Hitler’s Deadliest Enemy: Pius XII

I spent much of winter 2006 butting heads with a cantankerous nun. Thankfully, it happened via email, and in no way resembled the battles with hirsute radical feminists in stretch jeans that ate up most of my high school years. No, I contended with a solidly orthodox battle-ax who is still a distinguished historian of World War II. We had no differences of principle—unless you count “My every word is sacred even when it’s completely disorganized and redundant” as a principle. And it ended badly—when the publisher backed me up on my insistence that the book be readable, she yanked it and gave it to a more compliant house. I’m sure some people have bought it. For a penance, some of them may have read it.

But I learned a lot from the exercise—especially about Pope Pius XII. Because that wet, shaggy dog of an MS contained an amazing quantity of facts about the events of World War II. They combine with what I’ve learned from other sources to offer an excellent answer to Richard Spencer’s blog of yesterday. In his blog, Richard makes the excellent point that my own reasons for celebrating the utter and complete extirpation of the satanic National Socialist regime, and the presence of U.S. forces to prevent an equally evil Stalin from swallowing the Mother Continent, were not those that motivated Franklin Delano Roosevelt. No doubt this is true. I’m not a Roosevelt biographer, or even an admirer. His own bias toward mild socialism no doubt made him found the Soviet system less repulsive than the Nazi. (His vice president, after all was Henry Wallace, not Joseph Kennedy.)

It was not Franklin Roosevelt who saw the real issues at stake in the confrontation between Hitler and Stalin, over the supine bodies of the crumbling democracies of Europe. It was Eugenio Pacelli, later Pius XII. His writings before and during the war, his actions throughout it, and his postwar interventions establish that he had a vivid vision of the alternatives facing Europe in the absence of U.S. intervention—and that he took decisive action to make such intervention more likely.

Unlike the tyrants he faced, Roosevelt did not rule by arbitrary decree. He needed to cultivate constituencies, and respond to the voters. And one of the largest voting blocs in the Democratic coalition he’d forged consisted of Catholics. Shunned by their own party in the failed election of Al Smith, these folks had flocked to Roosevelt—who in return took seriously the advice of Catholic leaders, such as Monsignor John Ryan of Catholic University, who gleefully called himself the “Right Reverend New Dealer.” As Allan Carlson pointed out in The American Way, the New Deal incorporated some elements of Catholic social teaching—such as the primacy of the family, the importance of a “family wage,” and a bias toward agrarianism. Equally important, in Roosevelt’s early years, was the influence of Fr. Charles Coughlin—a brilliant radio preacher, who began as a fervent Roosevelt supporter, then came to denounce him for not attacking capitalism aggressively enough. Coughlin favored the kind of radical restrictions on the market on view in Mussolini’s Italy, and regarded “Jewish Communism” as a far more serious threat than the rising Nazi regime. Immensely influential even outside Catholic circles, Coughlin actually sponsored a third party candidate against Roosevelt, and posed a significant threat to Catholic participation in the Democratic coalition. He also railed against American attempts to align with Britain and France, sometimes making use of material in his broadcasts taken straight from Nazi propaganda.

But as the 1930s wore on, Fr. Coughlin’s broadcasts diminished, and his activities waned. His influence faded, and he ceased to divide the Catholic vote. After 1939, he was rarely if ever heard from again. Observers at the time noted that then Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli had visited the United States in 1936 and met with President Roosevelt—and assumed that Roosevelt had pressured Pacelli to order Coughlin to tone down his attacks. That is the “official story” to this day.

But that isn’t what happened, at least according to Coughlin. In his old age, he told his story to an old friend of mine, Farley Clinton, who covered Vatican II for National Review. Clinton was working on an abortive book about Fr. Coughlin, and the brilliant old rabble-rouser had consented to interviews. In the course of one, Fr. Coughlin told Clinton that the Vatican order which scaled back his activities had nothing to do with Roosevelt. Cardinal Pacelli had brought this agenda with him from Rome, and wanted Coughlin off the air at the urgent request of Germany’s Catholic bishops—who’d observed first hand the barbarism that had been unleashed in their country. (It was only the intervention of bishops such as Cardinal Clemens von Galen which brought a temporary halt to the mass murder of handicapped children.)

Whether or not Franklin Roosevelt had a vision of saving Europe from anti-Christian tyranny of Right or Left, one statesman did. As a diplomat, Pacelli warned an ambivalent U.S. ambassador to Britain Joseph Kennedy in 1938 that the Nazis could not be trusted and that no compromises should be made with them. Equally firm against Stalin’s tyranny in the East, Pacelli as pope strove to prevent the outbreak of war—and filled the pages of L’Osservatore Romano and the airwaves reached by Vatican Radio with detailed reports of Nazi atrocities that rarely made their way into the American press. His condemnations of Hitler’s ideology were sterner and more explicit than even Allied propaganda broadcasts. Pius XII assisted the conspirators (many of them devout Lutherans) attempting to assassinate Adolph Hitler, even passing messages between them and an uninterested British intelligence. Even as the U.S. was returning Jewish refugees to die in Vichy France, Pius conspired with monasteries and convents to hide such unfortunates in their cloisters—saving, according to Rabbi David Dalin, between 600,000 and 800,000 Jews. The Vatican wine cellars were filled not with vintage bottles of Velletri but with Italian socialists and Communists, and thousands of Jews—whom Pius insisted be fed with Kosher food. In response, Hitler tried to organize a kidnapping of Pius XII, whom he planned to hang in Rome; it was foiled only by the actions of a crypto-Catholic member of the SS.

Of course, as the war wound down, Stalin’s propaganda machine did its best to spread the outrageous lie that Pius XII had been Hitler’s pope. This lie was popularized by an East German Communist named Rolf Hockhuth—who fittingly enough, was David Irving’s host on a recent visit to Germany. Kindred spirits…

So I’d like to insist that at least one Western leader knew exactly what was at stake in U.S. intervention in World War II. He exerted his influence on U.S. elections, and help make such an intervention possible.  And that’s just one more reason to canonize the man.



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