Book Review

Heaven is a place on Earth (Pt 2)


Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda
by Michael Burleigh
576pp, Harper Press, £25

The thread below this one seems to have drawn an interesting discussion about the morality of capital punishment when applied to dictators, but at what point should we speak out strongly against oppressors? Whether or not Pius XII (the former Cardinal Pacelli) and to a lesser extent his predecessor Pius XI (who died in 1939) have any case to answer in terms of implication in the holocaust is a subject which has raged since the war ended, and which was given a considerable stoking as recently as 1999 when the Catholic ex-seminarian John Cornwell published his book Hitler’s Pope: a work partly based on priveliged access to papers in from the Vatican itself. On publication Cornwell was almost immediately accused of making unsubstantiated allegations and of ignoring praise which Pius had received from Jewish leaders whilst alive. In addition, Newsweek accused Cornwall’s book of having “errors of fact and ignorance of context [that] appear on almost every page” and in 2005, Rabbi David G. Dalin published “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” which suggested that Yad Vashem should honor Pope Pius XII as a “Righteous Gentile,” and accused Cornwell and others of exploiting the the Holocaust in order to further their own agenda of forcing changes on the contemporary Catholic Church. Recently, Cornwell has himself acknowledged errors in his work and also said he now found it “impossible to judge” the motives of Pius. It seems that history is now leaning toward the side of the Pope, although given that the Vatican appointed ICJHC investigative commission disbanded itself in 2001 amid claims of non-cooperation from the Holy See, you have to doubt that we have heard the last word on the matter..

One of Michael Burleigh’s aims in Sacred causes seems to be the removal of any remaining blemishes from the reputations of Pius XII and his predecessor. Burleigh is very keen to let his readers know that he has “no investment” in defending the reputations of the Popes, though many have noticed a certain amount of what John Grey in the Observer calls “Special Pleading.” Space restricts me to an outline of Burleigh’s case and then a reasonably detailed exposition of events in a country which I take to be the most damning indictment of the Catholic church’s involvement in “totalitarianism.” But in terms of what should be expected from a powerful moral voice in times of great trouble the life of Pius XII is surely relevant to our own age.

Burleigh starts his case for the defence in a Mexico which will be familiar to readers of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. A socialist government has banned “backward” religion and priests are on the run from impromptu firing-squads. This is the context, it is suggested, in which the actions of the Catholic Church and its dealings with the totalitarian powers should be viewed. Fair enough, although even in Hitler’s Germany the mere fact of being a Catholic priest was never as dangerous as it was in Green’s artistic representation of Tabasco.

Burleigh outlines The basic events of the Spanish Civil War (as he does most events of the 20th century – this is a book which any general reader will find useful as a basic history – especially on lesser-known events in eastern and central Europe)

The Spanish republic had broken off relations with the Vatican In 1932 when the socialist leader Azana had indicated that after his latest batch of reforms Spain had ceased to be a catholic country. When news of the 1936 military uprising was announced it was the cue for one of the largest outbreaks of anti-clerical violence in the history of a state where the murder of clerics had not been unknown; especially amongst a peasantry who were never the most deeply religious in Europe. Franco himself had shown little sign of strongly- held religious views up until his marriage in 1923 to the devoutly catholic Carmen Polo.

Pius XI and his secretary of state Pacelli were bombarded with information from interested clergy on both the Republican and Nationalist sides of the conflict, but were adamant that any atrocities were part of an axis of evil which stretched from Mexico to Russia. Pacelli brushed off Franco’s request for support; but made it clear that he found it impossible to understand how the mainly catholic Basques could be fighting alongside godless communists; at the same time he was attempting to defuse the conflict between the Basques and the nationalists. As the tide of war turned rightwards, the Vatican recognised Franco’s government and dispatched a charge d’ affaires, eventually restoring full relations in 1938. From the example of Spain there would seem little doubt that Pius was prepared to deal with nominally “Catholic” dictators, and in the light of later charges of “kid gloves” it is perhaps worth remembering that Hitler himself was a lapsed catholic.

Interestingly, British Catholics in general supported Franco, Cardinal Hinsley even kept a photo of the Caudillo on his desk in Westminster cathedral. The Irish Catholic hierarchy positively enthused over the Nationalist ‘crusade’, with archbishop MacRory of Armagh claiming that the war was a question of whether Spain will remain, as she has for so long, a Christian and Catholic country or a Bolshevist and anti-God one.

In the early years of the fascist regime in Italy the Papacy had needed to deal carefully with Mussolini, who had once even declared fascism itself to be “catholic.” Given the Pope’s reduced status in Italy after Garibaldi.this is in some ways not surprising. Pope Pius XI called Mussolini “‘a man sent by Providence.’ Although his successor does not seem to have had such a positive view of the Duce. It seems rather an “own-goal” however, for Burleigh to compare the “babel of conflicting views” in the Vatican with the problems of running a totalitarian state in practice. It is a fact that neither Hitler nor the Pope had day to day control over everything their underlings did, but I find it rather odd that Burleigh seems to want his reader to compare Hitler’s ultimate responsibility for nazism against the Pope’s overall responsibility for the actions of the church. Burleigh says that: Only people with no understanding of how the Catholic Church operates can hold the Vatican responsible for fanatic elements of its own lower clergy, whether in Croatia or Ireland. But when speaking of the Slovak leader (and catholic priest) Josef Tiso, who once famously proclaimed that “God is a fascist” quotes Pius as saying: It is a great misfortune that the President of Slovakia is a priest. Everyone knows that the Holy See cannot bring Hitler to heel. But who will understand that we cannot even control a priest? Well quite. Pacelli himself was certainly a believer in the absolute leadership principle, and practiced a centralized, dictatorial authority from his coronation on March 2, 1939, until his death in October 1958. Perhaps his papacy was a journey of his own understanding of the limits of control.

Pacelli had been Papal Nuncio in Munich until 1925, and Berlin until 1929. One of the usual charges of early anti-semitism levelled at him is that in the midst of the short-lived Munich soviet of 1919 he met with some Jewish communist officials who he later described as a female rabble. Burleigh mentions this event but curiously doesn’t not get round to the fact that On September 4, 1917, Dr. Werner, the chief rabbi of Munich, had approached the nunciature for help in getting palm fronds, (needed for the festival of tabernacle) because the Italian government had forbidden their exportation. Pacelli refused to help, telling a colleague that he didn’t think it appropriate for the Vatican to assist them in the exercise of their Jewish cult.

Around the same time (and again overlooked by Burleigh), Pacelli campaigned to have black French troops removed from the Rhineland, suggesting that they were raping women and abusing children – even though an independent inquiry sponsored by the U.S. Congress, which Pacelli knew all about, had proved the allegation false. Twenty-three years later, when Allied troops entered Rome, Pius requested of the British envoy to the Vatican that no black troops should number among the occupying garrison in the city.

Such are the early allegations of bigotry directed at Cardinal Pacelli. But what of his actions during WW2 itself? Unlike many other European statesmen Pacelli had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf as early as 1925 and had subsequently called the Fuhrer: “obsessed” and: a “new manifestation of the Anti-Christ”. But for somebody who felt so strongly he seems to have done little to prevent this “Anti-Christ’s” rise to ultimate power. After Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the votes of the 72 deputies of the catholic centre party were crucial to his passage of the enabling act, allowing him to govern without recourse to parliament for a further four years. Lured by vague reassurances on religion, Centre party chairman Ludwig Kaas (who later, in exile, became superintendent of St Peter’s basilica in Rome) made sure that his members voted for the law. Could the papacy really not have intervened? Did Pius really think that Hitler’s promised concordat allowing religious freedom would have been worth the paper it was written on? This all happened during the reign of Pius XI, but it is surely inexplicable that he would not have consulted his former envoy to Munich and Berlin. Eventually, Hitler insisted that his signature on the concordat would depend on the Center Party’s voting for the act. If there was one time when standing up to the dictator could have made a real difference, this was surely it. and it can only be considered very charitable to put a lack of intervention down to the Pope’s famed “diplomatic mindset.” None of this is enough to suggest that the future Pope was an evil man himself, but it certainly seems that he could have benefited from reading a little Edmund Burke

When many Catholics were killed during the “night of the long knives” Pacelli continued to hope that the Fuhrer would calm down once he got used to power. The Nazi campaign of forced sterilisation raised muted mumbles of complaint from the church, though “rendering unto Caeser” seems to have been taken rather literally where most Nazi breeches of humanity were concerned. Even as incidents of anti-semitism rose in Germany during the 1930’s, Pacelli failed to complain, even on behalf of Jews who had become Catholics, feeling apparently that it was all a matter of German internal policy.

On February 10, 1939, Pius XI died.. Pacelli, then 63, was elected Pope by the College of Cardinals. He was crowned on March 12, on the eve of Hitler’s march into Prague. The new Pope learnt of the Nazi plans to exterminate the Jews of Europe shortly after they were laid in January 1942. Silent for virtually a whole year, on December 24, 1942, Pacelli at last acted. In his Christmas Eve broadcast to the world on Vatican Radio, he said that men of goodwill owed a vow to bring society “back to its immovable center of gravity in divine law.” He went on: “Humanity owes this vow to those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality and race, are marked for death or gradual extinction.” And that was it: the strongest public denunciation of the Final Solution that the Pope would make during the entire course of the second world war.

Pius undoubtedly hid many refugees in his own papal palaces and assisted in the hiding of many more by local Catholics all over occupied Europe (these included the widow of Alfred Dreyfus, who survived the war as ‘Madame Duteil’ in a convent in Valence.) His defenders, including Burleigh, would point out that among the considerations preventing a forthright condemnation of Nazi persecution was the fact that as long as he did not know that Hitler’s intention was to kill every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe – and that intention was not clear at the start – then the desire not to make matters worse may have been a crucial consideration. It is of course a matter of interpretation whether we can accept this, or if we are even able to put ourselves in the shoes of the Pope. The lesson for “moral leaders” of the present however, seems fairly clear (and yes, that does mean speaking out even against the president of the USA.)

As an international institution, the Catholic Church had to negotiate every political context, protecting the rights of Catholics in all belligerent countries through the mechanism of concordats; rendering assistance to a much wider range of humanity; and balancing its diplomatic cum spiritual objectives with the role of moral prophecy. This approach plainly did not work, and again the lesson should be clear.

In my own opinion the most damning indictment of Pius XI comes not from his attitude to Hitler but his (there is no more appropriate word) encouragement of the Croat fascist Ante Pavelic (in whom perhaps Pacelli may have seen another potential Franco.)

Recent events in Yugoslavia have allowed Pavelic’s regime to become shrouded in a propaganda which owes more to the 1990s project of a greater Serbia in than to the real history of the organisation, an imposition which was only ever accepted by Croats on the principle that anything must be better than the Serb rule to which the Versailles-formed “Kingdom of Croats, Serbs and Slovenes” had descended by the mid-twenties. So perhaps a little historical detour is necessary at this point.

Ante Pavelic, a lawyer in his early forties, had sat in Yugoslavia’s parliament as a member for Zagreb, but having called for the violent overthrow of the government had gone into exile in Italy with a sentenced of death hanging over him. With the financial assistance of Mussolini, Pavelic set about the construction of two training camps for his new organization, the “Ustache,” the “Rebels” or “Croatian Revolutionary Organization” (The precise political orientation of the organisation at this point was a little unclear, even the Communist Party of Yugoslavia was convinced at first that the organisation was progressive and should be cultivated as a political ally. The “Proleter” (Communist Party newspaper) announced in December 1932: The Communist Party salutes the Ustasha movement of the Peasants of Lika and Dalmatia and fully backs them. It is the duty of all Communist organizations and of every Communist to help this movement, to organize it and to lead it. Another good call from the Marxist-Leninist intellectuals who never quite understood that when Pavelic said that the only true Croat was one with peasant blood, that was exactly what he meant.

To begin with Pavelic was very much Mussolini’s creature, especially after Italy’s effective takeover of Zog’s Albania. But the duce seems to have allowed Pavelic to much freedom, and In 1929 the Ustache (probably acting on their own initiative) commenced a violent campaign of assasination within Yugoslavia itself. In October 1934, in an attack which also killed The French Foreign Minister, King Aleksander of Yugoslavia was assassinated as he arrived in Marseilles for a state visit., The murders were actually organized by The Macedonian independence organisation VMRO with the active help of Pavelic’s Ustache. Even Mussolini realised the dangers of being seen to support such an action, and virtually arrested the Ustache, confining them to camps on the island of Lipari for the next six years. However, when on On 6 April 1941, Germany declared war on Yugoslavia, the Italians moved quickly to ensure that Pavelic – their candidate- gained control in Croatia. As soon as Mussolini had been informed of German plans to invade Yugoslavia, he Summoned Pavelic from his home in Siena for a first face-to-face encounter in Rome, to brief him on his tasks.

The exiled Ustashe (who numbered somewhere between 300 and 700) were surprised by the upturn in their fortunes. They were neither a popular nor a well-known movement in Croatia itself (having been out of the country for the best part of ten years,) Croatia wanted independence from the Serbs but would they accept Pavelic as a liberator? An important role in establishing the Ustashe regime’s credibility was played by the Archbishop of Zagreb; Alojzije Stepinac, who gave his support to the Ustashe regime without hesitation and quickly gave Pavelic his public blessing. ‘ The Vatican was slightly more reserved, but when Pavelic went to Rome to sign an agreement on the NDH’s frontiers with Italy , Pius received this known terrorist politely. Why? The subsequent murders of Jews,Serbs and gypsies (not to mention many left-wing Croats) is well enough known already.

Both Stepinac’s and the Pope’s enthusiasm for the NDH eventually waned in the face of atrocity but the archbishop’s attitude may throw some light on that of his suprerior. The archbishop always remained naive about Politics and about the nature of Pavelic’s regime. When he asked a colleague whether he thought Pavelic knew anything about the killings of Serbs, and was told that of course Pavelic knew everything, the Archbishop went pale and burst into tears.

Despite all this Pavelic still had his supporters within the Catholic church. At the end of the war most of the fleeing Ustache were massacred by Tito’s partisans on the Austrian border but many others got away. The very day that Germany surrendered and the first Partisans reached Zagreb, Pavelic himself crossed the old Yugoslav frontier at Maribor and headed for Salzburg, eventually slipping into Italy and being whisked away along the “ratlines” to Argentina. Out of reach of Allied retribution, Pavelic survived several assassination attempts carried out by Tito’ s secret police and died in his bed in Spain in 1957. Several other high-ranking members of the Ustache also fled to Argentina (and a large number, Ustache “minister of the interior” Artukovitch amongst them) were scandalously offered refuge in Ireland.) It was not the overworked SS “ratlines” which found time to help these Slavs at the end of the war but rather those of the catholic church itself: operating through the monastery of San Girolamo degli Illirici in Rome’s Via Tomacelli.

So can we lump Burleigh in with the David Irvings of this world? By that I mean does he write mostly factually correct history and then either insert the odd whopper or leave out crucial evidence? Not really. No historian is totally objective and Burleigh makes no secret of his Catholic sympathies. I am an atheist, so am biased against the pope, and although I have tried to treat him fairly some bias will still have undoubtedly crept into the choice of sources which I have used above. (I am also limited by practicalities, I have much less room than Burleigh and have been rattling on merrily much longer than anybody usually does here, as you have no doubt noticed.) But I will still be criticised for what I have left out, and especially on the Pavelic regime I am sure that I will be attacked in the comments, although I am also sure that the attacks will be based on ignorance and propaganda rather than history, so it’s a good job that I am totally sure of my sources! I can of course also be criticised for the tone I have used, and also on how I have structured the narrative, but we do not surpress our present-day concerns when we research the past.

As EH Carr said: “study the historian before you study the facts” Burleigh has not, (like Irving was judged to have, or even as John Cornwell has been accused of) attempted to use history for a particular political end. He is keen to point out that not even a biographical “rescue” (as holocaust deniers have attempted for Hitler) is being tried here, nor like some Marxist historian writing on the Russian revolution is he attempting to unhesitatingly identify history with the victorious cause. There is no large sweep of history moving towards any particular ending (indeed this is one of the main points of his book.) The Pope cannot be made into a any more of either a major player or a decisive man on the evidence which we currently possess (and anyway, Burleigh is cleverer than to attempt to do so). The story of Pius may yet have surprises and Burleigh is merely analysing the available traces which have been left behind. Nobody is pretending to be definitive, but Burleigh’s work consists of rational arguments and scholarship rather than prejudice and propaganda.

The image of Pius XII that I would like to end on comes from another section of Sacred Causes, one which does not even concern the pontiff at all, but a Romanian Patriach, a: grim, ruthless old man of the old anti-semitic priesthood who listens to the pleas of the chief rabbi Safran with what is described as “surpressed hostility,” until the rabbi, realising he is not connecting on a human level, exclaims:

Don’t you realise that I am talking about the lives of tens of thousands of absolutely innocent people? You shall bear an overwhelming responsibility if you allow such an injustice to occur!…

unable to control myself I collapsed and fell to the floor. He saw me kneeling in front of him and was extremely impressed. The patriach descended his throne and together with his secretary, helped me up. There was a dramatic change in the atmosphere. The patriarch began muttering, as if talking to himself, but also talking to me at the same time: ”What can I do?”

I’m not sure exactly why, but the anecdote both reassures me about the ability of humans to connect even across great divides and also gives me some small insight into how Pius must have felt. But again I ask the question, at what point do we speak out strongly against a tyrant?