Could the Vatican have saved Italy's Jews?
The debate about the Vatican's wartime policies is not a contest between serious scholarship and bigoted charlatans, like the 'debate' about the reality of the Holocaust, or the 'debate' about whether white people discovered New Zealand thousands of years ago. There are scholars with impressive credentials who are prepared to argue for as well as against Pius XII. The case against the former Pope was strengthened, in the eyes of some observers, by the release in 1997 of thousands of wartime documents by the United States government, and it is perhaps significant that the Vatican's attempts to find a consensus over Pius XII by creating a Jewish-Catholic Commission on the subject broke down when the Jewish scholars on the commission were refused permission to pry into classified Vatican documents.
Historical controversies should not be seen as signs of failure on the part of scholars. Without the controversies that new information and new analyses inevitably create, progress could never be made in explaining the past, and the ways in which the past has created the present. The arguments over Pius XII should be allowed to continue, and should be enriched by the release of the Vatican's reportedly-vast cache of documents dating from World War Two.
Unfortunately, Ratzinger's determination to canonise Pius XII seems to have made him and some members of his church want to close down the discussion of the man historian John Cornwell described as 'Hitler's Pope'. Ratzinger has refused to open the Vatican's World War Two archive to scholars, and some of his supporters are attempting to portray historians critical of Pius XII as cogs in a vast anti-Catholic conspiracy.
New Zealand's most popular blog has made a foray into history by discussing the Pius XII controversy, and its comments box has become a venue for the conspiracy theories of some of Joseph Ratzinger's supporters. For 'Fletch', who belongs to the NZ Conservative blog, and who has shown an unfortunate weakness for pseudo-history in the past, Kiwiblog's criticism of Pius XII seems tantamount to a mortal sin:
Actually the Pope [Pius XII] was the ONLY one who spoke up [against the Holocaust]. It always angers me when I see revisionist rubbish being brought up...Would YOU have spoken out more if to do so would have sent thousands more to their deaths? And people wonder why Catholics get upset by rubbish like The Da Vinci Code. It’s because some people believe the lies and it gets passed on as truth.
Like the current Pope, Fletch believes that Pius XII's policy of remaining neutral in World War Two, retaining diplomatic relations with the Nazis, refraining from condemning fascism and the Holocaust, and trying discreetly to give humanitarian aid to some Jews who requested it was a pragmatic response to a very difficult situation.
What troubles me about Fletch's argument is its implication that open denunciations of Nazism and open defiance of deportation orders for Jews were an impossibility for a religious body like the Catholic church in an effectively occupied country during World War Two. Such a claim distorts the historical record, and also encourages the view that there is nothing that anybody without access to a few million troops can do to oppose fascism and genocide.
The fact is that there were churches which openly defied the Nazis, and which helped sabotage attempts to deport Jews to their deaths. At exactly the same time that Pius was declining to condemn publically the deportation of Jews from Italy, the mostly Protestant churches of Denmark joined with the resistance and defeated Nazi attempts to send their country’s Jews to the death chambers.
Danish church leaders issued proclamations that condemned plans for the deportation of Jews and called on their members to refuse to carry out any work that might facilitate deportation. Christians were warned it was a sin to supply, service or drive a train carrying Jews away, and this made it easier for underground trade unions to organise the informal strike which helped forestall Nazi plans. Civil servants and local police were also warned against collaboration with deportation orders. Taking heart from the calls to resistance they heard from the pulpit, many Danes hid Jews in their homes to protect them from deportation. As a result of these efforts, only a tiny minorty of Danish Jews was ever deported to the concentration camps. An attempt at a mass deportation in October 1943 netted only five hundred of Denmark's eight thousand Jews and, because of continuing efforts by the Danes, only fifty-one of these five hundred deportees lost their lives to the Nazis.
Of course, Denmark was an exception rather than a rule in occupied Europe. In most countries Jews were deported in huge numbers to near-certain deaths. In many countries, the sort of open resistance to deportation that the Danes practiced would have been very difficult. Denmark was ruled with a relatively light hand by the Nazis, Danish Jews constituted a small, well assimilated minority, and were thus harder for the Nazis to pick out and pick on, and the deportation order came when it was clear that the days of Nazism were numbered, and when resistants were therefore emboldened. In a country like Poland, which was conquered right at the beginning of the war and subjected to direct, unremittingly brutal rule, and which had a huge and geographically and socially segregated Jewish community, resistance to deportations would have been much harder.
There are certain compelling similarities, though, between the situation of Italy when the deportation of Jews took place and the situation in Denmark. Like Denmark, Italy had a relatively small, relatively assimilated Jewish population. Like Denmark, Italy had retained some measure of autonomy from Berlin. Mussolini had, for resons of pride rather than principle, resisted becoming a Nazi puppet, and for years he had made a point of refusing Hitler’s demands for the deportation of Jews.
The deportation of Jews began in earnest only after Mussolini was briefly deposed, rescued from prison by Germans, and installed as puppet leader of the ‘Salo Republic’ in the northern part of Italy that had not yet been occupied by Allied forces and partisans. The Salo Republic and Nazi Germany itself were clearly doomed, and the deportations were, for Himmler and his SS, a race against time and advancing Allied armies. Neither the Salo Republic nor the Nazis had any legitimacy amongst the vast majority of Italians. Swathes of the northern countryside were already under the de facto control of armed partisan bands. Even in the cities, there was sometimes open defiance of the fascists.
Given all of these factors, what would have happened if Pius had publically condemned the deportation of Jews and demanded that all his followers do whatever they could to stop them? Is it unreasonable to suggest that, with the intervention of the Catholic church, the Italians could, like the Danes, have protected their Jewish minority? At the very least, the action of the Danish churches shows us that there was an alternative to Pius’ policies towards the Nazis.