|Interview With Historian Father Giovanni Sale
ROME, 11 JUNE 2004 (ZENIT)
The Holy See was farsighted in understanding the dangers inherent in
Nazism long before World War II, says a new book.
The book, "Hitler, la Santa Sede e gli Ebrei" (Hitler, the Holy See, and
the Jews), Jaca Book publishers, is written by Father Giovanni Sale. In
it, the Gregorian University professor analyzes the relations between the
Third Reich and the Vatican during 1933-1945.
The book refers to unpublished archive documentation, in particular that
of the Vatican Secret Archives relating to the nunciatures of Monaco and
Berlin, and that of the review Civiltà Cattolica.
ZENIT interviewed Father Sale about the findings published in the book.
Part 2 of this interview appears Sunday.
Q: Historiography has neglected what the Catholic clergy did to oppose
Hitler and National Socialism from coming to power in Germany. Can you
explain how the Catholic Church conducted itself?
Father Sale: With the recent opening of the Vatican Archives relating to
the nunciatures of Monaco and Berlin, 1922-39, we now have the possibility
to better assess how that prophetic political change of January 30, 1933,
was commented upon and judged by the highest authorities of the Catholic
Church at the time.
A series of reports, written by Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, the apostolic
nuncio in Berlin, gives us the possibility to better assess those events.
The first German bishop to take action against National Socialism was the
archbishop of Mainz, who already in September 1930 published some norms
with the objective of impeding Catholics from being contaminated by the
National Socialist epidemic. However, not all the German bishops approved
them, considering them too harsh in content and, in any event, they judged
the episcopal document premature, as Hitler's movement was still in the
process of formation.
Moreover, some bishops were of the opinion that it was not necessary to
give too much credit to theoretical constructs of some intellectuals of
the Hitler's movement, such as the anti-Christian ideologist Rosenberg,
while, instead, it was necessary to consider that the National Socialist
Party was the only one that opposed with determination the advance of
Bolshevism in Europe.
With the passing of time, however, the whole German episcopate associated
itself with the line of conduct of the ordinary of Mainz
"driven," nuncio Orsenigo wrote, "by the persistent irreligious attitude
of some leaders of National Socialism."
In the Prussian bishops' conference meeting in Fulda from August 17-19,
1932, it was decided, "keeping in mind the danger that the National
Socialist Movement might constitute for souls," to issue dispositions that
would prohibit Catholics from belonging to Hitler's party. The document
was approved unanimously.
It was on the occasion of the electoral campaign for political elections
of March 5, 1933, that the opposition between National Socialism and the
Catholic world came into focus for the first time.
In a dispatch of February 16, 1933, sent to the Secretariat of State,
Archbishop Orsenigo talked about the gravity of the situation and the
harshness of the political clash under way between the parties, and about
the orientation of Catholics in the political realm and the manipulation
of religion for party ends.
"The electoral struggle in Germany," the nuncio wrote, "has now entered
its acute stage. [...] Unfortunately, even the Catholic religion is often
used by one or the other parties for electoral purposes. The Center Party
naturally has almost total support from the clergy and Catholics and, yet
to have a momentary victory, it acts without being overly concerned with
the painful consequences, which might ensue for Catholicism, should the
adversary gain a full victory."
In fact, during the electoral campaign, the religious element was
seriously exploited for reasons of political propaganda both by the
governing parties and the Zentrum [the Catholic Center Party].
The latter, considered by many as a "confessional party," appealed to
Christian values to condemn and combat the principles of National
Socialism; National Socialism, instead, appealed to the struggle against
Communism to mobilize the Catholic forces against the common enemy. And we
also know that many men of the Church were not at all insensitive to such
In general, the control exercised by the German Catholic hierarchy during
the whole period of the electoral campaign was marked by great prudence
and a sense of responsibility. In general, it did everything possible not
to fuel, with partisan or improvised statements, the existing conflict
between National Socialism and the Zentrum.
The Holy See did as much as well. From the documentation consulted, we see
that in fact neither the Holy See nor the nuncio in Berlin intervened in
any way to influence the bishops and the leaders of the Center party in a
In those months, the Secretariat of State limited itself only to examine
what was happening in Germany, and tried in every way to remain outside of
the complicated German political questions. Nevertheless, the secretariat
looked with apprehension at all that was occurring in those months in such
an important nation for the destiny of Europe.
Although sharing the point of view of the German bishops in their
condemnation of the National Socialist ideology, and nourishing intense
concern for the destiny of the Catholic Church in that country, the
Vatican was also aware of the danger of an eventual "Bolshevization" of
Germany, which would have drawn the whole of Continental Europe into
conflict, consigning it defenseless to Communism.
This explains why at that moment the Vatican did not judge with excessive
rigor Hitler's coming to power, much less so his political plan to create
a Germany with a strong, authoritarian government on the model of that of
The most controversial issue from the historical point of view refers,
however, to the decisive support given by the Zentrum to the consolidation
of Hitler's dictatorship, through the voting of the law on full powers of
March 23, 1933.
It should be recalled that the granting of full legislative powers by the
Reichstag to the chancellor was a procedure, although exceptional,
provided by the Constitution and, therefore, legitimate.
In our opinion, the responsibility of the Zentrum in regard to the
consolidation of the power of National Socialism is limited to the fact
that with its vote it made possible the enlargement of the chancellor's
This did not mean, however, the assumption of absolute power
which remained in the hands of the army and of the president of the
by Hitler, of which he was subsequently invested by simple decree,
undersigned by himself, after President Hindenburg's death.
So, to put the burden of the advent of Hitler's dictatorship on the
Zentrum, as is often done by certain political journalism, seems to us, in
addition to unjust, also erroneous on the plane of historical truth.
It was the reactionary and conservative forces of the state that permitted
National Socialism to attain power in Germany and it was always the latter
that allowed Hitler
although they did not know the ideas and political plan
be invested with full powers, deluding themselves by the idea of being
able to dominate and manipulate him to their own advantage.
Nor should it be forgotten, moreover, that it was the voters in the
elections of March 5, 1933, who confirmed such a choice, giving to
Hitler's party a high percentage of the votes.
If on March 23 the Center Party had refused to vote full powers to the
for the purpose of intimidating the Deputies had the building where the
meeting was taking place surrounded by the SA
would have used force to obtain this result, even by spilling innocent
In our opinion, the Deputies of the Center who voted in March 1933 the law
of delegation of powers acted in good faith, thinking in this way of
rendering a good service to the homeland, to preserve social and political
peace and save the Constitution. And they certainly did not have before
their eyes all the negative effects
many of which at that time were unforeseeable
which would then follow that assumption of powers.
Q: National Socialist ideology turned out to be pagan and decidedly
anti-Christian. But the most serious clash between the Nazis and the
Catholic Church occurred with the 1933 law on compulsory sterilization. It
was with this law that the Nazis began to implement in a criminal manner
the selection of race. Can you illustrate for us how the Catholic Church
Father Sale: In reality, the disagreements between the Holy See and
National Socialism began already the day after the stipulation of the July
1933 Concordat, when, without hesitation, Hitler began to violate not just
the spirit but also the letter, limiting at his pleasure the rights of the
Church in matters of associations, formation, etc.
However, as early as April 1933 the Holy See had let Hitler know, either
through channels of papal diplomacy or through the mediation of Mussolini,
of disapproval of the anti-Semitic legislation adopted by the new
government, as it was in violation of the natural law and did everything
possible to attenuate its rigor.
It should be said, in any case, that it was the law on compulsory
sterilization which entered into force at the beginning of 1934 that
represented the first instance of a clash between the Vatican authority
and that of the new German Reich, now decided on carrying out its eugenic
theories in the matter of racial selection
theories that Pius XI openly condemned in the 1931 encyclical "Casti
At the request of the Holy See, the German episcopate did everything
through pastoral letters, personal contacts with leaders of the regime,
to obtain the modification of the law on sterilization.
Such mobilization of the German Catholic world led in fact to the
modification of the regulation of the application of the law, which was
published on December 5, 1933.
It contained two important clauses, which were drafted to be inserted in
the final text by representatives of the bishops after exhausting meetings
with government authorities and against the resistance of the radical wing
of the National Socialist Party.
The first allowed persons affected by hereditary illnesses who did not
want to be sterilized to recover in a clinic or health center; the second
guaranteed exemption to members of staff who for reasons of conscience did
not wish to be involved or be present at operations for sterilization.
More fortunate was the courageous complaint made by some German bishops in
1941 against the program of euthanasia of individuals carriers of
hereditary illnesses, especially mental patients
very ones on whom sterilization was practiced in virtue of the law of 1933
whose maintenance was considered too onerous by the state.
It was Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen of Muenster who, in a homily
on August 3, 1941, recounted in particular how patients were killed who
were brought in some cases, purposely predisposed to this objective, and
how relatives were given false news on the death of their dear ones.
The bishop condemned these killings with force, describing them as real
and proper crimes, and requested that those who were responsible be
The lack of respect for human life, he continued, led in the end to the
physical elimination of all people held to be unable to work, such as the
seriously ill, the elderly and wounded soldiers returning from the front.
Woe to the German people, von Galen warned, if it allows the killing of
the innocent, leaving unpunished those who perpetrate such crimes.
The homily made a profound impression among the civilian people and also
among German soldiers fighting at the front. The Nazi leaders, seeing
themselves attacked by the bishop's denunciation, reacted with violence.
Some called immediately for the hanging of von Galen, accused of the crime
of high treason.
However, Hitler reluctantly decided to put off the rendering of accounts
with the Church until the end of the war, in order not to create ill will
among the civilian population of that important region, and among numerous
In any event, an order of the "Führer" on the same date, August 3, 1941,
officially blocked the further implementation of the euthanasia program.
In subsequent years, despite Hitler's order, euthanasia continued to be
practiced in some special situations. But the official program on a large
scale was never taken up again. ZE04061121
Interview With Historian Father Giovanni Sale
ROME, 13 JUNE 2004 (ZENIT)
Pope Pius XI's 1937 encyclical against Nazism commanded world attention
and was widely seen as a heroic denunciation of Hitler's regime, says a
Father Giovanni Sale, a professor of history at the Gregorian University,
in Part 1 of this interview clarified the position of the Holy See and of
German Catholics in regard to the rise of Hitler's movement.
In Part II, the historian-priest clarifies the position of Pius XI and
Pius XII vis-à-vis Nazism. Father Sale is author of the recently published
"Hitler, la Santa Sede e gli Ebrei" (Hitler, the Holy See, and the Jews),
Jaca Book publishers.
Q: The encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge" and the fact that Hitler was not
able to visit the Vatican show the Holy See's hostility to the Nazi
regime. What is your opinion about Pius XI's conduct toward the Nazi
Father Sale: The recent opening of the Vatican Archives relating to the
nunciatures of Munich and Berlin shed new light on Hitler's truncated
visit to the Vatican
during his state visit to Rome in 1938
well as on the writing and dissemination in Germany of the encyclical "Mit
Brennender Sorge," that is, Pius XI's encyclical against Nazism.
The new available Vatican documentation informs us in an amazingly
detailed manner on the vicissitudes linked to the reception of this
encyclical by the states and the realms of international diplomacy.
The sources show that the encyclical was interpreted at that time, by the
majority of Western countries not linked to Germany, as a courageous act
of denunciation of Nazism, of racist doctrines, and of the idolatry of the
state that it professed, as well as of its violent methods of social
"Mit Brennender Sorge" [...] had truly worldwide resonance. Especially for
political reasons, it was one of the first papal acts that went beyond the
frontiers of the Catholic world: It was read by believers and
nonbelievers, by Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, for the first time
the latter gave public recognition to a papal document, something which
shortly before was unthinkable.
According to a prestigious Dutch Protestant newspaper, the encyclical
"would be valid" also for Christians of the Reformation, "as in it the
Pope does not limit himself to defend the rights of Catholics, but also
those of religious freedom in general."
Of course, "Mit Brennender Sorge" was received in different ways,
according to the sensibility and political culture of many of the people
who read it.
The fact is, as we have already stated, that it was interpreted generally
not only as an act of protest of the Holy See because of the continuous
violations of the Concordat by the German government, or as a doctrinal
repudiation of the errors of National Socialism, but above all as an act
of denunciation of Nazism itself and of its "Führer." And this was
understood immediately by the leaders of the Reich.
It is true, as those who have commented on the encyclical have stressed,
that it never mentions either National Socialism or Hitler. But if one
goes beyond the "letter" of the document, it is easy to perceive behind
every page, every phrase a genuine accusation against the Hitlerite system
and against its racist and neo-pagan theories.
This was understood by the great majority of the readers of the papal
document. That is why it became one of the most important and most
courageous denunciations of Nazi barbarism, pronounced in an authoritative
manner by the Bishop of Rome, when a great part of the European political
world still regarded Hitler with a mixture of admiration, surprise and
Q: Another great debate is that of Pius XII and the Holocaust. What have
you concluded after your historical research? What did Pope Pacelli do in
face of the persecution of Jews?
Father Sale: In regard to the Jews deported to territories occupied by the
Reich, the action taken in their favor by the Holy See's diplomacy was
oriented in the direction of the governments of countries allied to
Germany, where there was a Catholic majority and a "combative" episcopate.
A note of April 1, 1943, from the Secretariat of State said: "To avoid the
mass deportation of Jews, which is taking place in many countries of
Europe, the Holy See has requested the attention of the nuncio of Italy,
of the chargé d'affaires of Slovakia, and of the Holy See's charge in
Using the Vatican diplomatic channels, he did all he could to obtain
often, unfortunately, very little
favor of the Jews from those governments. It is known, moreover, that he
exhorted the local episcopate, in particular the German, to strongly
denounce the horrors committed by the Nazis against Catholics and Jews.
It should be recalled that the greater part of papal interventions had as
their principal objective to defend Catholic Jews and to guarantee the
indissolubility of marriages between Jews and Catholics, based on the
concordats stipulated with these states. Really, the Holy See could not
ask or do more through the official diplomatic channels.
After the occupation of Poland, Germany had answered the Holy See that it
was requesting the application of the German Concordat to all Polish
territories "included" in the Reich. In fact, it was not even applied in
the German territory.
The archives of the Reich's Foreign Ministry are full of periodic
addresses of the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Cesare Orsenigo, on the
Jews. However, the dispatches he sent to the Secretariat of State show how
difficult his situation was.
One of them, of October 19, 1942, says: "Despite the precautions, I have
tried to talk with the Foreign Minister but, as usual, especially when it
is a question of people who are not Aryan, he replied, 'There is nothing
to do.' Any issue on the Jews is systematically rejected or ignored."
In this connection, one often perceives a sense of impotence and
discouragement in the words of the Vatican diplomats. The diplomatic
activity of the Holy See in favor of the Jews was not, however, as some
say, totally useless and ineffective. Sometimes it succeeded in "slowing
down" the deportation operations or, when it could do nothing else, in
excluding some categories of persons from it.
Part of recent historiography, especially of the United States, ignores
this activity carried out by the Holy See in favor of the Jews. It
denounces the "silence" of Pius XII, considering it "culpable." According
to them, the Pope had the duty to denounce what was happening in Europe,
even if he had to endanger his own life.
The truth is that this not only would have exposed the Pope's life to Nazi
which on several occasions he said he was willing to accept
that of all bishops, priests, men and women religious, who lived in the
Occupied Territories, as well as the security of millions of Catholics.
On the so-called Final Solution, from the sources I have consulted, some
of them kept in our archive of Civiltà Cattolica, it is clear that the
Pope did not have sufficient and accurate information. Basing himself on
nebulous and at times contradictory news, he knew that very many Jews,
without any culpability and only because of their race, were killed by
Nazis in different ways. In fact, shortly before, the same had happened to
many Polish Catholics, for the sole reason of their nationality.
But he knew nothing about the Final Solution. Until 1944, the Vatican was
not even aware of the existence of Auschwitz. Allied propaganda itself,
despite the fact that it described German atrocities, savage reprisals and
other things, said nothing about the extermination camps.
The first certain news was had with the famous Auschwitz Protocol, in
which two young Jews, who fled from the Auschwitz concentration camp in
the spring of 1944, denounced to the world the extermination of their
brothers in the gas chambers. The text, known in part already in June of
the same year, was not fully published until the month of November.
What did the Allies know about the Final Solution? Certainly more than the
Pope. According to historian Richard Breitman, both Roosevelt and
Churchill knew much about the systematic extermination of Jews, as their
secret services deciphered the SS' coded communications.
According to Breitman, a strong denunciation of the crimes by the Allies
would have constituted a serious obstacle to the implementation of the
Final Solution, but it did not take place.
Q: In your book, you dedicate two chapters to Pius XII's 1942 radio
message. Can you explain to us why that radio-message is so important?
Father Sale: Pius XII's 1942 Christmas radio message, dedicated to the
pacification of states, presenting the moral and natural law as criteria
for the re-establishment of a new order among nations, is one of the most
significant and at the same time most controversial acts of Pope Eugenio
When it was pronounced, it had an enormous echo in all the continents and
was heard and appreciated even outside the Catholic world. Newspapers and
magazines of different cultural and political orientation published ample
passages and commentaries, benevolent in the majority of cases.
Very different was the reception given the papal message by governments
and the world of diplomacy. It was received with open hostility by the
Axis powers, in particular by Germany, and with open indifference by the
Allied powers, in particular by the English.
In it, the Pope not only repudiated the new "European order" that National
Socialism sought to establish, but it condemned explicitly the atrocities
of the war, both the blanket bombings carried out by the Allies on German
cities, as well as the atrocities carried out by the Germans against
In particular, the Pope denounced the extermination of European Jews.
"This desire for peace," the Pope said, "humanity owes to the hundreds of
thousands of persons who, for no fault at all, at times only for reasons
of nationality or race, are destined to death or are left to died
If this passage of the radio message was practically ignored in the
international press, this was not the case of the attentive National
Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich's Foreign Minister, immediately ordered
the German ambassador to the Holy See to inform the Pope on the position
of the German government: "There is an impression that the Vatican is
prepared to abandon its normal attitude of neutrality and to take
positions against Germany. It is your responsibility to inform it that in
such a case Germany is not lacking in means of reprisal."
Q: What did the Pope himself think of the content of that year's Christmas
message? Was he convinced that he had denounced to the world the horrors
of war, of deportation, and of the massacre of innocent peoples, such as
Father Sale: From the reports of the ambassadors of Allied countries it
would seem that he did: The Pope was completely convinced of having
fulfilled to the end his duty before God and before the tribunal of
In a letter of April 30, addressed to Archbishop K. von Preysing of
Berlin, he wrote with a serene tone that "he has said a word on what is
being done at present against those who are not Aryans in the territories
under German authority. It was a brief mention but it was well
Also with the director of Civiltà Cattolica, Pius XII made reference to
the Christmas message, in which he evidently unburdened his pastor's heart
and conscience. "The Holy Father spoke first of all of his recent
Christmas message, which seems to have been well received in general,
despite the fact that it was certainly rather strong," Father Martegani
The Pope, therefore, was "subjectively" convinced of having denounced
before the world what was happening to those who were not Aryan in the
territories under German authority, of having spoken out "strongly"
against the horrors of the war and, in particular, against the Nazi
Some historians maintain, however, that this denunciation was
insufficient, dictated by reasons of political-diplomatic prudence and not
so much by human sentiments. In any case, according to these interpreters,
it was "objectively" inadequate to the great tragedy that was taking place
in the heart of Europe.
The attitude of "prudence" before the belligerents for which the Holy See
opted during the war was revealed inadequate above all at that moment, the
historians comment, insufficient to respond to the grave needs of the
According to them, the civil world expected from the Pope, the supreme
moral and spiritual figure of the Christian West, not so much "prudent,"
"balanced," and even just words, but rather "words of fire" when it came
to denouncing the violations of human rights, despite the fact that this
might put in danger the lives of innumerable Catholics, both clergy and
laity, who lived in territories of the Reich. In this way, the Pope would
have fulfilled his high prophetic mission.
From my point of view, this historical judgment on Pius XII's action is
extremely simplistic at the level of historical facts, and unjust from the
subjective point of view.
It does not take into account the real difficulties of the historical
moment in which the Pontiff's work was carried out and, at the same time,
completely dispenses with Pope Pacelli's sensibility and culture.
Some historians speak of the Pope and the papacy in an abstract,
ideological manner, without considering the fact that the Petrine ministry
is made concrete at the historical level in the person of particular
individuals, with their virtues and human limitations, and that in her
concrete action, the Church like all institutions with a long tradition,
looks to the past and at the same time to the future, as well as the
present needs and urgencies.
I have tried to demonstrate that Pius XII was "subjectively" convinced of
having spoken out "strongly." He believed that the way he had expressed
his denunciation was the most appropriate, the most just for that
He was convinced he had said "everything" and "clearly" and of having done
so in a way that would not expose to Nazi reprisals faithful Catholics who
were living in territories of the Reich, and Jews.
For him, this was a point of the greatest importance for which he would
have sacrificed anything, as he said clearly both during the war as well
as immediately after.
In short, one can discuss ad infinitum over the fact that the Pope's
denunciation was or was not adequate to the gravity of the moment; and
above all, at the historical level, different positions can be held
However, one cannot say, as some propagandists do, that the Pope was
consciously "silent" about what was happening to the Jews, because he was
pro-Nazi or simply because he lacked sensibility due to anti-Judaism or