This book is compelling,
convincing and cruel. Its great journalism, debatable history. Cornwell
maintains a relentless narrative and skillfully arranges his text.
For example, the reader is aware that Pius XII (Eugenio
Pacelli), in World War IIs aftermath, stands accused of perfidy toward
the Jews. An unstated accusation of personal cowardice hangs in the air
concerning the popes unwillingness to publicly, unequivocally speak out
against the Nazis.
Heres how Cornwell tightens that screw.
The author has us in Kreuznach, Kaiser Wilhelms
Rhineland headquarters. Its 1917, World War I, and page 68 of
Hitlers Pope. Pacelli is nuncio to Bavaria and has carried Pope
Benedict XVs peace plan to the Kaiser.
Cornwell quotes from the kaisers memoirs as Wilhelm
tells Pacelli to inform the pope he must speak out and free Catholic soldiers
from the horrors of war. Pacellis aide suggests the pope
might endanger himself by such a course of action. The kaiser records he then
says to Pacelli (about Benedict XV, but with Cornwell dangling shades of the
future Pius XII before the reader):
Was I now to believe that his [Christs] viceroy
on earth was afraid of becoming a martyr, like his Lord, in order to bring
peace to the bleeding world?
Masterly. And vicious.
Cornwell is cruel because Pacelli, as priest, bishop and
cardinal and as Pius XII, never gets the benefit of the doubt. This reads like
a vendetta: The chapter Pope of Peace is followed by one titled
Friend of Croatia.
Cornwells findings are not necessarily incorrect;
its that his tone banishes any pretext of impartiality. This a lover
spurned. Lets see why.
I take Cornwell at his word that he began this book to
salvage Pius XIIs reputation from the ash heap of World War II and
Final Solution history.
Imagine the coup for Cornwell -- and the Roman Catholic
church. An author, mystery writer and scholar exonerates Pius XII right on the
eve of the millennium and wipes clean the dirtiest blot on the Vaticans
A double coup for, in A Thief in the Night, Cornwell
cleared the Vatican (and Archbishop Paul Marcinkus) of direct responsibility in
the death of Pope John Paul I.
Yet as Cornwell turns historys pages on Pacelli (often
secondary sources -- hence more journalism than history) he finds not material
for exculpation but greater culpability.
Cornwell was trapped -- the book reads as if written in
reprisal or anger.
Even so, todays readers with no inkling of life inside
Germany while Hitler was in power, are suddenly presented with examples of a
courageous German Catholic laity -- in the press and in politics -- and
individual priests and bishops magnificent in their opposition to the
Cornwell handles his material like a prosecutor.
Pacelli grew up in a middle class family of striving Vatican
insiders, poorly paid Vatican lawyers who lived lives of piety and
penurious respectability while murmuring the general anti-Semitic
views common to the day.
Anti-Semitism was accepted. Society endorsed it. So did the
Tile by tile, Cornwell lays the mosaic that depicts the
extent to which the Catholic church furthered anti-Semitisms cause. It
wasnt just Crusaders breaking their journey to kill Jews to
and from the Holy Land -- even the popes trampled on the Jews. The author
retells the weird tale of Piux IX, Pio Nono who, despite an outcry from world
leaders, adopted a Jewish boy against his parents will, raised him in the
Vatican and saw him into the priesthood. (Scarcely surprising that the doghouse
of Italys liberator, Garibaldi, was labeled, The House of Pio
Cornwell has seminarian Pacellis mind
narrowed at the Almo Collegio Capranica by the aridity
of the Neo-Thomist revival. As a fastidious boy with stomach trouble,
seminarian Pacelli is allowed, against all precedent, to live at home with
mother. Meanwhile hes reading the highly anti-Semitic and anti-Judaist
leading Jesuit journal, Civiltà Cattolica.
The new Fr. Pacelli, at home one evening playing the
violin, is visited by none other than Msgr. Pierto Gaspari, recently
appointed undersecretary in the Secretariat of States Department of
Extraordinary Affairs. Pacelli is recruited into Vatican service -- in an
anti-democratic, anti-Americanism and anti-Modernism Vatican.
Connections. Connections. The familys Vatican law
practice has paid off.
At St. Apollinaris, Pacellis doctoral thesis is on
the nature of concordats (special treaties between the Holy See and
nation-states) -- another notch on prosecutor Cornwells briefcase.
Pacelli is soon a monsignor himself and masterminding the
new (1917), written-in-secret Code of Canon Law. The code, writes Cornwell,
exhaustively regulates conditions within the church and, with its
creeping infallibility, is unlike anything the church has
previously possessed in its 2,000-year existence.
Hard to dispute, though, whether Pacelli masterminded the
1917 code to the degree Cornwell suggests is a historic bone for others to chew
on. And theyve already started.
As Cornwell has it, Pacelli later uses the code to skewer
Germanys bishops and demolish the anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi German Catholic
Center Party. Pacelli (now secretary of state) favored a quiescent,
docile church and collaboration with the Nazi Party over the continued
existence of the Catholic Center Party, which represented the final obstacle on
Hitlers path to dictatorship. Comments the author: How well
these two men [Hitler and Pacelli] seemed to understand each other.
Cornwell contrasts that with German Catholic criticism of
Nazism, vehement and sustained in the press and from the pulpits,
with a Mainz diocese bishop and priest both telling the Nazis that
Hitlers Partys policy of racial hatred was
un-Christian and un-Catholic. Pius XII never speaks out that
Cornwell produces a 1930 editorial in the Vaticans
official paper LOsservatore Romano. It declares Nazi (National
Socialist) Party membership incompatible with Catholic conscience,
but it does so only by adding that membership in any socialist party is
In 1939, Pacelli is Pius XII. In 1940, in private, he utters
the most important words (by my measure) that he and history have to offer in
They are not exoneration, but they are illustrative.
Contrast Cornwells handling of the incident with that of Pierre Blet.
The incident: The war is on. Italian ambassador Alfieri
conveys to Pius XII Mussolinis protestations over the popes
telegrams to the sovereigns of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. By
interference, the telegrams criticize the Nazi invasion. Pius never mentions
the Germans directly.
Cornwell: Pacelli replied that he was not
afraid of being put in a concentration camp. He said he had been reading the
letters of St. Catherine of Sienna, who reminded the pope of her day that God
would judge him harshly if he failed in his duty.
Blet: The pope calmly replied that he did not
fear being shipped off to a concentration camp. Alluding to the most critical
moments during his stay in Munich, Pius XII added: We did not fear the
revolvers that were aimed at us the first time around; we will have even less
fear the second time. Furthermore: The Italians are certainly well
aware of the terrible things taking place in Poland. We might have an
obligation to utter fiery words against such things; yet all that is holding us
back from doing so is the knowledge that if we should speak, we would simply
worsen the predicament of these unfortunate people.
That was Pacellis view. Rightly or wrongly, he stayed
with it. But it sorely haunted him (see Pius and the nurses in Stranskys
preface to Blet in accompanying review).
Cornwell writes of 1942 when the U.S. charge daffaires
at the Holy See tells the U.S. State Department that the pope was (in
Cornwells words) diverting himself, ostrichlike, into purely
religious concerns and that the moral authority won for the papacy by Pius XI
was being eroded.
In rebuttal to such an accusation, Pius XIIs defenders
frequently turn to the popes Christmas Eve radio address of that year as
a pontiff speaking out as clearly as he dared under the circumstances. Without
referring to Hitler or the Jews, Pacelli said, Humanity owes this vow to
those thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason
of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual
This was diplomatese. Cornwell provides Mussolinis
quite devastating comment, in part: This is a speech of platitudes which
might be better made by a parish priest of Predappio [Mussolinis
backwater village birthplace].
Despite its condemnatory tone, Cornwells book is an
honest challenge to the church, to history and Christians. Canonization will
not cleanse Pius XIIs reputation. Only Pius XII himself could have done
it. The pope had 13 years between the end of World War II and his death to
explain himself. He had a duty as head of the Roman Catholic church to do that.
Do it in some detail, even if it was not to be released until after his death.
Post-Cornwell, what next? A repeat of what happened after
Rolf Hochhuths play, The Deputy, opened in 1963 in Europe
(1964 in the U.S.) is likely. The play accused Pius of being Hitlers
deputy. The furor developed a life of its own and resulted in a book, The
Storm Over The Deputy.
Hitlers Pope is developing a life of its own
It could well result in The Storm, Part II.
In contrast to John
Cornwells you-are-there Hitlers Pope, this is a strange and
rather subdued book. With painfully honest Jesuit Fr. Pierre Blet, one is
wandering in the Vatican archives where, despite its nation-by-nation format,
Blet seems an almost reluctant guide. Not driven toward a one-two-three
summary, his conclusion is: Pope Pius XIIs high ideals,
transcending as they did opposing interests and rival passions, will always
make difficult the task of understanding his policy and personality.
What then, in 289 pages, has been learned that wasnt
Mainly good background. Blet gives his take on
the 12 volumes of Vatican research he edited with Robert A. Graham, Angelo
Martini and Burkhart Schneider. It suggests that the Allies didnt (and by
extension todays Western European and North American readers dont)
understand the situation from the popes perspective.
Heres Blet as Myron Taylor, Roosevelts personal
representative to the Vatican, meets Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal
The American first spoke to him about the
advisability and the necessity of the pope coming out against the atrocities
committed by the Nazis. This desire, said Taylor, has been
expressed by many. In fact, just before Taylors arrival, the ambassadors
of Poland, Belgium and Brazil, as well as Englands minister (to the
Vatican) and Roosevelts charge daffaires (Harold Tittman), joined
together asking that the pope issue a solemn condemnation of Nazism and its
Tardini, who had endured many attacks from diplomats,
repeated to Myron Taylor that the pope had already spoken on numerous occasions
condemning crimes no matter who their authors might be. Some wanted Hitler
condemned by name, but this was impossible.
Taylor replied: I never asked for that, I never
asked that Hitler be named.
And when Tardini replied that in this case the pope
had already spoken, Taylors rejoinder was: He can repeat it.
If this book could be taken out of the context of the
atrocities of War World II, it would read like a political novel that revolves
around an imperial court, told from the point of view of the courtiers and
ambassadors but rarely the emperor. A novel based on a diary with neither
authors nor readers able to summarize the plot.
The central character is a shadow. And as the history of the
period fades, the shadow undeservedly becomes sinister.
World War II at the outset was not quite as cut and dried as
it looks 60 years later. Blet reports that the 1939 Berlin Vatican diplomatic
view was that the Holy See had reason to hope that the German
[Hitlers] government would do everything possible to avoid provocation,
to avoid any incident that would lead to conflict.
That was not only the Vaticans view. That view was
held by many in Britain. Not by Churchill and his coterie, but certainly by
pacifists like Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, fascists, and many
Blet writes there is only one way of returning from
the fiction to reality, from legend to history, and that is by going back to
the original documents, for these directly reveal what the pope said and
Any historian knows, and Blet acknowledges, that documents
reveal only some of what any person says or does. The winks and nods, the
agreements, hints, suggestions and silences over the dinner table and the desk,
in the corridor and on the stairs, is where political history takes place. What
is recorded is what someone chooses to record. This isnt a problem
limited to papal archives.
Yet this book is expected to bear the burden of proof, a
proof that could only be shown had Eugenio Pacelli, that most meticulous of
men, kept a personal daily diary.
The first quotation in this book -- in Paulist Thomas
Stranskys preface -- is not from the Vatican archives but from The
Tablet of London (June 29, 1963). Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (the
future Paul VI) took The Deputy playwright Rolf Hochhuth to task
for an inadequate grasp of the psychological and political
realities in those appalling conditions of war and Nazi
oppression during which Pius XII tried so far as he could fully and
courageously to carry out the mission entrusted to him.
Its axiomatic in journalism (though many writers
ignore it) that a quotation isnt proof. And Stransky
isnt proving anything by quoting Montini, except perhaps Montinis
Next, the reader is teased by the question Stransky raises
at the outset that Blet never answers, because Pius XII never answered it.
Stransky mentions Pius XIIs May 1952 address to nurses when the pope asks
himself, What should we have done that we have not done?
The fact that the question was still plaguing the pope --
when Blet tells us that the wave of systematic disparagement did
not begin until 1963-64, 12 years later and five years after the popes
death -- speaks volumes.
But this volume doesnt explain him. Did the pope
actually believe he could have done nothing more?
We do not know.