Confrontation and Conciliation: Papal Responses to the Nazi State (1933-1945)

Despite being mocked as the ‘mad monk,’ Tony Abbott seems to be a strange starting point for a discussion of Papal responses to the Nazi State. However, the backlash he received after his threat to ‘shirt-front’ Vladimir Putin is a recent example of the ongoing necessity to balance confrontation and conciliation when it comes to international relations.[i]  This was again highlighted by the productive outcome after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop diplomatically raised issues with Putin.[ii]

The awkward moment at APEC China 2014 and surrounding media hype highlights the importance of careful diplomacy when dealing with serious geo-political matters.

The media hype surrounding this awkward moment at APEC 2014 highlights the importance of careful diplomacy when dealing with serious geopolitical matters.

The Papal responses to the Nazi State draw parallels to this, because they shifted between conciliation and confrontation throughout 1933 to 1945. This was largely due to the temperaments of Popes Pius XI and Pius XII. Although Pius XI initially preferred conciliation, he became increasingly confrontational towards the Nazi State. However, this approach was cut short by his death. Pius XI was succeeded by his Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XII), who had spent almost his entire Church career as a diplomat. Pius XII regarded diplomacy as the ultimate solution to the world’s problems and controversially, he maintained this official position towards Nazi Germany in the face of both World War II and the Holocaust. As a consequence, Pius XII has been criticised for being too soft towards Nazi Germany because he did not do enough in his official capacity to directly respond to the atrocities perpetrated by the regime.

In July 1933, the Papacy entered into a type of treaty with the Nazi State called a concordat, which guaranteed protection of Church interests in Germany. This conciliatory response that accommodated  the Nazi regime was by no means unique, because Pius XI entered into over forty concordats with other states during the inter-war years as a way to hold foreign governments to account. [iii] When the terms of the German concordat were breached, Pius XI issued official condemnation via an encyclical, which is a circular letter to the faithful that contains Papal teachings on doctrinal or moral matters.[iv]  The encyclical Mit brennender sorge (With burning anxiety) was smuggled into Germany in 1937 and was read throughout all Catholic churches in Germany during Palm Sunday mass. It directly criticised the Nazi State for its persecution of Catholic schools and youth organisations. The following year, Pius XI commissioned an encyclical titled Humani Generis Unitas (The Unity of the Human Race), which would condemn Nazi racial policy. However, by the time the encyclical was completed, Pius XI was critically ill and died on the night of 10-11 February before he could issue it. This event marked a significant turning point in history.

Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII) signing the Reich Concordat with Franz von Papen (left), Hitler’s Deputy Chancellor at the Vatican in July 1933.

Cardinal Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, signing the Reich Concordat with German Deputy Chancellor, Franz von Papen (left) at the Vatican in July 1933.

The new Pope, Pius XII, never released the encyclical . If he had, it would have been the most direct condemnation of Nazi racial policy, not only by the Papacy, but arguably by any political leader. However, Pius XII instead took a conciliatory path, and the volume and intensity of Vatican criticism of the Nazi regime decreased even though Nazi actions became increasingly brutal, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.[v] Pius XII was thrust into the Papacy during the most tumultuous period in modern history, yet his official responses to Nazi Germany were underwhelming. His first encyclical Summi Pontificatus (On the Supreme Pontificate) was issued in October 1939, one month after the outbreak of World War II. It condemned war in general terms without identifying Nazi Germany as primarily responsible. In his famous play The Deputy, Rolf Hochhuth credited this silence as being due to Pius XII’s  fear of communism and sympathy with German foreign policy.[vi] But this fictitious work is now understood to be historically inaccurate. Current interpretations suggest that the conciliatory approach of Pius XII towards Nazi warmongering was due to his preference for Papal neutrality as the best means of promoting peace.[vii]

Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-1939)

In his final years, Pope Pius XI (r. 1922-1939) adopted a confrontational stance towards the Nazi State

Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958).

Pope Pius XII (r. 1939-1958) adopted a less confrontational stance towards Nazism compared to that of his predecessor.

Of all action of the Nazi State, the Holocaust was undoubtedly the most horrific. It is therefore puzzling why Pius XII still thought that maintaining an official position of silent neutrality would be an appropriate response. His only official response was in his 1942 Christmas message which made passing reference to “the hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to death or to a slow decline.”[viii]  Historians have long argued that the silence of Pius XII was due to his anti-Semitism.[ix] However, other studies have identified how Pius XII privately facilitated the rescue of Jews, so his official silence was not due to anti-Semitism but again to a preference for diplomacy.[x] With hindsight, we can speculate as to what the fate of the Jews would have been if Pius XII had officially spoken out. But that answer can never be confirmed. What is certain is that if Pius XII had done more in his official capacity to confront the Nazi State, he would not be the figure of controversy that he is today.

Bibliography and Further Reading:



[iii] Martin Conway, “Introduction,” in Political Catholicism in Europe, 1918-1965, eds. Tom Buchanan and Martin Conway (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 17.

[iv] Anne Freemantle, The Papal Encyclicals in their Historical Context, (New York: Mentor Omega Books, 1956) p. 25.

[v] Frank J. Coppa, “Pope Pius XI’s ‘Encyclical’ Humani Generis Unitas Against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the ‘Silence’ of Pope Pius XII,” Journal of Church and State 95 (1998): p. 792.

[vi] Rolf Hochhuth, The Deputy, trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston (New York: Grove Press, 1964).

[vii] Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) p. 57.

[viii] Pope Pius XII, “Internal Order of the States and People,” Christmas Message, 24 December 1942.

[ix] Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (London: Wiedenfeld and Nicholson, 1968); John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, (New York: Viking, 1999).

[x] David G. Dalin, The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2005).

4 comments on “Confrontation and Conciliation: Papal Responses to the Nazi State (1933-1945)

  1. Hello, this a well research blog and good work on covering one of the most controversial surrounding the Catholic Church with only a small amount of words allowed. People in this day and age it is easy just to criticise the Catholic and its role in World War II. But they keep using hindsight when it comes to history. For me I did not know about the anti-Nazi approach taken by Pope Pius XI during his final years and Pope Pius XII actions in helping the Jews in what ways he could while remaining a kind-of neutral figure. This issue will be debated for years to come. PS I like the opening with Tony Abbot and his wanting to ‘shirt-front’ Putin.

  2. petekay says:

    This was a really interesting piece and it raised a lot of questions for me when reading it.
    First, I wonder if criticism of the entire Papal organisation during the era of the Third Reich is justified. Pius XI finals years showed confrontation with the Nazi state and critiques of their racial policy would have been forthcoming had he lived. However, Pius XII failed to continue this confrontation. I wonder then, whether it is more appropriate for historians to judge the this time for the Papal organisation not as unified but distinctly as Pius XI and Pius XII approaches. They both seem to have different personal motivations and beliefs which influenced the direction of Papal policy. I think you have made this quite clear in your post and that’s a really important point to pick up on.
    Also, I think an interesting question which comes from your post is that Pius XII’s approach seemed to be a lot like ‘Appeasement’. If this is the case, then is the controversy surrounding him harsh given that historians have mellowed in their analysis on Chamberlain and Appeasement – Would you expect them to want war and confrontation after the horrors of WWI?
    Thanks for a great read!

    • jcandidomq says:

      Unlike with Chamberlain, the controversy with Pius XII has not mellowed. A possible reason for this is that rather than being a national leader, the Pope has universal spiritual powers. As a result, there are higher moral expectations placed upon him to respond to such events.

  3. tranto94 says:

    Hey Jordan, interesting blog! Good work on covering such a controversial topic, which I presume meant that you would have had to sort through various perspectives in order to come to your own conclusion. I liked how your allegory of recent events demonstrated the necessity of balancing conciliation and confrontation in international diplomacy. Your topic got me thinking about how different things might have been had Pope Pius XII had decided to release his predecessor’s Encyclical and what political ramifications this would have had. Some may hold the belief that had Pope Pius XII publicly spoken out against the Nazis, then this would have done more to help the plight of the Jews, though I agree with what you said about this being just speculations by those with hindsight of the events. Others may claim that the Pope was outright sympathetic to the Nazis but as his secret facilitation of the Jews demonstrated, this was not the case. As such, it could be said that the Pope was ‘in between a rock and a hard place’ as his Papacy coincided with one of the most tumultuous periods of history and therefore wished to play it safe, though whether or not he could have done more in his capacity as Pope is up for debate.

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