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  • The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War by Jacques Kornberg
  • Mark Edward Ruff
The Pope’s Dilemma: Pius XII Faces Atrocities and Genocide in the Second World War, Jacques Kornberg (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 424 pp., paperback $37.95, electronic version available.

Since the premiere of Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy in 1963, there has been no shortage of voices excoriating Pope Pius XII for his alleged moral failures during the Holocaust. Critics have repeatedly pointed out that Pius did not issue an emphatic condemnation of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, the Croatian Ustasha, or other Axis allies. Jacques Kornberg adds to the chorus of criticism, but with a set of arguments as critical of earlier scholars and authors as of the Pontiff himself.

Kornberg argues that the Pontiff’s ecclesiology underlay his “moral failures,” not his callousness, venality, affinities for fascist regimes, or admiration for Germany as a bulwark against “Bolshevism”—charges hurled at him by earlier critics. Pius XII’s decisions were instead guided by the prevailing Church theology, a theology the Pontiff shared with his predecessors on the throne of St. Peter. The Church’s pastoral mission lay in the salvation of souls, and the Church was to be the mystical body of Christ; this in turn meant ensuring that Catholics worldwide received the sacraments and upheld the Church’s unity.

Being true to the Church’s pastoral mission meant avoiding steps that could alienate German Catholics. Pope Pius XII believed that the latter were already weak in their faith and needed a shepherd. He recalled all too well how Benedict XV’s statesmanship and peace overtures had moved German politicians in 1917 and 1918 to denounce him as a lackey of the Western Allies. Two decades later, Pius feared not only that the Nazi regime would exact harsh reprisals against the Catholic Church in Germany, but that German Catholics themselves would side with the regime (p. 258).

For Pius, the consequences of abandoning German Catholics were simply too dire: cutting them off from the sacraments was the greater evil; the “lesser evil” was, in Kornberg’s words, “conceding the collective evil and indifference as long as Catholics stayed in the fold.” Hence the paradox on which Kornberg’s account is centered. Pius XII was acting according to the standards of his predecessors, and so remained a “good pope”; but these standards were proving woefully inadequate to respond to the radical evil of the extreme Right of the 1930s and 1940s. The Pope’s words of universal justice became “a dead letter.” The consequence, as Kornberg [End Page 556] puts it, was “a papacy engaged in calculated acquiescence in the face of systematic atrocities, even state-sponsored destruction of whole peoples.”

This is an unsparing verdict, but Kornberg also shows an empathy for the beleaguered Pontiff. As he puts it, understanding is an insufficient tool for the historian who must also “pass judgment.” Kornberg thus is frank in his depiction of Pius XII as “three-dimensional, deeply spiritual and morally anguished, struggling with difficult choices among relative evils.”

Kornberg’s 400-page account distills a lifetime of reflection by a scholar of the Holocaust and Zionism. Relying more heavily on secondary than primary sources, his account will no doubt receive considerable attention amidst the seemingly endless “Pius Wars.” The volume reflects the author’s singular mastery of five decades of literature, exploiting the published documentary collections as well as recent scholarship that presents archival material available only for the last fifteen years. It takes issue with books Guenter Lewy and Saul Friedländer wrote in the 1960s, and finds agreement instead with the Jesuits Ludwig Volk and Pierre Blet. In this, Kornberg’s work represents something of a tour de force through the debates since Hochhuth’s 1963 drama.

But Kornberg’s book will not—cannot—have the last word. For one thing, the Vatican has not released all of the papers from the pontificate of Pius XII. And even if these do not provide any smoking guns, they will no doubt add nuance and completion. For another, Kornberg does not address in...


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pp. 556-558
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