Who Brought Down Pius XII?

L’Osservatore Director Blames Communists, Church Division

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ROME, JUNE 15, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The director of the Vatican’s semi-official daily newspaper L’Osservatore Romano contends that the Black Legend surrounding Pope Pius XII and Nazism has two causes: Communist propaganda and division within the Church.

Giovanni Maria Vian affirmed this when he talked with ZENIT about a book that he edited titled “In Difesa di Pio XII: Le Ragioni della Storia” (In Defense of Pius XII: The Reasons of History).

Benedict XVI’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, presented the book last week.

Vian uses the expression “leggenda nera” (black legend) in referring to the controversy surrounding Pius XII, which claims the Pope did too little to stop the Nazi horrors against the Jews. He said that at the Pope’s death in 1958, he was unanimously praised for his efforts during the Second World War, but since then he has truly been “demonized.”

How was such a reversal of image possible, a reversal that took place within the space of a few short years, beginning more or less around 1963?

Vian attributes this campaign against the Pope first of all to Communist propaganda, which intensified during the Cold War.

“The line that the Pope and the Holy See assumed during the years of conflict, averse to totalitarianism but traditionally neutral, was, according to actual deeds, favorable to the anti-Hitler alliance and was characterized by a humanitarian effort without precedent, which saved many human lives,” he observed. “This line was, in any case, anti-Communist, and because of this, already during the war, the Pope became the target of Soviet propaganda as being in cahoots with Nazism and its horrors.”

Soviet propaganda against Pius XII was powerfully re-launched in Rolf Hochhuth’s play “Der Stellvertreter” (The Deputy), performed for the first time in Berlin on Feb. 20, 1963, which presented the Pope’s silence as indifference to the extermination of the Jews, Vian said.

Already then, Vian continued, it was noted that the play took up many of the ideas proposed by Mikhail Markovich Scheinmann in his book “Der Vatican im Zweiten Weltkrieg” (The Vatican in the Second World War), first published in Russian by the Historical Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, a propaganda instrument of Communist ideology.

From the inside

Vian contended that there were also those within the Church who promoted the discrediting of Pius XII because of the division between “progressives” and “conservatives” that developed during and after the Second Vatican Council.

Pius XII’s successor, John XXIII, “was very early hailed as ‘the good Pope,’ and without nuance was more and more set [by some] in opposition to his predecessor: because of the radically different styles, but also because of the unexpected and clamorous decision to convoke a council,” he remarked.

But, Vian continued, Catholic criticism of Pius XII began already in 1939 with the questions of the French Catholic philosopher Emmanuel Mounier, who criticized the Pope’s “silence” about Italian aggression in Albania. Pius XII was also criticized by Polish groups in exile, who reproved him for his silence about the German occupation of their homeland.

Vian suggested that with division in the Church beginning in the 1960s, those who opposed conservatives attacked Pius XII — who was presented as their symbol — fostering and using the arguments of the black legend.

Justice at last

The director of L’Osservatore Romano stressed that this book did not stem from the intention of an aprioristic defense of the Pope, “because Pius XII does not need apologists who do not help to clarify the historical question.”

Vian stressed that Pius XII’s low key approach — not only in regard to the Nazi persecution of Jews (which was denounced without clamor but unequivocally in the Christmas message of 1942 and in an address to cardinals on June 2, 1943,) but also in regard to other Nazi crimes — had the purpose of trying not to aggravate the situation of the victims, while the Pontiff worked to help them in other discreet ways.

“Pacelli often questioned himself about his attitude, which was nevertheless a conscious choice that he endured in order to save the greatest possible number of human victims rather than continually denouncing the evil with the real danger of still greater horrors,” Vian explained.

He noted that the aim of the book is above all to contribute to restoring to history and the memory of Catholics a Pope and a pontificate that, for many reasons, is of capital importance and that remains obscured in public opinion by the polemics caused by the black legend.

The book brings together pieces by Cardinal Bertone; the journalist and historian Paolo Mieli; the late Jewish biologist, physician and writer, Saul Israel; the historian and founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, Andrea Riccardi; Archbishops Salvatore Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture; and finally a homily from Benedict XVI and two speeches in memory of his predecessor.

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