Why Did the Pope Keep Quiet About Hitler?
Newly opened archives reveal what Pius XII knew and when he knew it.
How much did the Catholic Church hierarchy know about Hitler’s oppression of the Jews as it was happening? And why didn’t it speak up? With the opening of the Vatican archives from the pre-World War II years, we can finally explore these heated questions — and German historian Hubert Wolf has dug through the files to find damning evidence that Pope Pius XII, known to critics as “Hitler’s pope,” made a conscious decision to pass on the issue, leaving it up to his bishops in Germany to protect the Jews and Catholics who were being persecuted. Even when directly confronted with the growing enormity of the situation, as in this story of a German bishop who did stand up for his morals, the pope avoided public action.*
Clemens August Count von Galen, the bishop of Münster, was a “perfectly ordinary fellow, with quite a limited intellectual endowment, who therefore had not until very recently seen where things were going, and therefore was always inclined to come to terms.” This less than flattering assessment came from none other than Bishop von Preysing of Berlin and dates from the summer of 1941, when Galen gave his three famous sermons in Münster. A completely average person, a child of his time and place, only moderately talented, Galen was not a man who came easily by the moral courage to call the Nazi policy of euthanasia precisely what it was — the murder of innocent human beings.
From the beginning, Galen had been just as critical of the National Socialists as he had earlier been of the Weimar Republic. Although Galen primarily opposed National Socialism for ecclesiastical reasons without questioning the legitimacy of the regime itself, this would change in 1936. In his sermon at the Xanten pilgrimage on September 6, he for the first time formulated something akin to righteous resistance to an unjust regime motivated by human rights and freedom of conscience. Drawing on the Acts of the Apostles (5:29) — “We must obey God rather than men” — Galen celebrated the martyrs of Xanten of late antiquity, to whom humankind owed a debt of gratitude, not only because “of their Christian faith, but also for reasons of human dignity, which they defended with their blood and life! Because at the very moment in which human authority conflicts in its commands with the clearly recognized will of God, witnessed in one’s own conscience, it ceases to be the ‘servant of God.'”
Nonetheless, it was a far distance from a sermon about the historical martyrdom of the saints of Xanten to a willingness to become a blood witness to human rights. The tipping point, which could hardly have been more clear and unambiguous, may very well have been a conversation Galen had on June 7 or 8, 1941, with the Dominican priest Odilo Braun. Braun showed him lists of monasteries that had been seized in other dioceses and urged him to act.
Four weeks later, Galen risked a ban and arrest by directly condemning the regime and its henchmen, the Gestapo: “Every German citizen is completely unprotected and defenseless in the face of the physical superiority of the Gestapo.” At this point, Galen was no longer merely defending the rights and claims of the Church; he was now unambiguously advocating for human rights and human dignity. His sermon on August 3, 1941, has not lost its power to move: “Here we are dealing with human beings, with our neighbors, brothers and sisters, the poor and invalids … unproductive — perhaps! But have they, therefore, lost the right to live? Have you or I the right to exist only because we are ‘productive’? … A curse on men and on the German people if we break the holy commandment: Thou shalt not kill…. Woe to us German people if we not only license this heinous offence but allow it to be committed with impunity!”
Galen’s public protests led to a temporary halt in the killing program. The Nazis were hit and had to take public opinion into account. In the Reich chancellery, some around Martin Bormann, its head, considered hanging Galen to intimidate the other bishops — preferably from the church tower of St. Lambert’s. Hitler wanted him to stand trial before the People’s Court. In the end, Joseph Goebbels’s position won out. It was decided to postpone dealing with Galen until the final victory. There was no point in creating Catholic martyrs in the middle of a war, which would only drive the Catholic population to the barricades against the Nazi regime.
Be that as it may, Galen’s sermons against euthanasia must be weighed against his silence about the persecution of the Jews. He remained quiet about the Nuremberg laws, Kristallnacht, and the Holocaust. We can only speculate as to the reasons for his silence. There is no doubt, however, that Galen came from an “us and them” milieu in which an undertow of religious and social anti-Judaism was more or less part of everyday life.
Galen was not untouched by these tendencies. For example, on his trip to Lithuania in 1918, he characterized the city of Vilna as “dirty and full of Jews.” Other than that, however, we have hardly any anti-Semitic statements from him. He vehemently criticized the racist premises underpinning National Socialist anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ denigration of the Old Testament. In the end, he was convinced of the unity of humankind and of the fact that each individual was created in God’s likeness. Galen had close relations with the Münster rabbi Fritz Leopold Steinthal and immediately asked about his well-being after Kristallnacht.
But persecuted Jews were looking for help from the bishop, particularly after the sermons of the summer of 1941. An anonymous petitioner wrote to Galen, “Reverend, as you know, on September 19 … a Jewish sign has been decreed for us, and no one will be permitted on the street without this sign. We are subjected to the mob; everyone may spit on us without our being able to defend ourselves! … Only the insane idea, the crazy hope that somewhere a helper will appear drives me to write this letter. May God bless you!”
If a public protest by a German bishop caused the National Socialists at least partially to limit their murderous policy, it is frequently asked, should that not have been a clear sign to Pius XII? Should that not have encouraged him to give up his indirect pronouncements and condemn the Holocaust publicly, calling it by its name — systematic genocide?
Galen’s sermons must have made an extremely long-lasting impression on Pius XII. They are also the reason the pope made him a cardinal in the spring of 1946. Pius XII apparently read these sermons so often that he could recite them by heart. The pope’s housekeeper, Sister Maria Pascalina Lehnert, reported on an audience that the pope had with the new cardinal. “With sparkling eyes,” Galen had told her, “how Pius XII recited various passages from his sermons, as if he had learned them by heart, thanking him repeatedly for everything he had done.”
In a letter to Bishop Preysing, his liaison in the German episcopate, dated September 30, 1941, the pope wrote, “The three sermons given by Bishop von Galen also provide us consolation and gratification such as we have long not experienced as we proceed along the way of the Cross on which we accompany the Catholics of Germany.” The bishop had “in a very open but noble manner placed his finger on the wounds and injuries … that each righteous thinking German experiences as painful and bitter.” The pope understood full well that the National Socialists’ suspension of their policy would probably only be temporary, and that words alone could not redress the injustice. However, he saw Galen’s sermons as evidence of “how much can still be achieved by open and resolute action within the Reich.”
The pope continued with a sentence that sheds light on his own policy of silence in the face of National Socialist injustice: “We emphasize that [point] because the Church in Germany is all the more dependent on your public action, as the general political situation in its difficult and frequently contradictory particularities imposes the duty of restraint on the supreme head of the entire Church in his public proclamations.” Pius XII assured Preysing that public protests by the German bishops had always enjoyed his full support and would continue to be supported in the future.
He was aware that his responses to the National Socialist regime, which consisted of secret diplomatic exchanges of memoranda with the German government and papal petitions, had not had the desired effect. This shows that Pius XII would have liked to speak as openly as Galen.
From Pius’s perspective, Galen could speak publicly because, as a German bishop and head of the diocese of Münster, he was responsible only for his flock, whereas the pope’s hands were tied, precisely because of his role as supreme shepherd of all Catholics throughout the world. The pope was obliged to remain politically neutral. That was why he could not hurl a thunderbolt at the National Socialists. As Pius realized, at least in 1941, he would have to leave to the bishops the open conflict with the devil.
*Correction: Due to an editorial error, this piece originally referred to the Pope’s attitude toward Hitler during the Holocaust; but the archives explored by Wolf only encompass the pre-Holocaust years. We regret the error.