The release this October of 'Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII' by John Cornwall signals yet another campaign against Pope Pius XII over his role during World War II and, in particular, his alleged silence and inaction over the Jewish Holocaust. At the same time, Greek film director Constantin Costa Gravas is planning a film based on Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play attacking Pius XII - 'The Deputy'. It was this play which first launched the "black legend" against the Pope. Interestingly, some of the strongest protests against 'The Deputy' were Jewish. One is reminded again of Goebbels' "big lie": if falsities are repeated often enough, people may come to accept them as the truth.
Meanwhile, with the recent passing of the 60th anniversary of the start of World War II (3 September), it should be recalled that Pius XII made the most strenuous efforts of any world leader to avert a war.
On 24 August 1939, in an effort to stop Hitler's army from invading Poland, the cause of the Second World War, Pope Pius XII wrote: "Nothing is lost with peace; everything can be lost with war."
Eugenio Pacelli was elected Pope on 2 March 1939, at a time of great tension among European states, which were preparing for war. The Pope was very knowledgeable on the political state of the world; for ten years he had been Pius XI's Secretary of State. From the very beginning of his pontificate, he redoubled his efforts to reconcile the countries and avoid incidents that could unleash a world conflict. But, sadly, the political situation reached critical proportions.
Following Germany's occupation of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, and Italy's of Albania in April, Hitler started a dispute over Gdansk and the so-called Polish corridor. These incidents led England and France to commit themselves to defend Poland's independence, as well as that of Greece and Rumania. President Roosevelt sent Hitler and Mussolini a peace proposal on 14 April, but it was rejected with harsh irony by the FŸhrer who, in a speech on 28 April, made even greater claims on Poland.
It was at this point that Pius XII took the initiative to convince Germany, Italy, France, Great Britain and Poland to come to an agreement without recourse to arms. From 4-10 May, the Vatican Nuncios took the first steps, with the governments in question, to see if they would negotiate. But the response was negative, and international tension increased.
Pius XII explained the nature of the diplomatic initiative during an address to Cardinals on 2 June; he said he would continue his efforts in favour of peace. The Holy See's strategy was to exert pressure on Mussolini, as there was virtually no chance of influencing Nazi Germany. The government of the Third Reich was far too convinced of its superiority and independence, and would not seek help from anyone, especially the Holy See.
Germany had witnessed tremendous attacks on religious institutions and Catholic schools. Spectacular prosecutions were dreamt up against ecclesiastical personnel, and an unscrupulous, scandalous press campaign was launched against the Pontiff himself. Nazi hatred against Pius XII was well known. When he was elected Pope, the whole world reacted positively except the German government. The Nazi press accused him of being anti-German, and the Communist newspaper International called him a relentless opponent of Hitler.
In spite of the Holy See's efforts, the situation deteriorated. On 23 August, the Wehrmacht's High Command decided to attack Poland at 4:50am on 26 August. On the night of 23-24 August, Ribbentrop and Molotov had signed the Nazi-Soviet Non- Aggression Pact, which included Poland's partition between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Thus, forgetting ideological differences, the Nazi and Communist governments were united in a common objective. While German troops gathered on the Polish border, at 7pm on 24 August, Pius XII sent a radio-message from Castelgandolfo calling Hitler to negotiation and peace:
"At present, in spite of our repeated exhortations and our special interest, the fears of a bloody international conflict are ever more tormenting. Today, when the tension of spirits has reached a level that makes the unleashing of the tremendous whirlwind of war imminent, in a spirit of paternity we make a new and heartfelt appeal to governments and peoples: to the first so that, laying aside accusations, threats, and the reasons for reciprocal mistrust, they try to resolve present differences through the only suitable means, that is, loyal, joint agreements. To the peoples, so that in calm and serenity, and devoid of uncontrolled agitation, they will encourage efforts for peace on the part of their leaders."
The Pope concluded: "Along with us, the whole of humanity hopes for justice, bread and freedom, instead of iron that kills and destroys."
The radio-message took the world by surprise. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also sent a message calling the contenders to peace. On 25 August, Great Britain signed a defence pact with Poland. This peace offensive took Hitler by surprise; he revoked the order to attack Poland. However, the attack took place at 4:45 am on 1 September 1939. Having failed in the possibility of a peace conference, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September.
In spite of the Holy See's efforts, war broke out and spread throughout Europe, but Pius XII did not weaken in his resolve to reach peace at the earliest possible date. On 22 August 1940 he wrote to the American President: "In spite of the fact that the horrors of war are increasing, and our sorrow grows deeper with the passing days, we want to renew our efforts and prayers in order to find the practical means for a rich and lasting peace, which will free men from the harsh nightmare of unrest and constant uncertainty."