One European state controls about 120 acres of territory, has a birthrate of zero, an export economy comprised of ticket sales for tourist attractions, and an army of a handful of Swiss guards armed with pikes. Yet it is a global superpower that has made and unmade global orders for centuries.
This country, of course, is Vatican City, headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Despite lacking a formal, physical empire, the pope for centuries has had his place among the leaders of Europe’s great powers—and that includes the last world war.
Most histories paint the Catholic Church as a bystander trying to make sense of wartime events rather than as a participant. Some historians will examine the complicity Catholicism’s German branch had in Adolf Hitler’s rise. Pope Pius xii’s refusal to condemn the Holocaust and the clergy’s assistance in smuggling Nazis to South America are also prominent topics of research. But few have examined the church’s role in World War ii as a Europe-wide institution.
“Despite all the attention” over seemingly every detail of the war, Trumpet editor Brad Macdonald writes in The Holy Roman Empire in Prophecy, “there remains a common blind spot among many contemporary historians when it comes to World War ii. … Did the Vatican condone and support Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany during the war?”
Hitler knew that, even lacking formal territory, the papacy was one of Europe’s most powerful institutions. And Pius xii certainly recognized how the German empire was reshaping the European order. What was the church’s relationship with the Third Reich? What was its relationship with Hitler’s puppet regimes, often created in traditional Catholic territory? Did Hitler take advantage of Catholicism’s role as “civilizational glue” in Europe?
‘Concord With Belial’
Hitler was not the first fascist dictator the Catholic Church worked with. The 1929 Lateran Treaty between Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius xi gave the Catholic Church sovereignty over Vatican City, its first sovereign territory since 1870. But this did more than just legitimize Mussolini’s regime. Its first article also enshrined “the Catholic apostolic Roman religion [as] the only state religion” of Italy.
The Catholic Church was also instrumental in Hitler’s rise. While imprisoned in Bavaria’s Landsberg Prison for the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler began writing what would become Mein Kampf. Bernhard Stempfle, a Catholic priest, was one of the book’s editors and may have even been a coauthor. It was Zentrum, a party with Catholic interests, that convinced German President Paul von Hindenburg to make Hitler chancellor. Zentrum did so after Pius xi and Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius xii) encouraged cooperation with the Nazis. Catholicism never became Germany’s state religion; the closest thing Hitler ever pushed as a national faith was neo-paganism. But on July 20, 1933, a few months after the Enabling Act granted Hitler dictatorial powers, the Vatican signed a concordat with Nazi Germany, again legitimizing a fascist dictatorship. This concordat was Hitler’s first treaty with an international partner.
From 1936 to 1939, Spain was in a civil war between the Communist-affiliated Republicans and the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco. The Nationalists were backed by the Catholic Church. Even though the Republicans committed their fair share of atrocities, the Nationalists identified with and received support from Hitler and Mussolini. Despite these unsavory associations, the Catholic Church went as far as to call Franco’s war a “crusade.” The war concluded in 1939. That year, the newly elected Pius xii congratulated Franco for his “Catholic victory”—a Nazi-backed victory after half a million people had died. Until 2019, Franco’s remains lay in the Catholic Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid.
So even before World War ii, the Catholic Church was intentionally and consistently legitimizing the spread of fascism.
‘An Angel of Light’
After World War ii started in 1939, Germany rapidly conquered additional territory. Some lands were conquered and put under military administration, but some—including Catholic areas—were left with pro-Nazi regimes that functioned as client states.
Starting in 1940, the Nazis occupied northern France but left southern France to rule itself under the leadership of Philippe Pétain, a World War i war hero. Pétain’s rump state, also known as Vichy France, joined the war against the United Kingdom and eventually deported Jews east to be murdered.
Vichy France also received Vatican endorsement. Shortly after the new regime became established, Pius met with France’s ambassador to the Vatican. According to historian David Kertzer’s summary of the meeting, Pius “told him how impressed he was with Marshal Pétain. Having been worried in the past that Communists might take over France, the pope welcomed the appearance of a strong leader who could expunge that danger for good.” The French Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops in 1941 told their congregants “to practice sincere and complete loyalty to the established power.”
Pétain for his part proclaimed a traditionalist “National Revolution.” He returned church property confiscated by the previous republic in the name of secularism, reintroduced Catholic teaching in public school, and extolled France’s Catholic roots.
“The main attraction [to the church] was a change of tone, a new worldview, in which the new regime took on the imprint of a moral order and made public expressions of deference to the church,” Michael Marrus and Robert Paxton wrote in Vichy France and the Jews. “No Vichy public ceremony was complete without some form of religious observance. … [B]y the end of 1940, Frenchmen seemed joined in an intense new Christian commitment, encouraged by churchmen of the most varied persuasions and political beliefs.”
This church-state combine fomented persecution of the Jews. When the government began excluding Jews from public life, some clergy protested. Vichy ambassador to the Vatican Léon Bérand then began negotiations with Pope Pius. The Vatican’s main concern was that the laws not infringe on Jews who converted to Catholicism. Nevertheless, Bérand was able to tell Pétain, “An authorized source at the Vatican told me [that] they don’t intend to get into a fight over the [Jewish law].”
The Nazis and the Vichy regime murdered roughly 80,000 French Jews. Pétain’s people didn’t want to move forward without first consulting the Vatican. And the Vatican gave them the green light.
‘Slaves and Souls of Men’
After the Sudetenland crisis and Germany’s dismembering of Czechoslovakia, Hitler allowed Slovakia to declare independence as a German client state in 1938. The man chosen to lead the new Slovakia was Jozef Tiso. He turned the nation into a one-party state, helped Hitler invade Poland in 1939, and nurtured a cult of personality where his supporters would “Nazi salute” him as their vodca (analogous to the German führer).
Tiso was also a Catholic priest. Ordained in 1910, Slovakia’s fascist, genocidal dictator was a Catholic clergyman and was never defrocked by his Vatican superiors.
Tiso blended fascism and Catholicism into one. In a 1939 interview, he declared he was bringing in “a great Catholic renaissance,” with its goals to “make Catholic life stronger and to [sink] its roots deeper.” This included making religious education mandatory for both schools and the army, and introducing shopping restrictions on Sunday. Tiso encouraged his Hlinka Guard, a fascist militia similar to the German brown shirts, to get a religious education and to attend mass each Sunday. “The press, film, radio, arts and letters, and scholarship: We are on our way to Christianizing them all,” he said.
Pope Pius did advise Tiso not to take complete control over Slovakia. This was not in opposition to the new state but out of fear the Nazis would take over church affairs. Tiso disregarded the pope’s admonition but still ran Slovakia as a hybrid Catholic-Nazi government.
He also participated in Hitler’s “final solution” to the “Jewish question.” Starting in 1942, Tiso’s forces interned tens of thousands of Slovak Jews in concentration camps on Slovakian soil. From there, they sent the Jews directly to the Germans to enter extermination camps. It is estimated the Germans murdered over 60,000 Slovak Jews.
Vatican leaders, including its highest diplomat to Slovakia, Giuseppe Burzio, threatened Tiso with religious suspension due to what they knew about his role in the Holocaust, but they never followed through. They never even removed him from the clergy—even when the post-war Czechoslovakian government was trying him for war crimes in 1944!
In 1943, Angelo Roncalli, a Vatican diplomat in Istanbul who would later become Pope John xxiii, had contacts with the Jewish community that remained in Slovakia and asked him to ask Pope Pius if he could give 1,000 Jewish children diplomatic protection to emigrate to the British Mandate in Palestine. The pope declined to help. As a memo from his staff states, he desired “to prevent the creation of the feared Jewish supremacy in Palestine.”
Since the conclusion of World War i and the loss of control over the Holy Land by the Ottoman Empire, the Vatican had wanted to prevent a Jewish state that might win control over holy sites. When Roncalli sent another plea, the Vatican responded that “it seems more opportune for the Holy See to insist that the Slovakian Jews remain in Slovakia and not be transferred to Palestine.”
Pius knew genocide was taking place. All that was being asked was diplomatic papers for 1,000 children to flee to safety. Yet Pius would rather they stay in Slovakia to face the gas chambers than to “defile” Catholic Palestine.
‘Murderer From the Beginning’
The Catholic Church had an even deeper involvement in the Holocaust in Croatia.
After Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, it set up a puppet state in Croatia and western Bosnia under Ante Pavelić and his Ustashi movement. The Independent State of Croatia was a totalitarian regime that worked to “cleanse” Croatia of non-Catholic religious minorities. “Even Nazi onlookers were appalled by the disorderly slaughters in which the Ustashi massacred a soberly estimated 500,000 Serbs, 200,000 Croats, 90,000 Bosnian Muslims, 60,000 Jews, 50,000 Montenegrins and 30,000 Slovenes,” historian Robert Paxton writes in The Anatomy of Fascism.
Croats are traditionally Catholic, while Serbs are traditionally Eastern Orthodox. “It was not enough to simply kill or convert Serbians,” Robert McCormick wrote in Croatia Under Ante Pavelić. “Orthodox cathedrals had to be razed, the Serbian faith had to be eradicated and Croatia made pure. … [The regime’s] campaign against the Serbians was, in part, a religious crusade, not unlike the Crusades of the medieval period. By associating nationality with religious identity, the Ustashi manipulated its Catholic identity to secure its political goals. To the Ustashi, Serbians were not merely a different nationality; they threatened the existence of Catholicism and therefore were both religious and national enemies. These two factors combined to generate a massacre of proportions rarely seen.”
Pavelić’s goal for the Serbs, as his deputy Mile Budak stated, was to “convert a third, expel a third, and kill a third.”
At Jasenovac, Croats, not Germans, operated a concentration and death camp run from 1941 to 1945. A 2021 conference at Uppsala University in Sweden estimated that the Jasenovac Croats killed 90,000 to 130,000 victims. The torture and execution methods were brutal. The Ustashi threw some people into crematoriums alive, ripped out eyeballs, cut off body parts, and hacked others to death with saws, hammers or other hand tools.
Most shocking about the industrial- scale genocide were its operators. “Some Catholic priests ventured far beyond merely converting Orthodox Serbs and became gleeful murderers,” McCormick wrote. “The Franciscan Order was well represented in Croatia and included numerous members who fervently believed that God demanded Orthodoxy be crushed and Rome recognized by all.”
Siegfried Kasche, a German diplomat in Croatia after the war, stated that “massacres of Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina were frequently initiated and led by Franciscan monks.” The commandant of Jasenovac was Miroslav Filipović, a Franciscan priest nicknamed “Brother Satan.”
The Ustashi established Jasenovac in August 1941, almost six months before the Nazis began planning Auschwitz, Treblinka and other death camps in Poland. Half a year before the SS, the Nazi security organization, was operating its more notorious killing centers east of Germany, Catholic priests were doing the same thing in Croatia.
Vatican leaders endorsed Pavelić’s movement. Sarajevo Archbishop Ivan Šarić helped recruit for the Ustashi in the 1930s and defended Pavelić to his death in 1960. The archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac, gave his blessing to the regime and told the faithful from the pulpit to collaborate. Rumors suggest Communist agents poisoned Cardinal Stepinac in 1960. In 1998, Pope John Paul ii declared Stepinac a martyr and canonized him as a saint. He is today one of Croatia’s patron saints.
‘Conquering, and to Conquer’
One final example warrants attention. The Catholic Church had a sizable influence in certain parts of the Russian empire. When the empire transformed into the anti-religious Soviet Union, the Catholic Church was persecuted like other religions. Soviet authorities shut down churches, imprisoned clergy and pressured the masses to become atheists. But Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa signaled a change in the Catholic Church’s fortunes.
In traditionally Catholic areas of the Soviet Union like Lithuania and parts of Ukraine, people saw the incoming Germans not as invaders but as liberators. In 1941, Andrey Sheptytsky, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (an autonomous church under the authority of the pope), welcomed “the victorious German Army” in a pastoral letter “as the liberator from the enemy.” He later blessed the creation of a Ukrainian SS division. Lithuania’s archbishop, Juozapas Skvireckas, also welcomed Hitler’s soldiers as liberators.
The Germans knew that playing the part of “religious liberators” would help consolidate their position and acted accordingly. “During the first months of the German occupation there was a definite revival of religious life which had been suppressed during the Soviet times,” wrote Yitzhak Arad in The Holocaust and the Christian World. “Many churches were reopened, and the number of people who attended services increased. Most of them were peasants and women, but even in the cities there was an upsurge of religiousness.”
Some Soviet clerics became disillusioned with the Nazis after witnessing how barbaric the Holocaust was becoming. But many stayed silent out of fear speaking up would extinguish the church’s newfound freedom.
Some went even further. “Although some individual priests helped Jews,” Daniel Jonah Goldhagen wrote in A Moral Reckoning, “the Lithuanian Church as a whole collaborated with the Germans until the war turned against Germany (when a greater number began to help Jews, especially Jewish children), with some priests taking part in, and lending their authority to, the German and Lithuanian killing institutions.”
‘No King but Caesar’
It is true that not every high-ranking Catholic was on board with supporting Hitler. Individual priests and bishops did make great sacrifices in opposing German occupation and protecting Jews, often at great personal risk. The Nazis persecuted elements of the Catholic Church in places like Poland. There were many individual Germans who also opposed Hitler and protected Jews.
However, their actions do not excuse or exonerate the actions of the rest of the country or of their leaders. The same principle applies to the Catholic Church. Individual actions by individual clergy don’t mitigate the pope’s complicity in giving birth to the fascist monster in the first place. They don’t diminish the Vatican’s taking advantage of Hitler’s wars to nation-build from the rubble of the conquered. They certainly do not alter the facts of how the Catholic Church as an institution either turned a blind eye to or actively supported the Holocaust.
That Catholic leaders would do all this while the Nazis caused problems for them in places like Poland shows they were willing to even sell their own in collaboration with the Nazis.
Pope Pius xii generally isn’t considered a major world leader of his era. But without him and the church he led, many Axis atrocities probably couldn’t have happened. Some Axis regimes may have been unable to form in the first place.
The Catholic Church has worked to disassociate itself from this dark legacy. Today, it champions causes like accommodating refugees and mediating conflicts. Many think of the Catholic Church’s international influence not as helping the fascists and the mass murderers in World War ii, but as helping bring down the Soviet empire in the Cold War. So between these two conflicts, the Vatican must have had the reckoning of all reckonings, right?
Wrong. Catholic leaders never came clean about the Vatican’s complicity with the Nazi empire. Why not?
A prophecy in Revelation 17 symbolically portrays an empire as a “beast.” Put together with Daniel 7 and Revelation 13, this beast can clearly be identified as the Roman Empire. (Request a free copy of Who or What Is the Prophetic Beast?, by Herbert W. Armstrong.)
This beast has seven heads and 10 horns. Most notably, it is ridden by a woman (Revelation 17:3). The Bible uses a woman to symbolize a church (2 Corinthians 11:1-3; Ephesians 5:22-32). Ancient Rome was never reined in or spurred on by a church. But after the Roman Empire fell in a.d. 476, strong leaders and dynasties have repeatedly risen up to resurrect it. And they have done so through cooperation with the Roman Catholic Church.
Revelation 17:9-10 specify that the seven heads represent seven rulers of this empire to appear consecutively, one after the other. History shows they include men like Justinian, Charlemagne and Napoleon Bonaparte. The most recent strongman to rule a European empire was Adolf Hitler. But was it a resurrection of the “Holy” Roman Empire prophesied in the Bible? Was this incarnation of the beast, like those that preceded it, ridden by the woman?
Compared to some previous rulers of Europe, Hitler may not have worn religion on his sleeves too prominently. But he didn’t need to. Hitler still used the Catholic Church to suit his purposes in building his empire. He looked to the church to gain legitimacy as a ruler shortly after taking power. Hitler and Pius xii were on the same side in the Spanish Civil War.
But Pius and the Vatican also used Hitler and the fascist regimes for their purposes. Prior to World War ii, the Catholic influence in the world was waning. France, a traditional Catholic bastion, was staunchly secular. The Catholic Habsburg Empire, which had controlled much of Central and Eastern Europe, had dissolved during World War i. The world powers of Great Britain and the United States were mostly Protestant. Germany itself was mostly Protestant. The Soviet Union was aggressively atheistic. The age of popes and cardinals presiding over the rise and fall of regimes, or even controlling tiny papal states, seemed to be over.
Then Mussolini came along and gave the pope sovereignty over Vatican City. and Hitler’s Luftwaffe gave the church a champion in Madrid in the form of Francisco Franco. When France collapsed in 1940, secularism lost legitimacy, and Hitler let the Catholic Church pick up the pieces. Even if its relationship with Hitler was complicated, the Vatican had a priest rule as a prince in Slovakia. And Croatia’s Franciscans were unleashed to cleanse the Balkans of Orthodox heretics.
Under Hitler, Catholic politics blossomed in Europe in a way otherwise impossible. And through the Catholic Church, Hitler’s empire gained legitimacy hard to come by any other way.
Pope Pius made some statements and efforts in support of the Jews. But many historians have wondered why he didn’t do much, much more. Did he keep mostly quiet about the atrocities of the Holocaust because even there he shared some common ground with the Nazis?
And when Allied forces poured into and across Europe, defeated Hitler’s empire, and began trying captured war criminals, why did Catholic leaders still help other war criminals escape capture? The Vatican had to have a strong common cause to thwart justice and save the mass murderers.
Revelation 17 says the woman—the church—rode the empire. It didn’t just sympathize with the empire, or get bullied by the empire. It didn’t just help clean up the mess after the empire had done its dirty work. It went along for the ride. It guided the empire, steering its course. It saw where the beast was going and liked it. It was as integral to the empire as the secular rulers themselves.
Let us now return to Mr. Macdonald’s question: “Did the Vatican condone and support Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany during the war?”
The answer: It did well more than “condone and support” Hitler’s empire. In a sense, it gave birth to it. It was the guiding force that Hitler’s puppets looked to. It took part in genocide itself.
Truly, Hitler’s Reich was the pope’s empire.