Why Did the Pope Keep Quiet About Hitler?

Newly opened archives reveal what Pius XII knew and when he knew it.

How much did the Catholic Church hierarchy know about Hitler's oppression of the Jews as it was happening? And why didn't it speak up? With the opening of the Vatican archives from the pre-World War II years, we can finally explore these heated questions -- and German historian Hubert Wolf has dug through the files to find damning evidence that Pope Pius XII, known to critics as "Hitler's pope," made a conscious decision to pass on the issue, leaving it up to his bishops in Germany to protect the Jews and Catholics who were being persecuted. Even when directly confronted with the growing enormity of the situation, as in this story of a German bishop who did stand up for his morals, the pope avoided public action.*

Clemens August Count von Galen, the bishop of Münster, was a "perfectly ordinary fellow, with quite a limited intellectual endowment, who therefore had not until very recently seen where things were going, and therefore was always inclined to come to terms." This less than flattering assessment came from none other than Bishop von Preysing of Berlin and dates from the summer of 1941, when Galen gave his three famous sermons in Münster. A completely average person, a child of his time and place, only moderately talented, Galen was not a man who came easily by the moral courage to call the Nazi policy of euthanasia precisely what it was -- the murder of innocent human beings.

From the beginning, Galen had been just as critical of the National Socialists as he had earlier been of the Weimar Republic. Although Galen primarily opposed National Socialism for ecclesiastical reasons without questioning the legitimacy of the regime itself, this would change in 1936. In his sermon at the Xanten pilgrimage on September 6, he for the first time formulated something akin to righteous resistance to an unjust regime motivated by human rights and freedom of conscience. Drawing on the Acts of the Apostles (5:29) -- "We must obey God rather than men" -- Galen celebrated the martyrs of Xanten of late antiquity, to whom humankind owed a debt of gratitude, not only because "of their Christian faith, but also for reasons of human dignity, which they defended with their blood and life! Because at the very moment in which human authority conflicts in its commands with the clearly recognized will of God, witnessed in one's own conscience, it ceases to be the 'servant of God.'"

Nonetheless, it was a far distance from a sermon about the historical martyrdom of the saints of Xanten to a willingness to become a blood witness to human rights. The tipping point, which could hardly have been more clear and unambiguous, may very well have been a conversation Galen had on June 7 or 8, 1941, with the Dominican priest Odilo Braun. Braun showed him lists of monasteries that had been seized in other dioceses and urged him to act.

Four weeks later, Galen risked a ban and arrest by directly condemning the regime and its henchmen, the Gestapo: "Every German citizen is completely unprotected and defenseless in the face of the physical superiority of the Gestapo." At this point, Galen was no longer merely defending the rights and claims of the Church; he was now unambiguously advocating for human rights and human dignity. His sermon on August 3, 1941, has not lost its power to move: "Here we are dealing with human beings, with our neighbors, brothers and sisters, the poor and invalids ... unproductive -- perhaps! But have they, therefore, lost the right to live? Have you or I the right to exist only because we are 'productive'? ... A curse on men and on the German people if we break the holy commandment: Thou shalt not kill.... Woe to us German people if we not only license this heinous offence but allow it to be committed with impunity!"

Galen's public protests led to a temporary halt in the killing program. The Nazis were hit and had to take public opinion into account. In the Reich chancellery, some around Martin Bormann, its head, considered hanging Galen to intimidate the other bishops -- preferably from the church tower of St. Lambert's. Hitler wanted him to stand trial before the People's Court. In the end, Joseph Goebbels's position won out. It was decided to postpone dealing with Galen until the final victory. There was no point in creating Catholic martyrs in the middle of a war, which would only drive the Catholic population to the barricades against the Nazi regime.

Be that as it may, Galen's sermons against euthanasia must be weighed against his silence about the persecution of the Jews. He remained quiet about the Nuremberg laws, Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust. We can only speculate as to the reasons for his silence. There is no doubt, however, that Galen came from an "us and them" milieu in which an undertow of religious and social anti-Judaism was more or less part of everyday life.

Galen was not untouched by these tendencies. For example, on his trip to Lithuania in 1918, he characterized the city of Vilna as "dirty and full of Jews." Other than that, however, we have hardly any anti-Semitic statements from him. He vehemently criticized the racist premises underpinning National Socialist anti-Semitism and the Nazis' denigration of the Old Testament. In the end, he was convinced of the unity of humankind and of the fact that each individual was created in God's likeness. Galen had close relations with the Münster rabbi Fritz Leopold Steinthal and immediately asked about his well-being after Kristallnacht.

But persecuted Jews were looking for help from the bishop, particularly after the sermons of the summer of 1941. An anonymous petitioner wrote to Galen, "Reverend, as you know, on September 19 ... a Jewish sign has been decreed for us, and no one will be permitted on the street without this sign. We are subjected to the mob; everyone may spit on us without our being able to defend ourselves! ... Only the insane idea, the crazy hope that somewhere a helper will appear drives me to write this letter. May God bless you!"


If a public protest by a German bishop caused the National Socialists at least partially to limit their murderous policy, it is frequently asked, should that not have been a clear sign to Pius XII? Should that not have encouraged him to give up his indirect pronouncements and condemn the Holocaust publicly, calling it by its name -- systematic genocide?

Galen's sermons must have made an extremely long-lasting impression on Pius XII. They are also the reason the pope made him a cardinal in the spring of 1946. Pius XII apparently read these sermons so often that he could recite them by heart. The pope's housekeeper, Sister Maria Pascalina Lehnert, reported on an audience that the pope had with the new cardinal. "With sparkling eyes," Galen had told her, "how Pius XII recited various passages from his sermons, as if he had learned them by heart, thanking him repeatedly for everything he had done."

In a letter to Bishop Preysing, his liaison in the German episcopate, dated September 30, 1941, the pope wrote, "The three sermons given by Bishop von Galen also provide us consolation and gratification such as we have long not experienced as we proceed along the way of the Cross on which we accompany the Catholics of Germany." The bishop had "in a very open but noble manner placed his finger on the wounds and injuries ... that each righteous thinking German experiences as painful and bitter." The pope understood full well that the National Socialists' suspension of their policy would probably only be temporary, and that words alone could not redress the injustice. However, he saw Galen's sermons as evidence of "how much can still be achieved by open and resolute action within the Reich."

The pope continued with a sentence that sheds light on his own policy of silence in the face of National Socialist injustice: "We emphasize that [point] because the Church in Germany is all the more dependent on your public action, as the general political situation in its difficult and frequently contradictory particularities imposes the duty of restraint on the supreme head of the entire Church in his public proclamations." Pius XII assured Preysing that public protests by the German bishops had always enjoyed his full support and would continue to be supported in the future.

He was aware that his responses to the National Socialist regime, which consisted of secret diplomatic exchanges of memoranda with the German government and papal petitions, had not had the desired effect. This shows that Pius XII would have liked to speak as openly as Galen.

From Pius's perspective, Galen could speak publicly because, as a German bishop and head of the diocese of Münster, he was responsible only for his flock, whereas the pope's hands were tied, precisely because of his role as supreme shepherd of all Catholics throughout the world. The pope was obliged to remain politically neutral. That was why he could not hurl a thunderbolt at the National Socialists. As Pius realized, at least in 1941, he would have to leave to the bishops the open conflict with the devil.

*Correction: Due to an editorial error, this piece originally referred to the Pope's attitude toward Hitler during the Holocaust; but the archives explored by Wolf only encompass the pre-Holocaust years. We regret the error.


Pen Portraits from a Forgotten Middle East

From a Zelig-like chronicler, encounters with the people who made history.

Weeks before the Suez War of 1956, four-year-old Kai Bird, the son of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, moved to Jerusalem with his family. Driving through the Mandelbaum Gate between Israel-controlled West Jerusalem and Arab-controlled East Jerusalem on his way to school every day, he had a front-seat view on a divided city and met the most brilliant personalities on both sides. The rest of his childhood was spent in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and India. As a young man, he returned to the Middle East as a journalist and spent decades covering the region through major wars and constant turmoil. Now a Pulitzer-winning author for his book American Prometheus, Bird gives a personal glimpse of the indelible characters who shaped that time and place, from Gamal Nasser's banal taste in movies to the surprising friendships of a Palestinian hijacker.


Katy Antonius, widow of author George Antonius and Jerusalem socialite 

Katy Antonius was a formidable woman and certainly one of East Jerusalem's "eligible 150." My father (who met her in 1956) described her as "something out of Eliot's Cocktail Party.... she is gossipy, easy to charm and thoroughly affected." A Greek Orthodox woman of Lebanese and Egyptian descent, Katy was the widow of George Antonius, a King's College-educated intellectual and Arab nationalist whose 1938 book, The Arab Awakening, had seduced at least two generations of American diplomats.

The daughter of Faris Nimr Pasha, a well-known Egyptian newspaper proprietor, she had been nurtured in Alexandria's upper-class society. She spoke fluent French and English. "Katy Antonius was an intelligent, bright, and witty woman, full of humor and charm," said another Jerusalemite, Anwar Nusseibeh. "[She was] always up-to-date on the intricacies of political events, pretty, good-hearted, and generous." She had founded an orphanage in the Old City, called Dar al-Awlad (House of Boys) and she regularly invited some of these boys to her parties.

Katy was a character, part dragon-lady and part flirt. She was always smartly dressed in the latest fashions and often she wore a string of pearls. Her black hair was cut fairly short and boasted a distinctive white streak.

Her parties were elaborate affairs. "Evening dress, Syrian food and drink, and dancing on the marble floor," wrote the English writer and politician Richard Crossman after attending an Antonius dinner. "It is easy to see why the British prefer the Arab upper class to the Jews. This Arab intelligentsia has a French culture, amusing, civilized, tragic, and gay. Compared with them the Jews seem tense, bourgeois, central European."

Photo courtesy of Kai Bird

Faisal, king of Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975 

Faisal proved to be an enigmatic and highly autocratic ruler. He was in some ways the most cosmopolitan of the al-Sauds. In 1919, at the age of 14 he became the first Saudi royal to visit London and Paris, acting as his father's de facto foreign minister. In 1945 at age of 41 he attended the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. He had seen the industrialized West and understood the attraction of its cosmopolitan pleasures. On occasion, he drank alcohol, until a stomach operation in 1957 led him to forswear it altogether. In 1945 British police saw him emerge from a Bayswater brothel. For most of his life he was a chain-smoker. But aside from a few youthful indiscretions, Faisal was at his core a man of steely character, conscientious in his daily work habits, clever and decisive. With the passing of the years he also became austere and ever more puritanical. Unlike many royals, he never kept concubines. During his lifetime he had only three wives concurrently, and after divorcing his first two wives, from 1940 he lived alone with his third and favorite wife, Iffat bint Ahmed al Thunayan. She convinced him to allow his daughters to be educated at schools in Riyadh. He sent his sons to the Hun School, an elite preparatory school in Princeton and then to a variety of Western universities.

But if he was a modernizer, Faisal was also a political conservative. With Saud's abdication there was no more talk about introducing a Consultative Council or an elected assembly. Faisal placed senior princes -- his closest half-brothers -- in key cabinet posts. He was a stickler for details and found it nearly impossible to delegate authority. Far from liberalizing the political process, he gathered all authority to himself. As he aged, Faisal became increasingly suspicious of a host of perceived enemies: Jews, Nasserites, Baathists, Shiites -- and even the Americans. His deep-seated anti-Semitism was overt; he often lectured foreign dignitaries about the international Zionist conspiracy, and he routinely handed out copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th-century Russian forgery that purported to describe a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.

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Gamal Nasser, president of Egypt from 1954 to 1970


Suave and articulate, Nasser exuded a quiet intelligence. Always well mannered and impeccably dressed, he had a commanding presence. In 1944 he married Thiya Kazem, a young, upper-middle class woman of Persian ancestry who spoke fluent English and French. They had five children and lived in a modest house. He was in the habit of buying one suit each year -- and he had a collection of several hundred bright, gaudy ties, almost all of them striped. His colleagues knew him to be incorruptible. He had no personal peccadilloes aside from smoking three packs of cigarettes a day. He loved American films, which he rented from MGM's Cairo office. He liked Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata!, starring Marlon Brando. "Colonel Nasser used to watch it over and over again," said the woman who rented him the film. "[He was] fascinated with the Mexican Revolution and the peasant's uprising of 1910." His good friend, the newspaper editor Mohammad Heikal, claimed that Nasser's all-time favorite American film was Frank Capra's syrupy Christmas tale, It's a Wonderful Life. His favorite American writer was Mark Twain. He liked classical music. He spent an hour or two each evening reading American, French and Arabic magazines. His sensibilities were thoroughly bourgeois. He was a secular, modern Arab.

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Leila Khaled, Palestinian plane-hijacker

As a teenager, some of Khaled's teachers were Americans, including an African-American woman, Miss McNight. She told Khaled about Martin Luther King and his non-violent struggle to overturn segregation. Khaled soon grew to think of the vivacious, quick-witted black woman as her big sister. "But our politics differed," Khaled wrote. "She was surprised when I expressed deep hatred of the Jews and taught me not to make sweeping declarations. She pointed out that not all Jews were Zionists; some were, in fact, anti-Zionist. I reflected on her distinctions and tried to adopt them into my thinking."

Khaled spent the academic year 1962-63 enrolled at the American University of Beirut, where she had further encounters with Americans. She arrived at AUB with 50 Lebanese pounds to her name, roughly $100. She lived in Jewett Hall, the women's dormitory, and her roommate was an American, Judy Sinninger. "Her social life never ceased to amaze me," wrote Khaled in her 1973 memoirs. "One week she had three different dates, with three different men and she kissed each one of them with the same passion in the grand room at Jewett in front of a lot of other girls. I asked Judy how she could do it. She passed it off: ‘It was all nice, clean American fun with no strings attached.' I laughed and admired her for her amorality."

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Hillel Kook, campaigner for Jews during Holocaust, Irgun member, early Knesset member, critic of Zionism

When Hillel Kook was working in America as an undercover agent of the Irgun, he used the alias "Peter H. Bergson." In 1978, I found Bergson/Kook in a café in the old Arab city of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. At the time, Israeli entrepreneurs were busy renovating Jaffa's ancient stone houses with the intention of turning the old seaport into a quaint artists' colony. Kook was then a 63-year-old businessman who had made a considerable fortune on Wall Street in the 1950s and 60s. He had come back to Israel in 1968 and had retired in Kfar Shmaryahu, a wealthy enclave north of Tel Aviv. He dressed as a man of means, wearing a finely tailored dress shirt and light wool pants. A strikingly handsome man with blue-grey eyes and a full salt and pepper beard, Kook even then exuded charisma. He was debonair and articulate -- and what he had to say captivated me.               

Over numerous cups of Turkish coffee, Kook told me his life story. He spoke not with bitterness but with irony -- rather like a man who knew he had lived through some extraordinary history. His political journey was a revelation. At the age of 27, I thought I knew some Israeli history. But Kook taught me otherwise. At one point in our long conversation, he pulled out his Israeli identity card and exclaimed, "Look, Israel is the only state in the world that legally defines ‘Arab' as a nationality. Here on my identity card I must claim to be either ‘Arab' or ‘Jewish.' In fact, I fought for the establishment of Israel precisely to become an Israeli Palestinian. Yes, yes, I am a Palestinian, a Hebrew in a political state called Israel located in historical Palestine."

Photo courtesy of Becky Kook