Grzegorz Galazka, The Gaumont Film Company

The Silence of Popes

The lack of a clear position from the Pope in today's war between Russia and Ukraine brings to mind how the Vatican did not condemn the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler

After two years of Russian aggression, in March 2024, Pope Francis, in an interview with RSI, said, "Stronger is the one who has the courage to raise the white flag and engage in negotiations". This was his response to a journalist's question about calls for Ukraine to concede its occupied territories to Russia to stop the war. The journalist wondered if this would not lend legitimacy to authoritarian countries seeking their desired outcomes through brute force. Francis stated that "this is an interpretation" and called for "timely negotiations [...] before the situation worsens".
One can only commend the peaceful initiatives and calls for an end to the war voiced by Francis. However, if they were not exclusively in favor of the aggressor, it would be even more commendable. After all, it is one thing to call for an end to the war for both sides of the conflict and quite another to call for an end to the war for the side that initiated it. There has been no such call from Francis directed towards Russia.
The Vatican is not unfamiliar with refraining from openly condemning the Nazi regime and adhering to a policy of compromise with it throughout its history. In this article, we will discuss how Pope Pius XII in 1942 did not speak out against Adolf Hitler, despite knowing about his crimes against millions of Jews and Catholics in Europe. We will also examine how Pope Francis in 2024 practically openly urged Ukraine to cede its territories to the aggressor country for noble purposes — to end the war.
The Vatican's relations with Nazi Germany began long before the Second World War. On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and immediately set out to establish dictatorship in the country, aiming to have sole control over all powers.
To obtain unlimited powers, Hitler needed to amend the Constitution. This required two-thirds of the votes in the Reichstag, which the new Chancellor did not have. He decided to alter the balance of power by creating a majority in the German parliament that would be subordinate to him, thereby obtaining the desired constitutional changes and accelerating the process of passing necessary laws in the future.
Adolf Hitler in Berlin in 1933
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Hitler attracts German Catholics to his side and convinces them to become part of his new party. In return, he promises the Roman Catholic Church official status in Germany, which will be enshrined in the Concordat.
Historians do not know the extent of pressure the Vatican exerted on German Catholics, but on March 23, 1933, they voted to grant Hitler full powers. Now, the German Chancellor had complete freedom to establish his dictatorship.
On July 20, 1933, a Concordat was signed between the Vatican, represented by Eugenio Pacelli—the second-ranking figure in the hierarchy after the Pope—and Germany. This agreement defined the official status of the Roman Catholic Church and guaranteed the observance of the rights of all its parishioners. This enabled German Catholics to become members of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazis.
The signing of the Concordat on July 20, 1933. From left to right: Ludwig Kaas, Franz von Papen, Secretary of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs Giuseppe Pizzardo, Eugenio Pacelli, Alfredo Ottaviani, Rudolf Buttmann.
Adolf Hitler and Bishop Ludwig Müller at the National Socialist German Workers' Party Congress in 1934.
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The Concordat was signed despite Pope Pius XI's awareness of the repression against Jews in Germany. At that time, the first anti-Semitic laws were being enacted, laying the foundation for the country's policies. Jews were being removed from all state positions, their businesses boycotted, and they were being marginalized from the economy, leading many to despair. However, Pius XI chose not to react to these events.
Pius XI
Vatican News
It took Pius XI a year to verbally condemn Hitler. By then, Jews were stripped of German citizenship, and the arsenal of anti-Semitic laws was fully enforced. During this time, some Catholic opponents of Hitler were killed or imprisoned. The Pope's speech resembled today's "deep concern", as expressed by the UN in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the mass killings of people in Ukrainian cities. Pius XI "with burning anxiety" condemned Hitler's actions and the repressive laws enacted by his party. However, the Vatican did not dare to issue a direct challenge to the Nazi regime.
In March 1939, a new pope was elected in the Vatican. This was none other than Eugenio Pacelli, the same person who, on behalf of the Vatican, had signed the Concordat with Nazi Germany in 1933. He chose the name Pius XII. His ascension to power signaled a choice of policies of compromise with Germany and its dictator, Adolf Hitler.
Pius XII
Vatican News
At that time, Jews in Germany were being arrested and forcibly transported to Poland by the thousands. Pius XII could not have been unaware of this, as the Roman Catholic Church had a vast number of parishioners and followers across Europe. This meant there was a large network of informants transmitting information to the Vatican about everything that was happening. According to information received by the Pope from the Polish government in exile, by 1942, the number of Polish Jews killed by Hitler had exceeded 1 million people.
The Pope maintained silence. The head of the Roman Catholic Church did not condemn or speak out about the mass murders committed by Adolf Hitler.
The details of this shameful period for the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican are outlined in the film "Vatican and the Third Reich".
In August 2023, Pope Francis addressed via video link the All-Russian meeting of Catholic youth in St. Petersburg. He referred to Russian youth as "heirs of great Russia: great Russia of saints, rulers, the great Russia of Peter I, Catherine II, that empire—great, enlightened, of great culture and humanity".
Such words could not help but appear to endorse Putin's ideology and present-day Russia, which at that time had already been killing civilians in Ukraine for a year and a half. Mass killings in Mariupol, Bucha, Borodianka, Izyum, and other cities were already known. Russian rockets had already destroyed the railway station in Kramatorsk and two entrances of a nine-story building in Dnipro. Pope Francis remained silent about these and many other manifestations of Russia's brutal aggression against Ukraine.
The peaceful civilians killed by the Russian army in Bucha.
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The destroyed residential building in Dnipro after being hit by a Russian rocket. Forty-two people were killed in the collapse of the two entrances
In 2024, Pope Francis, in an interview with the Swiss broadcasting company RSI, responded to a question about the war in Ukraine by stating that those who are losing need to "have the courage to engage in negotiations." The interview was recorded in February, and a fragment of it was published on March 9th.
The head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, during a meeting with the Ukrainian community in New York, stated that Ukraine is "wounded but not conquered," presumably in response to the words of the Pope.
Sviatoslav Shevchuk added, "Believe me, no one even thinks of surrendering, even in places where combat operations are taking place — listen to our people in Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Odesa, Kharkiv, Sumy!" Addressing those who "skeptically view Ukraine's ability to withstand" the war with Russia, the primate called on them to "go to confession".
Instances of double standards can be expected from politicians, diplomats, businessmen... If their words do not align with their actions, society often responds with: "What else can we expect from them?" without being surprised by their deceit. However, when a powerful church, possessing tremendous power of speech, refuses to defend the oppressed and downtrodden, questions arise: are they guided by divine laws? Do they adhere to divine commandments?