Did Hitler try to kidnap the pope?
It was a Nazi plot that kept the pontiff from condemning the Holocaust, a new book argues
BRIAN BETHUNE | July 30, 2007 |
Did he do all that he could have done, all that he should have done? Controversy over the conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust has raged for over 40 years. Pius's once sterling reputation for having done what he could behind the scenes for persecuted Jews first came under sustained attack in 1963, when Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy cast his failure to publicly denounce the Nazi genocide in an anti-Semitic light. The bitter debate has never really stopped since, fuelled by Pius's ongoing canonization process: by last March the man who ruled the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958 was only a small step removed from beatified status, the last rung before full sainthood. Even those, Jewish and Catholic alike, who might otherwise contemplate letting past tragedies go gently into the history books, are unwilling to ignore the present-day sanctification of a man about whose motives and actions so much uncertainty swirls.
One key issue concerns the practical value of public denunciation, especially weighed against possible repercussions. What would have happened, for example, if Pius had excommunicated Hitler, a baptized Catholic? Would German Catholics have stopped the entire genocide machine in its tracks, or would open enmity have simply caused the Nazis to turn their murderous impulses on the Vatican or on Catholics in general, while doing nothing for Jews? That's where A Special Mission(Perseus)by American journalist Dan Kurzman, the first serious investigation of Hitler's little-known plan to kidnap Pius in order to keep him quiet about the Final Solution, brings a new twist to the story.
Pius the Vicar of Christ and Hitler the Antichrist loathed and feared one another as rival claimants for Europe's hearts and souls, says Kurzman. Stalin may cynically have asked of another pope, "How many divisions does he have?", but Hitler knew 40 per cent of his army was Catholic and that a 10th of the elite SS had refused to abandon the faith despite strong Nazi party pressure. Pius, for his part, was aware of the depth of anti-Semitism that cut across German society and that nationalism had long trumped religion in Europe. Had not Catholics on both sides of the Western Front dutifully mown down their co-religionists by the millions in the previous world war? Neither leader wanted to issue a command that might backfire. Hitler, when not in a rage, feared creating a martyr; Pius, whose overriding concern was piloting his Church safely through the maelstrom, was wary of provoking a violent psychopath.
The standoff turned acute when the fall of Fascist Italy removed the last buffer between the two men in the summer of 1943. Hitler sent German troops into Rome and ordered SS Gen. Karl Wolff to kidnap Pius, lest the sight -- "under his own window," in one German diplomat's words -- of Rome's Jews being rounded up for Auschwitz finally drive the pope to open protest. It's worth noting the threat went far beyond the personal -- Wolff's orders included executing the papal court and looting the Vatican. According to Kurzman, who had extensive conversations with Wolff before the general's death in 1984, and with others who knew of the plan, Wolff had no desire to stick his head in a post-war noose by laying violent hands on a pope. Instead he made his mission plain to Vatican officials, and relied on the mere threat of it to force silence, while using that silence to convince Hitler no further action was required.
Despite Kurzman's insistence that the kidnap plot was a vital factor in Pius's decisions, it's difficult to evaluate its importance. In the event, Pius never did directly denounce the Holocaust, but he and his city escaped the war largely unscathed, with Rome's monasteries and convents(and the papal summer home of Castel Gandolfo)stuffed with Jewish refugees. Six decades later, the thousand-year Reich is history, and the Roman Catholic Church is a going concern.
That leads directly to the other core issue in the debate: did Pius have an obligation to speak out, whatever the consequences to himself or his flock? Popes have two jobs, according to historian José Sánchez, author of Pius XII and the Holocaust: their ancient responsibility of caring for the Church and their role in "the popular mind" -- of being a moral conscience for mankind. But the second role, Sánchez says, is a modern development. "Pius would scarcely have recognized it, and it certainly wouldn't have been his priority. And it wasn't possible, within the constraints of the war, to have done both."