Hubert WOLF, Pope and Devil: the Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich. Translated by Kenneth Kronenberg. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. 325 pages. $29.95 hc. ISBN 978-0-674-05081-5.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes College, Sylvania, OH 43560

Hubert Wolf, Professor of Church History at the University of Münster, has written a fascinating volume on the inner-workings of the Vatican and its’ German Papal Nuncios during the war-torn years of 1917-1939. Having examined hundreds of thousands of documents, which were only made available for research during the last decade, Wolf provides telling evidence that Pope Pius XI and the future Pope Pius XII (German Papal Nuncio, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli) made concessions to the Fascist government in Italy (the Lateran Pacts of 1929, which established the independent state of the Vatican) and to the German National Socialist Party (the Reichskonkordat of 1933, that recognized the validity of the Nazi government in return for the safety of German Catholics and their ability to worship freely). In May of 1929, Pope Pius XI stated that, “If it were possible to save even a single soul, to shield souls from greater harm, we would find the courage to deal even with the devil himself” (p. 1).

Did the Vatican make a pact with the devil, in the form of Adolf Hitler, to the exclusion of six million Jews who were needlessly exterminated during the Holocaust? Wolf states that the racial anti-Semitism exhibited during the Nazi regime “represents the defining evil of the first half of the twentieth century” (p. 81). He adds further that the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII have been frequently accused “of having remained silent during the Holocaust and, in the final analysis, of having been indifferent to the fate of the Jews” (p. 81). This indifference to the Jewish people was readily evident in the outdated Catholic liturgy (Good Friday), where Jews were alleged to be “perfidious,” or people without faith.

The 1925 edition of the Latin and English missal stated, “Let us pray even for the treacherous Jews, begging the Lord our God to take away the veil from their hearts so that they, too, may believe in Jesus Christ our Lord” (p. 84). In 1928 the Amici Israel (friends of Israel), a group consisting of 19 cardinals, 278 bishops and archbishops, and 3,000 priests who were initially formed in order to convert the Jews to Christianity, sought to change the offensive liturgy by petitioning Pius XI. Documents reveal that the pope passed the submission on to the Congregation of Rites, “probably without examining it too closely himself. The congregation, in turn, sent it on to its’ liturgical committee” (p. 91). Although the Congregation of Rites agreed to alter the liturgy, their attempt was foiled by the Tribunal of the Holy Office, who “proved unwilling to rubberstamp the decision” (p. 97). The Holy Father later called for the dissolution of the Amici Israel, citing the “apparent repurposing of the prayer brotherhood for the conversion of the Jews into a political group within the Church” (p. 109).

Did the pope and Vatican know about and/or support the mass extermination of six million Jews? Unfortunately, this question remains unanswered because the Vatican archives for the years 1940-1945 have yet to be released. Were the European Catholics preserved at the expense of the Jews? The real truth might not come to light for generations. However, one may contend that, had six million Catholics been in danger of mass extinction, World War Two would have had a different outcome.

Hubert Wolf’s work is extremely well-researched, and is highly recommended for serious students of both church and papal history. Those looking for other sources from this time period should also consider John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII, and Pierre Blet’s Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican.

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