For years Pius XII has been smeared. The BBC retraction shows the tide is turning

Pope Pius XII gives a radio broadcast from the Vatican in 1947 (AP)

Pope Pius XII gives a radio broadcast from the Vatican in 1947 (AP)

by William Doino Jr on the Catholic Herald

Major historians such as Sir Martin Gilbert have demolished the myths first perpetrated by the Soviet Union

“Fake News”, about which we hear so much at the moment, is as old as human communication itself. It’s fuelled by Original Sin, and its birth and growth is hardly a surprise to the Church. For if anyone has felt the sting of fake news – with all its menacing consequences – it has been practising Catholics.

As Rodney Stark amply documents in his work, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, few institutions have been the victim of “fake news” more often than the Roman Catholic Church.

Just one of many examples is the scurrilous campaign to defame Pope Pius XII. At the end of the Second World War, Pius was praised for his moral leadership, strong opposition to Nazism, and interventions which saved many persecuted Jews.

Not long after the fall of the Third Reich, however, a new world struggle emerged, between Christianity and Communism. “In this case, legends grew,” wrote historian Owen Chadwick in The Tablet, and “propaganda fostered them – propaganda in the first instance by Stalin’s men in the Cold War, when the Vatican appeared to be part of the American anti-Communist alliance and Stalin wished to shatter the Pope’s reputation … Stalin had a political need to make this Pope contemptible.”

The Soviet propaganda against Pius was expanded by playwright Rolf Hochhuth, author of the 1963 play, The Deputy, which bitterly caricatured Pius as silent and indifferent during the Holocaust. Hochhuth energized an anti-papal campaign which reached a crescendo with the publication of John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope (1999).

Though the allegations against Pius XII were ably answered by eminent historians like Chadwick and Sir Martin Gilbert—as well as first-hand witnesses who worked with Pius to combat Nazism and the Holocaust – the campaign against him had a damaging effect. As Chadwick lamented: “It is still believed by many people that Pope Pius XII was a friend of the Nazis, or that he said nothing at all against racial mass murder during the War.”

Those people apparently included a BBC reporter who, during Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz in July, told viewers: “Silence was the response of the Catholic Church when Nazi Germany demonised Jewish people and then attempted to eradicate Jews from Europe.”

But now something remarkable has happened. After strong protests from concerned Catholics, led by Lord Alton and Fr Leo Chamberlain, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has found that the report “did not give due weight to public statements by successive Popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.”

While this correction might seem like brief and passing news, for those of us who’ve fought to clear the good name of Pius XII, it constitutes a major victory.

After years of protesting outrageously slanted reports and documentaries on Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Holocaust – and having our heavily-documented rebuttals ignored – here, at last, was progress.

When I read the BBC’s correction, I could not but help think of the impressive scholarship of men like Chadwick and Gilbert, who did so much to exonerate Pius XII, and whom I had the privilege of consulting before their respective deaths. Both of them, I am sure, would have welcomed the BBC’s about-face, especially Gilbert, whose book, The Righteous, is a comprehensive study of Christians, including Pius XII, who rescued Jews during World War II – often at great risk to themselves.

In 2003, the year Gilbert’s book was published, he granted me an extensive interview in which he methodically demolished the charges against Pius XII, emphasizing two things:

– Not only was the Catholic Church not “silent,” during the Holocaust, Vatican Radio, authorized and sustained by Pius XII, was among the first major voices to publicly condemn Nazi atrocities against Jews and Catholics in Poland, shortly after World War II began. Hence, said Gilbert, “To assert Pius XII was ‘silent’ about Nazi mass murder is a serious error of historical fact.” Sir Martin also told me that the Pope’s Christmas message of 1942, which condemned the extermination of people based upon their “race or descent” was extremely important, because it “put the Pope squarely and publicly against the Holocaust.” Indeed, the Nazis were so infuriated by it that they denounced Pius XII as a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.”

* Asked if he agreed with the Vatican’s 1998 declaration on the Holocaust (“We Remember”) that “hundreds of thousands” of Jews were rescued under Pius XII, Gilbert, who spent decades meticulously researching the Holocaust in archives around the world, told me that that statement was not a self-serving exaggeration, but historically accurate: “Yes, that is certainly correct. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, saved by the entire Catholic Church, under the leadership, and with the support of Pope Pius XII – would, to my mind, be absolutely correct.”

Gilbert has helped to inspire a generation of writers who have defended Pius XII with hard facts and serious research. The anthology The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, to which I contributed an 80,000-word annotated bibliography, collects some of the most important evidence. That anthology, in turn, has been favourably cited by many historians, notably Michael Burleigh (Sacred Causes) and Mark Riebling (Church of Spies), whose acclaimed books have only strengthened the case for Pius XII.

Today, no reputable historian takes the charges of Hochhuth or Cornwell seriously, for the evidence in Pius XII’s favour is simply too great. That a renowned news organization like the BBC now recognizes that fact marks a real turning point in the “Pius War,” and proves that the battle to rescue his reputation from fake history is finally being won.

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12 Responses to For years Pius XII has been smeared. The BBC retraction shows the tide is turning

  1. 000rjbennett says:

    Fine, but the BBC has made its retraction in the most inconspicuous way, with the tiniest possible announcement on its website (https://goo.gl/J7hTf4).

    You would never know the retraction was there if you didn’t know what to look for.

    What the BBC SHOULD do now is produce an entire PROGRAM about this important issue, correcting the DECADES of smearing of the reputation of Pope Pius XII.

  2. johnhenrycn says:

    Excellent suggestion, RJB. I look forward to seeing such a program.

  3. johnhenrycn says:

    …although an appropriate rejoinder to my expectation is:“In your dreams”.

  4. Crow says:

    The fact that the BBC even broadcasted a program that entailed an apology is evidence of wilful blindness. One cannot do any serious research into the subject and reach any other conclusion than that Pius XII was a ‘Righteous Gentile’. The mindset of the media and those in the community who seize every opportunity to club the Catholic Church is evident here. The fact that, faced with the plethora of evidence in favour of Pius XII, (which they didn’t see before!?), they are compelled to give a mean-spirited retraction, only proves that the main-stream media are a vehicle for propoganda and hence, irrelevant.

  5. kathleen says:

    Well said, Robert, JH and Crow!

    A small retraction in a hidden corner for such wicked, libellious attacks against this outstanding Pope, Pius XII, is not enough. The BBC must come clean and do justice to his memory that they have further maligned, by now making a whole Programme about Pius XII’s holy papacy and his heroic deeds during WW2 to save lives.

    The directors of the Holocaust Museum in Israel, Yad Vashem (that I once visited on a trip to the Holy Land), should also admit that Pius XII was indeed, a “Righteous Gentile”, instead of dithering on how to interpret his role during the war. They insist the archives in the Vatican should be made accessible to them before they proclaim this! At least they retracted from their former unkind (and untrue) condemnation of his part of the blame for not speaking out against the Holicaust, but they won’t go further than that for the time being, saying only that there are diverse opinions. Considering how many visitors pass through Yad Vashem, and will be influenced by the information they read there, this is sad, and yet another slight against this great Pope.

    An honest Israeli gentleman once proclaimed that Pope Pius XII did everything humanly possible to save Jews from the Holocaust, both in word and deed, whilst the rich American Jews safe in the US did “d**n all” except criticise him!!
    Yes, it was an Israeli who said that to me!

  6. johnhenrycn says:

    The Jewish man I occasionally go on road trips with is, I think, essentially of the same view as the man you speak of, Kathleen. He is happy to go to Mass with me on Sunday (he never partakes of communion) and has never said a word against Pius XII.

  7. Toad says:

    Matter of opinion, as usual.
    I think the Pope should have spoken our loud and clear – it was his duty.
    But I might be wrong.
    Very often am.

    “…only proves that the main-stream media are a vehicle for propoganda and hence, irrelevant.”
    …And the Catholic media are not a vehicle for Catholic propaganda.
    I see. But, if not, I think they d**n well ought to be.

  8. kathleen says:

    But I might be wrong.
    Very often am.

    Well, I agree with you for once, Toad! “Wrong”, you are.

    Before saying such ridiculous things about Pope Pius XII, it would be helpful if you’d follow the links in the article above (and/or read the wealth of reliable information available) that clearly vindicates Pope Pius XII of “silence” on atrocities during the war. He personally risked his own safety and that of countless good Catholics to save as many Jews from the Holocaust as was humanly possible.

    Would the chief Rabbi of Rome with his family have converted to Catholicism if Pius had been a silent bystander during the Holocaust?

  9. Toad says:

    I have no doubt the Pope did a very great deal indeed to help save the Jews, Kathleen.
    I just think that given his unique position, he might have been more outspoken – for example publicly excommunicating all Catholics involved in what was possibly the worst crime in history. .
    If that is ridiculous, well, OK – I’m ridiculous. No doubt I am.

  10. JabbaPapa says:

    I think the Pope should have spoken our loud and clear – it was his duty.

    Pope Pius XI : http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge.html

    In early 1931, the German Bishops issued an edict excommunicating all Nazi leadership and active militants, and banned Catholics from membership ; which was later mitigated only to the extent that those forced by the State to adhere to the Party against their will could be forgiven.

    Later, as the death squads started their butchery, those priests and Bishops who spoke out against these evils were systematically rounded up, then either imprisoned, murdered on the spot, or sent out to the death camps, and on several occasions the Sunday Congregations attending their churches were just slaughtered with machine guns — and not just in Germany, but throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.

    NOT the real risk of personal martyrdom, that no not every priest will be brave enough for, but the serious risk of seeing hundreds or thousands or even greater numbers of innocent Catholics suffering the same evil fate as the Jews prompted Pope Pius XII to order far more discrete and yet more direct methods of assistance and protection towards the persecuted Jews ; because the need to help the Jews did not outweigh the responsibility to protect the Catholics from similar persecutions as much as possible. The Pope’s personal actions towards the Jews are BTW widely credited as being the greatest deeds of their kind of any individual during WW2.

  11. Toad says:

    “… the serious risk of seeing hundreds or thousands or even greater numbers of innocent Catholics suffering the same evil fate as the Jews prompted Pope Pius XII to order far more discrete and yet more direct methods of assistance and protection towards the persecuted Jews…”
    The idea of Hitler ordering the massacre of millions of Catholics for disobeying him seems rather far-fetched. But who knows? Better to keep quiet, maybe?
    Np more on this from Toad. It is futile. Matter of opinion, again.

    “..which was later mitigated only to the extent that those forced by the State to adhere to the Party against their will could be forgiven.”
    …Only obeying orders, after all.

  12. JabbaPapa says:

    The idea of Hitler ordering the massacre of millions of Catholics for disobeying him seems rather far-fetched

    In fact, the Nuremberg Trial papers demonstrate that this was exactly the Nazi Plan, once they’d finished with their massacre of those millions of the Jews.

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