Pius XII Advised by German Anti-Nazi Resistance

Author: Roberto Pertici

Pius XII Advised by German Anti-Nazi Resistance

Roberto Pertici

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.

Müller 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 German democracy.

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, but — 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 Pontiff.

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 July 1944).

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 alone.

"Dr Müller 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 against Nazism.

"Dr Müller 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. Dr Müller 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".

Thus Müller's 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 purpose.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 February 2010, page 10

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