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by Michael Phayer

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-253-33725-9
Publisher: Indiana Univ.

A well-reasoned but damning overview of the Vatican’s response to Nazi atrocities during and after WWII.

Following hard upon John Cornwell’s controversial Hitler’s Pope (not reviewed), and John Paul II’s unprecedented apology to Jews in Israel, Phayer (History/Marquette Univ.) offers exactly what was needed all along: a more incisive, if somewhat dry, view of Pius XII that portrays him not as a power-mad anti-Semite, but as an indecisive ruler with definite German sympathies whose fear of Communism and Fascist reprisals (as well as his astonishingly naïve efforts to seek diplomatic protections) provided few obstacles to the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Polish Catholics. Elected to the papacy in 1939, Eugenio Pacelli took over a divided church whose more liberal members (led by his predecessor, Pius XI) were highly alarmed by their fellow Catholics’ hatred of Jews (including Jewish converts to Catholicism). The author believes that Pius XII halted an encyclical that would have condemned anti-Semitism because he knew that Hitler, a Catholic apostate, had threatened similar attacks against German Catholics. Part of the problem may also have been that Pius XII (who had lived for years in Germany as a Vatican diplomat) looked upon German National Socialism as the devil that he knew—compared to the anti-religious mania of Stalin’s Communism. Once WWII began, in the author’s view, Pius’s refusal to aid Catholics helping Jews escape persecution and his silence about Nazi depravities were, in fact, attempts to maintain Vatican neutrality and to control a church rife with virulent anti-Semites—many of whom would not have hesitated, with Fascist backing, to overthrow the papacy and possibly even destroy the Vatican itself. Although no apologist for the Vatican, Phayer concludes that, given the church’s perversely divided loyalties and its pathetically powerless condition before and during WWII, Pius should be judged not as a collaborator so much as a sad example of a weak man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A fair and even-tempered account of a volatile subject. (20 b&w photos, not seen)