There has been no major figure of the World War II period (1939-1945) more inaccurately depicted than Eugenio Pacelli — Pope Pius XII (1939-1958).
Perhaps the worst of these attacks come from a provocative 1960s play, and a 1990s book which claimed to be scholarly.
The first is Rolf Hochhuth’s stage drama, The Deputy (1963), which presented Pius as a cold, heartless bureaucrat, standing aloof from the horrors of the Holocaust, as he engaged in secret business dealings to enrich the Church. After creating a brief sensation, The Deputy was revealed to be a pure piece of propaganda — as contrived and inaccurate as the anti-Catholic fabrications once put out by the Nazis themselves.
The second assault on Pius’s character was John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999), a purported work of scholarship, but, as respected historians showed, clearly a compendium of inaccuracies and prejudices. Cornwell argued that Pacelli assisted Hitler’s consolidation of power, and then, once the Holocaust began, failed to adequately resist it. Both primary archives and first-hand witnesses have demolished Cornwell’s thesis; and even Cornwell himself has corrected some of his most outrageous judgments. But the misconceptions of that book, like those of The Deputy, continue to resonate with a media little interested in historical truth, particularly when it involves the papacy.
The result has been a grave historical injustice: over and over, Pius XII has been presented to the general public as the most reprehensible Churchman imaginable—the Pope who remained silent during the genocide, or who actually colluded with the Nazis in the deaths of millions of Jews. Outstanding scholars— and many others of good will— know how untrue these allegations are; and the facts about Pius XII’s impressive record are reaching more people all the time. But the truth is that there is still widespread bias against Pius, and it will take considerable time to reverse and correct it.
We will not try to explain why Pius XII has been maligned for more than 50 years; that is a story requiring its own review— one that examines our age’s abysmal prejudice against Catholicism. We simply state this essential fact: more than 50 years of painstaking research, much of it by Jewish scholars, has repudiated every main charge against him, and proved him a singularly dedicated rescuer of Jews.
Last month, this magazine made the case that the almost irrational campaign against Pius was continuing, even in the face of massive evidence against it. This month we offer one clear, compelling example of Pius XII at work to embrace and care for Jews. The example we give has been partially known ever since Inside the Vatican published a newsflash about it in 2006, with commentary by William Doino, a highly-regarded Pius specialist (see accompanying box). That story received wide attention, much praise, some criticism, and, appropriately, requests for additional evidence. Now, after considerably more research, we present the full story behind the original newsflash. It is now a testimony with ample documentation, which we believe every fair-minded reader will find extraordinary. If ever a story deserved to be heard, bearing upon Pius XII’s conduct and character, and his true attitude toward the Jewish people, this is it. —The Editor