The Pope's Dilemma

Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War

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Jacques Kornberg
German and European Studies
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , April
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Skimming through the table of contents of Jacques Kornberg’s book on Pius XII, The Pope’s Dilemma, one can have the impression of a backwards genealogy with the first chapter dealing with The Pope’s legacy, and concluding the volume with a wide overview on Church history from the antiquity to the 20th century. The unusual structure mirrors the methodological approach of the author, who started his research from an unresolved controversy and its aftermath, and tried to figure it out as a good historian should by namely reconstructing the religious, theological, and political context.

The thorny question raised by the author, not least among the many American and European scholars who have dealt with it, is that of the attitude of Pius XII during World War II. Kornberg, therefore, tries to answer the questions: Why didn't the pope openly condemn national-socialism and the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the war? Why didn't he publicly denounce the destruction of the Jews that was taking place in Europe and of which he was well informed?

The hypotheses put forward by the author start from the observation that in the debate on Pius XII it has often been discussed whether the mission of the Catholic Church should be of upholding the moral law or whether it should be, above all, pastoral (e.g. ensuring the faithful the exercise of the sacraments, and keeping the faithful anchored in the Church as much as possible). In Kornberg’s opinion, many scholars have made the mistake of assuming that the Church had only a moral duty. His interpretation, instead, is that at the basis of Pacelli's choices, both as Secretary of State and as Pope, there was an attempt to ensure continuity for Catholic institutions even at the price of a compromise with the National Socialist regime. The salvation of souls, which for a Catholic of the time passed exclusively through certain acts (e.g. baptism and conversion to Catholicism), was, the author puts forth, the basic motivation that drove Pius XII also to come to terms with “the devil.”

According to Kornberg, eternal salvation was the priority that led Pius XII not to expose himself during the war. This questionable but plausible interpretation of the author leads him to assert that the Pope did not condemn Axis crimes and the Catholics colluded with the Nazi-Fascists «as not to alienate them from the church» (235), while leaving freedom to the national episcopates of speak out or not (94). As a matter of fact, the priority granted to Catholics by the Pope was part of the predominant ecclesiology at the time, and it was the same urgency that could eventually explain the lack of a public condemnation of the discrimination and the persecution of the Jews.

Kornberg, making use of archival documents but also taking into account the various historiographic currents in different languages (an element not taken for granted in Anglophone literature), points out that the so called “silence of Pius XII” began to be brought to light only after his death (1958), several years after the end of the war. The question took on such a dimension that Pope Paul VI, in order to defend Pius XII from the attacks, decided to make available a series of documents concerning the period of 1939-1945. His successors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, also opened the archives to the pontificate of Pius XI, when Eugenio Pacelli was first nuncio to Germany (1917-1929) and then Secretary of State (1930-1939). Kornberg dedicates the second and fifth chapters of the book to the Roman period of Pacelli, focusing above all on the question of the Concordat with the Reich (1933) and the attitude towards the Jews; the third and the fourth chapters are instead focused on the attitude of Pius XII towards the Catholic belligerent States during the war.

Although there are a huge amount of books in several languages that have tried to explain the behavior of the Catholic Church in the face of the World War II, and despite the imminent opening of the Vatican archives to the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), which will finally shed light on the period, what makes this book a good support for future research in this field is the attempt of the Canadian historian to find the answers in a long-term historical dimension. In fact, only this historical-critical approach can preserve us from making the mistake of justifying, absolving, or condemning and can help us instead to historically understand without anachronism the reason for certain choices made by Pius XII and the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raffaella Perin is a Researcher in the Department of Religious Studies at the Catholic University of Sacred Heart, Milan.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jacques Kornberg is professor emeritus in the department of history at the University of Toronto.


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