Pius XII - World War II

World War II

Pius XII's pontificate began on the eve of World War II. Pius XII's refusal to censure the German invasion and annexation of Poland was regarded as a "betrayal" by many Polish Catholics and clergy, who saw his appointment of Hilarius Breitinger as apostolic administrator for the Wartheland in May 1942 as "implicit recognition" of the breakup of Poland; the opinions of the Volksdeutsche, mostly German Catholic minorities living in occupied Poland, were more mixed. Although Pius XII received frequent reports about atrocities committed by and/or against Catholics, his knowledge was incomplete; for example, he wept after the war on learning that Cardinal Hlond had banned German liturgical services in Poland. Phayer argues that Pius XII – both before and during his papacy – consistently "deferred to Germany at the expense of Poland", and saw Germany – not Poland – as critical to "rebuilding a large Catholic presence in Central Europe".

During the war, the Pope followed a policy of public neutrality mirroring that of Pope Benedict XV during World War I. In 1939, Pius XII turned the Vatican into a centre of aid which he organized from various parts of the world At the request of the Pope, an information office for prisoners of war and refugees operated in the Vatican under Giovanni Battista Montini, which in the years of its existence from 1939 until 1947 received almost 10 million (9,891,497) information requests and produced over 11 million (11,293,511) answers about missing persons.

In April 1939, after the submission of Charles Maurras and the intervention of the Carmel of Lisieux, Pius XII ended his predecessor's ban on Action Française, an organization described by some authors as virulently antisemitic and anti-Communist. In 1939, the Pope employed a Jewish cartographer, Roberto Almagia, to work on old maps in the Vatican library. Almagia had been at the University of Rome since 1915 but was dismissed after Benito Mussolini's antisemitic legislation of 1938. The Pope's appointment of two Jews to the Vatican Academy of Science as well as the hiring of Almagia were reported by The New York Times in the editions of 11 November 1939, and 10 January 1940.

On 11 March 1940, Pius XII had a personal meeting with German Foreign Affairs Minister Joachim Ribbentrop in Rome. During that meeting, Ribbentrop suggested an overall settlement between the Vatican and the Reich government in exchange for Pius XII instructing the German bishops to refrain from political criticism of the German government, but no agreement was reached.

After Germany invaded the Low Countries during 1940, Pius XII sent expressions of sympathy to the Queen of the Netherlands, the King of Belgium, and the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg. When Mussolini learned of the warnings and the telegrams of sympathy, he took them as a personal affront and had his ambassador to the Vatican file an official protest, charging that Pius XII had taken sides against Italy's ally Germany. Mussolini's foreign minister claimed that Pius XII was "ready to let himself be deported to a concentration camp, rather than do anything against his conscience."

In the spring of 1940, a group of German generals seeking to overthrow Hitler and make peace with the British approached Pope Pius XII, who acted as a negotiator between the British and the abortive plot.

In April 1941, Pius XII granted a private audience to Ante Pavelić, the leader of the newly proclaimed Croatian state (rather than the diplomatic audience Pavelić had wanted). Pius was criticised for his reception of Pavelić: an unattributed British Foreign Office memo on the subject described Pius as "the greatest moral coward of our age." The Vatican did not officially recognise Pavelić's regime. Pius XII did not publicly condemn the expulsions and forced conversions to Catholicism perpetrated on Serbs by Pavelić; however, the Holy See did expressly repudiate the forced conversions in a memorandum dated 25 January 1942, from the Vatican Secretiat of State to the Yugoslavian Legation. The pope was well-informed of Catholic clergy involvement with the Ustaše regime, even possessing a list of clergymembers who had "joined in the slaughter", but decided against condemning the regime or taking action against the involved clergy, fearing that it would lead to schism in the Croatian church or undermine the formation of a future Croatian state. Pius XII elevated Aloysius Stepinac — a Croatian archbishop convicted of collaborating with the Ustaše — to the cardinalate. Phayer agrees that Stepinac's was a "show trial", but states "the charge that he supported the Ustaša regime was, of course, true, as everyone knew", and that "if Stepinac had responded to the charges against him, his defense would have inevitably unraveled, exposing the Vatican's support of the genocidal Pavelić."

In 1941, Pius XII interpreted Divini Redemptoris, an encyclical of Pope Pius XI, which forbade Catholics to help communists, as not applying to military assistance to the Soviet Union. This interpretation assuaged American Roman Catholics who had previously opposed Lend-Lease arrangements with the Soviet Union.

In March 1942, Pius XII established diplomatic relations with the Japanese Empire and received ambassador Ken Harada, who remained in that position until the end of the war. In May 1942, Kazimierz Papée, Polish ambassador to the Vatican, complained that Pius had failed to condemn the recent wave of atrocities in Poland; when Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione replied that the Vatican could not document individual atrocities, Papée declared, "when something becomes notorious, proof is not required."

In June 1942, diplomatic relations were established with the Nationalist government of China. This step was envisaged earlier, but delayed due to Japanese pressure to establish relations with the pro-Japanese Wang Jingwei government. The first Chinese Minister to the Vatican, Hsieh Shou-kang, was only able to arrive at the Vatican in January 1943, due to difficulties of travel resulting from the war. He remained in that position until late 1946.

Pius XII's 1942 Christmas address via Vatican Radio remains a "lightning rod" in debates about Pius XII. The majority of the speech spoke generally about human rights and civil society; at the very end of the speech, Pius XII mentioned "the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline".

The Nazis themselves responded to the speech by stating that it was "one long attack on everything we stand for....He is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews....He is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews, and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." The New York Times wrote that "The voice of Pius XII is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe this Christmas....In calling for a 'real new order' based on 'liberty, justice, and love,'...the pope put himself squarely against Hitlerism." Historian Michael Phayer claims, however, that "it is still not clear whose genocide or which genocide he was referring to".

Several authors have alleged a plot to kidnap Pius XII by the Nazis during their occupation of Rome in 1943 (Vatican City itself was not occupied); British historian Owen Chadwick and the Jesuit ADSS editor Rev. Robert Graham each concluded such claims were an invention of British wartime propagandists. However, in 2007, subsequent to those accounts, Dan Kurzman published a work which he maintains establishes that the plot was a fact.

As the war was approaching its end in 1945, Pius advocated a lenient policy by the Allied leaders in an effort to prevent what he perceived to be the mistakes made at the end of World War I. In August 1944, he met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who was visiting Rome. At their meeting, the Pope expressed the hope that planned war crimes trials would not include Italian defendants, since he considered the Italians as victims of the Third Reich.

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