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under his very windows

15 october 2018

I recently read Matthew Kneale's history of Rome, which is scathing about Pope Pius XII's complicity in the Italian Holocaust. Kneale's book is mostly based on secondary research, so to investigate his claims, I looked up his sources. On the issue of the Vatican and the Holocaust, Kneale relies on Susan Zuccotti's Under His Very Windows, an award-winning book from nearly 20 years ago. Zuccotti's work remains readable, convincing, and disheartening.

Zuccotti admits that much material about the Vatican's conduct during the second world war is still inaccessible to scholars. The Vatican has published only a heavily redacted selection from its archives, a multi-volume project undertaken between 1965 and 1981. But this very fact allows Zuccotti to make a crucial inference:

Although much that is unfavorable may have been omitted, it is reasonable to assume that all that is favorable was included. (7)
A common warrant that defenders of Pius XII use is that actions on behalf of persecuted Jews had to be kept hidden for fear of provoking Nazi reprisals. But 20-35 years after the death of Hitler, those dangers were literally history, and there was the strongest historical exigence to publicize hidden efforts. Unfortunately, the published archives say very little about any such activities.

Little, that is, about Vatican activities. There is copious evidence for courageous efforts by religious orders, individual priests, and entire dioceses under the direction of activist bishops. Catholics helped Jews in many ways during the war, individually and as part of concerted efforts led from very high levels. But here, impressions of the role of the Pope himself may stem from a popular misconception among non-Catholics that the Church is an absolute monarchy.

In some ways, the Catholic Church is highly centralized, particularly in terms of doctrine. The Pope, ex cathedra at least, really is infallible. If he says that the Virgin Mary was assumed bodily into heaven (as Pius XII did), then she was, and no arguments. But in terms of the everyday management of dioceses and parishes, the Pope doesn't, and practically couldn't, dictate every aspect of Catholic life. To use an analogy to another strongly hierarchical organization, if the Pope is like an admiral, individual bishops are like captains of ships. They ultimately report to him, but in their own bailiwicks, bishops have great executive authority. Under His Very Windows is thus not a condemnation of the Catholic Church in any general sense, but of a very particular slice of its central governance under Pius XI and Pius XII.

The relative discretion of bishops is an important part of Zuccotti's argument. If the Pope had (secretly) ordered Catholics to help Italian Jews in danger of deportation, the bishops of Italy would have behaved in similar ways. But they did not. The archbishops of Genoa, Turin, and Milan actively helped Jews hide and escape from the SS. The bishop of Assisi did, too, and the bishop of Trieste condemned persecution of Jews, from his pulpit, at the height of the Holocaust. To the extent that the Pope did not forbid such activities, he implicitly condoned them; but to go down in history for having implicitly condoned good actions is not exactly high praise. The patriarch of Venice, by contrast, seemed (according to Zuccotti) indifferent to the plight of Jews, intervening only mildly and ineffectually in some cases involving converts to Catholicism. So too did the bishop of Rome – who, of course, was Pius XII himself.

Zuccotti makes a keen observation about the Vatican's positions on persecuted Jews. Both Pius XI and Pius XII were clearly anti-racists. People of Jewish descent who had converted to Catholicism, and all the more those who had been baptized Catholic at birth because their parents were in mixed marriages, were to the Church of the 1930s as essentially Catholic as any other believers. Hitler didn't share that opinion. He was determined to root out Jewish blood wherever he found it. To that extent, the Church and Nazism were diametrically opposed.

But, says Zuccotti, the Church as a whole, led by the Vatican, strongly believed in anti-Judaism. For the Vatican and the larger faith, in the 1930s and '40s, Jews had killed Christ. They were bad influences on the Christian community. They were international allies of Bolsheviks, and Jewish influence portended a postwar world where the Church was expropriated and lost political and social influence. Church spokespeople may not have used the term "rootless cosmopolitans," but it was clear what they were thinking. And again, it is clear that many, many nuns, priests, and bishops ignored their Church's teachings about the evils of Judaism, and stuck their necks out for unconverted Jews. But the general trend of the Church, as led by the Vatican, was not to mourn the ghettoization and deportation of Jews very much. The Vatican certainly stuck at murder, but once Jews had been deported, there was not much they could do to prevent it.

The most charitable interpretation of the Vatican's attitude is that they moved clandestinely and cautiously in order not to make matters worse. Of course, for the Jews of Europe, it is difficult to imagine a worse outcome. Zuccotti allows that protests from Dutch Catholic leaders actually hardened Nazi policies regarding converts (312-13), but the degree of hardening has to be weighed against the pastoral example of making such protests, which would have validated acts of charity by individual Catholics. It remains a valid argument that protests from the Pope would have brought Nazi wrath down on Catholics in the Reich and occupied territories, particularly Poland. We will never know, because such protests were few or none.

The deportation of the Jews of Rome in October 1943 remains one of the most shameful episodes for the Vatican, and gives Zuccotti's book its title. Under the Pope's very windows, the Nazis rounded up over a thousand Roman Jews and took them out of the city, almost all to death in the extermination camps. The Pope said nothing. But such conduct was really, Zuccotti argues, the logical extension of an earlier failure by Pius XI to protest Mussolini's racial laws of 1938, which denied Jews civil rights and began the process of re-ghettoization. Under the earlier Pope's windows, Fascists had dehumanized Jews; 1943 was the completion of the program.

Zuccotti says of October 1943:

Pius XII had every reason to oppose a massive roundup of Jews under his very windows—an event that would make him look helpless, weak, and irrelevant. Yet he did nothing to prevent it. (322)
And there lies perhaps the ultimate excuse, if any is possible, for Pius XII's failures. By 1943, he was "helpless, weak, and irrelevant." A monarch of an absurdly small country, Pius XII famously had "no divisions," as Stalin taunted his predecessor, and no doubt feared for his very security, surrounded as he was by Mussolini's troops and later by Hitler's. Unlike various bishops who indefatigably helped Jews, Pius XII had never had a pastoral role in his own church before becoming bishop of Rome; he came to power via the bureaucratic track of Papal diplomacy. He did not know what to do, as even Zuccotti allows, in the face of either local injustices or a global threat to the papacy – and he could not realize that a threat to the Vatican did not equate to a threat to worldwide Christianity and its potential reserves of human goodness.

If you search Amazon reviews of Under His Very Windows, you'll see an average of 3½ stars, which is not very high. But reading through the individual reviews, you find a mix of very high reviews, citing Zuccotti's thorough scholarship – and absolute pans, citing her failures to appreciate the saintliness of Pius XII. Clearly, the issue of what the Pope did during the Holocaust has stayed bitterly controversial right down to the present day. The problem with most defenses of the Pope is that they are founded on the assumption that he worked in secret and that his greatest acts of magnanimity are still unrevealed. But as we have seen, Zuccotti shows this warrant to be unlikely. Under His Very Windows holds up as a necessary corrective to apologetics for the conduct of the Vatican at a historically crucial juncture.

Zuccotti, Susan. Under His Very Windows: The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy. 2000. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. DS 135 .I8Z87