This year marks the 80th anniversary of one of the landmark moments in the recent history of the Catholic Church--the signing on July 20, 1933, of a concordat between the Vatican and Hitler's Nazi regime. What makes this event so significant is that it constitutes the starting point for bitter accusations regarding the Catholic Church's alleged failure to condemn the tyrannical, totalitarian Third Reich and the Holocaust that flowed from it. Ever since the appearance of Rolf Hochhuth's play, "The Deputy," in 1963, the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII have been excoriated for their silence before the horrors of the Holocaust.
Recent revelations, based on interviews with a Romanian spymaster, indicate that Hochhuth may have been the dupe of a clever KGB plot to undermine the influence of the Vatican after World War II. But for the last half century, Hochhuth's charge has put the Vatican on the defensive, particularly during the last decade, when a firestorm of international controversy accompanied Pope Benedict XVI's approval of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints' recommendation to name Pius XII "venerable," a step towards possible canonization. That move triggered new rounds of recrimination about the Vatican's alleged callousness toward Hitler's victims, especially Jews, and about the historical issues surrounding Pius XII's dealings with the Nazis.
Yet lately the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial began softening its view of Pius XII. The wall text criticizing him for not speaking out against Nazi treatment of the Jews has been retitled from "Pope Pius and the Holocaust" to "The Vatican and the Holocaust." Significantly, Pius's message of Christmas 1942 is now highlighted, in particular his declaration that "hundreds of thousands of persons, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or ethnic origin, have been consigned to death or slow decline."
The New York Times at the time observed of Pius XII's Christmas address, "This Christmas more than ever he is a lonely voice crying out in the silence of a continent." Pius XII's message was carefully analyzed by Reinhard Heydrich's branch of the SS, which saw the pope's message as an attack on the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitism. Calling the Christmas address "a masterpiece of clerical falsification," the SS reported that the "Pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order" and noted his assertion that "all peoples and races are worthy of the same consideration." "Here," they argued, "he is clearly speaking of the Jews."
Piux XII was not, as the title of one book about him charges, "Hitler's Pope." And the 80th anniversary of the Reichskonkordat is a timely occasion for a fresh look at how that agreement between the Vatican and Nazi Germany came about.
The concordat with Germany was signed by Pope Pius XI. But it was formulated and negotiated by his close aide, the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Maria Giuseppi Pacelli, who would succeed him as Pope Pius XII. Regulating relations between the Vatican and various nations, concordats in no way amount to official endorsement of a regime. Nonetheless, popular opinion has typically treated them as such.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and of the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, the Vatican used concordats to safeguard the Church's financial and geopolitical interests. Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli devoted their energies to protecting the confessional status of the Catholic Church in education and guaranteeing the independence of organizations such as Catholic Youth.
In Germany, no earlier concordat existed. Before German unification under Bismarck in 1871, the Vatican had negotiated treaties with several of the German states, including Bavaria and Prussia, yet no formal agreement with either Wilhelmine or Weimar Germany followed. Because of this lack and fears for the German Church after Hitler came to power in January 1933, Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli sought to normalize relations with Berlin. …