Vatican Says Wartime Pope Was No Friend of the Nazis

It may have been the finest hour for some, but the war years were tough on the Vatican. During and after World War II, Pope Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958, was sharply criticized for not doing enough to save Europe’s Jews from the Nazis. His perceived silence on Italy’s and Germany’s anti-Semitic race laws in the 1930s and unwillingness to publicly condemn the Holocaust drew accusations that he had turned a blind eye to the fate of the Jews. Some scholars, in recent books such as Hitler’s Pope (1999) and A Moral Reckoning (2002), have even accused Pius XII of collaborating with the Nazis.

The Vatican has denied this for years, but never quite as forcefully as this fall, when Pope Benedict XVI, a former German cardinal who took over the papacy in 2005, offered one of the strongest defenses ever by a pope of a predecessor’s record. Benedict insisted that Pius XII, an Italian cardinal named Eugenio Pacelli who served as the Vatican’s secretary of state in the 1930s—and whose beatification, the last step to sainthood, has been postponed for years—did all he could to stop the Holocaust. “Wherever possible he spared no effort in intervening in [the Jews’] favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church,” Benedict said. These interventions, he pointed out, were “made secretly and silently, precisely because, given the concrete situation of that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.”

The historical community remains deeply divided over the Vatican’s wartime actions. A caption under a photo of Pius XII at the new Holocaust museum at Yad Vashem in Israel describes him, at best, as “neutral” during the war, never clearly staking a claim for either side. An exhibit at the museum says that after becoming pope in 1939, Pius XII shelved a statement prepared by his predecessor condemning racism and anti-Semitism; he did not protest verbally or in writing when reports of the Holocaust began to reach him; and in 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the Jews’ extermination.

The current Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, remarked recently that the idea that the pope was indifferent in some way to the Holocaust “is now so firmly rooted that people just ignore evidence to the contrary.” A wave of such evidence has turned up in the last few years. Researchers recently discovered a 1923 letter from Pacelli denouncing Hitler’s putsch, along with documents from 1933 indicating his desire to protest the anti-Semitic policies that accompanied Hitler’s rise to power. In 1935, Pacelli gave a speech in France in which he called the Nazis “miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel.”

And once he became pope, Pius XII appears to have done more than most to oppose the Holocaust. British government archives show that he may have been actively involved in plots to overthrow Hitler. In correspondence on Vatican letterhead in 1940, Pius XII gave orders to his lieutenants to do all they could to assist interned Jews. Adolf Eichmann’s own diaries, recently released by the Israeli government, demonstrate that the SS, at least, believed the Vatican was trying to thwart its deportation efforts.

Many Jewish refugees who survived the war later said they were glad the pope acted with discretion. “None of us wanted the pope to take an open stand. We were all fugitives, and fugitives do not wish to be pointed at,” recalled a Jewish couple who escaped from Berlin to Spain with Pius XII’s help. “If the pope had protested, Rome would have become the center of attention. It was better that the pope said nothing. We all shared this opinion at the time, and this is still our conviction today.” According to the estimates of some Catholic groups, as many as 800,000 Jews were saved by the Catholic Church during the war.

While the debate over Pius XII’s wartime actions continues, the former pope’s beatification remains on hold. Benedict’s strong language may show a renewed willingness in the Vatican to defend the pope’s record, but even he has stressed that there is no timetable for sainthood.

Furnished Nazi Bunkers Uncovered in Denmark

It was as if the German soldiers had left only yesterday,” says Tommy Cassoe, a local historian who was the first to enter a group of four German bunkers unexpectedly unearthed on the west coast of Denmark this spring by huge storms. The sturdy concrete buildings were some of the last remnants of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall, which once stretched from France to Norway. While Nazi bunkers are far from rare—there were 8,000 in Denmark alone—this find is remarkable because the structures appeared to have been untouched since the end of the war.

After large waves pounding the beaches near Houvig exposed the structures, historians were surprised by what they found. Boots and socks still lay on the floor. A pipe was found with tobacco still in it, along with a plastic vial containing medicine in case of mustard gas attack. A half-finished bottle of schnapps lay near a collection of Nazi stamps. Because of their remote location, the bunkers—which were manned by about a dozen soldiers during the war until they were abandoned a few days after V-E Day—seem to have been ignored when the war ended. Two young boys discovered them in May while playing on the beach.

The artifacts have since been cleared from the bunkers and moved to a conservation center in a museum in the nearby town of Oelgod.

World War II–Era Vessels a Threat Again, This Time to the Environment

The Japanese oil tanker Hoyo Maru sits at the bottom of 40-mile-wide Chuuk Lagoon, which surrounds a chain of islands in the South Pacific. Along with more than 50 other Japanese ships sunk there by Allied forces during World War II, the vessel attracts the occasional diver or naval historian while slowly deteriorating.

This summer, though, scientists from James Cook University in Australia discovered that the Hoyo Maru is not as harmless as it seems. A three-mile-long oil slick has oozed from the wreck, threatening the local islands and their pristine beaches. “We had spotted a small slick in 2007, but this was much bigger,” Bill Jeffery, a maritime archaeologist leading an investigation, told New Scientist magazine. “What is frightening is that the Hoyo appears to be leaking from an area where oil was stored.”

In September, the island nation of Micronesia asked the Japanese government to help avert what it views as a potential environmental disaster. Two other ships at the bottom of the lagoon— formerly known as Truk— are also tankers, and between them, they hold 8.5 million gallons of fuel—about threequarters as much as the Exxon Valdez. “We need the Japanese government to help us with the cleanup to remove the oil from the ships,” Andrew Yatilman, director of environment and emergency management for the Federated States of Micronesia, told reporters. A spokesperson for the Japanese foreign ministry responded that his government is willing to help and is “always ready to listen to our friends in the Pacific.”

The problem may soon expand beyond Micronesia. Nearly 400 World War II–era oil tankers sit at the bottom of the Pacific, many showing signs of collapse. In 2002, corrosion experts concluded that the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon could begin to break apart over the next decade.

The Micronesian government, with the help of Bill Jeffery’s team, has begun to search for Japanese historians who can help them determine exactly how much diesel the Hoyo Maru contains— and how, exactly, it can be pumped out. If they act quickly, it seems likely the disaster could be averted. Five years ago, the U.S. government pumped nearly 3 million gallons of fuel from the USS Mississinewa, a sunken oil tanker near Micronesia’s Ulithi Lagoon.

AWOL Oscar Returned to the Army

Along-lost Oscar statuette awarded to the U.S. Army for Frank Capra’s 1942 documentary Prelude to War finally found its way back to friendly troops this fall after reemerging in a Christie’s auction house. The Oscar had been awarded to the first film in Capra’s seven-part “Why We Fight” series, which took top documentary honors in the same year Mrs. Miniver won best picture and James Cagney was named best actor for Yankee Doodle Dandy. It had been missing since 1970, its exact whereabouts still unknown. The award was removed from the auction block and, in a ceremony this September, returned to the army by the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Capra began working on Prelude to War when he rejoined the army a few weeks after Pearl Harbor (the 44-year-old Capra also served in World War I). Commissioned to make a documentary film for American soldiers that would demonstrate why the United States was involved in World War II, the director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It Happened One Night presented the issue to the troops in stark terms. “This is a fight between a free world and a slave world,” vice president Henry A. Wallace intoned over Capra’s images of Nazis shattering stained glass windows and a “conquering Jap army” marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. Capra’s animations of the dark blot of fascism spreading across Europe and the rest of the world famously illustrated the war’s high stakes. After Franklin Roosevelt saw the finished product, he reportedly exclaimed, “Every man, woman and child in the world should see this film!”

Prelude to War was ultimately released in 250 theaters across the country, winning over audiences and critics. Due to wartime rationing, the film was initially honored with a plaster plaque instead of the statuette; only after the war ended did the army receive its golden Oscar. The award was stored in the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, New York, until 1970, when the center closed and the statue disappeared. The recovered Oscar will be displayed at the Pentagon.

Scottish Estate Was Home for Unworthy Spies

There really was a place for the man who knew too much, after all. In a new book based on recently declassified documents from Britain’s National Archives, the archives’ official historian has revealed that Britain forced a group of failed spies to live together in a remote Scottish mansion during the Second World War because they had been given too much information to be allowed back into civilian society.

In British Intelligence: Secrets, Spies, and Sources, published in August, Stephen Twigge, along with two coauthors, provides some of the first details of the Special Operations Executive activities at an estate in Scotland called Inverlair Lodge. Local historians had long suspected the mansion had a secret purpose after the military requisitioned it early in the war. Rumors of a mysterious hideaway for untrustworthy spies even inspired the 1960s cult television series The Prisoner, which featured a nameless spy being brainwashed in an Orwellian town called “the Village” after he tried to resign his commission.

The truth about Inverlair appears to have been much more mundane. Officially referred to as the Number 6 Special Workshop School, its purpose was simple: to hold agents deemed unsuitable for operations after their initial training. “The secret information acquired during training meant that [failed spies] could not be released into general society,” writes Twigge and his coauthors. “They therefore needed to ‘live in retirement’—the camp at Inverlair—until the end of the war.”

Most of Inverlair’s residents appear to have been foreign nationals. They were housed in relative comfort and were allowed to leave the camp during the day, occasionally even mixing with the locals. As for their need for “retirement,” Twigge writes, “Some of the failed agents had difficult personalities; others were physically unsuitable for secretive work.” And one unfortunate man in particular, according to the camp’s director, “couldn’t have made an agent because he was so outstandingly ugly. He’d be recognized anywhere—once seen, never forgotten. He had no teeth at all, except two gold tusks, two incisors.”

Why such a man was asked to work as a spy in the first place is not clear. Perhaps his recruiter, too, spent his war years at Inverlair.


Originally published in the January 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here