"Why another work on Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust?" asks Jose M. Sanchez in his preface to Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. His answer lies in his subtitle: Sanchez’s book is not so much one more study as it is a thorough review of the many interpretations—few of them objective in Sanchez’s judgment—written by Pius XII’s fierce critics and ardent defenders. Sanchez’s intention, and his achievement, is the restoration of temperate historical examination to a topic whose treatment has degenerated into polemic.
Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy opened the controversy in 1963 and contributed a phrase—"the silence of Pope Pius"—that has developed a life of its own. Hochhuth’s pope was a caricature; even John Cornwell, for whom Pius was Hitler’s Pope (1999), dismissed the stage version of Pius as fantasy. But The Deputy was compelling if reckless theater, and its challenge will not relent: why did Pius XII not speak (and when he did speak, why so timidly and obscurely) as Nazi Germany, with which the Vatican maintained normal diplomatic relations from the start of Hitler’s dictatorship to the end of the Second World War, committed its unparalleled crimes against humanity?
The harshest assessors of the pope contend he was an anti-Semite and pro-Nazi, at least to the extent of hoping that Hitler would prevail over the militantly atheist Soviet Union. Sanchez readily refutes both charges, showing that the pope was, albeit mostly privately, anguished over the fate of Europe’s Jews, and that throughout the war he was hampered in his efforts to present himself as a neutral party who might mediate the conflict by widespread suspicion that his sympathies lodged with the Allies. Pius had no illusions about the monstrousness of the Third Reich. Most surely he was not Hitler’s pontiff.
Neither was he a commanding moral leader. Certainly he was no martyr-in-waiting. The pope was a diplomat by training and temperament. Indirection came to him naturally. Indecision consumed him. Sanchez quotes him in conversation with the Italian ambassador on atrocities in Poland: "We would like to utter words of fire." He never did, telling himself that papal outrage would be futile, or that his condemnation of the mass murders would only goad Hitler to further brutalities. Time has not been kind to his dithering, seeing him as cautious and tepid as horror followed horror. Owen Chadwick, whose Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War is one of few works Sanchez finds sufficiently scholarly and modulated, appraised the pope as simply "not quite the right man in the right place." Pius spent himself on a forlorn hope that he could assist through back channels, through his offer of himself as a mediator beholden to no nation, and through carefully coded references—famously or notoriously, e.g., his inability to refer to the Jews as Jews but rather as "those who, because of their nationality or descent, are pursued by mounting misfortune."
Sanchez depicts a good and honorable, by some standards saintly, pontiff unequal to the burden history gave him. His insufficiency had roots institutional and personal. Vatican procedures and protocols and the convolutions of the official style of papal speaking made Pius seem to inhabit, in a trenchant description by Harold Macmillan, "a sort of fourth dimension . . . a pathetic and tremendous figure." He could not reach out; flinty doctrine walled him in: he refused to join the Archbishop of Canterbury in a joint appeal against terror because he could not act in concert with someone not united to Rome. Moreover, a point emphasized by Sanchez, the pope’s own character deepened his isolation. He was rarefied, ascetic, austere, shy, aloof, and friendless, never dining but alone, listening to the radio with his beloved parakeet Gretchen perched upon his shoulder.
Pius’s defenders pretend he was heroic, his detractors that he was craven or worse. Sanchez restores to him his flawed humanity. His Pius is a pope who made the best decisions he could, within the limits of who he was, what he understood, and what he thought he might achieve. Perhaps it would have been better had he possessed the fighting vigor of his predecessor Pius XI or the human radiance of his successor John XXIII, but as Sanchez insists, this is to play virtual history, to imagine the might-have-been. His book will be welcomed by readers willing to forego that enticement and accept an ambivalent interpretation as the closest history gets to the real thing.