Eugenio Pacelli was born in 1876, and was elected Pope in 1939. He came from a familyprominent for its loyal service to the Vatican. He was ordained priest in 1899 at twenty-three. By 1901 he was already entrenched in the Vatican administration.
Being possessed of an uncanny talent for languages, he was a skilled diplomat, during twelve years as Papal Nuncio in Germany. Even his most ardent critics admit that these years, 1917 to 1929, must have exercised a great influence over Eugenio Pacelli.
He became a cardinal in 1929 at 53, and was recalled to Rome to work as the Papal Secretary of State, a very high Vatican post indeed – second only in power after the Pope, who was Pius XI. It must be said that the only thing these two had in common was the name Pius. The Eleventh had openly disagreed with Mussoloni’s anti-Semitic policies in 1938, but helped by Cardinal Pacelli, the Eleventh Pius had already made a Concordat with Adolf Hitler in 1933.
It was Pacelli who persuaded the Catholic Centre Party to vote for The Enabling Act – which gave Hitler dictatorial powers, and in addition to disband itself despite strong opposition from Chancellor Brüning (q.v.) and the German Catholic bishops. On becoming Pope in March, 1939 he said there had been a ‘great Catholic victory’ in the Spanish Civil War, just ended.
The Twelfth Pius wrote personally to Hitler emphasising his wish for friendly relations between Church and State. When Germany invaded Poland the Pope did not show disapproval, but he did when Russia invaded Finland. ‘My attitude’ he said ‘will be the most conscientious impartiality’ though this did not of course mean ‘insensitivity and silence where moral and human considerations demanded an open word’. But he did not notice the persecution of the Jews, though he certainly knew about the death camps. When asked to excommunicate Catholics taking part in ‘The Final Solution’ (q.v.) he refused.
In October 1943 the infamous SS started deporting Jews from Rome, and Pope Pius stayed silent though he had been advised what would happen. In fact he did nothing. When news came of murders among Serbs, Jews and Gypsies in Croatia committed by the Catholic Ustase, he denounced the news as ‘calumny’, and furthermore when the Ustase were defeated he helped them with false passports, and enabled them to escape to South America.
Among those he aided were some well-known names such as Josef Mengele, Adolf Eichmann and Franz Stangl, the last-named commander of the extermination camp at Treblinka. In self-defence for his actions he claimed that he was afraid to condemn Nazi atrocities in case there should follow reprisals against Catholics. He had no wish to lose the loyalty of German Catholics. Those twelve years in Germany had induced a distinctly Teutonic slant in Pius’ natural piety.
However, Pope Pius repeated again and again that Communism was infinitely more dangerous and damaging than Nazism, and in 1949, four years after the end of the Second War, he excommunicated all Catholics who were members of any Communist Party. He died in 1958.