Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII: Private protest, public silence
I have a vivid memory of listening, early in 1939, aged ten, to a BBC outside broadcast direct from St Peter's Square in Rome. The conclave following the death of Pius XI had just ended with the election of a pope on the third ballot. After a long delay, the Cardinal camerlengo (chamberlain) came to the microphone and intoned: "Habemus papam. [pause] Il Cardinale Eugenio Pacelli." There was a tremendous shout of joy from the vast mob, for Pacelli, being Roman born and bred, was a popular choice. Nearly 20 years later, in November 1958, I was in Rome myself, for Pius XII's unfortunate obsequies, and the election of John XXIII, convenor of the Second Vatican Council, and the birth of the modern church. I wrote a controversial article about this occasion, "Rome Goes Left", which was reprinted in my book Statesmen and Nations.
In between these two experiences was the long pontificate of Pius XII, which covered the whole of the Second World War and the first decade of the Cold War. Pius has always had passionate admirers and bitter, sometimes venomous detractors. The first group want him canonised and steps to this end have already been taken. The second accuse him of timidity, if not cowardice, in failing to speak out about Hitlerism and especially the policy of exterminating the Jews. In the early 1960s, Rolf Hochhuth's play The Representative put this view in a vitriolic form, and the Vatican responded by beginning the process of publishing documents, initially with Pius's letters to the German bishops. Publication of documents and commentary have continued for 50 years, without resolving the controversy to everyone's, or indeed anyone's, satisfaction. The latest contribution, by a Canadian historian, merely prolongs the debate. It is scrupulous in examining the documents, published and unpublished, fair-minded in listing the pressures and considerations which guided Pius's policy, and deliberately refrains from passing judgment, except by occasional implication, on what he did, or did not do. Soldier of Christ is a well-meaning but unusually dull book, which is a penance to read. The title is particularly inept because Pius was not a soldier but a diplomat, and a diplomat who took caution, reserve, silence and inactivity to almost unbearable extremes.
Eugenio Pacelli was an exceptionally able member of the Roman "black nobility", who in the 19th century had risen from the middle class, chiefly through canon law, to the upper echelons of the Vatican bureaucracy. He was involved in papal diplomacy virtually from the beginning of his career, and served in Germany for over a decade until Pius XI brought him back to Rome as his Secretary of State. Pacelli admired the Germans and even to some extent understood them, though it was precisely his respect for the German qualities of legal rectitude, obedience and fidelity which led him to underestimate the barbarism and savagery which some Germans also possessed. Pacelli's household was always run by Bavarian nuns, under the formidable Mother Pasquelina, and she encouraged his unfortunate habit of always taking his meals alone. He had many acquaintances, at a diplomatic level, but no intimate friends. Both as Secretary of State and as Pope he led an officially busy but personally isolated life, and in his last years he, not surprisingly, became the prey of clerical adventurers and crackpot doctors.