Review of The Pope and the Fascists by Karlheinz Deschner
The Pope and the Fascists: The Vatican in alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and Pavelic.
Karlheinz Deschner (1965)
Revised with a new introduction by Peter Gorenflos and English translation in 2013 by Richard Pepper.
Pp. 174 + notes (page references in the text refer to the draft manuscript I was sent for review and may not correspond to the published edition)
Reviewed by Paul O’Shea
Deschner: unreformed, unforgiving and still wrong.
Before I was asked to review The Pope and the Fascists I had not heard or come across Karlheinz Deschner (1924-). This is not surprising since until the last few years his writings have remained largely untranslated from their original German. The book under review is due to be released by Prometheus in October 2013.
From the outset there is a measure of discomfort about the subject matter and how it is treated. Firstly, Deschner’s unrevised original text – Mit Gott und den Faschisten – was published in 1965. The 2013 text, translated by Richard Pepper, has not been updated apart from a foreword by Peter Gorenflos. Gorenflos writes with a passion for Deschner’s work but unfortunately there is an underlying thread of unsubstantiated and unresearched elements that left this reviewer wondering if any serious reading of the fascist era had been done at all. Bald statements to the effect that the Vatican has pursued “a deliberate policy of disinformation” (7) with regard to just about everything in its history does not suggest a balanced, evidence based approach. Nor do basic errors help, such as the assertion that the Kirchensteuer (Church tax) was an innovation that emerged from the 1933 Reichskonkordat. The Church Tax was mandated in the 1919 Weimar Constitution article 137(10). Describing the Catholic Church in the Third Reich as a “state church” (10) is simply untrue. Throughout the rest of his foreword introducing Deschner Gorenflos continues to make unsubstantiated remarks that only serve to show he does not understand, or does not want to understand, the enormous complexities of modern German history and modern papal history. A final swipe at Christianity, “a highly virulent blend of Gnosticism, ancient mystery cults and the life-story of Jesus” and an excursus into “psycho-history” (13) does nothing to reassure the reader that what will follow will be a contribution to the history of the papacy and the fascist dictatorships.
Deschner’s opening paragraph in the author’s foreword is alarming for its ahistorical simplicity:
While at least the collaboration of the Church with the Nazi regime has become more common knowledge in recent times – almost a quarter of a century after the event is late enough, I should say – there are still many circles not aware that the Catholic hierarchy systematically supported all the fascist states from their beginnings and therefore carry a great responsibility for the deaths of sixty million people (15).
Deschner’s foreword appears to act as a synopsis for his thesis. In summary the Catholic Church in general, and the papacy in particular were responsible for – collaboration with Mussolini before his rise to power in 1922, the invasion of Abyssinia and use of poisonous gas; collaboration with the anti-Republican forces in Spain and, at least, sympathy for the deployment of the troops of “heathen Hitler and the atheist Mussolini”; collaboration with Hitler before 1933, cleverly disguising Catholic interests under the appearance of the anti-Catholic policies of the regime, enthusiastic support for the war against the Soviet Union which “the Catholic Church had been longing for with a passion”; collaboration in the murder and forced conversion of Orthodox Serbs – an event unknown in German-speaking countries, according to the author before he wrote about it in his 1962 work Abermals krähte der Hahn (And again the cock crew). Finally, Deschner accuses those who disagree with his interpretation of history of engaging in slander, but also as validation that what he writes is true and part of “the struggle against lies and barbarism” (15-16).
Citing Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), Deschner asserts that the Christian church has become “the most gigantic exploitation machine the world has ever seen” (18) and is responsible for much of the ills that have befallen the world ever since. His recount of episodes of church history is tortured and highly selective. On one page he would have the reader believe, without evidence, that the Catholic church was “partly” responsible for World War One; that it supported the Central Powers; and the 1917 peace plan of Benedict XV demonstrated Vatican support for Germany at the expense of the Allies which accounted for the exclusion of the Vatican from the peace conference in 1919 (21)
From here on the pattern is repeated with monotonous regularity and predictability. The only reason the Catholic Church and the papacy engaged in negotiations with the fascist dictators was to secure power and keep it at whatever cost and by whatever means. It struck this reviewer as odd that nothing was mentioned of how the church operated outside of Europe, since it would be safe to presume that the Machiavellian power plays Deschner would have us believe were the modus operandi of the Vatican would also have been at work in other parts of the world too?
Adding to the discomforts of this book is a number of post-1965 facts that make much of Deschner’s material anachronistic. Firstly, the volume of material published by historians in the near half century since Deschner first wrote this work has been significant. To re-issue this book without at least tacit acknowledgement of the enormous amount of information Deschner simply did not have access to in the early 1960s is puzzling. Secondly, the Archivio Segreto Vaticano made the files from the papacy of Pius XI (1922-1939) available in 2003 and 2006. The files hold materials that have helped historians get a more nuanced picture of how the Vatican understood, responded and reacted to events in Italy, Spain, Germany and the rest of the world in the inter-war period. It is also worth mentioning that the Vatican has been steadily publishing collections of archival material from the 1920s onwards including the twelve volume series, Actes et Documents du Saint Siège relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, published between 1965-1981.
Again, to not at least make mention of the valuable material made available here is troubling. Thirdly, the amount of government archival material that has been published since the end of the Second World War including diplomatic communiqués between the Holy See and other governments means we have another rich source of information. Some of this, such as the series Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 have been publically available since 1956.
One example makes the point. Deschner asserts that Pius XI supported Mussolini’s war in Abyssinia. Before the release of the ASV files such an opinion may have enjoyed some currency, but since then, historians know that the pope was vehemently opposed to the war that he described as “unjust” (Emma Fattorini, Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican, 7-8 and notes 10,11,12). To say otherwise now, is simply unsustainable. Popular enthusiasm for the conflict cannot be construed as having papal support.
Deschner seems somewhat surprised at the tactics of Mussolini and his lack of political or moral integrity and his climb to power. No credible historian would disagree that he used whatever means he could to secure power and in Catholic Italy an alliance of some sort with the Church was desirable. It is unfair to accuse all members of the Catholic clergy of duplicity in their support of the fascist cause in the 1920s; hindsight is a temptation to be avoided. Very few people, clergy or lay, had the foresight to see where Mussolini’s cause could lead, and in a country where a liberal era lasted only a few decades, authoritarian government was more familiar than democracy.
The history of the protracted negotiations between the Mussolini government and the Vatican that led to the Lateran Pacts of 1929 cannot be reduced to a set of back-room deals with the church indifferent to anything other than power, money and some bizarre plan to reverse social development and intellectual independence in Italy. Nor does Deschner help when he indulges in grossly misrepresented facts about the Pacelli family and accusations of papal nepotism (25-31, especially 28).
Deschner either does not understand the realities of Italian fascism and the position confronting Pope Pius XI or he does not wish to. To claim that the demise of the Catholic political parties in Italy and Germany was the direct fault of the Vatican is a gross exaggeration. It is true Pius XI was not in favour of clergy involved in political life, but lay Catholics were encouraged to engage in the secular sphere. This was the reason behind the pope’s great project in Catholic Action. However Deschner does not accept any other reason for the signing of the Lateran Pact other than a deliberate political act of the church whereby it “crossed over to fascism” (32). After a series of inaccurate statements about the Abyssinian war, Deschner closes chapter one with a four-page explanation of Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary suggesting that Mary has been used as the reason behind all military victories supported by the church (39-42).
Chapter Two is entitled “The Vatican and the Spanish Civil War”. It follows the same patterns as the previous chapter. The major narrative outlining the situation in Spain up the 1930s is essentially sound although selective use of historical data, often taken out of context, is presented as definitive fact. The Spanish church was undergoing the beginnings of a battle with modernity, not dissimilar to the same experiences undergone in other majority-Catholic countries at the same time. However, it is a huge leap to make in asserting that Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli actively encouraged the political aspirations of Gil Robles even with an anti-communist platform that may have been tempting. Certainly, as far as I know, there was never any meeting between Gil Robles and his supporters and Cardinal Pacelli as alluded to by Deschner (49-50).
The truth of Rome’s anxiety over Spain is clear. Pius XI was greatly distressed at the civil war and the attacks on the church. He addressed Spanish refugees in September 1936 using the language associated with martyrs a point conceded by Deschner, despite using an inaccurate translation of the address (66), but then cynically twisted to suggest that
The 8,000 murdered Catholic clergy came “just at the right time” for the Holy Father! Because Rome always thinks in terms of the wider context, and ten thousand, a hundred thousand or ever more bodies, even if they are those of their own, may not only be irrelevant but even desirable (66)
However, papal distress did not lead to active interference in the war itself. Pius and Pacelli called for peace and an end to bloodshed. It was no secret that their sympathies lay with the Nationalists, and they were under no illusions as to the methods often employed by both sides. When Franco gained the upper hand, the Spanish church sought accommodation and Franco was determined to give it. Deschner’s treatment of Franco suggests that the Generalissimo was always a devout Catholic whose actions followed his Catholic conscience as a “warrior of Christ” (72).
Peace came at a frightful cost in Spain; modernity was rejected for an authoritarian government that lasted until 1976. Deschner’s pages covering various aspects of the civil war are telling for one major omission – the pope. He is not there, and nor should he be, because Pius XI and his Cardinal Secretary of State maintained the traditional policy of Vatican neutrality. And as odious as Franco’s treatment of his former foes was, this cannot be laid at the feet of the pope! Deschner himself wrote that Franco “would not hesitate to defy the church when it seemed necessary” (72). Indeed.
The next one hundred pages are devoted to the Vatican and its relationship with Nazi Germany (77-170). Beginning from the premise that has clouded his judgement of the church from the beginning of the book, namely that the Vatican, its representatives and lay Catholics in positions of power, would always act in whatever manner necessary to grab power, keep power and work to establish some form of irrational, extremely conservative, fascist-style theocracy against the evils of socialism, democracy and godless communism. A cursory reading of Deschner thus far leads one to wonder if there were no evils the church was not prepared to indulge to achieve its aims. This is the stuff of conspiracy theories, aping in a grotesque analogy the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories made popular under the Nazis. The “eternal Catholic or eternal pope” could well replace the “eternal Jew” in this book. It makes for tedious, tiresome and tiring reading.
It could be expected that Deschner is on “safer ground” when he writes on Germany. That would be a mistake. Determined to convince the reader that not only did the pope and Cardinal Pacelli understand Hitler prior to 1933, they were also aware of his evil intentions for actions that had not yet happened! (85) Discussing the Reichskonkordat over ten pages, Deschner opens by writing
“no-one [sic], as a popular objection goes, could have recognised the character of this government or noticed their tendency for notorious crimes. But this objection does not hold up because there was no longer any doubt about the essence and method of this movement at this time” (85).
In a nine-point list Deschner cites historically accurate events, but blames the church for not seeing what was happening before its very eyes. Therefore, to use Deschner’s logic, the church was complicit in the crimes of the Third Reich. Pius XI and Pacelli did not need to do more than read the newspapers to learn of the growing disregard for law and order in Germany. In addition the reports of the Berlin nunciature are readily available and set out for the historian a very clear picture of events in Germany. The ASV files also show without any doubt that the Vatican’s response was forever muted by its inability to enforce its will. Nonetheless, Pacelli instructed Nuncio Orsenigo to do whatever he could to assist those in need, including German Jews.
And there are clumsy errors that should have been excised in 1965. One of the most annoying is Deschner’s claim that Pacelli “repeatedly appeared at Nazi party rallies as nuncio” (87) coupled with the facetious remark that the Cardinal Secretary of State was comfortable with Hitler’s violence against communists, basic freedoms of assembly and the press as well as acts of terror against the Jews (87). Deschner displays an almost global non-understanding of the complex realities of Germany under the Nazis. There was no black and white answer that the church could espouse with Hitler. The Führer was a master pragmatist who would use whatever means he could to achieve his goals – the church was useful for as long as Hitler found it useful. As soon as that use was concluded, Hitler’s interest in Catholic Church matters waned until the next opportunity to use it. The history of the church in the Third Reich bares ample testimony to this as the clergy morality and currency trials in the mid-1930s show.
Deschner also appears not to understand the realities of the German episcopacy and the divisions among the bishops as they tried to forge a common way that would keep the church intact and not alarm and alienate “ordinary” Catholics, most of whom had made their peace with the regime. The bishops, like most people at the time, could not foresee a murderous future and they too were caught in the enthusiasm for the vision of a rejuvenated Germany. As pastors responsible for the care of their diocese the bishops wanted to work with the regime for the good of their people and nation, a laudable sentiment. Therefore his claim that “All the German bishops called for cooperation with Hitler in 1933 because the Vatican wanted it” is simply wrong (91). The same is also valid for German Catholic theologians. The Vatican relied on the bishops to determine the best course of action not the other way around. In a similar way it was Hitler who asked for the Reichskonkordat not the Vatican or the German bishops. And while it is true that some bishops and even the nuncio to Bavaria (100) said things they probably later regretted, they were not alone in this regard.
The German chapter continues in this manner. Those who defied Hitler and the regime did so without any help from the church; the martyrs are in fact witnesses against the church; the bishops failed in their duties to their people; the “pope and the German bishops demanded obedience to Hitler” of the German people. All of this leads Deschner to conclude, “there was no Catholic resistance at all. There was resistance from some individual Catholics. And it took place against the will of the Church” (108) Bishops are condemned for not speaking out, for being German patriots, for not permitting soldiers to make a “personal decision based on conscience” (109), in summary, because they made choices and decisions with which Deschner vehemently disagrees. The possibility that many of the bishops were scared that resistance to Hitler would bring down the Führer’s anger upon them and their diocese or that they tried to avoid greater evils by coping as best they could does not figure in Deschner’s harsh assessment. And in some instances he is right, but since context is something that is so often lacking in this book it is hard to determine the validity of Deschner’s criticisms.
Apart from one mention on page 119, which mentions the pope in relation to Cardinal Innitzer of Vienna and his enthusiastic endorsement of the Anchluss of March 1938, but neglects the papal reprimand that followed, the popes – Pius XI and Pius XII – are scarce mentioned until the next chapter.
In 2013 the controversy over what Pope Pius XII did or did not do in World War Two is well known. Deschner’s comments on Pius occurred in the first years of the critical re-appraisal of the wartime pope. The Vatican archives were still closed in 1965 and the study of the war and Holocaust were still in their infancy. Nonetheless, Deschner’s opening remarks about Pius are overly critical and seem influenced by Hochhuth’s play The Deputy.
Of course Pius XII did not have any particular sympathy for the anticlerical Hitler. That does not need to be stressed at all. But he appreciated his destruction of the liberals, socialists and communists in Germany. And he expected him to destroy Bolshevism in general. For Pacelli, National Socialism was, as already noted above, no more than “the lesser of two evils” with which he hoped the greater evil would be eliminated. There is no doubt about this. Pacelli, like most Curia cardinals molded by diplomatic rather than emotional considerations, was a cold calculator who thought in terms of greater contexts throughout his life and whose soft spot for Germany and fear of communism determined his politics. (141)
There is some truth in Deschner’s claim, but he takes Pacelli’s “cold calculation” too far. Pius XII’s antithesis to communism is well known and documented, but it is too much to claim that Pius wanted a “mutual European and American ‘crusade’ against the Soviet Union” (141). Coupled with Deschner’s willingness to confuse diplomatic protocols in the pope’s first letter to Hitler after his election in March 1939 where Pius referred to Hitler as “Honorable Sir!” (142) as proof of his Germanophilic tendencies and the silence from Rome during the Munich crisis of September-October 1938 is breath taking. For the 1938 crisis Pacelli was Secretary of State, an implementer of policy, not a creator. For the 1939 letter, Pius discussed at length with the German cardinals what the best way forward was without appearing to be either aggressive or passive. In fact the customary form of addressing a Catholic head of state, regardless of their faith practice was “Dearly beloved Son”. In fact Pius’ letter was unusually neutral and reticent.
It is hard to imagine Deschner being prepared to give Pacelli any credit for any of his actions, but when he does it is unfortunate that it is inaccurate. He says that Pius was one of the first to acknowledge the new Slovakia created out of the remains of Czechoslovakia and grant the new president, the priest, Jozef Tiso with the rank of Papal Chamberlain and title “monsignor”. The source cited is Leo Herbert Lehmann’s book Vatican Policy in the Second World War (1946). Lehmann was a former Catholic priest who had spent time in the Vatican in the 1930s before leaving the priesthood, embracing Protestantism and becoming a vocal critic of most things Catholic. The letter to Tiso is not known to me, and would be unlikely given the fact that the Vatican did not recognize states created outside of international conventions or in war time, and that it was also well-known that both Pius XI and Pius XII were less than impressed by Tiso’s political career. Tiso had been a “monsignor” since 1921, a title that neither Pius XI nor Pius XII renewed. This mistake pales next to the claim that Pius tried to rehabilitate Tiso’s memory after his execution for war crimes (146).
Much of the war material is riddled with basic errors such as Pius being asked by Hitler not to condemn the attack on Poland but try and win the Poles over to the Nazi cause! (148). Either Deschner does not understand papal diplomacy during wartime or he wants to attribute negative and underhanded dealings to the pope and the Secretariat of State. A cursory glance at Actes et Documents which Deschner did not have available in 1965, demonstrates the absurdity of any charge that Pius XII supported German war aims, did not care for the victims of the war, agitated for the collapse of the Soviet Union, or any other baseless accusation that seem to populate this book. Deschner is correct to say that communism was the pope’s long-term preoccupation, but he is wrong in the way he reaches this conclusion. Time and again Deschner asserts that Pius was in communication with Hitler and Stalin, was only willing to see Hitler replaced because Roosevelt refused to negotiate with the Führer (see 165), had no problem with Nazi policies regarding the Jews (169).
The last chapter effectively opens with the same charge leveled against the papacy since chapter one, namely that the popes have long wanted to exert control over Europe with the intention of restoring some form of super-Catholic state. In the chapter dealing with the atrocities in the Balkans during World War Two, Deschner opens with the assertion that Pius X (1903-1914) believed Austria “would have been better of punishing the Serbs for all their misdeeds” (172). Whatever the original context of this statement, allegedly made in the autumn of 1913, a year before the declaration of war, it is hardly feasible to suggest that the pope advocated some form of “punishment” for Serbia (172-174). Nonetheless Deschner continues with this line of thinking throughout the chapter arguing that Pius XI maintained the Vatican line established by Pius X and with Cardinal Pacelli worried about creating a Catholic bulwark in the Balkans.
No historian suggests that the atrocities perpetrated by the Croatian Ustaša in Serbia were less then horrific, but to try and lay the blame for any Catholic involvement in the genocide on Pius XII, goes too far and is unsupported by the evidence historians have at their disposal today. Recounting episodes of graphic brutality and murder demonstrate the involvement of some Catholic clergy, especially some of the Franciscans (185-187), but do not in any way suggest, much less prove, that the majority of Catholic clergy, the bishops and the pope in any way collaborated with the killing. Many were sympathetic with the goals of Ante Pavelic and the Ustaša, but most did not participate in the killings; most were bystanders in the same way most Catholics across all Europe were bystanders in the face of the genocide of European Jewry. It is simply false therefore to say “The Deeds of the Ustaša Were Deeds of the Church” (183).
There is ambiguity about the role of the young archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960). It is well known that he wanted papal recognition of the new Croatia, but he quickly became wary of Pavelic and the murderous policies of the regime. He also protested against the arbitrary killing of Jews and Serbs, a point Deschner appears not to know.
Deschner asks the question about papal silence over Croatia. It is a fair question, but his answer fails to address the key to appreciating the situation of the pope during the war. Pius had not spoken specifically in defense of any victim group during the war – he had spoken in generalities. Historians know that Pius relied on the local bishops to exercise their pastoral responsibilities for all under their care, including non-Catholics. That some did and many did not is not the fault of the pope. Questions as to whether the pope could have or should have spoken out more clearly have vexed students for decades. Deschner’s appreciation of the complexities of the realities confronting Pius is simplistic. On this point I agree with Deschner that Vatican policy in Croatia was a failure as the vengeance wrecked by Tito demonstrated after 1945.
The book closes with a final salvo launched at Pius XII:
If one considers the attitude of Eugenio Pacelli to the politics of Mussolini, Franco, Hitler and Pavelic, it hardly seems an exaggeration to say: Pius XII is probably more incriminated that any other Pope has been for centuries. He is so obviously involved in the most hideous atrocities of the fascist era, and therefore of history itself, both directly and indirectly, that it would not be surprising, given the tactics of the Roman Church, if he were to be canonized (195).
Pacelli’s troubled path to canonization would no doubt have amused Deschner, but for all the wrong reasons.
Throughout this book I have searched for evidence of balance and have not found it. There is not one recognition of those Catholics, men and women, who risked their lives to save Jews and others from persecution in each of the regime histories discussed. There is no mention of documentation that was readily available in the 1960s that pointed to Vatican condemnations of Antisemitism (1928), of the idolatry of the state and race (1937) and of all forms of racism (1938). Likewise there is no mention of papal calls for peace and stability across the 1930s, of the work of the Vatican Information Service that operated during the war, of brave individuals – clergy and lay – who went to meet the needs of their neighbor. Ultimately this book is one angry man’s protest at the Catholic Church and the evil he perceives. It is a protest built on ideology, not history, of now anachronistic propaganda, not evidence. Fifty years after 1965 there is a wealth of information available for any student of this period and a wealth of scholarship to help us understand it. In part Deschner did not have access to some of that material, but that does not excuse his appalling ignorance of Catholic, fascist and European history. I am at a loss to understand why this book would warrant publishing in 2013. Its content could have, and may well have been, refuted in 1965. The same applies today.