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The World's Second Biggest Lie

Bill Press, Tribune Content Agency on

We know Donald Trump’s spreading a big lie. But he’s not the only one. So’s the Vatican.

Trump’s big lie is that he won the 2020 presidential election, which he did not. The Vatican’s big lie, which it’s been spreading since World War II, is that Pope Pius XII did everything he could to stop the Holocaust, which he did not. He did nothing.

The truth about Pius XII’s role in World War II finally comes out in a blockbuster new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author David Kertzer – “The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler” – based largely on secret Vatican World War II Archives only made available to researchers by Pope Francis in March 2020.

Kertzer’s book is authoritative, well-documented and well-written. But I also found it profoundly shocking, because it contradicts everything I’d been taught in Catholic high school and college about the Vatican’s role in World War II.

In a recent interview with Kertzer (up soon on my podcast, “The Bill Press Pod,” I began with three basic questions. First, did Pius XII ever publicly condemn Hitler or Mussolini? The answer is No. In fact, as Kertzer documents, the Pope signed a sweetheart deal with Mussolini whereby he would not criticize the fascist government as long as Mussolini didn’t interfere with the church. Consequently, Pius XII never publicly criticized Italy’s antisemitic laws, which banned Jewish children from public schools, threw Jews out of the military and civil service, dismissed all Jewish schoolteachers and university professors, and barred Jews from working in banks or insurance companies. Privately, the Pope only asked one favor of Mussolini: that he spare Jews who’d been baptized Catholic from his government’s crackdown.

Diplomatically, Pius XII also maintained good relations with Nazi Germany. He ordered the Vatican newspaper not to publish anything critical of Hitler’s government. As Bishop of Rome, he presided over Italy’s Catholic priests and bishops, who held masses in support of an Axis victory over the Allies. The Pope was seen as such a good friend of Germany that, even as late as March 1944, when it was clear the Allies were likely to win the war, Ernst von Weizsacker, Germany’s ambassador to the Vatican, cabled Hitler: “The Pope is working six days a week for Germany, on the seventh he prays for the Allies.”

My second question to Kertzer: “Did Pius XII know the Nazis were relentlessly rounding up Jews in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Holland, Belgium, and Italy and sending them to death camps? And did he ever condemn it?” The answer is Yes, he knew all about it. Church and government leaders from every one of those countries kept the Vatican informed of the ongoing slaughter of millions of Jews and begged him to speak out. But No, he never condemned the Holocaust. He maintained his silence throughout.

Third question: “Did Pius XII know about the round-up of Jews in Rome, in the shadow of the Vatican, and did he do anything to stop it?” Again, the answer is

 

Yes and No. Kertzer tells of one chilling episode on Oct. 16, 1943, when over 1,000 Jews were arrested and held for two days near the Apostolic Palace before being shipped off to Auschwitz. When informed of the men, women, and children marked for death waiting just outside the Vatican, the Pope directed his secretary of state to express his “concerns” to the German ambassador, but didn’t do anything to help them.

Over the years, the Vatican has put forth many explanations for Pius XII’s silence while the Holocaust, which he was fully aware of, was underway. To this day, they argue he wanted to appear neutral, so he could be an eventual peace broker; he feared even more innocent lives might be lost if he spoke out; he was trying to protect Catholics in Germany and Italy. But none of those excuses hold up. Unwilling to antagonize either Hitler or Mussolini, Pius XII kept his mouth shut in the face of the greatest moral outrage of our time.

Meanwhile, forces inside the Vatican are still trying to rush Pius XII to sainthood. In 1990, in declaring him “Venerable,” Pope Benedict XVI urged waiting until Vatican Archives were released before deciding if Pius XII should be declared a saint. Well, now we know. Pius XII was no saint, he was a coward. As David Kertzer boldly concludes: “As a moral leader, Pius XII must be judged a failure.”

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(Bill Press is host of The BillPressPod, and author of 10 books, including: “From the Left: My Life in the Crossfire.” His email address is: bill@billpress.com. Readers may also follow him on Twitter @billpresspod.)

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