The Holy See and Hitler’s Germany

By Gerhard Besier. 272 pp. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. $35.

Densely packed and often less-than-elegantly translated, this rewarding exercise in historiography draws extensively on documents held in the Vatican Archives that were only declassified in 2003 (many other relevant materials remain unavailable). With those documents in hand, Besier, a theologian and historian who heads the Hannah Arendt Institute for Research on Totalitarianism in Dresden, painstakingly traces how ideology and realpolitik combined to shape Vatican foreign policy from the early twentieth century, when the popes were self-described “prisoners of the Vatican” due to the loss of the Papal States and Italy’s unification, right up to the war. The major item on the Roman Catholic Church’s diplomatic agenda: to reestablish its political role in a world where, for the first time in a millennium and a half, it had no temporal power. Inevitably, much of the focus is on the controversial Eugenio Pacelli (wartime pope Pius XII), papal nuncio to Bavaria, then Germany, and finally Vatican secretary of state. Born to the Roman intelligentsia and trained to the purple, from his twenties onward Pacelli either directed or masterminded much of the Church’s maneuvering while responding, not always adroitly, to hurtling and tangled events. The series of concordats he tried to promulgate throughout Europe attempted to replicate the model achieved with Mussolini, which created the “independent” 108-acre state of Vatican City and made the Church a partner in key aspects of the Fascist regime like education and morality. This helped set the stage for the Church’s continent-wide machinations, as Besier illustrates. Illuminating sidelights on Vatican accommodations with Mussolini, Franco, Salazar, Dollfuss, and Pilsudski throw into relief how Catholic-right parties and Catholic corporatism were formulated to oppose not just Bolshevism but republicanism, democracy, modernism, and individualism. But Besier is analytical, not polemical: in establishing how Nazism and the Church converged, he also incisively exposes their divergences. Thus he argues, against more extreme views of Pacelli and his work, that the Roman’s policy brief in dealing with governments (from Leon Blum’s and FDR’s to the dictators’) reflected the church’s aim to reestablish a viable form of political clout and to “strengthen or widen the opportunities of Catholic life in the countries concerned.” Nevertheless, he concludes, “It is— despite all the Christian-democratic and liberal-Catholic roots in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—impossible to mistake that, when the rapprochement of the Catholic Church with democracy took place after 1945, it was…a movement indebted to altered conditions of power.”


Originally published in the May 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here