Pope Pius XII: Part I, The Rise of Pacelli and The Alliance with Fascism
Updated: Mar 4
By Joe Harper
When John Cornwell initially set out to write a book on Pope Pius XII, he intended to write a work very different from what he actually ended up writing. Cornwell, who is a practicing Catholic and a senior fellow at Cambridge, had planned on writing to exonerate Pius XII from the many allegations of silence during the holocaust. Cornwell had already written one book on the Papacy called A Thief in the Night. The book had denied the allegation that Pope John Paul I, (1978) had been murdered when he died only 33 days into his Pontificate. As a result of his previous pro-Vatican writings Cornwell was granted access to the Vatican archives for researching his new book on Pius XII. This past Pope was being considered for Beatification during this time, already having been declared a “servant of God” in 1990, the first step toward sainthood. However, after examining the countless documents on the past Pontiff, a shocked Cornwell realized that his subject was not only guilty of inaction in regard to the Jews but also of full on collaboration with Hitler. The book he wrote aptly titled Hitler’s Pope (1999) set off a firestorm of controversy both inside and outside the Catholic Church. No small amount of backlash was leveled against both the book and the author. The debate surrounding Cornwell’s claims proves that Pius XII has left a divisive and controversial legacy for posterity and the world.
The views on Pius XII, born Eugenio Pacelli are varied. To Catholic Conservatives and Traditionalists, Pacelli is both a hero and a great Pope. For the Traditionalist, Pius was the noble anticommunist crusader, an opponent of theological modernism, the mystical devotee to the virgin Mary and a fervent believer in the visions of Fatima.
To others, Pacelli is anything but heroic. To them he is the man who made a deal with the Devil, when he as Cardinal Secretary of State under Pius XI negotiated the Reich’s concordat (treaty) with Hitler in 1933. In trade for Catholic rights and privileges in Germany he was willing to silence all Catholic political opposition to Hitler. The Catholic Centre party at this time was one of the most powerful political parties in Germany. It was led by Franz von Papen who would become Vice Chancellor under Hitler. This party was abandoned by the Church it was supposed to stand for and was eventually disbanded. Later Pacelli who as Pope during World War Two received a steady flow of information on the plight of the Jews in Europe and said nothing when speaking out may have saved millions.
It is impossible to deny that Pius XII left his mark on the modern world. Pacelli was a shrewd diplomat, a thoughtful geo-political strategist, a ruthless authoritarian, and a hopeless mystic. In the 1950’s he reigned over 500 million Catholics when the world population was around 2 billion. After the end of the Second World War, Pacelli with the help of his close friend and ally Cardinal Francis Spellman negotiated an alliance with the United States in order to combat the threat of Communism around the World. The Church provided the moral opposition to Communism while the U.S.A provided the military, political and economic muscle to fight the Cold War. Spellman served as the secret envoy between Rome and Washington up until the death of Pacelli in 1958. His death marked the end of an era. The next two Popes would bring reforms to the Church through the Second Vatican Council and would distance themselves from the theological and political conservatism of Pius XII. His death was the sign of changing times for both the Catholic Church and the world.
Groomed for High Office
Eugenio Pacelli was born on March 2, 1876 in Rome, Italy. The apartment where he was born was only a five-minute walk to the Tiber river and only a fifteen-minute walk to St. Peter's Square. The Pacelli family was a part of the Black Nobility and were totally committed to the Church and the Papacy. The black nobility was a small group of aristocratic families who remained loyal to the papacy when Rome was taken from it during Italian unification. Eugenio’s Grandfather Marcantonio Pacelli and his father Filippo Pacelli had both served as distinguished Vatican canon law lay lawyers. Marcantonio had served as a personal advisor to Pope Pius IX. In addition to his service as a canon lawyer and Papal advisor, he was the founder and editor of the roman newspaper L'osservatore Romano. The Pacellis were a respectable family firmly devoted to their Church, whose entire lives were spent in service to the Papacy.
Eugenio was raised in the most devout of Catholic homes, and was fascinated by faith throughout his childhood. As a youth he would serve as an altar boy, and would often pretend to be a priest, dressing up in his “robes” and performing the mass. His mother would encourage him in this hoping her son would one day enter the priesthood. Eugenio early on in his schooling displayed a stout mind and a phenomenal memory. He would later become fluent in over half a dozen languages. He was also a voracious reader often pouring over many classic works. Pacelli enrolled in seminary in 1894, studying at the prestigious, Caprianca, and Gregorian seminaries. After his first year, he was given a special dispensation to live at home while studying, the reason being due to his weak physical constitution and stomach. Pacelli’s housekeeper, Sister Pascalina would later observe that Pacelli’s sense of frailty and introvertedness was largely due to his mother’s “smothering”. Pascalina stated,
“Father Pacelli’s mother was too inclined to baby him, as a result, he became a deep introvert, and overly concerned with his health. There were times when we both young, that I wished I had the courage to tell him, your excellency you’re not made of glass you know! Don’t be so concerned with your physical being!”
Sister Pascalina also saw the dispensation to live at home, granted by Pope Leo XIII, as a mistake which had left Pacelli overly concerned with his health and had not helped him to get into the world and adjust to its rigors.
Pacelli would, despite his unusual circumstances, continue his studies. Throughout his education he came under the influence of the powerful Jesuit order who he considered his “special mentors”. He would continue to have close ties to the Jesuits all throughout his life. Eugenio would be ordained to the priesthood in 1899.
Early on it was evident that the young Eugenio was destined to rise very high in the Church. This was assured to his brilliance, his family’s influence, and his “favored status” among the hierarchy. Two years after his ordination he was to receive a shocking visit from Pietro Gasparri, a powerful and already famous Monsignor working in the Vatican diplomatic service. Gasparri who would one day become Secretary of State under Benedict XV, the second most powerful position in the Vatican, was intent on recruiting Pacelli into a diplomatic function in the Church. Pacelli was initially reluctant thinking that his future lay as a shepherd of souls but was eventually convinced by the persuasive Gasparri. Eugenio Pacelli was appointed an apprentice to Gasparri in the Secretariat of State (Vatican diplomatic service). The then only 25-year-old priest was put on the fast track for promotion.
Gasparri and Pacelli would work side by side for the next thirty years. The two’s collaboration and work would have a dynamic effect on the foreign policy of the Vatican in the twentieth century. In 1902, Eugenio in addition to his diplomatic posting, began to lecture on Canon law in Rome, a subject he had studied, post graduate, after his seminary education. He would receive his doctorate in 1904, the subject of his thesis was the use of concordats. A concordat with the various nation states of the world would prove to be the central method which Gasparri and Pacelli would use in advancing the Churches’ diplomatic interests. Pacelli’s studies in canon law and concordats would both serve him well in the diplomatic service. In 1906, Pacelli accompanied the current Cardinal Secretary of State, Merry Del Val, to the International Eucharistic Conference in London. A further indication of the favoritism shown to him by the Vatican leadership. On June 24, 1914 just four days before the assassination of Austro-Hungarian, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Vatican signed a concordat with the tiny Balkan nation of Serbia. The treaty was primarily negotiated by Merry Del Val, with the close assistance of Gasparri and Pacelli. In trade for the guaranteed freedom of Catholic worship and education the Vatican recognized the annulment of Austria Hungary’s protectorate rights over the Catholic community in Serbia. These ancient rights claimed by Austria allowed them to intervene in the region in order the protect the rights of Catholics. They also allowed Austria to train Serbian priests in their own seminaries, giving the empire continued influence in the Balkans. The treaty also allowed the Papacy to enforce the as yet unpublished new code of canon law. The code of canon law which was promulgated three years later in 1917, had been heavily influenced by Gasparri and Pacelli who had contributed heavily to the revisions. The new code was instrumental in the continued centralizing of the Pope’s power over his church. Among its most important additions was the canon which gave the Pope the sole right to nominate new bishops. Historically the nomination and election of bishops differed according the nations where they took place. It was common for local electors in a diocese to elect new Bishops and with various secular governments to provide nominations or approval. The new code swept away tradition and placed all this power in the hands of the Pope. Serbia would be one of the first nations where it would be enforced. Serbia and the Vatican both had much to gain by the new treaty. Serbia hoped the treaty would give their nation increased autonomy and respect on the international stage, hoping to avoid being sucked into the orbit of Austria Hungary. The Vatican hoped by signing the treaty with Eastern Orthodox Serbia that tensions between Catholics and Eastern Orthodox would be eased which would allow for Catholic evangelization in the east, not only in Serbia, but also in Greece and Russia. This was the main motivation of Pacelli in his support of the treaty. The concordat however led to increased tensions between Austria Hungary and Serbia. This would only be exacerbated by the assassination of the Archduke. Many have speculated the concordat contributed to the beginning of the First World War.
Two months after the signing of the concordat Pope Pius X died. His successor Benedict XV was elected on September 3, 1914. Benedict XV born Giacomo Della Chiesa had astonishingly only been a Cardinal for three months. He had under Pius X been dismissed from the Secretariat of State and appointed Archbishop of Bologna (considered a step down) due to suspicion of modernist thinking. Now with Europe mobilizing for war, a Pope with diplomatic experience was considered crucial leading to the election of Chiesa. Benedict XV promptly dismissed the long serving Secretary of State, Merry del Val and replaced him with Pietro Gasparri. The new Pope would serve as an additional mentor to Pacelli, personally choosing him in the writing of a potential peace plan between the warring powers.
Throughout World War I, Eugenio Pacelli was heavily engaged in diplomatic negotiations with both the allied and central powers. By 1917 Pope Benedict had decided to appoint Pacelli Nuncio (Ambassador) to Munich, considered a most important appointment. On May 13, 1917 Pacelli was consecrated an Archbishop in a special ceremony in the Sistine chapel. The ceremony was performed by Pope Benedict XV, Pietro Gasparri, and Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI.
Nuncio in Germany and Munich Uprising
The newly installed Nuncio in Munich found the situation in the city increasingly distressing due to the worsening of the war. Pacelli threw himself into relief work for the starving and wounded till the end of the war. His charitable work in Germany would continue after the war and would make the Nuncio very popular in Germany throughout the 1920’s. On November 11, 1918 the First World War finally came to an end. Germany was defeated, the Kaiser had abdicated and a new republic was installed in the country. Social unrest was rife in the defeated and disillusioned nation. New political parties were springing up across the country with many being swayed by the ideas of Socialism and Communism. In late February, 1919 the Communist party took power in Bavaria after a succession of short-lived socialist governments. The Communists declared a new Bavarian Soviet Republic with red brigades sweeping through the streets of Munich. After six weeks of brutal street fighting with the authorities and rival political factions, they gained control of the city. The Communists in power were extremely hostile to the Nuncio who they saw as a threat to the new regime. In April, a band of Communist militia shot up the Nunciature (residence of the Nuncio) armed with rifles, automatic pistols, and hand grenades supposedly demanding the requisition of the Nuncio’s limousine. Pacelli left a written account of the incident where he describes his confrontation with the commander.
“I made it clear to the commander that this violent entry into the Nunciature and the request for the car was a flagrant violation of the international rights of all civilized peoples, and I showed him the certificate of extraterritoriality that had been released by the commissioner of the people for foreign affairs”
“The accomplice pressed his rifle against my breast, and the commander, a horrible type of delinquent, having given the order to his satellites to hold ready their hand grenades, told me insolently that talk was pointless and that he must have the car immediately.”
Eventually, after going through all the rooms of the residence the militia gave in and decided to vacate the premises. Three weeks later the Weimar government sent in troops to brutally crush the revolution. The troops were successful but with high loss of life on both sides. The incident would cement Pacelli’s hatred of Communism which he would display for the rest of his life. According to his personal physician Riccardo Galeazzi-Lisi, Pacelli would until his death be haunted by nightmares of the attack. Pacelli wound continue his diplomatic role in Germany for the next ten years. He would build a strong relationship with both the local Bavarian government and the national German government in Berlin. He was through these negotiations able to strengthen the position of the Catholic Church in Germany.
On January 22, 1922 Pope Benedict XV died. Two weeks later the college of Cardinals elected Achille Ratti to succeed him. Ratti who took the name Pius XI, was the former Cardinal Archbishop of Milan who had previously served as the Vatican librarian. Previously an avid mountaineer, Pius XI, had a large looming physique with serious piercing eyes. As Pope he was known for short temper and violent outbursts where he would strike terror into his Cardinals. Cardinal Bisletti would prepare for his audiences with the Pope by praying on his knees that the Pontiff would find no fault in his words. Pius was also an authoritarian which hearkened back to the days of Pius IX. He demanded complete obedience from his Cardinals and he maintained a love of protocol which kept him aloof and distant from all around him. Pacelli when serving as secretary of state in the 1930’s would become quite aware of Ratti’s authoritarian nature and short temper. On one occasion when Pacelli gave an opposing view to his Pope, Pius XI had Pacelli get on his knees in front of him and swear never again to defy his authority.
The Church which Pius XI presided over was fraught with problems. The First World War had been a disaster for the Catholic Church. The greatest ally of the Church in Austria Hungary had completely disintegrated, leaving the Church with few, if any real allies left in the world. Also, the Communist takeover of Russia had now propped up a major regime, which was dedicated to the destruction of all religion. In Russia, Lenin and later Stalin persecuted the minority of Roman Catholics just as viciously as the Eastern Orthodox. It seemed as if Communism would spread across Europe and even the world. The Catholic Church in the 1920’s was also in financial turmoil. The loss of the Papal States in 1870 had also meant the loss of crucial tax revenue for the Papacy. Giuseppe Garibaldi had in that year lead the forces of the new Italian nation into Rome and declared the city the capital of the new nation. The city had been guarded by French troops under Emperor Napoleon III, but they had been called away to Paris when France had met disaster in the Franco Prussian War. As the Italians moved in, the nation of the Papal States which had existed for 1000 years was no more. By 1929, the Vatican was on the verge of bankruptcy. Many repairs around the Vatican had been neglected, the staff reduced down to a bare minimum. They didn’t even have money to pay the exterminator to kill the rats who had infested the Vatican including St. Peter’s Basilica. The Papacy looked like it might be on its deathbed. Then the Church’s fortunes were restored from the most unlikely of sources. The Secretariat of State under the leadership of Pietro Gasparri with the help of Eugenio’s brother Francesco Pacelli signed a deal with Benito Mussolini and his Fascist government. Mussolini was about the last person anyone expected to make a deal with the Vatican. He had espoused Socialism early in his life and he had never considered himself a good Catholic. It had only been seven years prior in 1922 when he had marched on Rome at the head of his Fascist black shirts. The Italian king Victor Emmanuel III had in response to the crisis had named Mussolini prime minister. El Duce as Mussolini was often called, realized that despite his past that a deal with the Vatican would give his regime a legitimacy not only in Roman Catholic Italy but throughout the world. Pius XI in reality didn’t have much choice on whether to strike a deal or not. The Vatican’s desperate situation demanded an agreement be come to as soon as possible. The Lateran treaty was signed on February 11, 1929. The treaty ended the “roman question” by granting the Pope a sovereign territory completely independent of Italy. The new state of Vatican City is composed of only 109 acres and is today the smallest nation in the world. Italy also returned the summer residence of Castel Gandolfo to the Pope. Roman Catholicism became the official religion of Italy, religious weddings were recognized, Catholic education ensured, feast days declared public holidays. The sweetest part of the deal was as compensation for their lost territory the Church was given 750 million lire, plus one billion lire in Italian bonds (roughly one billion in 2013 U.S. dollars) by the Italian government. In trade the Pope promised neutrality in international affairs, recognized the Italian state and disbanded the Catholic popular party which was considered a threat to the Fascist regime. The dying Church was suddenly given new life. This was considered the crowning achievement of the aging Gasparri by the church. At the end of the year Pietro Gasparri would finally retire. On December 19, 1929 Eugenio Pacelli who had spent the past ten years as nuncio in Germany was given the red hat of a Cardinal. Two months later he was appointed secretary of state, the second most powerful position in the Vatican.
Secretary of State and The Deal with Hitler
On January 30, 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg. The Nazi party had become the largest in Germany and in the previous elections had gained the most seats in the Reichstag. Hitler now desperately wanted to consolidate his power permanently and eliminate his political opponents. One of the greatest obstacles to his plans was the Catholic Church in Germany. The Catholic Centre party was the second largest political party in Germany and was supported by the German hierarchy which had staunchly condemned National Socialism. However, Eugenio Pacelli and Pius XI were not looking for a show down with Hitler. They had no love the Catholic Centre party just as they had none for the Catholic Popular Party in Italy which was disbanded at the signing of the Lateran treaty. In their minds Catholicism and democracy were antithetical concepts and sacrificing the Centre party was a small price to pay in order the ensure the future of the church in Germany. On July 30, 1933 Pacelli and Franz von Papen, the Vice Chancellor signed the Reich Concordat. The agreement granted the Church guaranteed freedom of worship, protection of Church property and the guarantee of Catholic education at all levels. Pacelli agreed that the Centre party led by the priest Ludwig Kaas, a protege of Pacelli would support the signing of the enabling act giving Hitler dictatorial powers. The Centre party was disbanded and the Priests and Bishops ceased from all political activity. The greatest obstacle to Hitler seizing his dictatorship was removed. If the Church had united to oppose Hitler, with a third of the country being Roman Catholic, perhaps Hitler could have been curtailed but it was not to be. The stark reality was that in the 1930’s the Church saw three types of nations in Europe, the democracies of Britain and France, Communist Russia and the dictatorships in Germany, Italy and later Spain. The dictatorial regimes were considered the closest ideologically to the Church and the best chance for the Church to recover its prestige on the world stage. A replacement for what had been lost with the destruction of Austria Hungary. However, as the 1930’s rolled on Pius XI would become increasingly disillusioned with both Italian Fascism and German Nazism. By 1939 he had come to see the dictatorships as deadly of threats as the Communists in Russia. He planned to release a formal denunciation of the regimes and of their racist policies against the Jews. However, before he was able to do so the ailing Pius XI died on February 10, 1939. Eugenio Pacelli would then succeed him as the next Pope. Pius XII would reign through the both the Second World War and the rise of the Cold War. The state of the world at the end of his reign would be dramatically different than it was at the beginning of it.
To Be Continued in Part 2
Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell
La Popessa: The Controversial Biography of Sister Pascalina the Most Powerful Woman in Vatican History by Paul I. Murphy with R. Rene Arlington
Contemporary Rome Viewed Throughout History by Dr. Clive Gillis
The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder and the Mafia by Paul L. Williams
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer
The Vatican Moscow Washington Alliance by Avro Manhattan
 Clive Gillis, Contemporary Rome Viewed Throughout History, (Belfast, NIR: Ambassador Productions Ltd., 2003) p. 62-63
 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1999) p. 347
 Avro Manhattan, The Vatican Moscow Washington Alliance, (Chino, CA: Chick Publications, 1982) p. 109-110
 Paul I. Murphy with R. Rene Arlington, La Popessa, (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1983) P. 55
 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1999) p. 23
 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1999) p. 77
 John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope (New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1999) p. 77
 Paul I. Murphy with R. Rene Arlington, La Popessa, (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1983) P. 143
 Paul L. Williams, The Vatican Exposed: Money, Murder, and the Mafia, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003), p. 16