A prominent Holocaust scholar said Wednesday that Pope Pius XII’s refusal to denounce the Holocaust saved Rome from Nazi destruction but cost thousands of Jews their lives.

National Holocaust Museum scholar Michael Phayer said that Pius XII, who served as the head of the Roman Catholic Church during World War II, could have possibly used his moral authority to pressure Adolf Hitler into stopping the Holocaust.

Defenders of Pius XII claim he did not speak out against the Holocaust because he felt it only would have worsened the situation. Phayer dismisses this.

Phayer said that while Holocaust survivors wished to return to Palestine, the pope proposed that they immigrate to the United States. He said that if the United States had opened its doors to the Jews before the war, the Holocaust could have been avoided completely.

Pope Pius XII found himself in a compromising position, Phayer said. The pope’s fear of communism led to his desire for a truce to end World War II. While Pius wished for a strong Germany to prevent the spread of communism in Western Europe, unfortunately, Phayer said, this wish was at the expense of Jewish lives.

According to Phayer, Germany’s occupation of Rome and Pius’ fear of the Vatican’s impending destruction further compromised his position. He placed all of his effort into saving Rome from Allied and German forces. Pius remained silent as 1,000 Jews were seized in October of 1943. According to Phayer, Pius felt that by not protesting, he would prevent the Nazis from destroying the Vatican.

He jokingly said that even though the pope may not have been able to prevent the Holocaust, if had he spoken out against it, his soul would have most certainly been saved.

A letter that the pope wrote to the Bishop of Berlin is evidence of the difficulty of Pius’ position, Phayer said. The pope explained that his conscience bound him to do all he could to save Rome from destruction, because it held a sacred and unique place at the center of Christianity. Pius believed that Catholicism would be shattered if Rome were destroyed.

Phayer said that the pope’s post-war actions were even less ethical as the war ended, Germany was defeated and according to Phayer, communism hung over Europe, Rome and the Vatican.

According to Phayer, Pius is also criticized for calling for the lenient treatment of war criminals as well as continuing to promote a rebuilding of the Hapsburg monarchy to order to counteract communism in Eastern Europe.

Phayer was a professor for 32 years at Marquette University and has also written numerous research articles and five books, including his most recent, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust.

Phayer ended his speech on a more forgiving note, saying that Pius’ actions during the war were mistaken but understandable. However, Phayer maintains that the pope’s actions following the war were unethical and unforgivable. Phayer does not see the pope as a “genocidal anti-Semite,” but rather a leader obsessed with curtailing communism and preserving his Church.

Phayer’s speech, which was sponsored by the Lecture Fund and the history department, drew a crowd that filled approximately half the ICC Auditorium. He also attended a history department reception in the ICC Galleria after the speech.

Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.

Comments are closed.