I picked this book up on a whim, having borrowed it from my girlfriend’s history-buff brother. It intrigued me not only with its title, but because I remember the author (John Cornwall) and the basic concept from my senior research paper in high school (a look at the historical abuses by the Catholic church).
Cornwall must know that he is courting controversy simply by vaguely associating Hitler and the “Vicar of Christ on Earth.” I must admit that I went into this book already biased against the pope, not necessarily because I thought he was cremating Jews in the Vatican kitchens, but because the whole Catholic bureaucracy is a sick and twisted exercise, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the Church’s mix of self-hatred and megalomania in some way contributed to a tragedy.
In fact, while Cornwall has solidly made up his made about Pope Pius XII (one Eugenio Pacelli), he fortunately treats the man with a good deal more patience and nuance than I was prepared to offer him. Instead of merely focusing on the years of WWII, Cornwall takes us back to his birth, illustrating the atmosphere of cultural anti-Semitism inherent to Pacelli’s Europe, as well as the slow-burning religious anti-Semitism inherent to Pacelli’s church. Meanwhile, Cornwall takes great care to show the papal grabs for centralized authority of the Church, starting with Pio Nono near the end of the 19th century, as this will come into play later.
The reading can be very dry at times, but I can’t fault Cornwall for trying to make his story as detailed as humanly possible. After all, we’re talking about a sensitive subject, and politics are rarely simple. Without merely repeating Cornwall, here’s the gist of his conclusion: Pacelli was an austere, quiet man and a revered pope; however, he was in many ways more of a diplomat than a spiritual leader (indeed, much of his work, pre-papacy, with the Church was as a Vatican diplomat, esp. to Germany). He was obsessed with papal authority, and continually attempting to consolidate power in the papacy, even to the point of pissing off his constituency by usurping their traditional right to select their own local bishops. Funnily enough, it will be his constituency that protest National Social and the Holocaust1—Pacelli’s most vehement words regarding the extermination of the Jews were a paltry affair, never mentioning “Hitler” or “Jew” at all.
Certainly, the Catholic Church’s presence in Europe at that time was awesome, and the pope as the self-proclaimed leader of said organization had an enormous amount of sway, and so—in both Cornwall’s and my opinion—Pacelli’s failure to explicitly condemn the atrocities committed by Hitler and his cohorts is not only damning to his legacy and his beatification, but downright criminal as well.
This book was meticulous, marvellous, and fascinating, and I would recommend it even to people who aren’t usually history buffs. Besides being good history, Cornwall does a good job at making his readers think about the role that religion plays in political affairs (this is a crucial thread throughout the book), the Christian conscience, and the vagaries of legacy.
- I should here, however, point out that there were plenty of Catholics who were also complicit in the activities of the National Socialists. Not only did many German Catholics ignore the plight of the Jews, being just as anti-Semitic as the next person, but one noticeable event that Cornwall devotes a lot of time to is the very Catholic Ustashe regime in Croatia. Basically, a Catholic dictator (the leader of which Pacelli received graciously in the Vatican, never even bringing up the atrocities he had committed) came to power and began eliminating Jews and Orthodox Serbs in particularly brutal ways. Supposedly, even the Nazis were taken aback by the sheer violence of the genocide, because whereas the Nazis tended to be dispassionate wholesale slaughterers, the Ustashe were a bloodthirsty mob, and indeed a mob whose most vicious perpetrators were Fransiscan friars. The Catholic church was apparently hesitant to condemn the Ustashe because they were Catholic, and the persecution of the Orthodox Serbs was a compelling case for conversions.[↩]