The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: An Interview with Rabbi David G. Dalin

Rabbi David G. Dalin received his rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the author or co-author of several books. His most recent book, and the subject of my interview with him, is The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis.

Cover-to-Cover Deception

Thomas Woods: Ronald Rychlak has done some excellent work debunking the claims of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999). It turns out that the book’s dishonesty begins on its front cover. Can you elaborate on that?

Rabbi David Dalin: The book’s dishonesty does indeed begin on the front cover of Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope. The book’s title, Hitler’s Pope, is of course historically false and malicious itself. Eugenio Pacelli, who served as papal nuncio in Berlin until 1929, never met or spoke with Adolf Hitler. During Hitler’s much-publicized state visit to Rome in 1938, for example, Pacelli (together with Pope Pius XI) very publicly snubbed the Nazi leader by refusing to meet with him and by leaving Rome for the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo.

As you note, Tom, the malicious title Hitler’s Pope is reinforced by the book’s misleading jacket, which has a picture of Pacelli, then the papal nuncio in Berlin, leaving a reception given for the constitutionally elected president of Germany, Paul von Hindenburg, in 1927. This photograph, a favorite of those who wish to portray Pius XII in an unfavorable light, shows him dressed in formal diplomatic regalia (which could easily be confused with papal garments), and being saluted by two German soldiers of the Weimar Republic as he leaves a German government building. The distinctive helmets of the German soldiers could easily mislead viewers into thinking these soldiers of the Weimar Republic were soldiers of the Third Reich. The use of this photograph under the title Hitler’s Pope gives the impression that Pope Pius XII had just left a friendly diplomatic meeting with Adolf Hitler. “The casual reader,” suggests historian Philip Jenkins, “is meant to infer that Pacelli is emerging from a cosy tête-à-tête with Hitler — perhaps they have been chatting about plans for a new extermination camp?” “Perhaps photographs do not lie,” concludes Jenkins, “but this particular book cover — offered in the context it was, and under the title Hitler’s Pope — comes close.” Making matters even worse is the caption inside the British edition of the book, which reads: “Cover photograph shows Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, leaving the presidential palace in Berlin, March 1939,” which is patently false.

The American edition of Hitler’s Pope does not bear the faulty caption, but it does use the same paragraph, though with an apparently intentional blurring effect: Pacelli is in focus, but the picture of the soldier to his left is badly blurred, perhaps to make the uniform of the German soldier even more ambiguous. Because the British cover photo is not blurred, and because Pacelli is in focus on the cover of the American edition, some have concluded that Viking Press intentionally altered the photograph to support the author’s thesis. The selection of the photo was not a publisher’s error; Cornwell himself admitted in an interview that he personally approved the photograph that Viking Press selected.

Woods: You point out that Cornwell has modified his views to some extent since the publication of Hitler’s Pope. How so?

Dalin: In his recent book The Pontiff in Winter, published in the United States in late 2004, Cornwell acknowledged that he had erred in his book Hitler’s Pope. He was wrong to have ascribed evil motives to Pius and now found it “impossible to judge” the wartime pontiff [Cornwell, The Pontiff in Winter, p. 193]. Cornwell’s about-face, however, received only slight notice in the liberal media, which of course had completely ignored previous scholarly refutations of Hitler’s Pope.

His Home Was Their Castle

Woods: Faced with the fact that many Roman Jews were in fact saved by Catholics during World War II, many critics of Pius XII fall back on the argument that those Jews were saved by individual priests, bishops, religious, and laity rather than in response to a papal directive. What do you make of this claim?

Dalin: As I discuss in much detail in my book, this claim is historically false: There is much firsthand evidence testifying to Pius’s explicit instructions to save Jews, including that of Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing. Carroll-Abbing was the founder of Boys Towns of Italy and a confidant of Pius XII. He also, on explicit instructions from the pope, fed and sheltered Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome. In his two memoirs, A Chance to Live and But for the Grace of God, published in 1952 and 1965, respectively, he provides extensive details about Pius XII’s rescue efforts on behalf of the Jews — efforts with which he was directly involved.

In a remarkable interview given to Inside the Vatican (August/September 2001), Carroll-Abbing recounted how the pope had directly ordered him to save the Jews. He stressed that the claim of papal critics that he, and other Catholic rescuers like him, acted in spite of the pope’s silence, “is a blatant lie! I spoke to Pope Pius XII many times during the war, in person, face to face, and he told me not once but many times to assist the Jews…. I can personally testify that the pope gave me direct, face-to-face, verbal orders to rescue Jews.”

During the Nazi occupation of Rome, three thousand Jews found refuge at one time at the pope’s summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Amazingly, Castel Gandolfo is never mentioned or discussed in the anti-papal writings of many of the pope’s critics. Yet at no other site in Nazi-occupied Europe were as many Jews saved and sheltered for as long a period as at Castel Gandolfo during the Nazi occupation of Rome. Kosher food was provided for the Jews hidden there, where, as George Weigel has noted, Jewish children were born in the private apartments of Pius XII, which became a temporary obstetrical ward.

Pius’s critics who do mention Castel Gandolfo argue — ludicrously — that the Jews were sheltered at the pope’s summer residence without direct papal knowledge or involvement. But the fact is that Castel Gandolfo is under the official jurisdiction of the pope and no one but he has the authority to open its doors. According to several eyewitnesses, including Monsignor Carroll-Abbing, that is precisely what Pius XII did.

The firsthand testimony of Italian Cardinal Pietro Palazzini also refutes the fallacious claims of papal critics that those Italian Catholics who rescued Jews did not do so in response to papal directives. In 1985, Cardinal Palazzini was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, as a “righteous gentile,” who “had endangered his life” and gone “above and beyond the call of duty to save [Italian] Jews during the Holocaust.” When he was honored by Yad Vashem as a “righteous gentile,” Palazzini testified that Pius XII had personally ordered him to save and shelter Jews.

What about the Concordat?

Woods: What do you think students of history should make of the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with Germany? Was that agreement in any way an endorsement of National Socialism?

Dalin: The Vatican’s 1933 Concordat with Nazi Germany is one of the issues that critics of Pius XII have used to attack him. Critics of the Reich Concordat, as the Vatican’s 1933 concordat with Nazi Germany has come to be known, claim that it silenced German Catholics who otherwise might have openly opposed Hitler and held him in check. Students of history need to know that such criticism is historically false and misleading. On the contrary, as historian Jose Sanchez has pointed out, the concordat was a pragmatic and morally defensible diplomatic measure to protect German Catholics and the relative freedom of the Catholic Church in Germany. “The Germans had proposed the concordat,” Sanchez reminds us, and for the Vatican “to have rejected it out of hand would have been prejudicial to the rights of Catholics in Germany.” It was morally defensible from the vantage point of German Jews as well, as it had been signed in July 1933, well before Hitler had enacted any of his anti-Semitic legislation or decrees.

Contrary to what Pacelli’s critics have alleged, the concordat did not precipitate the collapse of Germany’s Catholic Center Party. The Vatican wanted the concordat “primarily to protect German Catholics in political situations in which their traditional protector, the Catholic Center Party, no longer existed.”… The Center Party’s influence had steadily declined during the last years of the Weimar Republic. By 1933, it was hardly a political factor at all. In fact, on July 5, 1933, two weeks before the concordat was signed, the party membership decided to dissolve. As even the papal critic James Carroll reluctantly concedes, “Even before the concordat was formally signed, the Center Party had ceased to exist.”

Critics of Pacelli argue that Hitler pressed for the concordat in order to give his Nazi regime moral legitimacy. As Sanchez points out, however, the concordat gave no moral approval to Hitler’s regime. Indeed, when Hitler tried to make this claim, hailing the Vatican’s “recognition of the present government,” Pacelli specifically denied it in two articles in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. All the Church had done was to negotiate a treaty and nothing more, Pacelli argued. Students of history need to be reminded that, contrary to what Pius XII’s critics have falsely alleged, the concordat did not imply a moral endorsement of Hitler or National Socialism.

Professor John Conway of the University of British Columbia, while not uncritical of Pius XII, says,

The conclusion of the Reich Concordat with the new Nazi regime in 1933 is…not to be seen as a sign of the Vatican’s approval…but rather as an attempt to control [the regime’s] unpredictable revolutionary fervor within some legally binding framework.

The German historian Konrad Repgen agrees that for the Catholic Church, the concordat “was not an alliance but an instrument of defense.”

What Is the Real Agenda?

Woods: Although I had read defenses of Pius XII before, I was deeply moved by your book and the forgotten history you managed to uncover. I think people familiar with the Cornwell thesis, when they see the stunning and quite overwhelming evidence you offer in your book in defense of the pope, will be inclined to ask: if Pius XII was in fact a friend of the Jews and helped to rescue a great many of them from the clutches of the Nazis as you say, what accounts for the campaign against the wartime pontiff? Can you offer any thoughts on that question?

Dalin: The campaign of vilification against Pius XII’s conduct during World War II began as easily dismissed Communist agitprop against the strongly anti-Communist pontiff. But the campaign of vilification became a major issue after the 1963 Berlin premiere of a play called The Deputy, written by a young left-wing German writer named Rolf Hochhuth. Hochhuth vilified Pius XII as a Nazi collaborator and an icy and avaricious pontiff guilty of moral cowardice and inexcusable silence as Europe’s Jews were being murdered by the Nazis. Promoted as “the most controversial play of our time,” The Deputy was fictional, highly polemical, and offered no historical evidence. It nevertheless became a sensation and ignited a firestorm of controversy, and first created the myth that Pius XII was “Hitler’s pope,” [which] has continued to this day.

That was more than forty years ago. And yet the myth that Pius XII was “Hitler’s pope” persists. It persists despite well-documented historical evidence that Eugenio Pacelli was one of Hitler’s earliest and most consistent critics and that, as both the Vatican Secretary of State and subsequently as pope, was in fact a friend of the Jewish people who was instrumental in rescuing and sheltering a great many Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.

In The Myth of Hitler’s Pope I ask and try to answer the question of why this malicious myth, [which] has no basis whatsoever in historical fact, continues to persist. In part, at least, the persistence of this myth is attributable to the anti-Catholic diatribes of an increasingly left-wing (and secularized) intellectual class that seeks to denigrate not only traditional Catholicism, but Christianity and even Judaism as well. It is no coincidence that the most extreme of the pope’s attackers — including James Carroll (author of Constantine’s Sword) and Garry Wills (author of Papal Sin) — are also outspoken critics of the late Pope John Paul II.

Woods: You argue in your book that “very few of the many recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust are actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust.”

Dalin: That’s exactly right. The liberal best-selling attacks on the pope and the Catholic Church are really an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Catholic Church today…especially on issues relating to sexuality, including abortion, contraception, priestly celibacy, and the role of women in the Church. The anti-papal polemics of ex-seminarians like Garry Wills and John Cornwell, and of ex-priests like James Carroll, and of other lapsed or angry liberal Catholics, exploit the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to foster their own political agenda of forcing changes on the Catholic Church today.

The Holocaust cannot legitimately be used for partisan purposes in such a debate. That is true particularly when the attempt disparages the testimony of Jewish Holocaust survivors who praised Pope Pius XII for his efforts on their behalf. And it is an abominable slander to spread blame that belongs to Hitler and the Nazis to a pope who was a friend of the Jews and who opposed Hitler and the Nazis. Jews have a duty to reject such arguments that usurp the Holocaust and use it for a liberal war against the Catholic Church [which], if successful, would undermine the foundations of Christianity and Judaism alike, because of the liberal critics’ overwhelming disregard for traditional religion and for the truth. This hijacking of the Holocaust must be repudiated. The truth about Pope Pius XII — which the mainstream media has been content to ignore while helping to make best-sellers out of bad history — must be restored. The liberal culture war against tradition — of which the Pope Pius XII controversy is a microcosm — must be recognized for what it is: an assault on the institution of the Catholic Church and traditional religion.

A Righteous Gentile

Woods: Given the severity of the abuse that Pius XII has taken, do you think his reputation can be restored — to say nothing of his elevation to sainthood?

Dalin: I think so, Tom. Despite the severity of the recent attacks on the reputation of Pius XII and the campaign of vilification against him, I believe that his historical reputation and legacy as a friend of the Jewish people who did so much to rescue Jews during the Holocaust can be restored. Indeed, I hope and pray that my new book may play at least some small part in helping to restore his reputation.

I believe, as I argue in my book, that the time has come for Pius XII to receive formal recognition from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, as one of the “righteous gentiles,” for his well-documented role in saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust. In enacting the law establishing Yad Vashem in 1953, the Israeli parliament stipulated that it was “making it the duty of the State of Israel to recognize the work done by non-Jews in saving Jewish lives during the Second World War. An ‘expression of honour’ was awarded, in the name of the Jewish people, to every non-Jewish person or family who took the risk of hiding or saving Jews.” They have come to be known, and deservedly admired, as “righteous gentiles.”

In 1962, Yad Vashem created a public commission whose task was to define the criteria for bestowing the title and honor of “righteous gentile” to non-Jewish rescuers of Jews, and to decide whom to so recognize. Over the past two decades, several Catholic Church leaders — priests, nuns and cardinals — have been honored as “righteous gentiles,” including Monsignor Angelo Rotta, the Vatican’s wartime ambassador to Hungary, and Cardinal Pietro Palazzini, who, according to a Yad Vashem spokesperson, “had endangered his life” and gone “above and beyond the call of duty to save [Italian] Jews during the Holocaust.” However, Pius XII has not yet been honored as a “righteous gentile,” despite the fact that he, like Cardinal Palazzini, went “above and beyond the call of duty” to save and shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome.

When he was honored by Yad Vashem as a “righteous gentile” in 1985, Cardinal Palazzini testified that Pius XII had personally ordered him to save and shelter Jews. The well-documented firsthand testimony of Palazzini, John Patrick Carroll-Abbing, Tibor Baranski, Father Pierre-Marie Benoit and other Catholic rescuers ([which] I discuss in my book) contain extensive details about Pius’s rescue efforts on behalf of the Jews of Rome and elsewhere that should, by itself, qualify Pius XII as a “righteous gentile.”

Woods: And there’s all the eyewitness testimony you cite in your book.

Dalin: Indeed there is abundant firsthand, eyewitness testimony from Jewish contemporaries of Pius XII to further verify his historic role of rescuing Jews; as does the fact that he sheltered Jews at Castel Gandolfo and at the Vatican during the Nazi roundup of Italian Jews. The personal testimonies and judgement of Pius’s Jewish contemporaries — including numerous Italian Jewish Holocaust survivors and Jewish military chaplains serving with the Allied forces during the Nazi occupation of Rome — that also bear witness to Pius XII’s historic role in rescuing and sheltering Jews, should also help restore his historic reputation as a friend of the Jewish people who should receive long-overdue recognition as a “righteous gentile.”…

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pius XII, it would be both historically just and morally appropriate for Yad Vashem to posthumously recognize and honor Pius XII as a “righteous gentile.” During the pontificate of John Paul II, some Catholic and Jewish leaders, including Rome’s Chief Rabbi (and Holocaust survivor) Elio Toaff, began discussing and promoting the cause of Pius XII to receive such posthumous recognition from Yad Vashem. Catholic and Jewish leaders and scholars should, during the next few years, continue to work together to support and promote the cause of recognizing and honoring Pius XII as a “righteous gentile.” In promoting the cause of thus honoring Pius XII as a “righteous gentile,” who did so much to rescue and shelter Jews during the Holocaust, his defenders and admirers will help to restore his historic reputation and legacy as a friend of the Jewish people, who saved more Jewish lives than any other single person.

The restoration of his historical reputation and legacy as a pre-eminent Catholic friend and rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust should and eventually will, one hopes, also help promote the cause of Pius XII’s candidacy for sainthood.

Woods: Thank you, Rabbi Dalin, for taking the time to chat with me. In my opinion you have written a book of the greatest importance, and you deserve the highest accolades both for your courage and your dedication to historical truth. Nothing would make me happier than if Catholics everywhere spread the word about your book far and wide — what would the establishment media do if your book became a bestseller? Now that would be a sight to see.

Best of luck to you, and thank you again.

Dalin: My pleasure, Tom, and thank you.

[Help support Catholic Exchange by getting your copy of Rabbi Dalin’s book, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, from our online store.]

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Thomas E. Woods, Jr., is the author, most recently, of How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here) and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, a New York Times bestseller.

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