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Michael Burleigh
RENT-A-MORALISTS AT BAY
The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis
By David G Dalin (Regnery Publishing 209pp £16.99)

Righteous Gentiles: How Pius XII and the Catholic Church Saved Half a Million Jews from the Nazis
By Ronald J Rychlak (Spence Publishing 378pp £xx)

Several weeks ago, David Irving was arrested on an outstanding warrant by the Austrian authorities; he is currently on remand awaiting trial. One of the few aspects of this affair not to attract press coverage was that Irving was visiting one of his soul mates, the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, author of the 1963 Schillerian drama, The Deputy, with its factitious claims about Pius XII.

It is sometimes claimed that Hochhuth’s play began the sinister campaign of denigration against the ‘wartime pope’. This is untrue: Hochhuth drew from an existing pool of Communist-inspired poison against the Pope. Pius, who died in 1958, was also the ‘Cold War pontiff’, responsible in early 1948 for mobilising the Christian Democrat voters who saw off the Communists in the Italian general elections. Things were serious, with the US planning to fall back on Sicily and Sardinia, should the mainland fall to Stalin’s Italian friends. The Catholic parish network provided an instant apparatus, rather in the way that AC Milan supporters’ clubs aided Forza Italia’s bid for power.

Soviet attempts to smear Pius had actually commenced as soon as the Red Army crossed into Catholic Poland. To be precise, they hired a militantly anti-religious propagandist, Mikhail Markovich Sheinmann, to write a series of tracts claiming there had been a ‘secret’ pact between Hitler and the Vatican to enable ‘Jesuits’ to proselytise in the wake of Operation Barbarossa. Apart from the inherent improbability of this claim, Soviet attempts to frame Pius for a ‘pact’ were ironic, in a guilty sort of way, in view of the August 1939 Nazi–Soviet Pact, replete with its secret clauses carving up Poland and the Baltic states, which had precipitated the outbreak of war.

Hochhuth’s play, which drew heavily upon Sheinmann’s lies and falsehoods, inspired two scholarly critiques of Pius and the Catholic Church by, respectively, Guenter Lewy (1964) and Saul Friedländer (1966). Neither availed himself of the thirteen volumes, of published wartime Vatican documents and both relied heavily on German records, which are hardly an unimpeachable source on the Pope. These were followed by the works of Robert Katz, who was successfully sued for defamation by Pius’s niece, and John Morley, a Catholic priest. These personages were harbingers of future trends.

As Rabbi David Dalin explains in his powerful and closely argued polemic against the Pope’s detractors, the most recent assault on Pius’s reputation came from liberal, secular Jews, whose anti-Catholicism is as pathological as the anti-Semitism they see lurking around every corner, and from dissident or renegade Catholics, who use the Holocaust as the biggest available moral stick with which to assault the conservative turn within their own Church, represented by the election of John Paul II (who, as it happens, was consecrated as a young bishop by the dying Pius XII). Dalin’s disgust at these cynical attempts to instrumentalise the Holocaust is visceral. Six million Jews did not perish to defend liberal arguments in favour of abortion, contraception or homosexual clergy.

Perhaps Dalin might have explored the motives of the editors of the New Republic, and especially Martin Peretz and Leon Wieseltier, who seem peculiarly zealous to publish any aspersions about the Catholic Church, providing over twenty-four pages for a bizarrely venomous anti-Catholic rant by Daniel Goldhagen, the living conscience of the Holocaust. Who appointed them as moral arbiters of the Christian world, let alone censors of Christian sacred texts? Are they mainly exercised by the Church’s need to maintain a balanced approach in the Middle East, given the vulnerable position of Arab Catholics? Does moralising about Pius XII give their lives importance or moral meaning?

Dalin cites innumerable Jewish contemporaries of Pius who testified to his solicitude for their co-religionists. Since it is a criminal offence in some countries – as Mr Irving has discovered in Austria – to deny the Holocaust, Dalin wonders why modern critics of Pius are allowed to blithely discount the huge number of Jews who held him in high regard. Of course, say the critics, they were not really praising Pius. They were just seeking Vatican diplomatic recognition for the state of Israel. Where, Dalin wonders, does this leave Albert Einstein, who in 1940 wrote: ‘Only the Catholic Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for the suppressing of the truth. I never had any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great affection and admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced by this to confess that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly’?

Dalin also makes a persuasive contrast between Pius XII and the man who should be called ‘Hitler’s Mufti’, that is Haji Amin al-Husseini, a distant relative, and guru, of the young Yasser Arafat, who in 1970 succeeded Husseini as leader of the Palestinian National Movement. While Pius and the Catholic Church were quietly saving three-quarters of a million Jews, as Sir Martin Gilbert has recently confirmed, Husseini was broadcasting on the Nazi Arabic service: ‘Kill the Jews where you find them; this pleases God, history and religion.’

Ronald Rychlak is a reforming lawyer of great distinction, who has published widely on Pius XII and the Catholic Church before and during the war. Using his forensic talents to great advantage, Rychlak picks up, examines, and rejects every charge against Pius. The second part of his book concentrates on the agendas and deficiencies of individual critics, whose work (and dubious modi operandi) Rychlak exposes on every page. This is no small feat, since critics routinely use a scattergun approach; no sooner has the evidence cleared Pius of one charge, than another bobs up, or better still, attention switches to Pius XI, a predecessor hitherto thought philosemitic – a tactic which suggests that some deep-seated aversion to the Catholic Church is at work.

Rychlak is in enviable command of both old and more recently released sources, ingeniously using The Tablet for written traces of what was broadcast on Vatican Radio, or the Osservatore Romano for repeated papal condemnations of anti-Semitism. He deals with the latest smear, trumpeted in the much discredited New York Times, that Pius somehow authorised the ‘kidnapping’ of Jewish children who had converted to Catholicism while hidden in wartime monasteries and convents – an outrageous claim, which the prominent French Nazi-hunter Serge Klarsfeld, who himself was hidden by Catholic clergy, has dismissed as false.

Rychlak patiently goes through every shifting charge and smear against Pius, highlighting his consistency in condemning Nazism as a form of neo-pagan state worship, and the terrible dilemmas he faced during the war. The Pope did not have the luxury of being some grandstanding US politician or rent-a-moralist; what he said had real consequences for real people, and it was not his job to thrust martyrdom upon them. When the Church did speak out, as it did, without circumspection, through Vatican Radio broadcasts about the plight of Jews and Christians in Poland, or when the Dutch Catholic bishops protested during round-ups of Jews in Amsterdam, the Nazis carried out terrible reprisals against Catholic priests, or, in the Dutch case, maliciously deported Jewish converts to Catholicism, who had hitherto been exempted, while leaving converts to Protestantism alone. In smaller satellite countries where the Church could exert effective influence, it did so, as the examples of several papal nuncios, whose correspondence fills entire volumes of the published Vatican records, abundantly confirm for anyone – unlike Goldhagen – who can read the languages concerned.

Both Dalin and Rychlak have a useful suggestion to make. Having honoured many Catholic clergy for rescuing Jews during the war, the Israeli commission charged with nominating the ‘Righteous among the Nations’ should acknowledge the role of the Pope who gave those clergy their directions to act as they did. After all, if the Israeli government can honour Gianfranco Fini, the current post-Fascist Foreign Minister of Italy, as its friend, surely it can honour Pius XII for saving three-quarters of a million Jews? Nothing less will do: for, as these two excellent books show, people are growing weary of the self-righteous ignorance of his critics who have lost the ‘Pius War’.