Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell

John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope Hitler’s Pope demonstrates how Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, was instrumental in establishing the Reich Concordat in 1933, issuing a license of advancement and destruction to history’s most ruthless dictator. Throughout his work, Cornwell seeks to fulfill his stated thesis: That regardless of being a bearer of the weight of his office and its history, Pius XII “exerted a fatal and culpable influence on the history of this century” (4). While proving his thesis, Cornwell makes evident two themes that ruled Pius XII’s life and papal career: ambition for absolute authority and an underlying but intense anti-Semitism.

First, Cornwell proves that an ambition for absolute papal authority controlled Pius XII. From the very beginning Pacelli exhibited a character of being stubborn and “headstrong” (17), and throughout his life he remained a man of solitude. Cornwell describes how he took all his meals alone and did not keep close friends (216) and would later say, “I don’t want colleagues, but people who will obey” (216). As Pacelli moved up in his Church career, Cornwell demonstrates how his ambition for power drives him to become Hitler’s pawn.

In 1933, the Enabling Act gave Hitler power “to pass laws without the consent of the Reichstag and to make treaties with foreign governments” (136), which led Hitler to make the Reich Concordat with Pacelli. Cornwell attempts to make a contrast between Pacelli and Hitler’s interpretations of this power. In Hitler’s mind, the Concordat meant “the acknowledgement of the National Socialist state by the Catholic Church” and fashioned “a sphere of confidence . . . that will be especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry” (130).

Cornwell suggests that to Pacelli (and thus to the Church), the Concordat was not an acknowledgment and approval of the Nazi Party and what it stood for, but rather the Reichstag’s recognition of the Church’s authority (131). Even before becoming Pope, Cornwell demonstrates how Pacelli ambitiously sought power for himself and the church.

The book further illustrates that Pacelli’s power-consolidation quest ultimately enabled the rise of Hitler and thus the implementation of the Final Solution. Cornwell asserts that Pacelli’s accord with Hitler and corresponding disbandment of the Catholic Center Party in Germany “demoralized Catholic protest and resistance” (218) to what would occur afterward. As he reveals later in the narrative, this silence on the part of the Catholics in general, and the Pope in particular, proved deadly for millions of Jews.

Secondly, Cornwell seeks to demonstrate that Pacelli harbored deep-seated animosity toward the Jews. He states, “Christian antipathy toward the Jews was born out of the belief . . . that the Jews had murdered Christ, indeed, that they had murdered God” (24). During the Bolshevik revolution, during which Pacelli was bishop of Munich, Cornwell shows how Pacelli advocated the current idea that the Jews were responsible for the revolution and expressed repulsed sentiments toward the mere “Jewishness” of the individuals involved (74-75).

Cornwell again draws the conclusion that the Reich Concordat “indicated both at home and abroad . . . Catholic moral approval of Hitler’s policies” and confined the Church “to silence on any issue the Nazi regime deemed political” (153). Therefore, Cornwell asserts that this agreement ensured Catholic quiet concerning the policy of the Final Solution and of mandatory sterilization for the purification of the German race.

Hitler’s Pope proves further that during the Holocaust, Pacelli, elected Pope Pius XII in 1939, displayed his most evident anti-Semitist attitudes. He refused to speak out against the mass deportations and exterminations of European Jews though he held the administrative capacity, choosing in his own words “to remain silent before the public and do in private all that is possible” (286-287). When an American envoy came to Rome to attempt to persuade the Pope to protest the Holocaust and assuring him of the Allies’ certain victory, Pius XII still remained silent (289). Cornwell claims that even on his Christmas Eve broadcast, when he could have publicly denounced Nazism and its practices, Pius XII only vaguely mentioned the atrocities of the war (292).

Cornwell uses the publication in 1943 of Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis to show how the Pope believed that the only true faith was one that was “in communion with Rome” (276). Cornwell suggests that perhaps the Pope was attempting to justify the extermination of the Jews because they were part of the “schism, heresy, and apostasy . . . [that] sever a man from the Body of the Church” (276). Cornwell concludes from this that the Pope’s treatise was an effort to disavow responsibility for the Jews of Europe (277).

Perhaps the most astonishing example Cornwell provides for the Pope’s anti-Semitism is the deportation of the Roman Jews. He did not express his disapproval upon learning of the deportation though he was “a man with a powerful voice . . . whose capacity to protest could give even Hitler serious pause for thought” (304). The ultimate authority the Pope so ambitiously pursued could have saved millions, yet he used this power to turn his head in silent acceptance and enable the Final Solution he perhaps secretly advocated. Cornwell intertwines these two themes in his demonstration of how Pius XII did not use his power for the protection of “the Jews of Rome as members of his Roman flock” (318).

Throughout Hitler’s Pope, Cornwell effectively demonstrates Pius XII’s life-long quest for absolute power and his clear anti-Semitism and how together they formed one of history’s most deadly weapons. Cornwell suggests in conclusion that Pacelli repented of his actions at this death: “Have pity on me Lord . . . [for] sins committed during so long a pontificate and in so grave an epoch. I humbly ask pardon of all I have offended, harmed, and scandalized” (359).


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