An Antidotal History
A review of Michael Burleigh's history of religion from World War I to the war on terror.


As they look down from the heights of our culture, writers at the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, CBS’s 60 Minutes, and much of the professoriat on both sides of the Atlantic contemplate the sorry role of the Catholic Church in 20th-century history. In July 1933 the Vatican, always more comfortable with dictatorships than with democracies, helped Hitler consolidate his power by throwing overboard the Catholic Center party, which had defended the rights of German Catholics since 1870, in order to conclude a Concordat with Nazi Germany, thus becoming the first international power to recognize Germany’s new Führer. In Italy the Church welcomed Mussolini’s racial laws. The Church’s centuries old anti-Judaism furnished justification and encouragement for Nazi anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust. Welcoming Hitler’s crusade against Soviet Communism, the wartime pope, Pius XII, remained silent in the face of Hitler’s Final Solution, thus meriting the title of “Hitler’s Pope,” the man co-responsible for the death of six million Jews.

In Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to al Qaeda, his masterly survey of religion and politics from the end of World War I to the present day, British historian Michael Burleigh shows what serious students of twentieth century history have long known: every one of these widely believed assertions is false. Though a Catholic himself, Burleigh does not spare criticism of Church leaders when he finds it merited. The previous holder of prestigious academic appointments on both sides of the Atlantic, aversion to what he calls “the left university” has led him to prefer free-lance authorship.

The Vatican and Hitler
Far from being a “pact with Hitler,” the Concordat was a defensive treaty guaranteeing Church rights. Why was it needed? Emergency legislation enacted shortly after Hitler took office on January 31, 1933, enabled him to suspend the Weimar constitution, thus rendering its guarantee of religious freedom null and void. During the three months of negotiations which preceded treaty’s signing, the Holy See tried repeatedly to find a way for the Center party to continue its activities. It abandoned the attempt only when the party dissolved itself on July 4, leaving the Nazis the sole party still in existence in Germany.

Nor was the Vatican the first power to sign a treaty with Hitler. That honor belongs to the Soviet Union, which concluded trade agreements with the Reich in May 1933. Church leaders were realistic about the Concordat’s supposed protections. “With the Concordat we are hanged,” Munich’s Cardinal Faulhaber remarked. “Without it we are hanged, drawn, and quartered.” In Rome the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII), told the British minister to the Holy See that he had signed the treaty with a pistol at his head. Hitler was sure to violate the agreement, Pacelli said — adding with gallows humor that he would probably not violate all its provisions at once. Between September 1933 and March 1937 Pacelli signed over seventy notes and memoranda protesting such violations, culminating in his draft of the papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, called by Burleigh “an immensely astute critique of everything that Nazism stood for.”

Burleigh calls Hitler “a lazy, dilettantish autodidact rather than a systematic thinker … a cavernous blank behind the impassioned postures … rabidly anticlerical, rarely missing an opportunity to make snide and vulgar comments, in private, about the pope, priests and pastors. His sallies into theological matters were unimpressive, the musings of a saloon-bar bore.” The Führer’s Fascist ally, Mussolini, by contrast, was “a virile and omnipresent figure: fencing, riding, skiing, or wrestling submissive lions and tigers in the zoo. … Like Hitler, Mussolini was also a ‘workerist’, although in common with the Führer he had successfully avoided honest toil most of his life.”

The Church’s response to Mussolini’s racial laws was unequivocal. “It is not possible for Christians to take part in anti-Semitism,” the aged Pius XI told a group of Belgian pilgrims in September 1938. “Spiritually we are Jews.” Both the pope and Pacelli materially aided Jews affected by the Italian racial laws, finding some of them jobs in the Vatican, helping others to emigrate abroad.

Uninformed Criticisms

Critics who claim that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was the logical consequence of the Church’s anti-Judaism seem unaware that this argument was regularly advanced by the Nazis and Fascists themselves, only to be as often refuted by Church spokesmen.

Six months after Pacelli’s election as Pope Pius XII, he issued his first encyclical, Summi pontificatus. The New York Times called it “a powerful attack on totalitarianism and the evils which he considers it has brought upon the world. … It is Germany that stands condemned above any country or any movement in this encyclical – the Germany of Hitler and National Socialism.” The head of Hitler’s Gestapo agreed: “The encyclical is directed exclusively against Germany, both in ideology and in regard to the German-Polish dispute” — a reference to the pope’s explicitly expressed sympathy for Catholic Poland, then at the beginning of its long agony at the hands of Nazis and Soviets alike. If Vatican Radio soon ceased broadcasting accounts of these atrocities, this was in response to pleas from bishops in Poland, who reported that the broadcasts had provoked reprisals which worsened the suffering of their people.

With the advantage of hindsight, today’s well-paid journalists, and tenured academics living comfortably in ivy covered digs, reproach the pope for speaking so elliptically that his words could not be understood. Commenting on Pius XII’s reference, in his 1942 Christmas address, to “the hundreds of thousands who, through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation and race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction,” one critic writes:

Pope Pius’s radio talk contained 27 words about the Holocaust out of twenty-six pages of text. The part about the Holocaust, buried in a sea of verbosity, did not mention Jews. … No one, certainly not the Germans, took it as a protest against their slaughter of the Jews.

Contemporaries judged otherwise. The German ambassador to the Holy See protested that the pontiff was “clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews.” In Berlin an official report called the Pope’s speech “one long attack on everything we stand for. Here he is clearly speaking on behalf of the Jews … and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminal.” The New York Times commented on the speech: “This Christmas more than ever [Pope Pius XII] is a lonely voice crying out of the silence of a continent.”