The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis

Written by David Dalin

(Regnery Press, 2005)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

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The record on Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) is still evolving, and Dalin’s work is not the final word on the matter, but it does constitute an important moment in the evolution of the scholarship. This book is important for a few reasons, not least of all is the ad hominem that the author is a rabbi. But this is not to be thought the sole basis for this work’s credibility. The author’s credentials are extensive: a long list of degrees and publications, for instance.

Excluding notes, the work is 165 pages long. It is concise, thankfully. It is well organized, not repetitive, as so many work are that are looking for something more to say. It says what is important to say and then moves on. This kind of brevity makes it a pleasant read. The author begins Chapter One by laying out the history of the claim that Pius XII was either partial to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, or at least did nothing to protect Jews during World War II. These are powerful and, indeed, dangerous, claims. To blame a pope is tantamount to blaming a whole religion. The facts of the one are meant to characterize the whole. The historiography of the claim is important, and it is here (pp. 2-10) that we meet such figures Hochhulf, author of the play The Deputy (p. 2); Goldhagen, author of A Moral Reckoning; James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, to name but a few of the works relevant to the history of the ‘claim’ made about Pius XII.

In the second chapter Dalin begins to respond to these writers. He does this by contrasting the generalized anti-Semitic character of Medieval Christian European with the relative benevolence of the papacy towards the Jews (pp.17-28) and then proceeds to discuss a few points respective the Church and Jews in the modern era. Chapters Three and Four are focused on Pius XII himself. These, far from substantiating any part of his detractors’ cases, present a very fine record of the man both before and after his elevation to the papacy. Dalin discusses Pacelli’s role in silencing the anti-Semitic American priest, Coughlin, while he was the Vatican’s Secretary of State (pp. 57-9), his role in rescuing the Jewish man who would become the founding music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Ossip Gabrilowitsch (p. 50), his attempt to save the life of the Jewish politician, Walter Rathenau, from assassination (pp. 50-1), and his life-long friendship with the Jewish man, Guido Mendes (p. 54), to mention but a few relevant facts ignored by Pius XII’s detractors. Documentation is important too, and Dalin provides an examination of it, and how it fails to corroborate the claim about Pius’ silence. Pius’ sympathy for the Jews was well-known in the 40s, proof of which is drawn from various newspapers (pp. 73-5), as well as other sources, including, not to mention, Albert Einstein. (p. 99)

The final three chapters are somewhat more peripheral to the history of Pius XII himself, and dwell rather on the factors that have contributed to the creation and credence given to the claims made against him. These are interesting enough, but can be ignored for the sake of the book’s main point.

Books like Dalin’s are amazing for a few reasons. Whether you agree with his view or not, you must confront one inescapable fact: books can lie, sometimes so bald-facedly as to be scarcely comprehensible to generally honest folk. We are compelled to accept that either Dalin is lying about Pius XII, or Cromwell and the others have lied about him. We are forced to accept that bald-faced lies can be printed by major publishers, wrapped in the veneer of authority that these authors and companies bring, and then sold to the unsuspecting public. As I have said and will continue to say, there are very few rules governing what may be printed. Most of the books that make it to the shelves of your favourite bookstore undergo no scholarly peer review. There are exceptions, and this Review will continue to points these out – great publishers like Cambridge and Oxford University Presses. We need to get to know the good publishers and we need to be wary of those who produce the other kinds of books. (For the record, it was Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who published Constantine’s Sword. Grove published The Deputy in English, which is now Grove/Atlantic, Inc.) Are publishers are not created equal, and should not be treated as such.

A post-script on authors. It is pretty remarkable that the worst books this Review has seen so far have had one thing in common: that they were written by ex-seminarians or ex-priests. Gary Wills was a seminarian, Carroll a priest, John Cornwell, the author of Hitler’s Pope, a seminarian. The idea of the ‘loyal opposition’ is a tired one. It is a strange day when our best authors are rabbis; but so it seems to be. I am sure the Germans will eventually come up with a word meaning once-formed-for-the-priesthood-now-blinded-by-anger-towards-it. Perhaps it’ll be something like Willsliterenturen. That would be a handy designation for our craft, one long-overdue. After all, who would want to read a book on Scotch-appreciation written by a prohibitionist?

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