The Rabbi and the Pope

THE MYTH OF HITLER’S POPE: HOW POPE PIUS XII RESCUED JEWS FROM THE NAZIS. By Rabbi David G. Dalin (Regnery Publishing, Inc., One Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001), 209 pp., HB $27.95.

Few people will recall that 1965 was the year that Paul VI initiated Pius XII’s cause for canonization. As it turned out, it came at the beginning of a rhetorical guerre à outrance over the reputation of the former pope which, like some grim battle of attrition, has not abated even after 40 years.

Defying both critics and mainstream stereotypes, Rabbi David G. Dalin has weighed in with The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, which unapologetically urges Pius XII’s “canonization” from a Jewish point of view. Dalin states “it would be both historically just and morally appropriate” for the pope to be declared a “righteous gentile” (an honor already extended to many Catholic priests and bishops by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel). Without a doubt, the appearance of this work by a prominent Jewish scholar may be decisive in bringing an end to the “Pius Wars.” It remains, of course, a daunting task. Such a book must overcome the vast detritus of recycled falsehoods which has piled up over the years, thanks to numerous media and academic detractors.

According to Rabbi Dalin, an effective rebuttal begins not so much with a discussion of the key facts—which this book does—but with making the reader aware of how these distortions came into existence as well as the deeper prejudices behind them. As the author shrewdly remarks:

Very few of the many recent books about Pius XII and the Holocaust are actually about Pius XII and the Holocaust. The liberal bestselling attacks on the pope and the Catholic Church are really an intra-Catholic argument about the direction of the Church today…. The anti-papal polemics of ex-seminarians like Garry Wills and John Cornwell (author of Hitler’s Pope), of ex-priests like James Carroll, and or other lapsed or angry liberal Catholics exploit the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Holocaust to foster their own political agenda of forcing changes on the Catholic Church today.

Dalin emphasizes a fact that will surprise many, including defenders of Pius XII. The campaign of calumny had its origins not in Jewish circles, but among liberal Catholics and other leftists who had philosophical or theological axes to grind. By contrast, many leading Jews testified on the pope’s behalf after the war, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann.

As for the “evidence” that Pius XII did nothing to help Jews, it amounts to a handful of frail accusations which crumple under Dalin’s scrutiny. The most publicized anti-Pius study in recent years is John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999). Yet it has been so debunked that Cornwell has retracted most of his allegations. Even so, it is clear that the cultural climate—which Dalin sees as a “culture war” over the memory of Pius XII—consistently steers most people clear of the facts.

Of the many slanders contested by The Myth of Hitler’s Pope, the most persistent is the claim that Pius XII sat by during the 1943 round up of Roman Jews—“outside his very windows,” as one writer put it. However, critics are usually too wrapped up in vague anti-Catholic polemics to concern themselves with eyewitness testimony. Dalin cites accounts of Jewish survivors who have nothing put praise for the pontiff’s efforts, which included sheltering 3,000 Jews in his summer residence at Castel Gondolfo under the very noses of Hitler’s SS.

In countering these and other charges, Dalin largely draws on existing scholarship (which he generously acknowledges). However, he achieves his purpose not through an exhaustive study, but by stressing a few outstanding points which will win the reader’s attention and sympathy. Dalin has done some important legwork as well. He sheds light on hitherto overlooked aspects of Eugenio Pacelli’s early career and friendship with Jews, especially during his time as Papal Nuncio in Bavaria, during and after the First World War.

What emerges is more than just a history of the papacy during World War II, though that is its main focus. It is also a study of papal-Jewish relations going back to the 6th century. After all, if criticism of Pius XII is motivated by a deeper liberal religious bias, it is necessary to controvert claims, like those of James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword (2002), that anti-Semitism is central to Catholicism. Dalin is quick to defend what he sees as the Church’s essentially positive role in relations with his people:

The historical fact is that popes have often spoken out in defense of the Jews, have protected them during times of persecution and pogroms, and have protected their right to worship freely in their synagogues. Popes have traditionally defended Jews from wild anti-Semitic allegations. Popes regularly condemned anti-Semites who sought to incite violence against Jews…. You won’t find these facts in the liberal attack books, but they are true.

Matthew Anger
Chester, Virginia

Book Reviews About Book Reviews

Expert and interested readers can review our Books Received page to see what is available and for instructions on how to review for HPR.