Chapter 7: World War II and Hitler’s Pope
“The Vatican was so appreciative of being recognized as a full partner that it asked God to bless [Hitler’s] Reich.”—John Willard Toland
When Benito Mussolini became Italy’s prime minister in 1922, he immediately began referring to his regime as the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1929, he signed a pact with the Vatican making Roman Catholicism the only state-recognized religion in Fascist Italy. This agreement, known as the Lateran Treaty, delighted Pope Pius xi, who spoke of Mussolini as “a man sent by Providence.” The treaty also pleased Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who in February 1930 became the Vatican’s secretary of state and would later become Pope Pius xii.
The Lateran Treaty also caught the attention of another rising authoritarian in Europe: Adolf Hitler.
The Second World War, which began 10 years later, marked the apex of the sixth resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire. Today there is no shortage of facts and figures about World War ii, and no lack of research and books by intelligent historians deciphering all this information. Bookstores and online stores overflow with books detailing the causes of the war, the scale of devastation, the attempted genocide of Europe’s Jews, and many other aspects of this history.
Despite all the attention, there remains a common blind spot among many contemporary historians when it comes to World War ii.
We’ve studied the critical contributions made by the Vatican and various Catholic figures to the endeavors of Charlemagne, Otto the Great and Napoleon. We’ve seen how the Vatican has participated in nearly all of Europe’s bloodiest, most destructive conflicts. Consider this history in the context of the Second World War, and an inevitable question comes to mind.
Did the Vatican condone and support Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany during the war?
Hitler and the Vatican
Just days after Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty in February 1929, Adolf Hitler praised the agreement in an article in Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party. Hitler held no political office at this time, but subsequent events reveal that he was already anticipating the day when he would become a sort of German Mussolini, with the power to negotiate his own concordat with the Vatican.
Like Charlemagne and the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire before him, Hitler knew he needed the support of the Vatican if he was to exercise full control over Germany—and eventually, Europe and the world.
Robert G. L. Waite, in his book The Psychopathic God—Adolf Hitler, recited a telling statement made by Hitler: “Above all, I have learned from the Jesuit order” (emphasis added throughout).
Hitler’s personality and leadership were greatly influenced by Catholic Jesuits. “Certainly the oath of direct obedience to the führer was strikingly reminiscent of the special oath that Jesuits swear to the pope,” Waite wrote. “Moreover, Hitler spoke of his elite ss, who wore the sacred symbol and dressed in black, as his Society of Jesus. He also ordered ss officers to study the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola for training in the rigid discipline of the faith.”
Adolf Hitler learned a lot from the Vatican and the way it operates.
But Hitler didn’t merely borrow a few practices from the Catholic Church. Like his Holy Roman Empire predecessors, he relied on the Vatican for moral and spiritual support and protection as he pursued his grim and lofty ambitions.
The history is incredible—and powerfully condemning.
During the 1920s both Pope Pius xi and Eugenio Pacelli devoted a lot of attention to Germany as it recovered from World War i. (Pacelli was an archbishop at the time and the Vatican’s primary nuncio to Germany between 1917 and 1929. He was stationed in both Bavaria and Berlin.) Following the war, the Vatican was extremely concerned that Soviet communism would infiltrate Europe and begin to undermine “Christianity.” Just as it had so many times in the past, the Vatican needed an instrument with which it could defend both itself and Catholic Europe. Adolf Hitler was young and inexperienced, but there was something unique and special about him. Pius xi and Pacelli realized early that he could be just the man they needed.
Archbishop Pacelli probably did more than anyone else outside of Germany to bring Hitler to power. He endorsed the Nationalist-Nazi-Catholic coalition that ushered Hitler into the German chancellorship. He then directed the German Catholic Center Party and other German parliamentarians to vote for the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler dictatorial power.
This history is recorded in Hitler’s Pope, a bestselling book by John Cornwell. A devout Catholic, Cornwell first set out to write a book about Pope Pius xii after becoming upset with allegations that Pius supported Hitler and the Third Reich. Cornwell was given access to the Vatican’s archives while he researched for his book. Why not? The man intended to write a book defending the Vatican. But after discovering the facts, Cornwell’s opinion changed. The faithful Catholic historian was shocked and astounded by what he read. The critics of Pius xii were right—in fact, it was worse than many knew.
After Pacelli moved from Bavaria to Rome in February 1930, he began spending weeks at a time in the company of Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, a Catholic priest and the leader of the German Catholic Center Party. During their time together, these two men brainstormed ideas for a concordat between Germany and the Vatican and discussed ways to bring a government to power in Berlin that would look favorably on such a concordat. As Hitler and the Nationalist Sociality Party grew more popular during the early 1930s, Pope Pius xi and Cardinal Pacelli encouraged Kaas and the Center Party leadership to explore the advantages of cooperation with the Nazis.
The Vatican was clearly working to help Hitler become chancellor.
The Vatican’s meddling yielded results in January 1933, when Germany’s governing coalition fell apart. Catholic Center Party deputy Franz von Papen persuaded German President Paul von Hindenburg to grant Hitler the chancellorship of a Nationalist-Nazi-Catholic coalition. Papen was to be vice chancellor.
Hitler was chancellor, but he still didn’t have the authority to pass the German-Vatican concordat that Pacelli wanted.
That changed on March 23, 1933, when Hitler was given absolute power after parliamentarians in both the Reichstag and Reichsrat passed the Enabling Act. This act amended the Weimar Constitution to grant the German cabinet, which was under the totalitarian rule of Adolf Hitler, authority to enact laws without parliamentary approval. Unshackled from the German Constitution, Hitler was free to construct his Nazi empire.
Hitler banned Communists and many Social Democrats from voting on the Enabling Act. Still, he needed assistance persuading the other parties and parliamentarians to vote “Yes.” Thankfully for him, he had Ludwig Kaas, the leader of the German Catholic Center Party, a Catholic priest—and a close friend of Cardinal Pacelli—on his side. Kaas persuaded parliamentarians from his own party and other parties to vote “Yes” to the Enabling Act. On the day of the vote, this influential politician and Catholic priest even delivered a speech in the Reichstag endorsing the Enabling Act.
Hitler also spoke that day. In his message he extolled the Catholic Church and underlined its importance in German history. It was evidence of a quid pro quo arrangement between Hitler and Kaas, an arrangement in which Kaas supported the Enabling Act and convinced others to support it, in return for favorable treatment from Hitler once he became dictator.
How often do you hear people talking about this history today?
The day after the Enabling Act was signed into law and Hitler was granted dictatorial powers, Ludwig Kaas traveled to Rome to, in his words, “investigate the possibilities for a comprehensive understanding between church and state.” His “investigation” was productive. Less than four months later, Nazi Germany formed a treaty—the first of the Third Reich—with the Vatican!
Cardinal Pacelli and German Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen signed the historic Reich Concordat on July 20, 1933—less than four months after Hitler was officially granted the powers of a dictator.
Notice what John Toland wrote in Adolf Hitler concerning this concordat: “The church agreed to keep priests and religion out of politics while Hitler, among other things, granted complete freedom to confessional schools throughout the country, a notable victory for German Catholics. His holiness welcomed Hitler’s representative, Franz von Papen, ‘most graciously and remarked how pleased he was that the German government now had at its head a man uncompromisingly opposed to communism and Russian nihilism in all its forms.’”
History was repeating itself. Just as it had done so many times in the past, the Vatican was supporting the creation of another tyrant in Europe. In return for its support, the Vatican would be protected from Hitler’s tyranny and allowed to freely operate as it always had.
“The Vatican was so appreciative of being recognized as a full partner that it asked God to bless the reich,” Toland wrote. “On a more practical level, it ordered German bishops to swear allegiance to the National Socialist regime. The new oath concluded with these significant words: ‘In the performance of my spiritual office and in my solicitude for the welfare and interest of the German Reich, I will endeavor to avoid all detrimental acts which might endanger it.’”
Reading this history, one wonders how successful Hitler’s Nazi Party would have been in its rise to power without the staunch support of Pope Pius xi and the Vatican. The Vatican and the Catholic Church had for many centuries been an influential political and ideological force in European politics. What could it have achieved if it had opposed Hitler and worked to undermine his ambitions?
Germany’s ex-chancellor Heinrich Brüning had no doubts about who was primarily responsible for this nightmarish alliance. “Behind the agreement with Hitler stood not the pope, but the Vatican bureaucracy and its leader, Pacelli,” Brüning said in 1935. “He visualized an authoritarian state and an authoritarian church directed by the Vatican bureaucracy, the two to conclude an eternal league with one another.”
Read that powerful and condemning admission again. And remember, Cardinal Pacelli—the man former Chancellor Brüning believed was more responsible than anyone else in bringing Hitler to power—later became Pope Pius xii, the pope during the Second World War!
Most people know little about Hitler’s connection with Catholicism, but the truth is that Hitler and his cabal of leaders worked together with the Vatican hierarchy to resurrect the Holy Roman Empire. In fact, without the Vatican’s assistance it is possible Hitler would never have gotten control of Germany.
Pius XII and the Jews
In a cabinet meeting six days before the signing of the Reich Concordat in July 1933, Hitler made a chilling statement about the imminent pact. This concordat with the Vatican, he said, would create an atmosphere of confidence that would be “especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry.”
Think about what he’s saying here. Hitler knew that an alliance with the Catholic Church would be advantageous to his “urgent struggle against international Jewry.” There are a couple of ways to interpret this. Did Hitler believe that the Vatican was an enemy of the Jews, and therefore a supporter of his objectives with the Jews? At the very least, Hitler was obviously confident that the Vatican would not do anything to prevent him from pursuing his genocidal ambitions toward Jews.
History testifies to Cardinal Pacelli’s opinion of the Jews. There is no evidence Cardinal Pacelli blinked an eye at Hitler’s horrific ambitions. Rather, as John Cornwell brings out in Hitler’s Pope, Pacelli had a habit of ignoring the plight of the Jews and turning a blind eye to other Nazi atrocities.
When he was made pope on March 2, 1939, Pacelli took on the name Pope Pius xii. As pope, Pius knew all about Hitler’s heinous strategy, called the Final Solution, to eradicate the Jewish people. Jewish groups and Allied officials repeatedly urged the pope to publicly condemn Nazi savagery. Finally, in December 1942, after two years of persistent requests, Pius delivered a radio address in which he lamented for the many thousands who “sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race are marked down for death or gradual extinction.”
That was Pius xii’s strongest objection to Hitler’s genocidal rampage.
He didn’t even identify Hitler by name, and there was no mention of Nazis or Jews.
There aren’t many ways to interpret this. The pope was not ignorant of Hitler and his view of Jews. Pius, like the rest of humanity, was witness to the fruits of Hitler’s labor, both toward Jews and other peoples. He undoubtedly had access to better intelligence and knew more of the details about what was happening than most people. Yet his response was so impotent. Why? Was it because he shared similar views with Hitler about the Jews?
Less than a year after his 1942 radio address, Pius witnessed Hitler’s hatred of the Jews in a very personal way. In October 1943, nearly 400 German ss soldiers arrested Italian Jews in Rome’s old ghetto, which is walking distance from the Vatican. All totaled, more than 1,000 Jews were rounded up and taken to a building called Collegio Militare, which was located less than half a mile from the Vatican. Trucks carting Jews even rumbled by St. Peter’s Square so Nazi soldiers could see the famous church.
As you would expect, the pope was one of the first to be made aware of what was happening to his next-door neighbors. The Jews were held for two days at Collegio Militare before being put into cattle cars and dispatched to Auschwitz, where 80 percent were gassed within a week. The rest were made slaves.
Pope Pius xii was silent and did nothing to help the innocent Jews during their two-day confinement in a facility less than half a mile from the Vatican. He was the most powerful religious man in the world. When he spoke, people listened. Few leaders would have been able to pick up the phone and speak with Hitler directly, but Pope Pius xii was one of the few. At the very least he could have told the world what was happening and publicly denounced Hitler. He could have initiated a protest. Instead, he was silent. Why?
Journalist Ed Bradley recounted these events during a 60 Minutes episode on March 19, 2000. During an interview with one of the 15 Jewish survivors, the survivor asked, “Didn’t the pope know where they were taking us? Didn’t he ask himself where those railroad tracks ended up? We were right under his window, but his voice wasn’t lifted. Nobody came, not even to save a child.”
Bradley relayed that question to Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit priest and eminent Catholic historian, who responded by explaining that Pius was unable to leave the Vatican because it was surrounded by German troops. The pope could have been arrested, Gumpel said. Bradley’s response was ideal: “But wouldn’t that be the kind of action that a true saint would have taken? Wouldn’t that have been what Christ would have done?” Gumpel was stumped. Finally, he replied and said that he didn’t know what Christ would have done. (That’s not a reassuring response coming from a man who is supposed to be an expert on Christ.)
It gets worse. Gumpel is one of the Vatican’s senior saint-makers and happened to be in charge of Pope Pius xii’s beatification process (the final step before being named a saint). Gumpel had spent three decades researching Pius’s life to see if he was worthy of sainthood. For 30 years he had been searching for evidence that would preclude Pope Pius xii from beatification. And he said he hadn’t found any!
During that 60 Minutes program, Gumpel stated that he is “totally convinced that [Pius] did what he could [to help Jews during World War ii], that he was a holy person and that he should be beatified.” When asked if the research Cornwell had uncovered and reported in Hitler’s Pope would have any bearing on the Vatican’s final decision, Gumpel said it would “have no effect whatsoever because it’s totally worthless from a historical point of view.”
“Totally worthless.” Really? Did Gumpel forget that a significant chunk of Cornwell’s research came from the Vatican’s own library?
For Brutal Croatia, Blessings
We know the Vatican provided political and moral support to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany before and during World War ii. But did you know that the Vatican and Catholic representatives actually participated in some of the hideous activities of Hitler and his Nazi network, which was scattered all over Europe and North Africa?
In July 1997, the United States Treasury published a document proving the Vatican stored gold for the Croatian Nazi puppet regime during and after World War ii. The Vatican dismissed the accusation as ridiculous. But when asked by Jewish organizations to open its archives and prove that the allegations were false, the Vatican refused. Why? The truth is, some of the Vatican’s most atrocious acts during the war occurred in the Balkans.
Conquering the Balkan Peninsula and bringing it under German control was important to Hitler. Controlling the Balkans would give him leverage over Russia, access to the Mediterranean, and a launching point into the Middle East. Hitler invaded Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941, and by April 17 had beaten the nation into submission. Following Yugoslavia’s defeat, a small corner of the country broke away from the capitulated government and formed a puppet state. Comprised of roughly 5 million Catholics and 3 million Serbians, the new regime was called the Independent State of Croatia.
Throughout the war this newly born puppet state was loyal to two entities—Adolf Hitler and the Vatican.
Croatia’s first leader was Ante Pavelić, a fascist with a calculating mind and a cold heart. Pavelić’s first action as leader was to raise an army. Called Ustashi, Pavelić’s army quickly became one of the most terrifying and cruel forces Europe had ever seen. The Ustashi was staunchly Catholic. Its soldiers were Catholic by religion, and the central reason for its existence was the pursuit of an independent Catholic Croatia.
During the war the Ustashi sought the genocide of Jews and Serbs, and was responsible for the death of more than a million people. Killings were performed in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable. Ustashi soldiers were recorded to have torn victims apart limb by limb, and slit people’s throats with special knives, and removed organs one by one, and smashed people’s heads with sledgehammers. Others were burned alive. No one was spared, and many of these vile acts were performed on children and infants. There are records of Ustashi soldiers cutting open pregnant mothers and ripping out the unborn child.
The Vatican was fully aware of the atrocities being performed by Pavelić and his army. Yet it never did anything meaningful to condemn and stop the carnage.
In fact, as Mark Aarons and John Loftus, two respected, award-winning authors, reveal in their book Unholy Trinity, the Vatican endorsed the behavior of the Ustashi and Croatia’s Catholic leaders. From the start, Croatia enjoyed a “special relationship” with the Vatican, wrote Aarons and Loftus.
Pope Pius xii was aware of the atrocities when he met with Ante Pavelić in April 1941. The pope met with Pavelić again in May 1943, by which time the Nazi atrocities against the Serbs were irrefutably known. (One Italian journalist interviewed Pavelić in his home and was shocked to find a large bowl of Serbian eyes the fascist leader had been collecting.) Yet, according to Unholy Trinity, “Pius himself promised to give Pavelić his personal blessing again. By this time, the Holy See possessed abundant evidence of the atrocities committed by his regime.”
Historical documentation shows that in some cases Catholic priests even joined the Ustashi in violently exterminating Serbs. Ravening Wolves, a small book by the late Monica Farrell, a once-devout Catholic who wrote multiple books documenting the shocking conduct of Catholic leaders, recalls a pogrom in the village of Slavonski Brod. “The Catholic priests, Guncevic and Marjanovich Dragutin, acted as police officials, and ordered the arrest of local Serbs, who were tortured and killed. They personally assisted in the executions of these unfortunate Serbs.”
Ravening Wolves provides multiple examples, even giving the location and names of the priests, in which Catholic leaders sanctioned and participated in the torture and murder of Jews and Serbs.
Alojzije Stepinac was the archbishop of Zagreb from 1937 to 1960. Following the war, Stepinac was found guilty of collaborating with the Ustashi in the murder of Serbs and Jews. He was sentenced to 16 years in prison, but was released after five years. Pope Pius xii made Stepinac a cardinal in 1952. In 1998, he was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope John Paul ii.
This history of the Nazis and the Ustashi in Croatia during the Second World War is hard to read, and even harder to imagine happening. But remembering this history is important because it is a reminder of the deadly relationship between the Vatican and Nazi Germany.
The Vatican’s support of Nazi Germany went beyond helping Hitler become chancellor and then defending and endorsing his murderous activities. Historical records show that as the war wound down and an Axis victory became increasingly unlikely, the Vatican actually rescued many of the worst Nazi criminals.
Intelligence sources have confirmed that high-ranking Nazi ministers, civil servants, even Ante Pavelić himself, were able to disappear with help from the Vatican’s “ratlines”—a postwar operation to protect Nazi leaders. At the time, the Vatican labeled these escapees “refugees.” But they were calloused killers who were key participants in Hitler’s regime!
“For fugitive Nazis, all roads led to Rome,” wrote Aarons and Loftus.
“It is absurd to believe that 30,000 fugitive Nazis escaped to South America on the few U-boats remaining at the end of the war, or that they all made their own travel arrangements,” they wrote. “Draganovic’s Ratline [the name given to the Vatican’s smuggling operation] was truly professional, ensuring that many guilty war criminals reached safe havens. Often they did not end up in the remote jungles of South America, but settled instead in Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States ….”
The Vatican does not deny that it helped top German leaders escape Europe after the war. But it claims to have not known the identity of the men it aided. “The Vatican has consistently claimed that they were unaware of the identity of those who were undeserving of their humanitarian assistance. But some influential priests not only knew who the Nazis were, they actively sought them out and provided extra-special treatment” (Unholy Trinity).
Franz Stangl was one of the most ruthlessly efficient Nazi officials during the war, and a commander in the Treblinka extermination camp. In 1948, he arrived in Rome looking for Alois Hudal, a Catholic bishop, and rector of one of three seminaries for German priests in Rome. Hudal was well known throughout the Nazi underground. “Stangl described the power and influence of Hudal’s extensive smuggling network for fugitive Nazis,” Aarons and Loftus wrote.
Stangl later testified that Hudal had arranged “quarters in Rome where I was to stay till my papers came through. And he gave me a bit more money—I had almost nothing left.” After several weeks, Hudal “called me in and gave me my new passport—a Red Cross passport … [he] got me an entrance visa to Syria and a job in a textile mill in Damascus, and he gave me a ticket for the ship. So I went to Syria.”
It would be hard to believe if it wasn’t so well documented! Why would high-ranking Catholic leaders working in the Vatican smuggle some of the sickest minds and most dangerous men of Nazi Germany to safety? There’s only one rational explanation.
Simon Wiesenthal was responsible for Stangl’s eventual recapture in Brazil in 1967. Wiesenthal is convinced that Bishop Hudal was also behind the smuggling of Adolf Eichmann, the most famous war criminal of World War ii, a man known as “the architect of the Holocaust.” Eichmann escaped from Europe after the war and remained hidden for 15 years before being captured.
“Wiesenthal believes that Hudal equipped Eichmann with a new identity as a Croatian refugee called ‘Richard Klement,’ and sent him to Genoa,” Aarons and Loftus write. “There Eichmann was apparently hidden in a monastery under Archbishop Siri’s charitable control, before finally being smuggled to South America.” All of Eichmann’s traveling expenses to South America were paid by Caritas, a Catholic relief organization.
“Official Vatican historian Father Robert Graham admits that Hudal might have helped ‘a handful, a mere handful of Nazi war criminals to escape,’” Aarons and Loftus write. “When Eichmann was arrested it was alleged he passed through Rome and got some help from Bishop Hudal. Hudal was asked about this and said, ‘I don’t know, I helped a lot of people and Eichmann may have been among them.’”
What an admission.
“If Eichmann was a case of unauthorized assistance, he was certainly not the only instance. Hudal seemed to make mistakes with regularity. Wiesenthal recalls, ‘During my search for Eichmann I found out that many [war criminals] were living in monasteries, equipped by Hudal with false documents,’ showing they were refugees. One point is certain: Many war criminals who escaped to South America have gratefully acknowledged that they owed their freedom to the Austrian-born bishop” (ibid).
Bishop Hudal was known to be supportive of the Nazis. He openly supported Adolf Hitler and, during his trips to Germany in the 1930s, encouraged German Catholics to do the same. In a speech in Rome he said the philosophies of the German Reich “accord both with Christian and national values.” He even published a treatise in 1936 called The Foundations of National Socialism, officially sanctioned by the church, praising the Nazis.
“Apparently Hudal’s high Nazi profile did not harm his Vatican career,” Aarons and Loftus write. “[A]s Hudal’s views grew more stridently and publicly pro-Nazi, nothing was done either to discipline or remove him from this powerful post. Instead the Vatican promoted him in June 1933 from priest to titular bishop, an extremely rare honor for a relatively lowly rector of a teaching college.”
The Vatican was aware of exactly who Hudal was and what he believed: Instead of reprimanding and kicking him out, Pope Pius xii promoted him. Why?
“[Vienna Archdiocese Bishop] Jacob Weinbacher … has no doubt that ‘Hudal was very close to [Pope] Pius xii … they were friends.’ … Far from being just another anonymous cleric on the fringes of the Vatican, ‘Hudal may well have been the sounding board for the pope in the German-speaking countries.’”
Imagine that. According to reports from Catholic officials, and documented by Aarons and Loftus, Hudal was close friends with Pope Pius xii!
When it became clear that Germany would lose the war, Hudal determined to do all he could to undermine the Allied attempts to purge Europe of Nazism. “I felt duty bound after 1945 to devote my whole charitable work mainly to former National Socialists and fascists, especially to so-called ‘war criminals,’” he said. Aarons and Loftus conclude: “Hudal’s self-confessed activities are all the more controversial because he operated with the full authority of the Vatican.”
When you consider how close Hudal was to the pope, it is accurate to conclude that Pope Pius xii was by far the greatest Nazi smuggler at the end of World War ii.
Is this a surprise? Not in the slightest—not when you recall that Pius played a pivotal role in the rise of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany, and was the Catholic official responsible for facilitating the 1933 Reich Concordat between Nazi Germany and the Vatican, and the Catholic official who as pope provided moral and spiritual backing for Hitler during World War ii.
Moreover, it isn’t the least bit surprising when you consider the history of the Holy Roman Empire, and recall that the Vatican over the past 1,500 years has supported, embraced and exploited to its own advantage most of Europe’s most terrifying and destructive regimes and dictators.
What is surprising is the fact that most people today cannot recognize or accept the existence of the Holy Roman Empire. Unaware of this history, they will be flabbergasted when it repeats itself and the seventh resurrection of the Holy Roman Empire strikes.