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il portale dell'ebraismo italiano

Historians’ points of view
on Kertzer’s new book
“Pius XII, a coward pope”

The concept of “silence” appears more than fifty times. An already meaningful number that even doubles if we consider another emblematic term such as “fear”. Attitudes and moods that were the hallmark of Eugenio Pacelli’s controversial pontificate. And in particular of his relationship with Hitler and Mussolini, which has always fascinated historians, and actually, not only them. Very often, there are two opposing stories: the one that sees in Pius XII “Hitler’s pope”; and the apologetic type that lavishly praises his heroism and dubious virtues. The Black Legend and the Pink Legend. A great historian and an already Pulitzer Prize winner, David Kertzer, will shed light on so many unresolved cruxes with his long-awaited new book. “The Pope at war: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler”, published by Garzanti and about which we have already revealed the release in the past few days, will be out from May 26th. The book has already raised a meaningful stir among scholars. Some of the leading experts on the Shoah in Italy, guests of the American Academy, outlined the scope of a text that seems to lay bare all the frailties and negligence of the Holy See at the time. Even when the anti-Semitic persecution – as it has been repeatedly remarked – took place “a step away from the windows of the Vatican”, as in the case of the more than a thousand Roman Jews gathered in the former Military College in Via della Lungara after the round-up on October 16th and from there deported to the extermination camps. Together with the author, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Lutz Klinkhammer, Simon Levis Sullam and Marla Stone animated this intense meeting. Kertzer, assisted in his research by Roberto Benedetti, reported how he moved through very different contexts, analysing thousands of papers from “Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Italian” archives. And lastly, the Vatican one, which only opened to the public in March 2020 with a looming pandemic that made the task more difficult. New shadows seem to be gathering over Pacelli. A pope, said Kertzer, whose first mission was “to protect the Church”. Whatever that meant, whatever shore was to be sought, to fight what in his eyes was the very first enemy: communism. A perspective whose reflection is also evident in the Catholic press of the time, with emphatic references to the ‘Crusades’ that not by chance appeared in various media at the time Italy declared war on Russia. Never, such rhetoric and stigmatisation was directed against the crimes of Nazism, they said. Which were also known. “Both Mussolini and Hitler were experts in intimidation. And with the pope they knew how to move the right levers. Whether they were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ did not matter. For Pius XII, the main thing – Kertzer explained- was that they supported the Church”. A repositioning towards the Allies ‘would come only in late ’42, when for the Axis forces the war scenario began to change heralding a future defeat. But even after the Nazi occupation of Rome, the pope’s choice, regarding the Jews, was “silence”. A silence intended to protect them, argue Pacelli’s apologists. But this system of their own is fragile. “I am inclined to think that things could hardly have been worse”, Kertzer’s bitter observation. “It is no mystery – Ben-Ghiat argued – that the Church has mainly helped baptised Jews or those married to Christians”. But she expressed her harshest position on the “silences”, and not only those of yesterday. In fact, the historian drew a comparison between Pius XII’s pontificate and Bergoglio’s, pointing out some similarities when, in front of Putin’s actions and his insane war, “we choose not to name him”. Then, Ben-Ghiat liked to specify that it is a very different context, and the human quality of the characters in the field is also very different. However, “there is nevertheless a continuity of approach that is symptomatic of a certain way of acting in the Church” on the international scene. A “powerful” book also according to Stone, who went over the different historiographical positions regarding Pacelli, his attitude in the war, and the Shoah. And then the ideology that was Pius XII’s own, and in particular “that he felt called by God to fight communism”. “The choice of those who, in Catholic newspapers, wrote that ‘the Cross would rise above the dome of the Kremlin’” it is therefore not surprising. The same journalists, in front of Nazi-Fascism, remained mute instead. According to Klinkhammer, Kertzer’s is “an extremely well-documented book” that “actually consists of two books: a narrative part that runs on top and the historical footnotes” that add important information. In the best tradition of the author’s works, therefore, both an enjoyable and thorough read. Together with the pope, he pointed out, the main character is “a fascist regime that, with all its apparatus, is a constant thread in this story”. Another scholar being impressed by the work was Levis Sullam, who evoked Plutarch’s Parallel Lives because of the symmetrical narrative analysing the figure of Pacelli on one side and Mussolini on the other. A pope, his assessment, “tragic for his inability to act” when he should have. Silences cannot be documented but, “what has instead been proven are the continuous requests to raise his voice” that he deliberately chose to ignore.

a.s twitter @asmulevichmoked

Translation by Francesca Angelucci, student at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.