The role Pope Pius XII played during World War II has long been a subject of controversy. Under great pressure to align himself with the Allies or Axis powers, he chose silence and diplomatic neutrality. Some saw him as a heroic champion of the oppressed. Others thought he turned a blind eye to the killing of Jews and other vulnerable populations and did not use his moral authority to work for peace. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David I. Kertzer explores the truth of how Pius XII handled this situation with great skill, combining extraordinary documentation and elegant writing, in The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.
Early in his papacy, which began in 1939, Pius XII decided to tread a careful path. Once World War II began, his public pronouncements were crafted so that each side could interpret them as supporting their cause. The pope often said, for example, that true peace required justice—a familiar theme to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, who complained that the Treaty of Versailles was not a true peace because it was unjust. The pope insisted it was his role to attend to spiritual, not political, matters. Using this excuse, he didn’t criticize Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws. He didn’t denounce totalitarian states, until the only one left was the Soviet Union. In his first speech after the war, he emphasized the Nazi regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church and didn’t make any mention of the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews nor Italy’s part in the Axis cause.
The Vatican archives of this period were sealed when Pius XII died in 1958, but they became available to researchers in March 2020. This book is based on many sources but is the first to take advantage of these previously unexplored materials. (Among their revelations are secret negotiations between the pope and Hitler.) Kertzer believes, based on this new evidence, that “Pius XII saw his primary responsibility to be the protection of the institutional church, its property, its prerogatives, and its ability to fulfill its mission as he saw it.” But Pius XII was also aware that, to many people, he failed to provide courageous moral leadership, which Kertzer outlines in gripping detail in his outstanding book.