Jun 8, 2022
Vatican documents show secret back channel between Pope Pius XII and Adolph Hitler Transcript
A series of recently opened Vatican archives are shedding new light on the relationship between Pope Pius XII and Adolph Hitler as he led Nazi Germany during World War II. Read the transcript here.
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A series of recently opened Vatican archives are shedding new light on the relationship between Pope Pius XII and Adolph Hitler, as he led Nazi Germany during World War II. Amna Nawaz looks at what we are learning and how it changes our thinking about the Vatican during that time.
Amna Nawaz: (00:19)
Judy, in 2020, the Vatican released millions of documents on Pope Pius XII, that were previously hidden from public view. These include transcripts of negotiations between the Pope and Nazis. A new book published today, takes a deeper look at these revelations. Historian, David Kertzer, is the author of that book. It’s called The Pope At War, The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler. And he joins me now.
Amna Nawaz: (00:45)
David Kertzer, welcome to the NewsHour. Thank you for being here. So a lot of folks know previous versions of history around Pius XII went one of two ways, right? He was either called Hitler’s Pope and an anti-Semite, or the story was that he did everything in his power to save as many Jewish people as he could during the war. After reviewing the documents, what’s your understanding?
David Kertzer: (01:06)
Well, I think neither one is really accurate. They’re both the extremes. The fact is Pius XII was afraid, certainly in the first years of the war, that the Nazis were going to win. And so he felt he had to plan for a Europe that was going to be under Nazi control with their pal Mussolini helping out. So his main concern in those earlier years, say ’39 to ’42, was to protect the church in a time when Europe could be under Nazi control. It wasn’t that he loved the Nazis, much less Hitler, but this was his thinking.
Amna Nawaz: (01:48)
What does that mean when you say protect the church? For example, you mentioned these meetings that we now know happened between the Pope and a personal envoy of Hitler. What did we learn about those? What were those talks like?
David Kertzer: (01:53)
Well, probably the most shocking finding from these newly opened Vatican archives, that just opened two years ago after 50 years of pressure and interest in being able to see what they contain, is that within weeks of Pius XII being elected Pope, he’s elected in early 1939, Hitler saw an opportunity and decided to send a personal envoy. Who himself is a rather colorful character, the great grandson of Queen Victoria of England. A Nazi prince who was married to the daughter of the King of Italy. And he would begin to shuttle back and forth between Hitler and the Pope over the next two years, engaged in secret negotiations. We didn’t know about these until just now.
Amna Nawaz: (02:39)
David, when it comes down to what Pope Pius XII did or didn’t do, in terms of saving Jewish lives, you tell the story about one October night in 1943 in Rome. What happened then?
David Kertzer: (02:50)
Well, October 16th 1943, the SS had a list of all the Jews in Rome and went door to door and tried to arrest all of Rome’s Jews, thousands of them. They found about 1,260, arrested them, brought them to a military college just outside the walls of the Vatican and held them there for two days. What we now learn, from these recently opened archives, is that the Vatican worked very hard to show that some of them had been baptized and therefore shouldn’t be considered Jews from the point of view of the church. And therefore should not be shipped off to Auschwitz with the rest of them.
David Kertzer: (03:30)
And in fact, about 250 of those who were originally rounded up, were freed before two days later. They were put on a train, 1,007 of them, of whom I think about 16 would survive. And most, in fact, a week later on arrival at Auschwitz, were immediately put to death.
David Kertzer: (03:50)
The Pope did send his Cardinal Secretary of State to meet with the German ambassador to the Holy See to say, “Do you really need to go through with this? Can you do something about this?” But the ambassador told the Cardinal Secretary of State, “This has been ordered by the highest level, namely Hitler, and you really don’t want me to protest on your behalf, do you?” And the Cardinal secretary of state basically said, “No, I’m not insisting on any protest.”
Amna Nawaz: (04:16)
David, I’m curious. I know previously the Vatican has come forward when previous allegations were made, similar to this about Pope Pius XII. Have they responded in any way to your book or to the reporting that’s in this book?
David Kertzer: (04:29)
Well, unfortunately, I mean, other national Roman Catholic churches, for example, in France and in Germany, have come to terms with this history. And part of the history is how it was that in the middle of the 20th century, millions of Jews could be massacred, little children, old people, by people who thought of themselves as Christian, more or less half of them Roman Catholics, but also Protestants of course. And in other countries in Germany, in France, the clergy has come to terms or begun to come to terms with it.
David Kertzer: (05:00)
But the Vatican has not. The Vatican released a statement in, I think 1998, We Remember, in which they said their own demonization of the Jews had absolutely nothing to do with the Holocaust. So this is… I think my book, is probably not entirely appreciated by many in the Vatican. Although there are those in the Vatican, when I worked in the archives, who kind of whispered to me, they’re happy that this is finally coming out.
Amna Nawaz: (05:27)
What about how we view, all these years later, the role of Pope Pius XII as leadership of the church. I mean, especially with his… There’s been a push for his sainthood, right? How should we look at that when you step back?
David Kertzer: (05:39)
Yeah. So the Popes have tried to beatify and canonize, make Pius XII, a saint. He’s a hero of the right wing, or the conservatives, in the church, who see the church as having gone wrong after his death with the Second Vatican Council under his successor, John XXIII.
David Kertzer: (05:59)
I wish that, first of all, I wish they’d read this book, but I also wish they’d be willing to consider this history anew. But I’m afraid for those who really don’t have an open mind and it’s unlikely that it will change their mind. So I think the drive to make a saint of Pius XII will continue.
Amna Nawaz: (06:21)
That is historian David Kertzer, author of the new book, The Pope At War, The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler. David Kertzer, thank you so much.
David Kertzer: (06:31)