Did the Vatican do too little to hurt the Nazis? Or too much to help them?

A 1941 New York Times article provides key evidence in a momentous dispute

by Jared Israel
Editing and translation by Samantha Criscione

A well-informed, Vatican-friendly voice from the past — The New York Times — reports a Vatican policy of subversion to push Yugoslavia into the Nazi camp and, failing that, break it up and bring the clerical-Fascist Ustasha to power in a faux-independent Croatia.

[from: The Emperor’s New Clothes (TENC), June 15, 2009]


“The pope does not go to the museum.”
— Vatican Ambassador Antonio Franco, quoted in
“Pope to shun disputed Israel photo: envoy,” Agence France Presse, March 10, 2009

In April 2007, Vatican ambassador to Israel Antonio Franco threatened to boycott that year’s observances at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority. Following bitter criticism, the Vatican backed down, and Franco attended the observances.

In March 2009 Franco announced that, during his Middle East trip in May, Pope Benedict XVI would visit Yad Vashem but would definitely not enter the Yad Vashem museum, thus contradicting standard protocol for visiting dignitaries. And in May, Benedict XVI did indeed boycott the museum.

These actions, diplomatically severe and aggressively publicized by the Vatican through statements to the media, are part of an intense struggle between Israel and the Vatican over Eugenio Pacelli, otherwise known as Pope Pius XII. The bone of contention? A caption under a picture in the Yad Vashem museum, criticizing Pacelli for his role during the Holocaust. [1]

Why is the Vatican waging a war over a caption that few people would even know existed if the Vatican did not insist on making a giant fuss?

The background: As Vatican Secretary of State and later Pope, Eugenio Pacelli was a top leader of the wing of Catholicism that controls the Vatican today. Since 1991, following the destruction of Communist power in the East, the Vatican has been trying to become the key power in this vast region, aiming to directly control Catholic areas, and to politically manipulate, unite with (under papal leadership) and replace its long-standing competitor, Christian Orthodoxy, in Orthodox majority areas.

The problem: because Nazism perpetrated most of its gruesome crimes in the USSR and what later became Socialist Eastern Europe, and because those crimes are remembered in much of the East with an intensity far greater than in the West, for the Vatican to have great influence requires that ordinary Easterners perceive the World War II Vatican as opposing the Nazis rather than standing neutral or even helping them. Hence the war over a caption.

So Vatican defenders may be wrong about Pius XII — I believe they are — but given the stakes, from their viewpoint they are not wrong to make this an issue.  By the same token, the New York Times article reproduced below is of great importance.

For therein hangs a tale.


A three-way argument


The position currently taken by Yad Vashem and by the majority of those criticizing Pope Pius XII is that he was silent in the face of Nazi crimes, or that he did too little, much too late. (See footnote [1])

If there must be a criticism, surely this is the one Vatican defenders prefer.  They respond two ways.

Sometimes they argue that the Vatican did strongly oppose the drive by the Nazis and their allies and subsidiaries to kill all Jews and Roma, and their genocidal murder of millions of Russians, Poles, Serbs and other Slavs.

Other times they argue, like Ambassador Franco, that even if it is true that, as the Yad Vashem caption puts it, “when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest, either verbally or in writing,” nevertheless:

” ‘It was not really silence, it was a policy taken to avoid worsening the situation,’ he [Ambassador Franco — J.I.] said. ‘When there were public statements and declarations there would be a huge number of people who were simply eliminated. Repression was the response to any kind of public position taken.'”
[My emphasis — J.I.]
“Vatican ambassador to boycott Holocaust memorial in row over photo,” by Rory McCarthy, Guardian (London), 13 April 2007

Just for the record: 1) No matter what the motives, ‘not speaking out’ does constitute silence.  That is a material fact, unalterable by Vatican decree. 2) The claim that, if opposed by the most powerful organization in the world (the Catholic church), the Nazis would inevitably have perpetrated even greater crimes, is patently absurd. If the Catholic hierarchies in Germany, France, Slovakia, Croatia, Italy, the Baltic states, etc. had opposed the Nazis and other Fascists instead of enthusiastically supporting them, the Nazis and their allies would have succumbed or had to deal with rebellion and sabotage by tens of millions (including in Germany!) and wouldn’t have had the maneuverability to commit ever bigger crimes. 3) And by the way, the two Vatican arguments — that the Vatican did not speak out because it was inevitably disastrous and that the Vatican did speak out — are contradictory.

I entitled this section “A three way argument” because there is a third position, taken by a minority of critics, including the editors of Emperor’s Clothes, which challenges the very terms of the debate between the Vatican and Yad Vashem.

We argue that the Vatican was not silent. Rather, while Vatican apologists sometimes told the public in anti-Nazi countries that the church was a victim of Nazism, in fact the hierarchy consistently spoke and acted to help the Nazis, creating and supporting clerical Fascist movements that actively participated in Nazi genocide and/or killed the Nazis’ opponents and/or tried to politically isolate anti-Nazis and prevent anti-Nazi action in Europe and the Americas.

Meaning, the Vatican was the supporting wall of Nazi power.


Which brings us to the matter of Croatia


Regarding the World War II Ustasha state of Croatia [2], Vatican defenders claim that, rather than providing the mass base for and helping lead that clerical-Fascist entity, when confronted with the reality of Axis-installed Ustasha rule, the Catholic hierarchy tried to soften attacks on Serbs and Jews. (And presumably on Roma. I have never seen Vatican defenders so much as mention the Roma. No doubt I missed it.)

Unfortunately for the Vatican, media records are available at libraries worldwide and online.  Reading every 1941 New York Times article that mentions Croatia, I chanced upon the gem below:


Copyright (c) The New York Times * Posted for Fair Use Only

— “Vatican Aid Sought for Croat Patriots,” The New York Times, February 17, 1941, Monday, page 2, 228 words

This article provides smoking-gun evidence because of the date: February 17, 1941.

Axis forces did not invade Yugoslavia until April 6, 1941, following which The New York Times summarized German war aims, succinctly writing, “Yugoslavia to disappear.” [3] Part of the disappearance: on April 10 the Germans installed the Croatian Ustasha clerical-Fascists as rulers of a faux-independent Greater Croatia, including most of Bosnia.

But that was in April, 1941. Back in February:

A) Yugoslavia was an internationally recognized state that included Croatia.

B) The Ustasha was still exiled in Italy.

Yet at that time, two months before the Axis invasion, Catholic clerics were telling Croatia (where the Catholic clergy was the most influential force) that the church stood for Ustasha dictatorship, which all Croats knew meant destroying Yugoslavia, creating a clerical-Fascist Greater Croatia, and mass murdering Untermenschen. And Archbishop Stepinac, the top Croatian cleric, was having meetings — not just one meeting, but meetings — at the Vatican to organize the defense of priests arrested for inciting Ustasha violence.

So, these were not rogue priests. If they had been, the Vatican would have disciplined them and perhaps issued a statement condemning them; it certainly would not have announced it was holding top-level conferences to manage their defense. By informing the world’s leading newspaper that the Vatican, which by agreement with Mussolini was once again a state, was supporting Ustasha efforts to shatter a neighboring state (meaning, the Vatican was violating international law), the Vatican demonstrated that a) the Ustasha priests were carrying out Vatican policy and b) this policy was so important that despite the possibility of widespread criticism (for trying to destroy Yugoslavia) the Vatican wanted the whole world to know. The Times obliged, giving the story a friendly spin and putting it on page 2.

Today the Vatican may portray itself as having been a necessarily cautious opponent of Nazism, but in February 1941 it provided the Times, and through the Times the world media and all governments, with the information that the Vatican was trying to put an Axis subsidiary in power in Croatia.

Why did the Vatican want this advertised?

In general, because this period — late 1940 through early 1941 — was a crucial time for the Nazis, and the Vatican wanted Catholics to know where it really stood so they could take appropriate action: supporting collaboration in France, Hungary, Slovakia and other countries now in the Axis camp, and opposing or secretly sabotaging resistance everywhere, including Britain, Poland and the US. The Vatican was, in its customary manner (indirect but not subtle), calling for a quick Axis victory at a time when this seemed possible.

Moreover, both the action of the Fascist priests and the action of the Vatican in ostentatiously flaunting its support for those priests had great importance for helping Hitler achieve what he and the Vatican hoped would be quick victory.

Why?  Why did it matter that the Vatican was having its Croatian priests publicly back a little-known Fascist group in little Croatia, and then publicly supporting those priests?

The Times article states that Croatian Fascists, including the jailed priests, were engaged in “a subversive effort to undermine Croat unity.”  This formulation is perhaps ambiguous but Vatican goals were not.

In mid-February 1941, Greece, just south of Yugoslavia, had recently defeated the Italian Fascist army. Three months earlier, Hungary and Rumania, North and East of Yugoslavia, had joined the Fascist camp.  Bulgaria, also East of Yugoslavia, had a supposedly secret but widely suspected military alliance with Germany. Hitler planned to invade Greece, a key British ally, thereby (he hoped) consolidating the Axis position in the Balkans, and then to invade the USSR.

Regarding both the Greek campaign (which if victorious could mean the complete defeat of Britain in the Balkans) and the future invasion of Soviet Russia, Yugoslavia was strategically crucial, a fact Japan recognized, which was why Japan did not want to declare war on Britain until Yugoslavia was in the Axis camp. [4] While Yugoslav Prince Regent Paul enthusiastically supported a German alliance, the Yugoslav government, fearing the Serbian population’s passionate anti-Nazi sentiment [5], was hesitant. So the Yugoslav leaders flirted, but time and again pulled back from the Nazi embrace. Yugoslavia’s dance — two steps forward; rush two steps back — became a running story in the press.  On February 15 — just two days before the Times broadcast that the Vatican was championing jailed Ustasha priests — the Times ran one such story,  which began:

[Excerpt from “No Pact Signed” starts here]

By Telephone to THE NEW YORK TIMES.
February 15, 1941, Saturday

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, Feb. 14 — Premier Dragisha Cvetkovitch and Dr. Alexander Cincar-Markovitch, the Yugoslav Foreign Minister, signed no agreement with Reichsfuehrer Hitler and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, in Germany today, but will arrive in Belgrade late tomorrow to report to the Regent, Prince Paul, it was declared by high political and diplomatic quarters here tonight.
[My emphasis — J.I.]
— “No Pact Signed, Belgrade Hears,” The New York Times, February 15, 1941, page 2, 810 words

[Excerpt from “No Pact Signed” ends here]

Yugoslavia was strategic for German plans, and Croatia was strategic for determining whether Yugoslavia helped or hurt those plans.

By having priests publicly distribute literature calling for a Croatian Fascist dictatorship, knowing full well they would be arrested, and then having the world’s most influential newspaper broadcast that the Vatican was holding top-level “conferences” to defend these “Jailed” “Croat Patriots,” on February 17 the Vatican was a) warning the hesitant Yugoslav government to complete the deal with Germany or it would have worse to worry about than outraged Serbs, b) telling Croatian leaders to press Yugoslavia hard to consummate the German alliance, and c) telling ordinary Croats to prepare for secession (which would mean “undermin[ing] Croat unity” with Yugoslavia), followed by a clerical-Fascist takeover, should circumstances permit.

In the February 17 article above, the Times does not attack this Vatican policy.  In the headline, the Times avoids stating that the clerics whom the Vatican is defending are Fascist agitators, labeling them “Croat Patriots” and “Jailed Priests.” So, instead of an accurate headline — something like ‘Vatican Intervenes for Ustasha Clerics Jailed for Fascist Incitement’ — readers are treated to the sympathetic:

“Vatican Aid Sought for Croat Patriots.
Yugoslav Prelate Is Said to Ask Freedom for Jailed Priests.”

Note the positive slant, instructing readers how to view clerical actions in Croatia.  Who could oppose freedom for jailed patriot priests? And who would deny them “freedom” in the first place? Jailed for patriotism! O bitter fruit of nobility! And similar laments.

The fact that in the above-quoted headline, which like all headlines was read by more people than the actual article, the Times relinquished any claim to journalistic objectivity, shows how strongly the editors wanted to minimize outrage at the Vatican, not to encourage it. This is important because this stance of the Times — manifestly pro-Vatican — renders the article unchallengeable as a witness against the Vatican.

The Times does not mention that the arrested priests were agitating for a Fascist coup d’état until near the end of the article, after less committed readers would have dropped away, departing under the false impression that Yugoslavia was oppressing patriots, while the Vatican was fighting for freedom, when in fact the Vatican was promoting Axis agents. Even when the Times does finally state that these clerics were fomenting support for a group run by one Ante Pavelic, the Times identifies Pavelic only as a “separatist leader exiled in Italy,” neglecting to mention: a) what he ‘led,’ namely the clerical-Fascist Ustasha; b) what he and his followers wanted to do after ‘separating,’ namely mass-murder Serbs, Jews and Roma; and c) that he and his followers had not in fact been “exiled,” a term that suggests political persecution; they were wanted internationally for the 1934 murder of the Foreign Minister of France and the King of Yugoslavia. In other words, they were Fascist assassins, which was why Mr. Mussolini was shielding them in Fascist Italy. “Exiled leader” of “Croat Patriots,” indeed.

The Times never mentions the term ‘Ustasha.’ And only in the last paragraph does it make clear (by inference) that the Vatican’s ‘patriot priests’ were jailed for inciting “subversive” Fascist violence.

It is ironic that this article, intended by the Vatican in 1941 to help communicate to the faithful (and others) worldwide that it was backing the Axis powers, and to pressure Yugoslavia to join the Axis camp, refutes the Vatican’s claim, six decades later, that during World War II they did as much as they humanly could to oppose Nazism.

— Jared Israel
Emperor’s Clothes


Footnotes and Further Reading


[1] During his May 2009 Middle East trip, the pope boycotted the Museum at Yad Vashem (Israel’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) to protest an exhibit featuring a picture of Pope Pius XII with the following caption:

[Yad Vashem Museum caption starts here]

“In 1933, when he was secretary of the Vatican State, he was active in obtaining a Concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church’s rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime,” the Yad Vashem caption reads.

“When he was elected pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared,” it continues. “Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the pope did not intervene.

“The pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react.”

— “Vatican to skip Yad Vashem ceremony,” by Etgar Lefkovits , The Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2007

[Yad Vashem Museums caption ends here]

Although Yad Vashem takes the line that Pius XII sinned by omission — didn’t do or didn’t do enough — its examples are misleading.

For example, regarding the 1933 Concordat with Nazi Germany, the caption states that:

“In 1933, when he [Pacelli – J.I.] was secretary of the Vatican State, he was active in obtaining a Concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church’s rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime.”

It is difficult to see how helping to create the Concordat is an example of chief negotiator Pacelli (later to be Pius XII) “maintain[ing] his neutral position,” even if we accept the Yad Vashem caption, which bends over backwards to minimize the significance of the Concordat.

The caption presents the Concordat as mainly providing legal guarantees to the Catholic church while secondarily recognizing the Nazi state. In fact, getting the Concordat was a do-or-die necessity for the Nazi state, which was entirely isolated in early 1933.  And rather than protecting the German church, in the Concordat the Vatican ordered it to submit to Nazi rule, while adopting the very language of Nazism.

There was nothing obscure about this. For example, Article 30 required the clergy to conduct public prayers every Sunday for the welfare of the German “Reich und Volk,” which is a Nazi-speak, mystical, racist concept. (“Volk” in this context refers to some hallucinatory ‘Aryan Volk.’)

Or consider Article 16, in which the Vatican commanded German Bishops to serve as pro-active defenders of Nazi rule. Commanded, because the Catholic church is an absolute monarchy, with decisions binding on subordinates.

Here is Samantha Criscione’s translation followed by the German original:

Article 16 Reichskonkordat (“Concordat between the Holy See and the German Reich”), July 20, 1933

“Before bishops take possession of their dioceses, they perform an oath of allegiance in the hand of the Reichsstatthalter [Governor of the Reich, the representative of Hitler in the Reich provinces, whose task was to guarantee the implementation of Hitler’s political directives — SC] in the regional State concerned, or of the President of the Reich, according to the following formula:

“ ‘Before God and on the Holy Gospels I swear and promise, as becomes a bishop, loyalty to the German Reich and to the [regional] State of . . . . I swear and promise to honour the Government formed in accord with the Constitution and to cause my clergy to honour it.

“ ‘In dutiful solicitude for the welfare and the interest of the German State, I will, while exercising the religious post that has been assigned to me, strive to prevent any harm that could threaten it.’ ”

[My emphasis — SC ]

Translation by Samantha Criscione.
Copyright 2007. This translation may not be reposted or otherwise published in any form without the permission of Samantha Criscione. To inquire, write

Original German Text:

“Bevor die Bischöfe von ihrer Diözese Besitz ergreifen, leisten sie in die Hand des Reichsstatthalters in dem zuständigen Lande bzw. des Reichspräsidenten einen Treueid nach folgender Formel:

“ ‘Vor Gott und auf die heiligen Evangelien schwöre und verspreche ich, so wie es einem Bischof geziemt, dem Deutschen Reich und dem Lande …. Treue. Ich schwöre und verspreche, die verfassungsmäßig gebildete Regierung zu achten und von meinem Klerus achten zu lassen. In der pflichtmäßigen Sorge um das Wohl und das Interesse des deutschen Staatswesens werde ich in Ausübung des mir übertragenen geistlichen Amtes jeden Schaden zu verhüten trachten, der es bedrohen könnte.’ ”

[2] For an introduction to the Ustasha clerical-Fascist state of Croatia, see the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust article, “Croatia,” at

[3] “Rumanian Thrust at Yugoslavs Seen; Hint of ‘Protective’ Move Is Found in Border Activity — Hungarian Clash Possible; Reich Plans To End State [i.e., Yugoslavia — J.I.]; Swiss Hear Hitler Aims to Keep Adriatic Port — Italy, Bulgaria Would Get Slices [i.e., of Yugoslavia — J.I.],” The New York Times, April 13, 1941, Sunday, page 24, 484 words

[4] For documentation of Japan’s reluctance, go to http://tenc.net/archive/times410326.htm#1

[5] Regarding the Serbs’ passionate anti-Nazism, see a key 1941 report at http://tenc.net/archive/times410326.htm

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