Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII 
by John Cornwall.
Viking, 430 pp., £20, September 1999, 0 670 87620 8
Show More
Show More

When I was a child we were taught to sing a hymn whose last lines were:

God Bless the Pope
The Great,
The Good.

Later, when I became an altar boy, and accordingly more irreverent, I learned an alternative ending:

God Bless the Pope
The Great
White Hope.

Whichever way you sang it, you knew that you were singing about Pius XII. The nuns who taught us were transported by enthusiasm for His Holiness, sometimes into states of rapture. He was not just the Vicar of Christ, he was the 13th Apostle, a living saint, the greatest Pope of all. They were clearly in love with him.

The Christian Brothers who took me in hand from the age of nine felt the same way but, being great whippers and floggers, they empathised more with his stern authority, those hard unsmiling eyes behind the glasses; in all the thousands of pictures of Pius thrust before us I don’t remember a single smile. This fitted well enough with the easily observed fact that a Catholic education was no laughing matter. Like most others, I got flogged two or three times a week, was taught that the earth was 4000 years old (Darwin had it all wrong) and, when we played Birkenhead School at rugby, was reminded that Protestants like them had only been prevented relatively recently from burning people like us at the stake. Accordingly we (a) had to win and (b) should leave no valuables in the changing room. The austere, ascetic Pius XII was the presiding spirit in this grim theocratic world.

Later we had other Popes who, we were told, were also jolly good, but even the warm feeling about John XXIII never approached the devotional cult around Pius XII. There was a sense of real surprise that he wasn’t beatified and canonised as soon as he died. The nuns had told us that he couldn’t officially be declared a saint while he was alive but once he was dead he would be sanctified more or less automatically. The Christian Brothers, who took out the strain of their enforced celibacy, not just in the endless floggings they administered to us but in sporting machismo, agreed: Pius XII was the no-contest champ when it came to holiness, the Mike Tyson of the whole blessed business – canonisation would be achieved on a first-round knockout.

John Cornwell gained access to key archives in Rome by claiming that he wished to exonerate Eugenio Pacelli – he became Pope in 1939 – from charges of complaisance and connivance in the face of mass terror and extermination. This has been seen as disingenuous, and some feel Cornwell has gone over the top in his clear execration of Pacelli. There is a measure of truth in this. His assertion that, by working to achieve a religious concordat with Serbia in 1914, Pacelli helped pave the way for the First World War seems absurd. Any Catholic diplomat (Pacelli was then undersecretary of state in the Vatican) would have done the same and he could hardly be blamed for the secular frenzy which followed. But Cornwell has delved to much effect – his book surpasses all others on the subject – and the evidence is always honestly presented, allowing one to establish clear areas of agreement and disagreement with the author.

The thesis is simple enough. Pacelli was born into a caste of lay Vatican lawyers who had served the Popes since 1819. He was never a normal boy – but godly, smug, effeminate, delicate and priggish, captivated by the ethic and romance of asceticism. Solitary and highly strung, he was ‘born a priest’ and ordained at 23. Singled out at an early age for preferment, he seems to have known from his thirties on that he was likely to become Pope, and as self-confidence grew into certainty, he developed a feline narcissism, a self-conscious and often exhibitionist piety. As a precocious Papal nuncio in Germany, he had the bad luck to run headlong into the terror of the 1919 Bavarian Soviet republic; the young Bolsheviks who threatened and appalled him were for the most part Jews. He never entirely recovered, and from then on nursed a pathological hatred of Bolshevism – which he identified with Jews. To understand how important that experience was, one must recall that Germany, like America now, provided the Holy See with more funds than all the other nations of the world put together. Jewish Bolshevism had threatened not just Pacelli’s person, but the heart and sinews of the Church. And in any case, Pacelli came to feel, the two were pretty much the same.

The threat of Bolshevism clearly determined the Vatican’s decision to come to terms with the Fascist regimes whose rise presented a more immediate problem. Pacelli’s brother, Francesco, drafted the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Church’s deal with Mussolini, which is still the legal basis of the Papal microstate of Vatican City. Mussolini handed a big bag of money to the Pope, and in return for Catholicism being declared Italy’s sole recognised religion, the Pope agreed to render his due unto Caesar, dismantling the country’s biggest political party, the Catholic Partito Popolare (the PPI), whose leader, Don Luigi Sturzo, was sent into exile. Pius XI greeted Mussolini as ‘a man sent by Providence’, and priests throughout Italy were encouraged to support the Fascists. Nothing Pacelli did with the Nazis should have come as a surprise after that.

Pacelli was regarded in Germany as the best informed ambassador in the entire diplomatic corps. His long experience there seems to have given him the confidence to push through the concordat with Hitler, to persuade the Catholic Centre Party to vote through the Enabling Act that granted Hitler dictatorial powers and finally to get the Centre to disband itself just as the PPI had done – against the better judgment of the German Catholic episcopate and laity and the bitter objections of Heinrich Brüning, the Centre Party Chancellor. Brüning kept warning Pacelli that he ‘misunderstood the political situation in Germany and, above all, the real character of the Nazis’. Pacelli would fly into a rage, but Brüning of course was right, and Pacelli found himself having to avert his eyes as the Nazis began beating up Catholics; Hitler, it goes without saying, never respected the deal. Despite this, Pacelli continued with a policy of appeasement. Rome said nothing when the Nazis introduced compulsory mass sterilisation of the disabled, the blind and the deaf. Not a murmur was heard against the Nuremberg Laws, or even Kristallnacht.

Cornwell argues persuasively that Pius XI had more genuine sympathy for the Jews than Pacelli. Clearly moved by Jewish suffering, he was telling pilgrims in 1938 that it was ‘impossible for Christians to participate in anti-semitism’. ‘Anti-semitism,’ he said, ‘is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all semites.’ On his orders Pacelli had to draft a Papal encyclical against anti-semitism. The result, rife with anti-Jewish prejudice, was never actually issued, for Pius XI died – quite possibly as a result of foul play – and Pacelli assumed the crown. He sought at once to curry favour with Hitler, addressing him as ‘the Illustrious Herr Adolf Hitler’, speaking of ‘the German people entrusted to your leadership’ and sending him fawning greetings on his birthday. He fawned on Franco in similar fashion, congratulating him on a great ‘Catholic victory’ in Spain and urging the Spanish bishops to uphold ‘the principles taught by the Church and proclaimed with such nobility by the Generalissimo’.

Pacelli seems to have concluded that Europe had bred a new race of Fascist superleaders, with whom you could do business. In 1938 he breezed into Horthy’s Hungary, where the Prime Minister, Béla Imrédy, had just declared that anyone who could not prove his ancestors had been born in Hungary must be a Jew (with consequences that are easy to imagine). He was happy, apparently, to encourage the mounting anti-semitism, preaching a sermon before a crowd of thousands in which he attacked ‘the foes of Jesus who cried out to his face: “Crucify him!” ’

Pacelli was greatly taken with Fascism’s modish accoutrements. Under Europe’s new leaders power was given its own distinctive choreography, with goose-steps, mass rallies, torchlight parades, cinematic banners and entrances, gymnastic displays and dramatic badges, medals and uniforms which are, even today, the delight of film costume departments. Very well, Pacelli’s power would have its own choreography. Just as Mussolini liked to strike heroic poses with his chin out, Pacelli delighted in poses of solitary piety. On a trip to Argentina, he devised a wheeled contraption drawn through the streets by hundreds of priests in white robes, on which he knelt in holy contemplation before the exposed Eucharist. He also hired a military plane in which he criss-crossed Buenos Aires sitting bolt upright reading his breviary, arranging, of course, for a photographer to accompany him.

His coronation as Pope was a studied attempt to outdo even Nuremberg: pillars of incense, gorgeous vestments, forests of candle flame, Gregorian chants, a huge show of antiquities, gold, taffeta and lace, gospels sung in Greek and Latin – and Pacelli throughout in rapt contemplation, absorbed in some inner holiness. Cardinals kissed a hand and foot, bishops kissed a knee and foot, while mitred abbots were confined to a foot. Pacelli was nothing if not a respecter of hierarchy. He wanted no colleagues, prized his solitariness, ate alone and, as the French say, consulted his own genius. He got rid of his key adviser, Giovanni Montini (later Paul VI) because he exposed irregularities at the Vatican Bank run by – surprise, surprise – two of Pacelli’s nephews. He encouraged the notion that he was not just St Peter’s successor, but Christ’s. Vatican officials had to take phone calls from him on their knees and the Vatican gardeners had to flee when he walked in the gardens, lest they disturb his godlike solitude. He claimed to be omnicompetent, lecturing visiting groups on subjects as various as psychology, dentistry, psychiatry, newscasting, cinematography, plastic surgery, gynaecology, aeronautics, central heating and agriculture. Like Hitler, he condemned jazz as decadent. When T.S. Eliot came for a private audience Pacelli lectured him on literature. When Orson Welles came he pretended to a vast knowledge of Hollywood gossip. Similarly, he claimed to be fluent in almost every European language, though Evelyn Waugh noted that all he could really do was parrot a few well rehearsed little speeches and that it was a relief when it stopped.

Like his immediate predecessors, he stressed the cult of Mary. Since there was no scriptural basis for the Virgin’s elevation above all other saints, her cult was inextricably connected to the doctrine of Papal Infallibility: indeed, it established the notion that the Papacy transcended all other forms of Christian authority by challenging the central tenet of monotheism itself. Pacelli became a devotee of Our Lady of Fátima and the legends of Fátima and Lourdes bulked far larger in my childhood than anything to do with the Bible – and since these legends depended on visions of the Virgin, it was not long before Pacelli announced that he had been having visions himself.

On the basis of medieval precedent, 1950 was declared to be Holy Year – a sort of Olympics of Mary-worship – and Pacelli excelled himself, denouncing Existentialism and worker-priests, and stressing Mary’s Assumption: her ascent into heaven had not been put on hold until the Resurrection; nor did her body decay. Alone of all humans, she was simply assumed into the clouds and took on her duties as Queen of Heaven. Closer to home, my elder sister had to dress up in flowing robes and stand on a float, borne round and round our school playground, as she repeatedly placed a crown on a statue of the Virgin, while we all boggled at the Queen of Heaven, half-expecting the statue – clearly the star of the show – to burst into speech or, at least, into tears. After many months of anticipation, we were, so to speak, in a previsionary state. Worked up into frenzies of Marian devotion that year, many did see statues of the Virgin weeping, walking, waving and so on.

Pacelli enjoyed unique influence during the Second World War. If the Allies denounced Belsen, it was propaganda; if he did, it mattered. After the Anschluss half of Germany-Austria was Catholic (as was a third of the SS); it was supported by Catholic Hungary, Italy, Romania and Vichy France. Pacelli refused to say a word about the Nazi occupation of Catholic Poland or the invasion of the predominantly Catholic Low Countries, or of France.

A sterner test came with the campaign of extermination and terror waged by the Croatian (and hence Catholic) Ustase against Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Communists. Even hardened German troops recoiled at the savagery, the skinning alive, the gouging-out of eyes, the burning alive, the binding with wire and live burial, the children thrown into ravines, the genital mutilation, the awful use of meat-hooks and, well, why go on? Though informed to the last detail about these horrors, Pacelli decided that it was all ‘calumnies’. He continued to receive and bless Ustase delegations to Rome, refused to criticise Ante Pavelic, their leader – after all, he was building a ‘Catholic base’ in the Balkans – and when the war turned against the Ustase the Vatican provided them with false passports and identities to help them escape to Latin America, just as it later did for Klaus Barbie and any number of other Nazis.

Pacelli’s repeated refusal to condemn the Holocaust despite strong Allied pressure to do so was merely part of this larger picture. News of the Final Solution poured into the Vatican from its incomparable intelligence networks throughout Axis Europe from the spring of 1942 onwards, but Pacelli had bigger things on his mind: the making of Pastor Angelicus, a one-hour film about the daily life of the Pope. The film begins and ends with a statue of Christ/Pacelli – the good shepherd, with a lamb draped round his shoulders. While there are brief, unspecific references to the war, the film is set mainly against the marbled munificence of St Peter’s. In one sequence Pacelli – wreathed from head to toe in white – glides through an olive grove reading a document and then steps, without raising his eyes, into a limousine whose back seat is a single throne, while the chauffeur falls to his knees and makes the sign of the cross. The British Ambassador, Francis Osborne, tried in vain to draw Pacelli’s attention to the plight of the Jews and other civilian populations of Occupied Europe, but Pacelli refused to make any moral distinctions between the belligerents, preferring instead to preach on the proprieties of master-servant relations, the evils of euthanasia and, above all, to insist that the sins of the world would only be remedied when Papal authority was fully recognised.

Pacelli had one overwhelming aim: to prevent the bombing of Rome. When, on 19 July 1943, American bombers did finally hit the city’s central rail terminus they damaged a church and Pacelli rushed out to kneel among the rubble, pouring out his grief. No raid was more effective, for it led to Mussolini’s immediate ejection from power. Pacelli turned to the Allies with a new top priority: if they were going to occupy Rome, could they at least ensure that no coloured troops were part of their garrison?

Cornwell spends much of his book documenting Pacelli’s terrible failure over the Holocaust. In a sense this is otiose. One need only refer to two incidents: in both, relatively small numbers of Jews were concerned and Pacelli had the power to make a significant difference – a power he refused to exercise. The first involved the deportation of 42,000 French Jews to Auschwitz in late 1942 – of which Pacelli was apprised in every detail. Pétain, who saw himself as a Catholic gentleman, would have found it difficult to resist, had Pacelli tried to persuade him against this atrocity. What Pacelli actually did was to tell the Vichyite Cardinal of Paris how much he admired ‘the work of the Marshal and took a keen interest in government actions that are a sign of the fortunate renewal of religious life in France’. ‘Renewal of religious death’ would have been closer to the mark.

Then, on 16 October 1943, came the round-up of Rome’s Jews – the oldest community in Europe. Even the German Ambassador, to his great credit, was horrified by the impending atrocity and put his neck on the block by explaining to Pacelli how best to use his influence to countermand the move. Pacelli did nothing. The trucks full of Jews – who knew the fate that awaited them – were driven past the perimeter of St Peter’s and terrified children called out to the Pope to help them. Even now it is desperately painful to read of these scenes, to know that Pacelli was deaf to the children’s cries, despite the fact that the German leadership was fearful of his reaction, realising that he could create untold trouble for them if he wished. But he didn’t Five days later fewer than 200 of the 1060 deportees were still alive. Only 15 of them survived the war, including one woman, Settimia Spizzichino, who was used by Dr Mengele for his medical experiments. In 1995 she told the BBC:

I came back from Auschwitz on my own. I lost my mother, two sisters, a niece and one brother. Pius XII could have warned us about what was going to happen ... but he was an anti-semitic Pope, a pro-German Pope. He didn’t take a single risk. When they say the Pope is like Jesus Christ, it is not true. He did not save a single child. Nothing.

There are only two interesting questions. The first is why? One answer is that Pacelli was immersed in a deeply anti-semitic Catholic culture. He frequently referred to the Jews as hard-hearted, perfidious, greedy, selfish, wholly responsible for their grief. In the 1880s the Jesuit journal, Civiltà Cattolica, published under the aegis of the Holy See, carried a series of articles claiming that the Jewish murder of Christian children for the Paschal Feast was ‘all too common’. Indeed, this practice was ‘binding on the conscience of all Hebrews’. Not only did Jews have to ‘crucify a child’ every year, but for its blood to be effective ‘the child must die in torment.’ Pacelli grew up in a world where this sort of rubbish enjoyed a real currency.

Secondly, Brüning was right: Pacelli did not understand Nazism. For him the key fact was that all the Fascist leaders – Hitler, Pétain, Pavelic, Franco, Salazar, Mussolini, Horthy – were Catholics. He assumed that their victory over Bolshevism was his, too. If the price was having to avert one’s eyes from certain excesses, so be it. What he failed to grasp was that, while all the other Fascist regimes represented a reaction against the Left on the part of a threatened Catholic upper class with deep rural roots, Nazism was a Protestant, urban, industrialised movement and it was intrinsically anti-Christian as well as anti-semitic. Despite his Catholic upbringing, Hitler embodied a wholly different spirit from that of a Franco or a Pétain: ‘Christianity is the hardest blow that ever hit humanity,’ he argued. ‘Bolshevism is the bastard son of Christianity; both are the bastard issue of the Jews.’ And thanks to its superior industrial and military strength, Nazism dominated all the other fascisms, bending them to its will. A Pope, appeasing that, bought nothing.

The other question is what now? Cornwell is dismayed that John Paul II, in common with most of the Catholic Establishment, is committed to the campaign for the canonisation of Pius XII. He is dismayed that John Paul II should continue the Papal ban on birth control, but he wants above all to block the canonisation of Pius XII because this would, in effect, canonise evil, splitting the European and American Church and, as he sees it, damaging the Catholic edifice beyond repair. I can only respect his motives and those of many other Catholics, some of whom, wholly unsupported by Pius XII, opposed Nazism at great personal cost. But in the end my Catholic childhood rebels against this view. Some things can, after all, get rotten beyond repair. If the canonisation of Eugenio Pacelli can do that much damage to Holy Mother Church, then I’m all for it.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 22 No. 11 · 1 June 2000

Unlike Robert Creamer (Letters, 18 May), I do consider myself a practising Catholic. But also unlike him, I have no personal experience of an education at the hands of the Christian Brothers, whom he seeks to exonerate from the criticisms of abuse by R.W. Johnson. However, there is now sufficient evidence amassed in Ireland (following a similar experience in Australia) for the Government to have established a judicial commission to inquire into allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Christian Brothers, among other religious orders, on a scale rarely, if ever, witnessed elsewhere. The inquiry is to consider evidence dating from 1940 to the present day, although the industrial schools, where most of the abuse allegedly took place, were closed in 1971 after a previous, highly critical Government inquiry. (As early as 1940 Fr Thomas Flanagan, the founder of the American Boys’ Town, referred to the industrial schools as ‘Ireland’s concentration camps for children’.) The Christian Brothers ran about half the schools, the other half being in the hands of other orders, mainly the Sisters of Mercy.

The Government’s action, which includes changes in the law and a counselling service costing four million Irish pounds a year, has been prompted in part by the number of clergy who have recently appeared before the courts charged with abuse (2 per cent of Ireland’s clerics have been found guilty). There were, of course, many sisters and brothers teaching in the schools who were motivated only by a true vocation. Why they did not speak out remains to be uncovered, though it is possible that for many, what has been called the ‘learned helplessness’ of their religious training may have made it hard for them to do so.

Terry Philpot
Limpsfield, Surrey

Robert Creamer may be excused his incredulity about the incidence of floggings meted out by the Christian Brothers, but not the sneeriness that goes with it. The ‘strap’ – made of stitched leather, something over a foot long, a couple of inches or so wide and half an inch thick – was standard issue and went with the cassock. I don’t know why Creamer ‘presumes’ that flogging must be delivered to the back or the bum. You got it on the hands, usually four strokes at a time, at my Christian Brothers school in Liverpool in the 1950s. Not all the brothers were enthusiastic or severe floggers, but not even the most good-natured of them would have questioned the use of the strap as an instrument of discipline and a punishment for sin. For some it was the teaching aid of first resort and for others it must have satisfied another need entirely. You’d have been keeping your nose cleaner than I ever could not to be lashed the three or four times a week that R.W. Johnson reports. The single-lesson record was held by a lay teacher of Latin: 140 or so strokes among 26 boys inside 40 minutes. A truly exceptional performance, you might think, but not so exceptional that any notice was taken of it by anybody but us boys.

Julian Roach
Welshpool, Powys

I, too, attended a Christian Brothers school: as a timid swot I was not often beaten. However, some of my classmates were flogged daily. ‘Flogged’ here means struck on the bottom with a chairleg, or struck on the hand with a leather strap. On one notable occasion, the two best maths students in our class were beaten for getting an answer wrong. When we proved to Brother Cyprian that his calculations were incorrect, he called up the other 22 students, and flogged them all as well. This was in the late 1960s.

Douglas Kretzmann
Denver, Colorado

I attended a tiny Roman Catholic school in a country town in the North of England, from 1937 for seven years. Many of us were beaten on the hand several times a week, not usually for specific sins but as a general disciplinary measure. Later in life I wondered whether things really could have been that bad. Then I met an old school friend who had been our teacher's pet, or so I thought. I'd got hardened to the regime but she had been so terrified of school that most mornings she wet her knickers at the prospect of the day ahead.

Gloria Grove-Stephensen
Helmsley, Yorkshire

Robert Creamer seems to have been luckier in his experience of the Christian Brothers than me. All our Christian Brothers carried specially made leather straps with whalebone inside. These were about 18 inches long and were used to inflict a great deal of pain on one's hands (not bottom). In cold weather particularly, the pain could be quite awesome and sometimes one bled. Creamer's reckoning of a hundred strokes a year for me is probably about right. The Brothers were all lower-class Irish from, so to speak, a wife-beating culture and were generally Irish nationalists so you got beaten rather more if your name was Johnson rather than, say, Sheahan. Boys were flogged from the age of eight up and generally in front of the class – which, of course, made it tougher for the boy who cried or, sometimes, involuntarily wet himself. Occasionally the Brothers would strike pupils round the head, though this was not common and on a few occasions I saw boys kidney-punched. (I also had that happen to me.) In my final year a sixth-former who failed to attend a cricket practice was flogged, expelled and forbidden by the headmaster to enter the school to sit his A-levels, a punishment which would have blighted his career if the local mayor hadn't intervened.

R.W. Johnson

Vol. 22 No. 10 · 18 May 2000

I am not a practising Catholic and do not consider myself a Defender of the Faith, but I attended Catholic schools for 11 years and two of my sons spent a total of eight years at a Christian Brothers preparatory school. In my own experience in the 1930s and 1940s I recall precisely one instance of a teacher striking a boy. At my sons’ Christian Brothers school in the 1960s neither was ever struck by a teacher and neither recalls any of their classmates being so punished. R.W. Johnson says he was ‘flogged two or three times a week’ at the Christian Brothers school he attended (LRB, 30 March). Flog means ‘to beat with a whip or rod’, presumably on the back or bum. If the youthful Johnson was indeed assaulted at that rate it means that in the course of a school year he would have been beaten about a hundred times, which seems more Dickensian than Dickens and surely must have left the little Johnson tush in irreparable tatters. And since he seems to have attended this hellhole of a school for more than a year, one wonders how the badly battered boy ever managed to survive, let alone sit at a keyboard to tell the tale.

Robert Creamer
Tuckahoe, New York

Vol. 22 No. 12 · 22 June 2000

Conspicuously absent from Robert Creamer’s defence of the Christian Brothers (Letters, 18 May) was any indication of the continent on which he and his sons went to school. Perhaps they were fortunate enough not to go to schools run in England by the Irish Christian Brothers. My experience at one of them between 1949 and 1954 was pretty close to R.W. Johnson’s. It may be true that we were not ‘flogged’ in the dictionary definition of that term, but that is what we called the frequent beatings we received. I was once so badly hurt for passing a jar of jam to my younger brother that I had to be examined by a doctor.

Michael Brookes
Forest Hills, New York

The headmaster of my primary school in South Wales got his comeuppance when a boy fainted after being caned. His mother arrived at the school, brandishing a kitchen knife. Fifty years later I can still picture Mrs Hurford chasing Mr Sluman round and round the cloakroom.

John Pook
Mouans Sartoux, France

Vol. 22 No. 14 · 20 July 2000

I attended a boys’ Catholic grammar school in South-East London during the 1970s. Boys were beaten regularly. Common implements used included straps (short and thick or long, thin and forked), canes (a boy’s finger was broken by one) and ‘slippers’ (usually gym shoes). Lengths of wood, table tennis bats and tennis rackets were used less frequently. On one occasion, a whole year (about 80 boys) were ‘slippered’. By the end of my first year my form teacher had hit every boy in my class except one, who was a haemophiliac. My partner attended a Catholic primary school in the same area. She and her schoolmates were regularly slapped or hit on various parts of their bodies.

Martin Murray
London SE23

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences