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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 326-327

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Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. By José M. Sánchez. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press. 2002. Pp. ix, 197. $39.95 cloth; $19.95 paperback.)

The first criticism of the silence of Pope Pius XII when confronted by the atrocities of the Holocaust was contained in the 1963 German stage production of Rolf Hochhuth's play, The Deputy. Since that date, critics and defenders of Pius XII have debated the explanation of his behavior, and this debate has recently been given new life by the 1999 publication of Hitler's Pope by the British author, John Cornwell. The present study by José M. Sánchez is an examination of the historical writing on Pius XII and the Holocaust, and, as such, it deconstructs and evaluates the arguments of the pope's critics and defenders.

From a review of the literature on the silence of Pius XII, Sanchez assesses the value of the available sources, and outlines what we know about what the pope knew of the Holocaust and was likely to have believed. Sanchez also attempts to provide clarification by contextualizing the public wartime statements of the pope. His main conclusion is that Pius XII could never adequately resolve the dilemma between being the Vicar of Christ on earth and being the institutional head of the Roman Catholic Church. For Pius, moral and institutional priorities were hopelessly intertwined and never really clarified in his own mind. This lack of clarity, contends Sánchez, is what has given rise to the debate, since the inconsistencies of the papal utterances can be used to support many explanations for his behavior.

In the body of the book, Sánchez evaluates the explanations which have been advanced for Pius' silence. Based on the available evidence, Sánchez dismisses as the least likely reasons for the silence the arguments that Pius XII was an anti-Semite, that he was primarily concerned about preserving the security of the Vatican City State, that he had a personal fear of being incarcerated by Hitler, and that he was fearful lest Rome should be destroyed. While deeming it to be a more significant argument, Sánchez also dismisses the likelihood that the pope feared Bolshevism more than Nazism and that Pius was hoping for a German victory on the eastern front.

The reasons that Sánchez puts forward as significant explanations for the pope's silence include a concern to preserve the German Concordat of 1933 and the protection it offered to the German Catholic community; the pope's reluctance to create a crisis of conscience for German Catholics by forcing them to choose between Hitler and their church; the traditional caution of Vatican diplomacy and the papal desire to act as a mediator to help end the war. While these reasons are all important, even more significant, claims Sánchez, was the documented desire of Pius XII to do no harm to the victims of Nazi persecution through his belief that any public protest would only have made matters worse.

The book is a balanced and judicious study of the evidence and the arguments in the debate over the silence of Pius XII. Sánchez is scrupulously fair in his presentation, being concerned that too many writers on the subject start [End Page 326] from a preconceived position and do not allow their arguments to be guided by the evidence. Nevertheless, this book really does not add much to our knowledge of this issue, based as it is on familiar secondary sources and the published Vatican documents.

Sánchez exemplifies a dispassionate approach to this historical problem, although he unfairly implies that the recent study by Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, imposes unwarranted criticism on Pius XII. Sánchez' book is marred by a couple of minor errors, such as the assertion that the Secret Archives of the Vatican works under a seventy-five-year rule for the opening of its collections (p. 28), when the experience...


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