Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Catholic Church and the War

The Catholic Church's record in World War II, particularly its assistance to Jews and resistance to the Holocaust or lack thereof, has generated intense controversy. Individual Catholics certainly acted with considerable bravery in opposing Nazi agendas. Archbishop Galen of Münster condemned Germany's euthanasia program in 1941, which led Adolf Hitler to suspend mass killings (although so-called mercy killings continued on a smaller scale). Other Catholics hid Jews and served bravely in the Resistance in France or as chaplains at the front (more than 3,000 in the U.S. Army alone). Yet the Vatican refused to issue official statements condemning the Holocaust. Meanwhile, in an exercise in bad timing, the Vatican extended diplomatic relations to Japan early in 1942, at the high tide of Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific.

In part, nationalist loyalties constrained the Vatican and proved more powerful, if not more resilient, than supranational Catholicism. In the Nazi puppet state of Croatia, Franciscan monks and ultranationalist priests lent their moral authority to the murder of tens of thousands of Jews and Orthodox Serbians in 1941. A few bloodthirsty priests even joined in the killing. Meanwhile, anti-Bolshevism drove many European priests to support the Nazi "crusade" against the Soviet Union, and traditional expressions of biblical anti-Semitism and consistent opposition to Zionism tended to inhibit sympathy for Jews.

Ultimately, Pope Pius XII was responsible for exercising and enforcing the church's moral authority, and evidence indicates he was a Germanophile. As a cardinal, he had negotiated the 1933 concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany that gave the Holy See tighter control over independent-minded German Catholics. It also gave Hitler important international recognition and a freer hand in Germany, as it led to the dissolution of Germany's Catholic Center Party.

In the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Nazis revealed their murderous nature. Polish priests were either murdered or deported to concentration camps. In the Warthegau region alone, the Nazis killed more than 300 priests. Apparently concluding that official condemnations would goad the Nazis to further excesses, Pius XII remained silent. And after failing to protest the mass murders of priests, it was not surprising that the pope, who knew of the mass murders of the Jews by mid-1942, nevertheless refused to condemn these crimes officially.

Pius XII was too cautious, and his well-intentioned attempts at behind-the-scenes diplomacy proved ineffectual. Critics have cited his reluctance to identify the Jews as victims (he preferred the pusillanimous term unfortunate people) to suggest that he was an uncaring anti-Semite. Such accusations are unjust, however. Guided more by concerns about the preservation of the church hierarchy and the physical survival of Rome, Pius XII failed to lead morally and speak authoritatively. Exaggerated caution, not anti-Semitism, accounted for his reluctance to remonstrate against Nazi war crimes.

In March 1998, John Paul II issued a document entitled "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah." Although it called for Catholics to repent if they had known about the Holocaust yet failed to act, this document absolved Pius XII of blame and praised him for resolute diplomacy that reputedly led to the salvation of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Controversy nevertheless continues today on whether Pius XII should be beatified and made a saint or vilified as "Hitler's pope." Yet a middle ground does exist between hagiographers, on the one hand, and scandalous and carping caricaturists, on the other.

William J. Astore


Further Reading
Cornwell, John. Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. New York: Viking, 1999.; Crosby, Donald F. Battlefield Chaplains: Catholic Priests in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.; Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah. A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Catholic Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.; Lewy, Guenter. The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.; Phayer, Michael. The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930–1965. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.
 

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