Black-and-white images of four men set against a background that's two-thirds red and a third white. The pope stands against the white background, but with red encroaching.
From left to right: Adolf Hitler, Prince Philipp von Hessen, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Pope Pius XII (Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Sources: Ullstein / Getty; Süddeutsche Zeitung / Alamy; Realy Easy Star / Fotografia Felici / Alamy)

The Pope’s Secret Back Channel to Hitler

Newly revealed Vatican documents uncover a long-held secret: As war broke out, Pius XII used a Nazi prince to negotiate with Adolf Hitler.

In August 1939, as he was finalizing plans for the invasion of Poland, Adolf Hitler was also engaged in negotiations with Pope Pius XII so delicate that not even the German ambassador to the Holy See knew about them. 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. The 12-volume compilation of the Holy See’s documents on the Second World War, completed in 1981, which to date has constituted the official record of Vatican activity during that period, contains no reference to the negotiations. Knowledge of them has only now come to light with the recent opening of the Pius XII archives at the Vatican.

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. Many Church conservatives portray Pius as nonetheless a steadfast, courageous foe of Hitler and fascism. Others have harshly criticized him for failing to denounce the Nazi war of aggression and Hitler’s effort to exterminate all of Europe’s Jews. Even when the Nazi SS rounded up more than 1,000 Jews in Rome itself, on October 16, 1943, the pope refused to make his voice heard. Held for two days in a complex near the walls of the Vatican, the Jews were then placed on a train bound for Auschwitz.

Book cover of The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler
This article is excerpted from Kertzer’s forthcoming book.

Pope John Paul II was reportedly preparing to beatify Pius XII in 2000 when opposition, especially from Rome’s Jewish community, caused him to put the process on hold. His successor, Benedict XVI, called for waiting until the Vatican’s archives for the war years were opened before making a final decision. He did, though, agree to proclaim Pius XII “venerable,” a step on the way to sainthood. In 2019, Pope Francis authorized the opening of the Pius XII archives, which became available to scholars in 2020. In the two years since then, no new finding has been as dramatic as the discovery that, shortly after he became pope, Pius XII entered into secret negotiations with Hitler, a story told here for the first time.

In the last months of his life, Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, had become a headache for Adolf Hitler. The pope had become more and more incensed by Hitler’s whittling away at the influence of the Church in Germany, replacing Catholic parochial schools with state schools, closing many religious institutions, and supplanting Christian teachings with Nazi doctrine. In 1937, Pius XI issued an encyclical that condemned the Nazi government for its persecution of the Church and its championing of a pagan ideology. Hitler was irate. A year later, when Hitler visited Rome, Pius XI abandoned the city for Castel Gandolfo, his summer retreat in the Alban Hills. In remarks that infuriated Benito Mussolini, Italy’s ruler and Hitler’s host, the pope said he could not abide the glorification of the swastika, which he termed a “cross that is not the cross of Christ.”

Pius XI died in early 1939, much to Hitler’s and Mussolini’s relief. Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who had been the secretary of state, was elected pope, taking the name Pius XII. Hitler now saw a chance to improve relations with the Vatican, or in any case to keep the new pope from openly criticizing his regime. As his secret go-between with the pope, he chose 36-year-old Prince Philipp von Hessen, the son-in-law of Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel III. Few German aristocrats had a more illustrious pedigree than von Hessen, whose grandfather was the German emperor Frederick III and whose great-grandmother was Britain’s Queen Victoria. He was an early member of the SA, the Nazi Party’s storm troopers, and wore its brown-shirted uniform. And he had experience keeping secrets, having taken steps to prevent his amorous relationship with the English poet Siegfried Sassoon from coming to light.

Shortly after Pacelli’s election, Hitler summoned von Hessen to his headquarters. Given the new pope’s evident eagerness to turn the page on the Vatican’s rocky relations with the National Socialist regime, Hitler had decided to explore the possibility of a deal. Von Hessen was told to see if he could schedule a secret meeting with the pope to begin discussions.

To maintain secrecy, the talks between von Hessen and the pope had to be arranged through unofficial channels. The roundabout route, which would be used repeatedly over the next two years, involved a man named Raffaele Travaglini, a shadowy friend of Prince Umberto, Italy’s future king and the brother of von Hessen’s wife, Princess Mafalda. Travaglini was a schemer and self-promoter, as well as an avid fascist. And he was deeply enmeshed in a social network that reached into the Vatican.

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Portrait of Philipp von Hessen (National Archives)

On a Sunday in mid-April of 1939, barely a month after Pacelli had become pope, von Hessen summoned Travaglini to the Italian royal residence in Rome. There he explained that Hitler had asked him to initiate negotiations with the new pontiff outside normal diplomatic channels. Travaglini immediately wrote to Cardinal Lorenzo Lauri, a man close to the pope, asking for his help in arranging a meeting between von Hessen and Pius XII.

The pope met Hitler’s envoy for the first time on May 11. To help ensure secrecy, the pope took the highly unusual step of holding the meeting in the apartment of Cardinal Luigi Maglione, his secretary of state. The two men spoke in German, in which the pope was fluent, having spent a dozen years as the papal nuncio in Germany. The Vatican archives contain a German-language account of their conversation. Remarkably, the pope had a German prelate concealed in such a way as to take down a full transcript of their conversations without apparently being observed by the Nazi prince. The resulting transcripts, recently unearthed, offer a precise account of what was said.

At this first meeting, the pope took out a copy of a letter he had sent Hitler, expressing his appreciation for the führer’s well wishes on his election to the papacy. He read it aloud to the prince, then read Hitler’s reply. Upon finishing the reading, the pope said, “I have been very considerate, and the Reich Chancellor’s reply was very kind. But the situation has since deteriorated.” By way of example, he cited the closing of Catholic schools and seminaries in the Third Reich, the publication of books attacking the Church and the papacy, and the slashing of state funds benefiting the Church in Austria. He told the prince that he was eager to reach an agreement with Hitler and was ready to compromise insofar as his conscience allowed, “but for that to happen, there must before anything else be a truce … I am certain that if peace between Church and state is restored, everyone will be pleased. The German people are united in their love for the Fatherland. Once we have peace, the Catholics will be loyal, more than anyone else.”

Von Hessen explained that the National Socialists were divided into pro-Church and anti-Church factions that were “bitterly opposed to each other.” If the Catholic clergy would agree to confine itself to Church matters and stay out of politics, the pro-Church faction could prevail.

The Church, replied the pope, had no interest in involving itself in partisan politics. “Look at Italy. Here too there is an authoritarian government. And yet the Church can take care of the religious education of the young … No one here is anti-German. We love Germany. We are pleased if Germany is great and powerful.”

Von Hessen asked if the pope was willing to put the Church’s commitment to stay out of politics in writing. The problem, replied Pius XII, evading the question, was to be clear about what was meant by politics. Religious education of the young, for example, should not be considered political.

Von Hessen then brought up what had been another sore point in the Vatican’s relations with the Reich, the much-publicized “morality” trials of German priests. Hundreds had been charged with sexual crimes, including the abuse of children. “Such errors happen everywhere,” the pope observed. “Some remain secret, others are exploited. Whenever we are told of such cases, we intervene immediately.”

It is now clear that the Secretariat of State, then under Cardinal Pacelli’s direction, had indeed taken immediate action. A folder in the Secretariat’s files from the previous year is labeled “Vienna: Order to burn all archival material concerning cases of immorality of monks and priests.” To date, historians have largely dismissed police investigations of clerical sexual abuse in Nazi Germany as evidence of the National Socialist regime’s anti-Catholicism and homophobia. But there were reasons the Church was so vulnerable to this variety of blackmail.

Throughout this first meeting, von Hessen expressed his nervousness that word of it might be leaked. “No one knows we’re having this conversation,” the pope assured him. “Even my closest associates don’t know about it.”

Following the encounter, von Hessen traveled to Berlin to tell Hitler what the pope had said. Three weeks later, having returned to Rome, von Hessen again conveyed a message to Travaglini, who relayed it by letter to Cardinal Lauri, who in turn passed it along to the pope.

The führer, the message began, “was very satisfied with the secret discussion that the Prince had with His Holiness on the evening of May 11, 1939 … Following that meeting various conversations took place in Berlin with the Führer and with [Hermann] Goering and [Joachim von] Ribbentrop”—the Reichsmarschall and the minister of foreign affairs, respectively. As a result:

a) The pope’s meeting with von Hessen had changed Ribbentrop’s attitude toward reaching an agreement between the Reich and the Vatican, which he had previously opposed but now supported.

b) As of May 25, the German press was ordered to end its attacks on the Catholic religion and Catholic priests in Germany and on the contrary, to speak well of them if good occasions should arise to do so.

c) Hitler called on various regional officials to send reports on the religious situation in their regions, in order to be in a position to negotiate with the Vatican regarding its concerns.

d) The decision was made to send Prince Philipp to Rome with a message of homage and good wishes for the Holy Father, accompanied by some concrete proposals, to initiate official contacts via the respective diplomatic channels for the hoped-for accord.

Von Hessen’s message went on to stress the importance Hitler placed on keeping the negotiations secret. As Hitler saw it, until an agreement could be reached with the pope, there was no benefit to letting word of his initiative get out.

Through the summer of 1939, as Hitler prepared to invade Poland, he continued to use his back channel to entice the Vatican with the prospect of an agreement. In early July, the pope received a new report from von Hessen via Cardinal Lauri. At a meeting a few days earlier, von Hessen had asked Hitler whether the proposals for the pope were ready. The prince reported that while the führer was “now predisposed to conciliation,” he “asked to be excused if, given the current extremely delicate international situation, he hadn’t been able up to now to adequately study the current complex problems of the Catholic Church in the Reich in order to be able to bring the Holy Father, with devout and respectful sentiments of great esteem and sympathy, concrete proposals.” But, von Hessen hastened to add, Hitler was convinced that the much-desired religious peace could be achieved, and he hoped soon to return to Rome to meet with the pope.

Von Hessen’s next secret meeting with Pius XII took place on August 26, at Castel Gandolfo. A detailed account of this encounter comes in the form of a German-language record found in the newly opened Vatican Secretariat of State archives. The meeting took place less than a week before Hitler sent German troops into Poland, setting off the Second World War.

The German prince began by telling the pope that Hitler wanted to assure him of his “most fervent desire” to restore peace with the Church. The führer, von Hessen said, did not believe that any “big issues” divided them. Seemingly oblivious to the apparent contradiction, the prince then said that Hitler thought the “biggest issues” to be resolved, if an agreement was to be reached, were the “racial question”—referring here to the Nazi regime’s campaign of persecution and terror directed at Jews—and what Hitler saw as the clergy’s meddling in Germany’s domestic politics. Hitler, von Hessen said, believed that the first of these obstacles, the “racial question,” could be “avoided,” presumably by continuing the new pope’s policy of remaining silent about the issue. What was needed, then, was an understanding on the proper role of Germany’s Catholic clergy.

In responding, the pope first expressed his gratitude to Hitler for his warm greeting. He, too, he said, would like to see the Church reach an honorable agreement that would ensure religious peace in the Reich. As for Hitler’s concerns about political activity by the German clergy, there should be no grounds for worry because the Church had no reason to engage in partisan politics. In his conversations with von Hessen, the pope never raised any concerns about the Nazis’ anti-Jewish campaign.

The führer, said the prince, was convinced that their talks could well lead to a new, revised concordat with Germany, one that included Austria, now part of the Reich, as well. “We will promote the achievement of an honorable religious peace with utmost vigor,” the pope said. Such a peace, von Hessen went on, “really is the Führer’s deep wish. He hopes to see your Holiness when he comes back to Rome for official purposes.” Hitler had hoped by now to have provided the pope with a series of points to move the negotiations along, the prince said. Unfortunately, “the Russian affair came up,” distracting him from the matter.

Von Hessen did not need to explain this reference. The German-Russian nonaggression pact—which gave Hitler the guarantees he sought in order to launch his invasion of Poland—had been signed three days earlier in Moscow. But the negotiations with the pope, insisted the German prince, remained of the utmost interest to the führer. At the same time, they all realized that everything had to continue to be done in secret if they were to prevent “hostile interference” by those eager to prevent any agreement between Pius XII and Hitler. “The secretum,” the pope said, using the Latin word, “is sacred to us.”

Photo collage with a portrait of Pius XII.
Pope Pius XII (Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Sources: Fototeca Gilardi / Getty; Adoc / Getty)

The next meeting took place on October 24, 1939. With his brutal conquest of Poland now complete, Hitler let the pope know that he was ready to resume their secret negotiations. The quasi-transcript of the German-language conversation between the pope and Philipp von Hessen makes clear that, even after the invasion and the start of the larger war, the pope was eager to reach an understanding with Hitler. At the same time, the pope wanted Hitler to know that any agreement depended on a change of those German policies that had harmed the Church.

As von Hessen sat down, the pope asked how Hitler was doing.

“He is doing very well, the considerable tensions notwithstanding,” the prince replied. Unfortunately, the Poles had brought disaster on themselves, their stubborn refusal to recognize their defeat having had tragic consequences. The Polish military command’s decision to continue the pointless resistance, said von Hessen, had needlessly sacrificed many lives.

But, the pope replied, even the Germans had to recognize the bravery of the Polish soldiers.

All in all, von Hessen said, passing over the pope’s remark, the führer was very pleased with the military and political progress he had made in Poland.

How, asked the pope, were the German people faring?

“They are doing well. Food ration cards have been introduced. But the people are optimistic.” The pope acknowledged that there did now seem to be calm on the military side. Indeed, replied the prince. Perhaps he was being overly hopeful, he said, but he saw signs that peace might now be returning to Europe.

Von Hessen noted that, following his previous meeting with the pope, he had returned to Germany and discussed with the führer what the pope had told him about the importance of coming to an understanding. “He was in complete agreement,” said the prince, but he was then regrettably distracted by the many other urgent issues he had to address. Still, the prince assured the pope, “the intention remains.”

Unfortunately, Pius XII said, the news from Germany was not such as to encourage a rapprochement with the Church. Even those who preferred an authoritarian regime were concerned about the way religious institutions were being treated.

At this point, the pope decided to bring up an argument he thought might appeal to Hitler. Germany’s enemies were making ample use of the Reich’s poor treatment of the churches. All of this, added the pope, alluding to the pressures on him to speak out against Hitler’s anti-Church measures, was making his own position and that of the Vatican difficult. The Germans’ systematic attack on the Church had to stop. If Hitler were to give a signal and the situation were to improve, it would pave the way for productive negotiations. “I understand other tasks require the Führer’s energy right now,” the pope said. “But such a signal, such a ‘Stop!,’ is possible and most important. That is because, and there is no doubt about it, the persecutions go on. Deliberately and systematically.”

Perhaps, the prince suggested, it might be best to begin by holding preliminary negotiations in Berlin, where the führer spent most of his time. There, the papal nuncio could preside over the talks. “So many countries have joined the Reich,” von Hessen added, that clearly a new concordat with the Vatican was needed.

Did the prince have in mind forming a committee to organize such talks? the pope asked.

No, he had been given no such instructions. He was simply thinking out loud. “If His Holiness would agree in principle, then—”

The pope interrupted. What was important for any such talks to be fruitful was the creation of a propitious atmosphere by means of a signal from the führer.

“I will gladly advocate this.”

“I have always desired peace between Church and State and continue to do so,” the pope said.

As Pius rose to bring their meeting to an end, he told the prince how much he appreciated his visit and asked that he convey to Hitler his warm greetings.

Von Hessen returned to Germany. Thinking that the time had come for discussions to move to the next level, Hitler decided to send Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop to meet with the pope. Von Hessen returned to Rome to discuss possible arrangements.

Following their now familiar path, Travaglini took his written account of what von Hessen had told him to Cardinal Lauri. The cardinal sent it to Pius on January 2, 1940, with a cover letter urging the pope to quickly let him know how to respond. A separate typed note on a plain sheet of paper, found together with the cardinal’s letter in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State archive, shows how quickly the pope agreed to the meeting and gives a flavor of its cloak-and-dagger nature: “January 3, 1940 (12:15 p.m.). The Most Eminent Cardinal Lauri informs us that ‘the noted person’ returned this morning in Rome and appropriately advised, will come this evening at the agreed-upon time.”

In preparing for the meeting, Pius XII hastily assembled a document, in German, listing five requests for Hitler. He gave it to von Hessen when the prince appeared that evening at the Apostolic Palace. The pope prefaced his five points by expressing his pleasure in seeing that “some of the propagandistic publications against the Church or Church organizations [in Germany] have been withdrawn.” However, other signs were less encouraging; reports of anticlerical and anti-Christian propaganda in Germany kept coming in. “We continue to perceive that there are those in the Party—especially in those circles that regard themselves as the foremost representatives of today’s Germany such as in the SS, the SA, the Labor Front, the Hitler Youth, the Federation of German Girls—who seek to separate Catholics spiritually and, if possible, visibly from their Church. For example, one cannot advance in the SS without having discarded one’s membership in the Church.” To “detoxify the public atmosphere before any talks begin,” the pope suggested, the German government would have to take certain measures. He then listed the five steps:

  1. Ending the attacks against Christianity and the Church in Party and State publications, and the withdrawal of particularly offensive past publications. Some of the worst publications against the Church have indeed been withdrawn from the market, but far from all …
  2. Cessation of anti-Christian and anti-Church propaganda targeted at youth, in the school and beyond …
  3. Restoration of religious education in schools in accordance with the principles of the Catholic Church and led by Church-approved teachers, in most cases Catholic clergy.
  4. Restoration of the Church’s freedom to defend itself publicly against public attacks against Church doctrine and Church organizations …
  5. Cessation of further sequestrations of Church property, in anticipation of the mutual examination of past measures.

The morning after the meeting, von Hessen briefed von Ribbentrop by phone. On his return to Germany not long afterward, von Hessen also briefed Hitler and gave him the five-point memo that Pius XII had prepared. Sent back to Rome early the next month to continue the negotiations, von Hessen summoned Travaglini to convey a new message to the pontiff. After Hitler had read the pope’s memo, he had discussed next steps with von Ribbentrop and agreed in principle with the pope’s terms. He had decided that his foreign minister’s upcoming meeting with the pope be an official one and not remain secret. It should be billed as a discussion of the points of tension between the Reich and the Vatican.

Curiously, in advising Pius on the planned meeting with von Ribbentrop, von Hessen conveyed Hitler’s wish that the pope flatter his foreign minister as much as possible: “During the meeting that von Ribbentrop will have with the Holy Father—perhaps a decisive one for the relations between the Church and the Reich—the Führer would like the Holy Father to employ many, many sweet words in regards to his Minister of Foreign Affairs, as he is very susceptible to such expressions, and as von Ribbentrop is the executor of future oversight in this area.” Hitler, said the German prince, “is expecting much from this audience.”

Although the pope was eager for the meeting with the Nazi foreign minister, Hitler’s decision that the encounter should receive wide publicity made him nervous. Ever since the Germans had invaded Poland the previous September, anguished pleas from the overwhelmingly Catholic Poles had been coming in to the Vatican, urging the pope to denounce the Nazi aggression. The fact that large numbers of Polish Catholic clergy were targets of the German invaders made the pressure to speak out almost unbearable. For the pope now to be seen in collegial conversation with von Ribbentrop could have unpleasant consequences for him.

On February 8, the pope had a new note prepared for von Hessen:

The news we have received up to the beginning of the current month on the Church’s situation in Germany does not indicate the beginning of a détente in line with the five mentioned points.

Under these circumstances His Holiness believes that it remains more beneficial to make the first encounter between him and the Reich Foreign Minister a confidential one, to permit an open discussion without interference about the necessary … points for the agreement.  

On February 18, von Hessen returned to Rome, where Travaglini gave him the pope’s message. Travaglini’s account of his subsequent conversation with von Hessen, which Pius XII received via Cardinal Lauri, featured Hitler’s latest enticements for the pope. The führer and von Ribbentrop were “cautiously and discreetly applying the five points of [the pope’s] Note.” They planned to complete that task and potentially do even more to please the pope following von Ribbentrop’s visit. To make all of this possible, the Nazi leaders had agreed that, while the foreign minister’s meeting could be considered “private,” it must be accompanied by all the ceremony appropriate for an event of such importance. Von Hessen’s message for the pope ended optimistically: “After the visit and the Holy Father’s open, frank discussion with von Ribbentrop, a new era of pacification of Catholicism in Germany may dawn.”

Photo collage with Hitler and the St. Peter's Basilica.
Illustration by Cristiana Couceiro. Sources: Süddeutsche Zeitung / Alamy; Giordano Cipriani / Getty

On Monday morning, March 11, 1940, von Ribbentrop and his entourage were picked up by four black Vatican limousines flying Vatican and Nazi flags. They set off for the Apostolic Palace, entering Vatican City through the Porta Sant’Anna. The 46-year-old foreign minister—a “boundlessly vain, arrogant and pompous former champagne salesman,” as the historian Ian Kershaw has described him—had become one of the führer’s closest confidants, although he was looked on with contempt by most of the top Nazi leadership. At the Vatican, harlequin-striped Swiss Guards saluted the motorcade before it made its way into the San Damaso Courtyard.

Von Ribbentrop entered Pius XII’s private library, with its large, carved desk set near one wall. The foreign minister, who declined to kneel as was the custom in approaching Pius XII, began the conversation by conveying Hitler’s greetings. In response, the pope spoke of his many years in Germany, which he said had perhaps been the happiest of his life.

Von Ribbentrop said he hoped they could speak frankly. Hitler believed that settling their differences “was quite possible” but depended on first ensuring “that the Catholic clergy in Germany abandon any kind of political activity”—that is, not offer any criticism, explicit or implicit, of government policies. Of course, wartime was not the moment for entering into any new formal agreements, the German minister said, but “in the opinion of the Führer, what mattered for the time being was to maintain the existing truce [between Church and state] and, if possible, to expand it.” Hitler, von Ribbentrop said, was doing his part in bringing this improvement about. He had quashed no fewer than 7,000 indictments of Catholic clergymen, charged with a variety of financial and sexual crimes, and was continuing the National Socialist government’s policy of giving a large annual financial subsidy to the Catholic Church. Indeed, the pope had much to be thankful to Hitler for, von Ribbentrop suggested; if the Church still existed in Europe, it was only thanks to National Socialism, which had eliminated the Bolshevist threat.

Here the German and Vatican accounts of the conversation begin to differ. According to the German version, “the Pope showed complete understanding toward the Foreign Minister’s statements and admitted without qualifications that the concrete facts were as mentioned. True, he attempted to turn the conversation toward certain special problems and complaints of the Curia, but he did not insist on going on.”

The pope’s account of the conversation was prepared by Monsignor Domenico Tardini, in the Secretariat of State, based on what the pope told him shortly after von Ribbentrop departed. We also have further insight into the conversation thanks to a lengthy German-language memo prepared in advance of the meeting as a guide to what Pius XII intended to say. The memo, which only recently came to light, offered a reminder of the five points the pope had sent to Hitler. It included, as well, other important issues the pope hoped to bring up. The list was long: “There have been cases of offices of high Church officials, including bishops, being searched … by the Gestapo.” Such actions violated the provisions of the concordat that had been negotiated with the German government shortly after Hitler had come to power. They had to stop. Then there was the sensitive issue of Poland:

The Holy See has the gravest concerns over the current situation of the Church in Poland, especially because of the extreme restrictions imposed on the bishops and priests; the restrictions on Church activities, even on Sundays, that prevent priests and the faithful from executing the most necessary religious acts; and the closing of many religious institutes and Catholic private schools.

Following the meeting, the pope remarked that von Ribbentrop had struck him as a rather vigorous young man, but one who railed like a fanatic when he spoke. Von Ribbentrop had told the pope that he had once been a wine merchant with little interest in politics. He believed in God, he said, and had been born a Protestant, but belonged to no church. In response to von Ribbentrop’s complaint that the pope’s predecessor had used strong words against Germany, Pius pointed out that, by contrast, in his own first encyclical, released the previous October, he had taken care not to offend the Germans, and in his subsequent Christmas address, his mention of the suffering of a “little people” had referred not to Poland, as some had claimed, but rather to Finland, which the Russians had recently overrun.

Von Ribbentrop tried to impress the pope with the Germans’ certainty of winning the war before the year’s end, a claim he kept repeating. “I had never seen a man of ice until I had met with von Ribbentrop,” Giuseppe Bastianini, Mussolini’s undersecretary for foreign affairs, had observed, and now the pope was seeing the famously warmongering Nazi in action.

Two months after the pope’s meeting with von Ribbentrop, the German army began its rapid march westward, occupying the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France in shockingly short order, while driving a British expeditionary force from the continent. Poland had been dismembered. Yet the pope’s secret meetings with the Nazi prince continued; the last one took place in the spring of 1941. In the end, no formal agreement emerged from the meetings, and so in a narrow sense they could be deemed a failure. 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.

Pius XII and Adolf Hitler had no affection for each other. Yet each man had his own reasons for initiating these talks. The pope placed the highest priority on reaching a deal with the Nazi regime to end the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church in the Third Reich and in the lands that it conquered. For his part, Hitler saw an opportunity to end the papal criticism that had become such an irritant under the previous pope. As Prince von Hessen had told the pope, Hitler saw only two potential impediments to reaching an understanding: “the racial question” and the involvement of Catholic clergy in German politics. Priests and bishops should not be permitted to utter any criticism of Nazi policies.

There is no indication that the pope ever brought up the Nazis’ campaign against Europe’s Jews as an issue. (Nor, for that matter, was the pope then expressing any opposition to Mussolini’s own “racial laws” as long as they affected only Italy’s Jews.) As for Hitler’s second concern, the pope repeatedly denied that the Catholic clergy was involved in the political realm. If the pope in fact thought it proper for the Catholic clergy to criticize any of the Nazi regime’s policies other than those that directly affected the Church, he did not insist on the matter.

Pius XII had other priorities. 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. If the only goal was to protect the welfare of the institutional Church, his efforts could well be judged a success. 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.


David Kertzer would like to thank Roberto Benedetti for his contribution to the archival work on which this article is based.


This article is excerpted from Kertzer’s forthcoming book, The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler.

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