Hitler and The Two Popes

The close relationship of Pius XI and Pius XII with Hitler and the Third Reich

Grant Piper
Jul 23, 2020 · 6 min read

In the early 1930s, there was a concerted effort on the part of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party to consolidate power. The back end methods of this consolidation are well taught and well known, fear, intimidation, and street violence. However, the front part, the legitimate part, is less studied by the majority of the public.

Knowing that his radical Nazi party was in a precarious position electorally, Hitler set out to bring centrist parties into the fold. One such party was the Centre Party which had long been a bastion for political German Catholics. Hitler aimed to reduce the political power of the Catholic Church while receiving an international agreement with the Holy See. He achieved both brilliantly.

On their faces, it does not seem like the Pope and the Nazis would have much in common, and in many cases, they did not. There was one binding similarity between the two that brought them close together in the early 1930s: hatred for communism.

Both the new Nazi government in Germany as well as the Vatican in Italy were both publicly and diametrically opposed to communism. The Nazis were opposed to it for political reasons while the Catholics were opposed for religious reasons. Communism was a completely atheist system which had cracked down on Christianity in Russia and elsewhere leading to alarm in Vatican City.

(As a side note, the Papacy would remain staunchly anti-communist all the way through the Cold War.)

In 1933, Pius XI and one of his top advisors, Eugenio Pacelli who would succeed Pius XI as Pius XII, signed the Reichskonkordat with Germany. This sweeping document paved the way for Hitler to sweep the Catholic influence in Germany aside while giving him an international political victory on the world stage.

The preamble to the concordat established the goals for both parties to reach an amicable relationship and read in part:

His Holliness Pope Pius XI and the President of the German Reich [Paul von Hindenburg], led by their common desire to consolidate and enhance the existing friendly relations between the Catholic Church and the state in the whole territory of the German Reich in a stable and satisfactory manner for both parties, have decided to conclude a solemn agreement which will supplement the concordats already concluded with some particular German States (Laender) and secure for the others the principles of a uniform treatment of the questions involved

This was not the only controversial agreement that Pius XI endorsed. He also made various agreements with Benito Mussolini in Italy which gave the Vatican the autonomy it enjoys today.

The Reichskonkordat laid out a comprehensive plan for German Catholics and the relationship that was to be had between the new Nazi government in Berlin and the Vatican. Flowery and friendly language was used throughout. For example in Article III, emphasis mine:

In order to foster good relations between the Holy See and the German Reich, an apostolic nuncio will reside in the capital of the German Reich and an ambassador of the German Reich at the Holy See.

Even though the concordat was frequently abused, and broken consistently, especially in the later years of the Reich, the Vatican would do nothing to try and amend or break the agreement between them.

You can read the entirety of the historical text in English here.

Pius XI is seen as dealing too freely and too politically with fascist dictators of the age but his successor, Pius XII, did not fare much better.

Pius XII was elevated to the position of Pope in 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. He was the architect and main negotiator of the Reichskonkordat in 1933 and would largely continue his lukewarm response to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany.

Now in 1939, with Hitler’s ambitions and political ruthlessness well known, many expected Pius XII to be firmer with the dictator than his predecessor had. However, when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 there was no outcry from the Vatican.

Like his politically minded predecessor, Pius XII was more concerned with remaining neutral and non-controversial during the war rather than striking a hard tone. He rarely, if ever, mentions Hitler or Stalin by name and refused to, in no uncertain terms, censure their actions in Europe at the time. Instead, his words were often vague and landed far too softly for many, even as both the communists and Nazis were prosecuting Catholics with impunity.

This is partially because the Reichskonkordat, which Pius XII himself drew up, was still in effect and the Vatican had the precarious position of being in the heart of Rome. Italy was another fascist stronghold with close ties to Hitler’s government in Germany.

Pius XII would take the position of toeing the line between giving lip service to the Allied cause in Europe while not coming down too hard on the Nazis in Germany. This would later prove to be a very unpopular position.

Pius XI signature

At the end of the day, Hitler handled the Papacy with unsettling efficiency. Playing on the church’s goals and weaknesses of the time, he managed to cow two popes into submission. Under Pius XI he broke the back of political Catholicism in Germany and began prosecuting the church with impunity.

Under the watchful eye of Pius XII, Hitler invaded Poland, handed the church over to the communists and waged the worst mass killing in history. While some argued that they were hemmed in by the events of the time, it was and still is alarming, to read about how easily the church rolled over for fascists in Europe at the time.

Some argued that Pius XI gave Hitler political and moral legitimacy with their frequent dealings and negotiations with him and his government and that Pius XII did not do enough to undo the ties that they had formed together.

The original Reichskonkordat lasted all the way through the war and is still technically in effect to this day, having never been repealed or amended.

There is still a great deal of interest in Pius XII today and his handling of Germany in the 1940s. A large batch of writings and notes from the pope has been opened to researchers this year and many are hoping to glean some new information regarding how Pius XI and Pius XII made their decisions regarding the Third Reich and the Nazis.

The documents are currently being studied and hopefully a paper comes out in the near future examining the primary sources. However, some priests are already doing damage control with one saying:

You cannot judge the actions of Pius XII using today’s mode of measurement.

Pius XII would later double down on the Vatican’s anti-communism stance with a decree in 1949. He remained pope until 1958.

It is sometimes too easy to look back with perfect hindsight and criticize those in the past but it does seem like both Pius XI and Pius XII were soft on Germany during this period. Whether it was out of fear for their newly gained autonomy, fear of direct physical retribution, shared hatred of communism or darker underlying biases, those things are still debated to this day.

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Grant Piper

Written by

Professional freelance writer with an eye for history and storytelling. Ardent believer that history is stranger than fiction.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Grant Piper

Written by

Professional freelance writer with an eye for history and storytelling. Ardent believer that history is stranger than fiction.

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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