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On Hitler, the Holy See and the Jews (Part 2)

6/16/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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Interview With Historian Father Giovanni Sale

ROME, JUNE 16, 2004 (Zenit) - Pope Pius XI's 1937 encyclical against Nazism commanded world attention and was widely seen as a heroic denunciation of Hitler's regime, says a historian.

Father Giovanni Sale, a professor of history at the Gregorian University, in Part 1 of this interview clarified the position of the Holy See and of German Catholics in regard to the rise of Hitler's movement.

In Part II, the historian-priest clarifies the position of Pius XI and Pius XII vis-à-vis Nazism. Father Sale is author of the recently published "Hitler, la Santa Sede e gli Ebrei" (Hitler, the Holy See, and the Jews), Jaca Book publishers.

Q: The encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge" and the fact that Hitler was not able to visit the Vatican show the Holy See's hostility to the Nazi regime. What is your opinion about Pius XI's conduct toward the Nazi regime?

Father Sale: The recent opening of the Vatican Archives relating to the nunciatures of Munich and Berlin shed new light on Hitler's truncated visit to the Vatican -- during his state visit to Rome in 1938 -- as well as on the writing and dissemination in Germany of the encyclical "Mit Brennender Sorge," that is, Pius XI's encyclical against Nazism.

The new available Vatican documentation informs us in an amazingly detailed manner on the vicissitudes linked to the reception of this encyclical by the states and the realms of international diplomacy.

The sources show that the encyclical was interpreted at that time, by the majority of Western countries not linked to Germany, as a courageous act of denunciation of Nazism, of racist doctrines, and of the idolatry of the state that it professed, as well as of its violent methods of social discipline.

"Mit Brennender Sorge" [...] had truly worldwide resonance. Especially for political reasons, it was one of the first papal acts that went beyond the frontiers of the Catholic world: It was read by believers and nonbelievers, by Catholics and Protestants. Moreover, for the first time the latter gave public recognition to a papal document, something which shortly before was unthinkable.

According to a prestigious Dutch Protestant newspaper, the encyclical "would be valid" also for Christians of the Reformation, "as in it the Pope does not limit himself to defend the rights of Catholics, but also those of religious freedom in general."

Of course, "Mit Brennender Sorge" was received in different ways, according to the sensibility and political culture of many of the people who read it.

The fact is, as we have already stated, that it was interpreted generally not only as an act of protest of the Holy See because of the continuous violations of the Concordat by the German government, or as a doctrinal repudiation of the errors of National Socialism, but above all as an act of denunciation of Nazism itself and of its "Führer." And this was understood immediately by the leaders of the Reich.

It is true, as those who have commented on the encyclical have stressed, that it never mentions either National Socialism or Hitler. But if one goes beyond the "letter" of the document, it is easy to perceive behind every page, every phrase a genuine accusation against the Hitlerite system and against its racist and neo-pagan theories.

This was understood by the great majority of the readers of the papal document. That is why it became one of the most important and most courageous denunciations of Nazi barbarism, pronounced in an authoritative manner by the Bishop of Rome, when a great part of the European political world still regarded Hitler with a mixture of admiration, surprise and fear.

Q: Another great debate is that of Pius XII and the Holocaust. What have you concluded after your historical research? What did Pope Pacelli do in face of the persecution of Jews?

Father Sale: In regard to the Jews deported to territories occupied by the Reich, the action taken in their favor by the Holy See's diplomacy was oriented in the direction of the governments of countries allied to Germany, where there was a Catholic majority and a "combative" episcopate.

A note of April 1, 1943, from the Secretariat of State said: "To avoid the mass deportation of Jews, which is taking place in many countries of Europe, the Holy See has requested the attention of the nuncio of Italy, of the chargé d'affaires of Slovakia, and of the Holy See's charge in Croatia."

Using the Vatican diplomatic channels, he did all he could to obtain something -- often, unfortunately, very little -- in favor of the Jews from those governments. It is known, moreover, that he exhorted the local episcopate, in particular the German, to strongly denounce the horrors committed by the Nazis against Catholics and Jews. ...

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