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from issue no. 12 - 2003

Audience with the Nazi devil

In 1938 Pope Pius XI wanted to meet Hitler so as to stop the anti-Catholic persecution in Germany. Giovanni Sale, historian of Civiltà Cattolica, says so in his latest book. Interview

by Pierluca Azzaro

Pius XI

Pius XI

A historian of the Jesuit review La Civiltà Cattolica, Giovanni Sale divides his time between journalistic activity, archives and teaching. In September, he brought out Dalla Monarchia alla Repubblica ('19), (From the Monarchy to the Republic,ed), published by Jaca Book, which received various reviews in the press. Recently however, in Civiltà Cattolica, he published an article in which he reveals the formerly unknown intention of Pius XI to meet Hitler. We sought clarifications from him about some of the unpublished papers he has made known over past months.

Till now the attitude of the Pope towards Hitler’s visit to Rome between 3 and 9 May 1938 was characterized by two images: the closing of the Vatican Museums and the sudden departure of Pius XI and the Prelates of the Papal Household for Castel Gandolfo, a few days before the arrival of the Führer in Rome. From the documents you have discovered a new element emerges however: Pius XI made himself available for a meeting with Hitler.
GIOVANNI SALE: The fact that the Pope wanted to meet Hitler is confirmed by the report which the then Apostolic Nuncio to Italy, Francesco Borgongini Duca, sent to the Secretariat of State to inform it of his meeting with Buffarini Guidi, the then Under-Secretary of State at the Interior Ministry, which took place on 26 April, a few days before the Führer’s visit to Rome, that is. At the beginning of the meeting, the Nuncio confided to Buffarini that news received by the Pope in that moment about the situation of Catholics in Germany had literally made him cry: priests imprisoned solely because they were good priests, an absolute ban on women belonging to Nazi institutes to baptize their new born children, the replacement of baptism by another rite for the admission of the children to the “Germanic community”, and even more. At the end of the conversation the Nuncio delivered a message from the Pope to Hitler: should he present a formal request, the Pope was prepared to return from Castel Gandolfo to meet him, even at the last moment.
Benito Mussolini and Victor Emanuel III salute Adolf Hitler at the end of his visit to Rome on 9 May 1938

Benito Mussolini and Victor Emanuel III salute Adolf Hitler at the end of his visit to Rome on 9 May 1938

What did Pius XI expect from that meeting?
SALE: In the intentions of Pius XI, that meeting was not intended for reasons of publicity, not least because it would certainly have been exploited by Nazi propaganda. It was instead to be preceded by a protocol, by a previous accord, at the center of which was to be the issue of anti-Catholic persecution in Germany. The fact that just three days after the conclusion of Hitler’s visit to Rome, Pius XI gave orders that the Eight propositions against German racism be issued and be addressed to all the Catholic universities of the world, leaves one to suppose that, had they met, the Pope would also have placed the question of anti-Semitism before the German dictator. The gesture of Pius XI must be read in the context of the definitive break between the Church and Nazism which had occurred at the beginning of the second half of the ’thirties, sufficient to think of Mit brennender Sorge issued in 1937; and yet, despite everything, the Pope made a last attempt. All this came to naught with the determined refusal of Hitler to see the Pope. A refusal which must be read as a strong signal, launched at German Catholics and the Holy See, of the fact that Hitler intended to carry through to the very end his campaign against the Church and against Christianity, which he considered irreconcilable with the new “religious doctrines” of National Socialism. Let’s not forget also that a large part of the German resistance to Nazism had connections with the German Episcopate.
Let’s come to the post-war period, to which the major part of the previously unpublished documents gathered in your book refer. You show that, contrary to what is commonly believed, Pius XII was not a strenuous defender of the monarchic cause …
SALE: On 29 May 1946, a few days before the historic referendum of 2 June, that is, Pius XII spoke with the Director of Civiltà Cattolica and told him clearly that he was not against a republican form of Italian State and that, on the basis of his experience during his long period in Germany, he had seen that republican regimes could also guarantee the freedom of the Church. More generally, it’s surprising to note that it was Pope Pacelli himself who reassured the Catholic hierarchy about the lack of danger in the republican form of government: “Look at the agreements signed with the German Länder in the immediate post-war period, look at the Weimar Republic in Germany”, the Pope said. “See how a state based on the republican form and with the presence of a strong central party drew up satisfactory concordats. If that happened in Germany, it can also happen with us, who have a tradition similar to the German one”. Had the Pope been able to vote, he would probably have chosen the monarchy, but differently from many bishops, Eugenio Pacelli was not afraid of an eventual republican switch. Rather he was afraid that out of the voting for the Constituent Assembly, whose members had to be elected in the same electoral session, a Social-Communist majority would emerge and that, in consequence, Italy would find itself with a Constitution inspired by Bolshevism.
Umberto of Savoy voting for the referendum of 2 June 1946

Umberto of Savoy voting for the referendum of 2 June 1946

The threat of Communism is also at the center of a meeting to which you give particular emphasis: the one that took place in January 1946, which is to say with the first elections of the post-war period imminent – the administrative ones in the spring of 1946 – between the Head of the Inter-Allied Commission Ellery W. Stone and Count Enrico Galeazzi …
SALE: The relevance of this episode is given also by its character, so to speak, of “summit meeting”. Stone, in fact, was a kind of Italian “Viceroy”, while Count Galeazzi, along with prince Carlo Pacelli, was a right hand man of Pius XII who, in delicate matters, relied more on these confidential channels than on the usual Vatican diplomacy. Through Galeazzi Stone asked the Secretariat of State to “enter fully into the political sphere”, to begin immediately a grass-roots and constant “catechizing” of Catholics against the red danger. But the Secretariat of State, though underlining the incompatibility between Catholicism and Communism, refused to take a public role in the political struggle. And in fact, some days afterwards, though with the maximum respect, it responded to the allies that they “should do everything possible to have the elections take place in an atmosphere of tranquility”. So the Church had no intention of throwing itself into the political arena, reflecting, among other things, the vision which De Gasperi had of the relationship between the Church and the DC; a vision, this, which caused divergences with a part of the Curia which, on the other hand, was pushing for the Church to impose conditions on the Parties which it supported: an anti-communism of a sort to ask that the PCI should even be outlawed. But De Gasperi replied that, notwithstanding the continuing antagonism against that Party remained, it was not possible, because the consequence would be the explosion of social conflict which, along with everything else, was the very thing which the Church itself also wished absolutely to avoid.
In fact the documents included in your book show that, in the matter of political alliances, the positions inside the Curia at that moment were more diversified than is commonly thought.
SALE: Monsignor Francesco Borgongini Duca, for example, frightened by the prospect of the projected merger between Socialists and Communists, in a dispatch of 18 January 1946 addressed to the then Substitute of the Secretariat of State Giovanni Battista Montini, hoped for a disengagement of the Socialists from the PCI and for a Christian Democrat-Socialist collaboration. In fact, the birth of a center- left was being encouraged. But it should be stressed that the proposal was tied to the historical contingency. The problem was to disengage the Socialists from the PCI, because it was clear to all that the two, together, represented a danger for democracy; and, in order to avoid that merger, a possible center-left could also be taken into consideration.
What was Montini’s reply?
SALE: From a series of parallel testimonies, one gathers how the then Substitute at the Secretariat of State followed De Gasperi in his political choice of a center tending to the left. And nevertheless at that historical moment Montini saw difficulties arising from an alliance with the Socialists. He particularly feared the disengagement of the middle classes from the DC and, probably, the birth of another Catholic Party, with strong right-wing features. So at that moment an agreement between the DC and the Socialists would have been harmful. I repeat: this possible choice was dictated by political realism, the same which drove De Gasperi when, some months afterwards, on 4 June 1946 - and therefore with the ballot for the referendum and the Constitution still in progress – he confided to the Nuncio that, in the case of a victory for the Republic, the Parties of the Left had proposed to him a three-party government of DC-PCI-PSI with Foreign Affairs going to the Communists, Nenni Head of Government and himself President of the Republic; but that he, instead, would attempt to disengage the Socialists from the PCI, proposing to the former the Presidency of the Republic and keeping for himself the Presidency of Parliament. Then things went differently, there was the split of the Social Democrats from the PSI, the elections of 1948 and the establishment of the four-party government with Social Democrats, Republicans and Liberals …
A question about Palmiro Togliatti: there is an unpublished episode narrated by Borgongini Duca which seems to throw new light on his attitude towards the Catholic Church: in February 1946 Pius XII nominated the Chinese, Monsignor Tien, Cardinal, and in his honor the Embassy of that Country gave a reception which the leader of the PCI, at that time Minister of Justice, also attended, even though he knew full well that the meal was offered in honor of the new Cardinal …
SALE: And when the Chinese chargé d’affaires, at the end of his speech, requested those present to toast the health of the Pope, of the Chinese Head of State Chiang Kai-Shek and the Cardinal, the head of the PCI, to general amazement, also raised his glass. Thus in the official report of that event drawn up for Monsignor Tardini, then Secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, the Nuncio stressed that the evening had been an enthusiastic homage to the Supreme Pontiff and to the Catholic Church, on the part of the non-Catholics, in which neither the Soviet Ambassador nor the Communist Ministers present had refused to participate, though they knew explicitly also from the written invitation that the meal was in honor of a Cardinal.
What message did Togliatti want to give through that gesture?
SALE: The USSR Embassy in Italy had only recently been inaugurated, a fact which had aroused serious and understandable disquiet in an Italian Catholic movement marked by anti-communism and profoundly disturbed by the persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union. Thus, on the first public occasion that presented itself, Togliatti attempted to tone down the tensions. But there’s another episode, perhaps more significant regarding Togliatti’s attitude towards the Church. In a document which I’ve seen, Togliatti says to a bishop: “I would like the Church to recognize a moderating role to the PCI in religious matters. Italian Communism is not a Communism that intends to persecute the Church”. And then he added, “But it’s better that this thought not be known publicly”. And in fact it was Togliatti himself who, contrary to the opinion of the Communist majority, in the Constituent Assembly ordered the grouping to approve article 7 of the Constitution, which accepted the Concordat and the Lateran Pacts. Togliatti was strongly aware of Italian national identity, and wanted therefore to present himself to the nation as respectful of the cultural traditions of our country. He knew very well that, even in the best of hypotheses, the PCI could not have governed against the Church, against the dioceses, against the priests. Opportunism, propaganda? One thing is certain: political realism is part of political awareness and in that Togliatti was a master. There’s no doubt: the major protagonists of that period were Togliatti, De Gasperi and Montini.

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