Documents confirm that the German anti-Nazi resistance
advised Pius XII not to intervene directly against Hitler
In the current argument about the action of Pius XII and, in
particular, the problem of the Pontiff's "silence" on the tragedy of the
Shoah, it is helpful to reconsider a testimony that more generally
concerns Vatican policy with regard to Hitler and its relations with the
anti-Nazi opposition in Germany.
It seems to me to be no negligible testimony both because of its
author and its timing: as we shall see straight away, it dates back to
June 1945, hence immediately at the end of the war.
It is contained in a document (n. 242), published in the
extraordinary collection edited by Ennio Di Nolfo in 1978 on Vaticano
e Stati Uniti 1939-1952 [the Vatican and the United States] (Milan,
Franco Angeli, 1978). The testimony is not unknown
it was mentioned a few years ago by Piero Melograni among others
but it does not seem to have been remembered by those who have recently
reviewed these complex events.
Its author was the Bavarian lawyer Josef Müller
(1898-1979), an exponent of German political Catholicism during the
Weimar Republic and after the Second World War one of the founders of
the Christian Social Union (CSU).
Under the Nazi regime he was one of the most active exponents of the
opposition and is well known in particular for having been regularly in
touch with the Vatican between 1939 and 1940.
was a member of the German secret services, the Abwehr, headed by
Admiral Canaris, which was one of the secret centres of the anti-Hitler
opposition. He was sent to Rome on a pretext, but the real reason was to
permit him to make contact with the Pontiff's entourage (which included
many German Prelates) and to inform Pius himself of the German
opposition's plans and of its project to overthrow Hitler and create a
He asked the Pope in particular to act as a go-between and to vouch
for the opposition with the English Government. Pius XII, taking quite
considerable risks, agreed to do this through Osborne, the English
Ambassador to the Holy See.
As Renato Moro wrote, "in the history of the papacy" this was "an
absolutely unprecedented event", but Hitler's victories in Norway and
then in France caused the operation to miscarry. Müller
was arrested in 1943 and sent to the concentration camp in Flossenbürg,
unlike other famous inmates of that camp (and his partners in the
conspiracy), such as Canaris and the Pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who
were killed in April 1945
he was transferred to the village of Niederdorf in Alto Adige, together
with another 138 "special" prisoners (including Leon Blum and his wife),
to be used by the SS as possible pawns to be exchanged.
The prisoners were liberated on 5 May 1945 by the Fifth United States
Army and barely a month later Müller
was at the Vatican. On 2 June, at the traditional meeting with the
Sacred College to congratulate the Pope on his name day, St Eugene, for
the first time Pius XII addressed the problem in public of the relations
between the Church and Nazism.
"You can see", he said, among other things, "the aftermath of the
concept and activity of a State which pays no attention whatsoever to
the most sacred sentiments of humanity and tramples upon the inviolable
principles of the Christian faith. Today the whole world is stunned by
the devastation it has left".
"As for this ruin", he added, "we saw it coming a long way off, and
very few, we believe, have followed with greater anxiety its development
and the onrush of its inevitable downfall".
Pius referred to his years as Papal Nuncio in Germany, the birth of
Nazism, the events that led to the Concordat in 1933 and Pius XI's
condemnation of it in the Encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge,
which "revealed to the world's eyes what National Socialism really was:
the proud apostasy of Jesus Christ, the denial of his doctrine and his
work of redemption, the culture of force, the idolatry of race and blood
and the oppression of freedom and human dignity".
He then recalled his Messages during the War (especially his Radio
Message for Christmas in 1942) and the persecution that priests and lay
people suffered in those terrible years:
"With ever greater vehemence National Socialism sought to denounce
the Church as an enemy of the German People. The manifest injustice of
this accusation would have wounded the sentiments of German Catholics
and our own to the quick, had they come from other lips; but from those
of these accusers, far from being negative, it is the brightest and most
honourable testimony of the firm and constant opposition, sustained by
the Church, against such deleterious doctrines and methods for the good
of true civilization and of the German People itself, which we hope,
liberated from the error that has
flung it into the abyss, may rediscover its salvation at the pure
sources of true peace and true happiness, at the sources of truth,
humility, and charity which, together with the Church, flowed from the
Heart of Christ".
Some people did not like this Discourse.
They noted that such plain-speaking was heard only then, when Nazism had
already been defeated and that in the previous years the Pope's words
had often been less direct and more diplomatic.
Many people, moreover, linked it to the
presence in the Vatican of Müller,
who, it was said, had had a role in drafting it.
The Bavarian lawyer spoke of all this on
the evening of 3 June with Harold H. Tittmann, the young American chargé
d'affaires at the Holy See who had lived in Rome since 1940 and, after
Pearl Harbour, in the Vatican.
The following day Tittmann sent a
precise report of the conversation to Myron Taylor, his superior and the
personal representative of the President of the United States to the
At first Müller
denied having had a part "in the drafting of any passages of the Pope's
discourse", but admitted that he had provided him with "the information
on which certain passages were based". Müller
answered the American diplomat at length who had told him that "he had
heard widespread criticism of the Pope... for waiting until Germany was
defeated before attacking the Nazis in public". In his answer the
Bavarian lawyer re-evoked the actual requests made repeatedly to the
Pontiff by, precisely, the German resistance, with its aristocratic and
military orientation (and which was later to organize the attack on 20
Tittmann wrote, "Dr Müller
said that during the War his anti-Nazi organization in Germany had
always firmly insisted that the Pope refrain from making any public
declaration specifically intended as a condemnation of the Nazis, and
recommended that the Pope limit his observations to general reflections
said he was obliged to give this advice because were the Pope to have
been specific, the Germans would have accused him of yielding to the
pressure of foreign powers and this would have created even more
suspicion of German Catholics than already existed and would have
heavily restricted their freedom of action in the resistance network
stated that the policy of the Catholic resistance in Germany was that
the Pope should stand aside while the German hierarchy carried on the
fight against Nazism in Germany without any signs of external influence.
also said that the Pope followed this advice throughout the War....
"He presumes that afterwards the Pope
decided to come out into the open against the Nazis because the
implications of his denouncements are currently very important and seem
to the Pope to override other considerations".
testimony also confirms that a series of specific requests from Germany
may well have played a fairly important role in Pius XII's overall
approach to those tragic years.
As Maritain wrote in 1969, one could
debate whether he was right or wrong to follow this advice and,
possibly, even broaden the discourse to the political and cultural
limits that marked the aristocratic and military opposition (which,
however, often paid with a heroic death for its anti-Nazi stance) but in
which, in the complex framework with which it previously reckoned, it
was also necessary to make room for such suggestions.
Of particular importance, as has been
said, is the earliness of the testimony that immediately followed the
events, when criticism of Pius XII consisted in no more than a few
diplomatic rumours whereas on the contrary the humanitarian role played
by the Vatican during the War was generally recognized and praised. The
hypercritical historian might dispose of all this by maintaining that
all the Catholic Müller
wanted to do was no more than to "cover" for the Pope in the face of
those first reservations. But all too often hypercriticism risks making
a clean sweep of every piece of testimony save that which serves its