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The Secret History of the Pope and World War II
17th August 2022 • Trending Globally: Politics and Policy • Trending Globally: Politics & Policy
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In March 2020, the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives of Pope Pius XII – also known as the Vatican’s ‘secret archives’ – were opened to scholars from around the world. Historian and Watson Professor David Kertzer was one of those scholars. 

What he found there is helping to reframe the role that the Catholic Church – and its then leader, Pope Pius XII – played in World War II.  

Pius XII’s legacy is heavily debated. Some people want him to be made a saint. Others call him ‘Hitler’s Pope,’ blaming him for aiding the Nazi regime and ultimately, facilitating the Holocaust. 

What David found is a much more complicated story. 

He’s put together his research into a gripping new book, The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler. It’s a page-turner of a book, filled with larger-than-life characters, set at a moment in European history when the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s also completely true. 

On this episode of Trending Globally: David Kertzer discusses Pope Pius XII and World War II, and what this story can teach us about the need for moral leadership in times of crisis. 

Learn more about and purchase The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler

Learn more about the Watson Institute’s other podcasts 



SARAH BALDWIN: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. In March of Twenty Twenty, the Vatican's Apostolic Archives of Pope Pius XII, also known as The Secret Archives, were open to scholars from around the world.

Historian and Watson Professor David Kertzer was one of them. And what he found is helping make clear the role that the Catholic Church, and its leader Pope Pius XII, played in World War II.

Today Pius XII's legacy is heavily debated. Some want him to be made a saint. Others call him Hitler's pope, and blame him for aiding the Nazi regime, and ultimately facilitating the Holocaust.

What David found is a much more complicated story. He's put together his research into a gripping new book, The pope At War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler. The book contains many newly disclosed details and revelations from the Vatican's Secret Archives, some of which shocked even a veteran historian like David.

DAVID KERTZER: We came across these incredible documents which are the actual conversations that the pope was having with Hitler's envoy.

SARAH BALDWIN: The book is more than just the uncovering of a secret history. It's a portrait of a moment that demanded moral leadership, and what happened instead in its absence.

On this episode, the story of a pope at war, and what it can teach us about World War II and the present. Before Pope Pius XII was Pope Pius XII, he was Eugenio Pacelli.

DAVID KERTZER: He was a very smart man. He was very religious. He, however, had never been the Bishop of a congregation, never been even a priest of a congregation. He had always spent his life in the diplomatic service of the Vatican.

SARAH BALDWIN: Rome and the Vatican had been at the center, not just of his professional life, but his family history.

DAVID KERTZER: They were from what was known as the black aristocracy, which has to do with part of the Roman aristocracy that had sided with the popes back when the Papal States were endangered and eventually fell in the 19th century.

His grandfather, in fact, helped found the Vatican Daily Newspaper, which still exists today. His father had become a lawyer, and become the like a dean of the lawyers of the Vatican. And his older brother kind of took on that role as well.

SARAH BALDWIN: In some ways, as you'll hear, Pacelli had many of the skills of a lawyer. He was good with words, highly deliberative, and ambitious.

DAVID KERTZER: As a very young priest, rather than be assigned some congregation, was assigned to the secretary of state office. Partly due to his own abilities, he was very smart fellow, but also certainly due to his political connections to the Vatican. He was on the fast track early on.

SARAH BALDWIN: In fact, Pacelli only ever had one extended period of time living outside the Vatican, in Germany.

DAVID KERTZER: His one main international experience is he spent 12 years from, Nineteen Seventeen to Nineteen Twenty-Nine, as the papal nuncio or ambassador to Germany.

SARAH BALDWIN: As a result, from early on in his career--

DAVID KERTZER: He is very close to the conservative Catholic elite in Germany. So he's not close to the Nazis, who he doesn't have much sympathy for, but he is very close to the conservative Catholic elite. So when one looks at his worldview and looks at how he views Germany, it seems very similar to a conservative Catholic German perspective.

SARAH BALDWIN: Eugenio moved back to the Vatican after his time in Germany. And throughout the nineteen-thirties, became his predecessor, Pope Pius XI's right hand man. Pius the XI died in Nineteen Thirty-Nine. The official cause was a heart attack. But while no one can prove it, the timing was a little suspicious. And that's because in the years leading up to his death, Pius the XI--

DAVID KERTZER: Thought Hitler a pagan and an enemy of the church. And was very upset to see Italy move closer and closer to Nazi Germany.

SARAH BALDWIN: And on February 11, Nineteen Thirty-Nine.

DAVID KERTZER: Pope was about to use an important address he was going to give to denounce his alliance with Nazi Germany. And he died the day before he could give that speech.

SARAH BALDWIN: A few weeks later, Eugenio becomes Pope Pius XII.

DAVID KERTZER: And he will become pope in March of Nineteen Thirty-Nine, following the death of Pius the XI. At a very dramatic time. The Second World War is about to break out.

SARAH BALDWIN: Pius XII did not pick up where his predecessor left off, condemning Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany. He takes a different approach, one that actually starts with a message from someone who is eager to get back on the Vatican's good side.

DAVID KERTZER: Within weeks of Pius XII being elected pope, Hitler saw an opportunity to end the kinds of criticisms that the pope's predecessor had been leveling at Nazi Germany. So he decided to send a secret envoy who would then shuttle back and forth between Hitler and the pope over the next many months.

The pope secretly had them recorded. Not audio recording. But he apparently had a German prelate hiding in a nearby area, an adjacent room, writing down the conversation in German. The negotiations that took place in German in which the pope was fluent.

So in the archives of the Vatican secretary of state that they've just opened, we came across these incredible documents, which are the actual conversations that the pope was having with Hitler's envoy.

SARAH BALDWIN: Pius XII saw Nazi Germany as a rising power in Nineteen Thirty-Nine. And in these communications, he was trying to find ways to ensure that the Vatican, as well as Germany's Catholic population, would be safe from Nazi aggression.

A quick pause. Here was a trail of communication between two of the most influential figures of the 20th century, which had probably never been seen before David found their records at the Vatican. Did you know what you were looking at right away?

DAVID KERTZER: Well, yes, although I needed help with the German. But it was kind of flabbergasting. And actually my main concern maybe this is-- I shouldn't be confessing this.

But I worried that in the many months that were going to happen between when we discovered the documents-- when I discovered the documents with my colleague Roberto Benedetti, who's been working with me in those archives, that some other scholar would come across them and would quickly write them up for a newspaper, a magazine.

And so I'd been living for a year and a half, before the publication of my book, worried that somebody else was going to publish about this first. But remarkably, they didn't.

SARAH BALDWIN: Less hidden were Pius XII's communications with Mussolini's fascist regime. It was a pretty different relationship than the one Pius XII had with Nazi Germany. That's because despite the tension that existed between the pope and Mussolini, ultimately--

DAVID KERTZER: From the point of view of the Vatican, Mussolini's government was pro-church.

SARAH BALDWIN: Mussolini and Pius XII were, in a way, Italy's two leaders. And they needed each other. Unlike Nazi Germany, Mussolini knew he had to have the pope on his side to lead the Italian people, which had been part of his program from the beginning.

DAVID KERTZER: Mussolini's government, in fact, restored many privileges the church had lost with the fall of the Papal States in the unification of Italy back in the 19th century. So although there were occasional bumps in the road in general throughout the fascist-- we talk about the centennial, the 20 years of fascism-- one could almost describe the state as a clerical fascist state.

A very close relationship between the clergy, the Catholic clergy and the fascist government. So when Pius XII becomes Pope in Nineteen Thirty-Nine, these strong relations would remain.

SARAH BALDWIN: These were already some complex relationships to navigate. But they became something entirely different in Nineteen Thirty-Nine.

REPORTER 1: Germany invades Poland and the free state of Danzig.

REPORTER 2: And sets the stage for World War II.

REPORTER 1: Warsaw is bombed, blasted and shelled. Poland is in ruins.

SARAH BALDWIN: Two days after Hitler's invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. Pius XII's reaction to Hitler's invasion of Poland, it sort of set the tone for how the pope would navigate the entire war. On the one hand, it was clear to the pope that Catholics were not safe under Hitler.

DAVID KERTZER: From Hitler's point of view, one of the principal enemies, as their troops moved into Poland, was the Roman Catholic clergy. So not only was Germany invading a overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country, but they were targeting Roman Catholic priests, many of whom were being sent to concentration camps.

SARAH BALDWIN: As you could expect--

DAVID KERTZER: So for all these reasons, the Polish government and Polish Catholics, Polish bishops, were all calling on the pope to denounce the German invasion.


DAVID KERTZER: The pope refused.

SARAH BALDWIN: If the pope wouldn't speak out to defend his people, so to speak, what on Earth was he doing? You can see how some might be tempted to call Pius XII Hitler's pope. But it's more complicated than that. So why then did he refuse to condemn this invasion?

DAVID KERTZER: His initial refusal, I think, was motivated by various factors. One is that he didn't want to offend German Catholics. The Catholics of Germany were very important to him. Of course, he spent 12 years with them. And so he thought if he were to criticize the war, criticize the Germans for invading, he would be alienating Roman Catholics in Germany. And this he did not want to do.

SARAH BALDWIN: Pius was also concerned that if he did criticize Hitler, any German Catholics who continue to support him would be in danger of persecution, or worse, by the Nazi regime. And there was a third reason for his caution and silence in the face of Nazi aggression. Here's David again.

DAVID KERTZER: So from the first years of the war, not only people around the Vatican, but in fact, many, many people in Europe thought the Nazis were going to win. They had good reason to think they would, given how speedily they conquered much of Western Europe.

And so in those early years of the war, let's say from Nineteen Thirty-Nine, especially Nineteen Forty through much of Nineteen Forty-Two, the pope was worried about how to protect the church in a Europe under German control.

SARAH BALDWIN: In other words, in a Nazi controlled Europe, how would the Catholic Church survive? After Poland, of course--

DAVID KERTZER: Spring of Nineteen Forty you have the Westward invasion, the invasion of Netherlands, Belgium, France. At this point it looked like the Nazis were unstoppable. And that the church was going to have to learn to live in a Europe under Nazi control, with their kind of pals, Mussolini and the Italian fascists.

And so the pope was reluctant to do anything that would antagonize either government, either Mussolini's government or Hitler's government.

SARAH BALDWIN: Germany's territorial expansion continued. And the acts of violence grew against political rivals, ethnic minorities, and above all, Europe's Jews. But contrary to the narrative of Pius XII being Hitler's pope, he wasn't approving or even indifferent to this suffering. It haunted him.

DAVID KERTZER: For example, a little bit later on in Nineteen Forty-Two, he begins having visits from a Roman priest who is a chaplain with the Italian forces. And telling the pope about the mass murder of Europe's Jews.

The pope, he would later recount, had tears in his eyes as he heard these stories. It's not that the pope was him not human or didn't have human reactions like this, but he felt he had a higher responsibility to protect the institutional interests of the church. And this is how he acted.

SARAH BALDWIN: He also, clearly, was aware of what his silence could look like to people too.

DAVID KERTZER: Angelo Roncalli, who would later become his successor as Pope John the XXIII, a very different pope, he meets with the pope. And one of the first things the pope asks him is how he thinks people are reacting to his silence. And clearly worried about how this is being viewed.

SARAH BALDWIN: Things get even more complicated for Pius XII in Nineteen Forty-One when the US entered the war. All of a sudden there are constituencies on both sides of the war that Pope Pius XII is desperate not to alienate.

DAVID KERTZER: He relied on financial support from the Catholics in the United States. The principal financial support of the Vatican was coming from the US, and had been for a number of decades by this point.

SARAH BALDWIN: But on the other side of the war were, of course, not just German Catholics, but all of Italy. It was also becoming more and more clear that he couldn't simply remain silent.

DAVID KERTZER: So he engaged in what I would think of something as a double game. Because as head of the Catholic Church in Italy, he was presiding over a clergy that was supporting the Axis war. But as Supreme Pontiff of all the faithful worldwide, he was taking this position of neutrality.

SARAH BALDWIN: The most visible examples of this double game.

DAVID KERTZER: So one of the things I show in the book is how he carefully labored on his speeches to see that there would be pieces of them that could be cited by each side.

SARAH BALDWIN: The pope's public remarks during the war were dense, confusing, vague. And intentionally so.

DAVID KERTZER: He comes up with phrases that can be interpreted in different ways. He talks about the need for a new world order, for example, which is a term that was used by the Nazis and the fascists for what they were doing. But, of course, the pope could deny that that's what he meant by using these terms.

SARAH BALDWIN: Another example. In Nineteen Forty-Two, the pope gave a Christmas radio address that disparaged marxism and socialism. The remarks were read by fascists as a sign the pope was on their side.

But buried on the 24th page of his address, he lamented the hundreds of thousands, who because of their race, were quote, "Condemned to death or progressive extinction." Something the Allies could read as a condemnation of fascism.

DAVID KERTZER: Today it's not difficult for defenders of Pius XII, who see him as a heroic figure, to say, oh, look at this comment that he made in some speech that, obviously, was critical of the Nazi cause. But at the same time, the Mussolini and Hitler, and so on, and their minions were able to point to other things the pope said that they could point as showing that the pope was in their corner.

SARAH BALDWIN: Poland's ambassador summed up a feeling many people seem to have at the time about Pius XII.

SUBJECT 1: Due to his sensitivities and delicate nature, the character of his studies and a certain one sidedness of his career, exclusively diplomatic and far from real life, cannot speak to a different language. And passes by the realities of our time, not realizing how little an average Catholic can understand and remember from his denunciations.

SARAH BALDWIN: Although maybe he did know how little people could understand his long, dry speeches. Making them hard to follow allowed him to get away with saying contradictory ideas, or sometimes nothing of substance at all. In Nineteen Forty-Three, Allied troops landed in Southern Italy and began their advance North to the rest of Italy. The war was entering its bloody final stages. US troops advance toward Rome.

DAVID KERTZER: And in early September Nineteen Forty-Three, the Italians announced their armistice with the Allies, therefore, they're no longer going to be allied with Nazi Germany.

SARAH BALDWIN: You might think that this would have been the time for Pius XII to choose a side in the war, and unequivocally condemn the acts of Nazi Germany. But he did not. Once again, there were multiple reasons for his silence.

First, the one thing, maybe the only thing the pope unequivocally opposed, the rise of communism and the Soviet Union. Unlike fascism, Pius XII saw communism as an existential threat to the church. There was no compromise to be made.

DAVID KERTZER: It did appear to the pope and others that the Allies now were more likely to win the war. But now the main allies were not only Britain and the US, but also Soviet Union. The Allies kept calling for the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.

And the pope was worried that unless he could help bring about a compromise peace, which the Allies kept rejecting, that if they just demanded an unconditional surrender, Germany would be reduced to rubble. And this would all advantage the Soviet Union.

SARAH BALDWIN: But as was always true with decisions made by Pius XII, there were multiple interconnected factors at play. And at this moment, there was still one major factor trumping all others. Hitler controlled Rome. After feeling betrayed and angered by Mussolini siding with the US--

DAVID KERTZER: Hitler then sends the troops, flooding down from the North through Italy. And takes over much of the Italian peninsula, including Rome. So beginning in certainly by the middle of September of Nineteen Forty-Three, Rome was being occupied by German troops who, by the way, respect Vatican City.

SARAH BALDWIN: As in they don't invade or occupy it.

DAVID KERTZER: But they're occupying the rest of Rome.

SARAH BALDWIN: This also meant that the crimes against humanity that Nazis were perpetrating across Europe had now come to the pope's backyard.

DAVID KERTZER: About a month after the Germans occupy Rome, the Gestapo were sent in. And on October 16, Nineteen Forty-Three, they succeed in rounding up over 1,000 Jews who will be, a couple of days later, mostly sent to their death at Auschwitz.

SARAH BALDWIN: At this point, pleas were coming in from rabbis, from families of abducted people, from international leaders for the pope to condemn the actions of the Germans. The pope, in characteristic ways, used backchannels, diplomatic language, and vague calls for compassion to try to end the violence. It didn't work.

With each month, the odds of Germany winning the war shrank, and yet the pope continued his silence. At times, Pius XII seemed to come awfully close to even sanctioning Germany's activities in Rome.

Perhaps the starkest example, in Nineteen Forty-Four, a group of Italians opposing Nazi occupation exploded a bomb in Rome, killing dozens of German officers. That led to what would become known as the Ardeatine massacre.

DAVID KERTZER: Hitler vowed that 10 Italians should be executed for every German soldier who died. And so there were 36 victims, in terms of the German soldiers. They ended up rounding up 365, they got 5 more than they needed, and took them out to caves just outside Rome.

Scores of these 365 victims were, in fact, Jews from Rome, the others were kind of political prisoners. And so a lot of them tended to be younger men and middle aged men. But the Jews who were killed included old people, young children. They basically had a gun put to back of their head and shot. Then they exploded the cave to cover up their crime.

SARAH BALDWIN: Pope Pius XII's reaction to this massacre.

DAVID KERTZER: The next day the Vatican Newspaper had an article of denunciation. But what they denounced was not the murder of the 365 civilians, but the fact that the partisans had killed the German soldiers.

At the same time as the Allies were leafleting the Italians claims to rise up against the German occupiers, the church was taking the opposite position, continuing to use all their influence to prevent any kind of resistance in Rome. Saying that it would only lead to further violence.

SARAH BALDWIN: The story of Pope Pius XII and World War II obviously goes far deeper than we can cover in this podcast. To really understand it, you'll have to check out David's new book. But let's move forward a little in time.

So, of course, World War II ends in Nineteen Forty-Five, and Germany's atrocities become more fully known to the world. The Holocaust becomes history's clearest example of a red line for humanity, something we should simply never have tolerated under any circumstances.

Something which Pius XII, along with millions of people around the world, were able to. Today, Pius XII has many defenders inside and outside of the Vatican. And David can understand some of their arguments in his favor.

DAVID KERTZER: If one wants to judge him by his success in protecting the church, I think he has to be regarded his experience during the war as a success. The church came out of the war pretty strong position. Certainly did not have the kind of schism with Germany that he so much feared.

The Germans certainly could have easily taken over the Vatican City, they could have easily kidnapped the pope. If his defenders simply said, look, he was facing very difficult choices.

The future is very difficult to predict, he had good reason to believe he was going to have to protect the church. And that Europe was dominated by Nazis. He certainly didn't like the Nazis. He wasn't happy about this development. One could kind of paint a picture there. We could see-- I think one could understand this.

SARAH BALDWIN: But many of Pius the XII supporters don't stop there.

DAVID KERTZER: His defenders paint this picture of a heroic courageous pope who takes great risks to save hundreds of thousands of Jews of Europe, and so on. And this is just so far from the actual fact of history that I think it's impossible to let that stand. That any serious historian is going to find the need to write a more accurate history of this.

SARAH BALDWIN: David's portrayal of Pius XII, informed by many letters, memos, and documents never before seen by historians, is a huge step forward in understanding the man and the moment. And as David puts it, the question of Pope Pius XII's actions and words isn't just a story about one man or even just about the Catholic Church.

DAVID KERTZER: For me one of the moral issues here is how was the Holocaust possible?

SARAH BALDWIN: No one can know if Pius XII could have actually helped prevent such tragedy, the effect his actions and words could have had. It's a tale of moral leadership we'll never know, and can only learn from, in this case, by its absence. And blame is even more deserving for members of an institution like the Catholic Church, which for centuries had helped ostracize the Jews of Europe.

DAVID KERTZER: Centuries of demonization of Jews by the church, and not just the Catholic Church, but, of course, Protestant Churches too, play a major role here. And if you ask who it is who were doing the murdering, they weren't pagans or, at least, they weren't people who thought of themselves as pagans.

They were people who thought of themselves as Christians. More or less half of them thought of themselves as Roman Catholics. The church bore some responsibility, obviously, there were other factors too, but bore some responsibility for the vilification of Jews that made the Holocaust possible.

So it's in this context that the pope's silence, not only, by the way, during the war but even after the war, he never talked about any such responsibility of the Church for vilifying Jews. It's important for us to understand how the Holocaust happened, and how it could have been permitted to happen. So from my point of view, this is a history we need to confront.

SARAH BALDWIN: A history that for decades was partially buried in the Vatican's archives and which, thanks to David Kertzer, we can finally see more fully. This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Kate Dario. Our theme music is by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

Trending Globally is a podcast from the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. You can find all our episodes by subscribing to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts or on our website. We'll put a link in the show notes.

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