Vatican’s need to take a moral stance and its determination not to jeopardize its political neutrality. While publicly impartial, politically neutral, and religiously committed, Pius XII did not favor the Axis and remained suspicious of Nazism. The papal secretary of state, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, explained that the Holy See had to adhere to a political policy of impartiality and therefore could not publicly condemn particular atrocities but could, and did, denounce atrocities in general. This pope’s carefully crafted criticisms of Nazi abuses, tucked away in long encyclicals, were designed to achieve two objectives. First and foremost, they were intended to ease the conscience of the Pontiff, who clearly recognized and often stated that as Vicar of Christ he had the responsibility of alerting the faithful to evils in state and society. Secondly, they were crafted so as not to provoke unduly Hitler and the Nazi regime, which would likely respond with punitive measures against the Church, the hierarchy, and the faithful in the Reich. It was only at the war’s end that Pius XII abandoned his impartiality and denounced Nazism as “satanic.”

Privately the pope tended to favor the Allies, and he hoped they would triumph over the Nazis. Indeed, at the end of 1939 and early in 1940 he informed the British that a group of German generals were prepared to overthrow the Nazi regime, on the condition that they could be assured a just and honorable peace. However, in mid-January 1940 the war cabinet in London decided it could not proceed on this nebulous proposition. The Vatican once again revealed its pro-Allied bias when it secretly alerted London to the impending Nazi invasion of France and the Low Countries. Still later, in May 1943, Myron Taylor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal representative to the pope, informed the Vatican that the United States was prepared to negotiate with a successor government to Mussolini’s regime, and that it sought the Vatican’s assistance. Taylor asked that this message be transmitted to those in a position to depose Hitler’s ally, the Duce. This prospect apparently appealed to the Vatican, which once more abandoned its neutrality by conveying the message to King Victor Emmanuel III, who proved cautious and noncommittal. (The Vatican later learned that the king was involved in the conspiracy that ultimately replaced Mussolini.)

Papal Efforts on Behalf of War Victims

The Vatican also revealed its sentiments by its relief efforts on behalf of Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. In 1939 Pius XII established the Vatican Information Service, which covered all theaters of the war and worked in tandem with the humanitarian efforts of the Red Cross. Among other things, it put relatives in touch with prisoners-of-war, missing persons, and refugees, while monitoring and mitigating the suffering and separations brought about by the conflict. The Vatican Information Service was asked to investigate the fates of millions of displaced and incarcerated people, and to report back to concerned families—and it did so with considerable efficiency. Vatican radio transmitted hundreds of thousands of messages, and the Pontifical Relief Commission provided food, medical supplies, and other material assistance to the needy in those countries where it was allowed to function, including France, Belgium, Holland, Greece, Norway, Ethiopia, Malaya, and other countries. Pius provided assistance to the Jews of Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, Turkey, and elsewhere. During the Nazi occupation of Rome and the deportation of the city’s Jewish population, the pope, though publicly silent, directed his secretary of state to complain to the German ambassador. This action in turn secured the release of a number of Jews, and others were permitted to hide in extraterritorial religious houses and within Vatican City itself. Reports of this clandestine Church activity reached Berlin, and provoked anger and calls for revenge and retribution from the more anticlerical wing of the Nazi party.

Although Hitler had on numerous occasions indicated that he would settle accounts with the Church at war’s end, some believe he became increasingly disenchanted with the Holy See as the tide turned against his military forces and war effort. Following the collapse of Mussolini’s Italy, and the subsequent Nazi occupation of a good part of the peninsula, including Rome, rumors circulated that Hitler planned to invade Vatican City, arrest Pius XII and the cardinals as Napoleon had done a century earlier, and transport them to Germany. The plan for this operation had supposedly been devised by the main security office of the Third Reich. Reportedly, Hitler was dissuaded from carrying it out by his military officers. Some doubt this account, based on the reasoning that Hitler had more pressing problems and did not envision an invasion of the Vatican to be feasible. Furthermore, the strict public neutrality espoused by Pius XII provided little justification for such intervention. What is certain is that these rumors abounded, and they led the pope to avoid any pretext for intervention as he publicly adhered to the strictest standards of political neutrality.

Pius XII’s impartiality and public political neutrality, which led to his so-called public silence on the matters of both Nazi and Bolshevik atrocities during World War II, has been variously assessed. Those who defend the Pontiff note that his refusal to become politically embroiled allowed Vatican diplomacy and charity to assist hundreds of thousands of victims during the conflict. His detractors complain that his refusal to name the aggressors and their victims constituted a compromise of moral standards in the name of mere diplomacy. Decades later, the debate continues.