‘Hitler’s pope’ struck dirty deal with Nazi prince to stay silent on persecution of Jews
A Nazi prince who was a descendant of Queen Victoria conducted secret talks with the Vatican on behalf of Adolf Hitler to strike a deal under which the Holy See stayed silent about the persecution of the Jews, a new book claims.
In return, the Nazi regime promised to end its campaign of confiscating the assets of the Catholic Church in Germany and clamping down on religious freedom.
Hitler had replaced Catholic schools with state schools, supplanted Christian teachings with Nazi doctrine and shut down religious institutions in Germany and Austria.
The claims of a dirty deal lend further weight to critics who accused Pope Pius XII – elected in 1939 and derided by some as “Hitler’s Pope” – of pursuing a cynical policy of preserving Catholic influence in Germany while turning a blind eye to the plight of the Jews.
The new information about the secret negotiations, based on documents found in the Vatican archives after they were opened to scholars in 2020, are contained in The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini and Hitler, by David Kertzer, an American academic.
“Few topics in Church history, or the history of the Second World War, are as hotly contested as Pius XII’s decision to avoid direct public criticism of Hitler or his regime, and to remain publicly silent in the face of the Holocaust,” he writes.
In the months leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Hitler sent Prince Philipp von Hessen, a German aristocrat, to open up a clandestine backchannel for talks with Pope Pius XII.
The prince was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria. He had been sent to prep school at Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex, had an English governess and eventually married the daughter of the king of Italy.
As a result of the negotiations he pursued, the Pope agreed to stay out of “partisan politics” in Germany, including what Hitler called the “racial question” – the Nazis’ persecution of Jewish people.
His predecessor, Pope Pius XI, had been a critic of the Nazis and Hitler was keen for the Vatican’s disapproval of his regime to end.
In return, the Fuhrer pledged to relax efforts to curtail the Catholic Church’s wealth and independence.
The talks between von Hessen and the Pope were “so delicate that not even the German ambassador to the Holy See knew about them”, writes Prof Kertzer, a professor of Italian studies at Brown University.
“The existence of these talks was a secret the Vatican was eager to maintain long after Pius XII’s death - as it did for eight decades.”
Hitler’s emissary was deeply anxious that word of the talks might be leaked but was assured by the pope: “No one knows we’re having this conversation. Even my closest associates don’t know about it.”
Pius told the prince that he was “eager to reach an agreement with Hitler” and promised that if the Nazis called a “truce” with the Church, then German Catholics would be loyal, “more than anyone else” to the Reich.
The pope did not bring up, or voice objection to, the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews during the secret talks, which lasted from 1939 until 1941.
“Pius XII had other priorities,” Prof Kertzer writes. “As the head of a large international organization, his overriding aim in negotiations with Hitler’s emissary was protecting the institutional resources and prerogatives of the Roman Catholic Church in the Third Reich.
“But for those who see the papacy as a position of great moral leadership, the revelations of Pius XII’s secret negotiations with Hitler must come as a sharp disappointment.
“As the war years wore on, in all their horror, Pius XII came under great pressure to denounce Hitler’s regime and its ongoing attempt to exterminate Europe’s Jews. He would resist until the end.”
The last of the clandestine meetings between the pope and the prince took place in the spring of 1941.
By then, the Vatican had little to show for the faith it had put in the Nazi regime. “What the meetings did was string the pope along and help keep him silent. Hitler never intended to restore the prerogatives of the Church in Germany, but he knew how to dangle various enticements,” Prof Kertzer concludes in his book, which will be published on June 7.
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