2000 May/Debunking Cornwell

In light of the recent controversy provoked by the promotion of John Cornwell’s new book: Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, [The Angelus has obtained from the Italian Zenit Daily Dispatch an exclusive point-by-point rebuttal from Fr. Peter Gumpel, S.J., one of the most respected authorities on the Catholic Church and World War II, from which it prints some pertinent excerpts. Fr. Gumpel is postulator of the cause for beatification of Pope Pius XII and has carried out years of extensive research on the life and historical facts surrounding his person and pontificate. In late September, 1999, in Rome, Fr. Gumpel publicly announced his conclusion: “After reading over 100,000 pages of documents for the process of beatification, I am more and more convinced that Pius XII was a saint.”

On Cornwell, the Author: Everything considered, my judgment is the following: Cornwell, who is a rank amateur in the field of history, canon law, etc. has produced a shoddy, superficial, and totally untrustworthy took which, to saw the very least, is objectively biased, tendentious, and so unilateral and one-sided, that one wonders what really prompted this man to write this book.


On Cornwell’s Research: At the beginning of the took a list of archives is published which Cornwell says to have consulted. This list is extremely meager for a pretentious book of this size. Scores of archives which could and should have been consulted are simply ignored. This regards German, Italian, US Archives, the Acts of the Nuremberg Trials, etc. Even those archives which are mentioned, are certainly not fully explored and used. Most sources used by Cornwell are secondary sources and here the choice is extremely selective. Cornwell deals at length with the situation of the Catholic Church in Germany, but never mentions the standard work of Dr. Heinz Hirten which is an extremely well documented, scholarly work that deals with the situation of the German Catholics between 1918-1945. Other standard works dealing with this topic are equally ignored by the author.

On Pacelli and Hitler: Cornwell refers in the fist of works, which he says to have consulted, to one book in which it is explicitly stated that in 1920, that is four years before Hitler came into power (January 30, 1933), Pacelli warned in abrasive terms against Hitler and could not understand that even highly competent Germans did not share his totally negative judgment. Cornwell omits this statement. Either he did not read this book, or he willingly omitted this and other similar easily ascertainable statements of Pacelli, simply because they do not tally with his destructive tendencies.

Cornwell plays down or downright omits the sharp condemnation of Nazism made by Pacelli at Lourdes, Lisieux, Paris, Budapest, where he went as papal legate. It is true that neither Hitler nor Nazism were ever mentioned by name, but everybody understood against whom these condemnations were directed. If Cornwell had made a serious effort to ascertain this, a reading of reviews and newspapers in the US, England, France, Holland, etc., would have made this clear to him, not to mention the Nazi publications which throughout the book Cornwell simply neglects or totally underestimates. To be remembered also is that every utterance of this kind aggravated the situation of Catholics in Germany (just as later in the countries occupied by the Nazis.

On Pius XII, Pope: Cornwell belittles the serious efforts of Pius XII to prevent World War II and makes a ridiculous comment on the fast encyclical of Pius XII [Summi Ponitficcatus on the Unity of Human Society, Oct. 20, 1939-Ed.] which he published at the beginning of World War II. In fact, if this encyclical letter was as insignificant as Cornwell wishes us to believe, why then did the Allies airdrop 58,000 copies of this encyclical letter over Germany, where this encyclical letter could not be published? Cornwell, of course, does not mention this action of the Allies. Simple ignorance? But the fact was easily ascertainable in the literature which Cornwell pointedly omitted in his notes and bibliography.


Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope?: ….I have already pointed out what Pacelli as early as 1929 thought and said about Hitler. To this must be added that he repeatedly went on record saying that Hitler’s victory in World War II would mean the end of the Catholic Church in Europe. Likewise, if’ he was indeed Hitler’s Pope, why did he transmit to the English government the proposal of a group of anti-Nazi German generals, who asked whether England would make peach with Germany, if they, the group of German generals, succeeded in arresting Hitler and removing him from government. Incidentally, it was not a low-ranking officer, Col. Aster, who was responsible for this proposal, but Colonel-General Ludwig Beck [i.e., a four-star general-Ed.]. The latter had been the chief of the German General Staff. but in 1938 resigned from this new post since he had become convinced that Hitler was a criminal who against all promises and treaties would attack other nations. Pacelli had known Beck when he was nuncio in Berlin and highly esteemed his honesty and integrity. If Pius XII would have been “Hitler’s Pope” he would never have undertaken this highly dangerous mediation.

But most of all, the Holy See, with the encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), had denounced in the clearest and sharpest possible way that Hitler was not trustworthy and that treaties signed by him were worthless. And then in 1938, a year later, there was the ill-fated Munich Conference [of England, France, Italy, and Germany] with Messrs. Neville Chamberlain and Daladier naively proclaiming, “Peace for our times, and peace forever!”

Cornwell certainly knew about the book of the Hungarian Jew, Jeno Levai. The prologue and epilogue of this book were written by Dr. Robert Kempner, the Chief Assistant Prosecutor of the United States of America at the Nuremberg Trials. Kempner refutes the attacks against Pius XII and his judgment in regard to the Popes behavior in World War II, and his decision to refrain from too outspoken protests against the persecution of the Jews in order to help them efficaciously is totally positive. Kempner knew what was possible in the given circumstances and his judgment mast be taken seriously. Cornwell omits this for obvious reasons.

Cornwell does not give due importance to the fact that the International Red Cross, with headquarters in neutral Switzerland, came to exactly the same appraisal of the situation as Pius XII and equally refrained from load protests so as not to jeopardize secret and silent action helping Jews. The same applies to the then nascent Ecumenical Council of Christian Churches, also situated in neutral Switzerland.

Pius XII and the Jews: During World War II and for five years following his death (Oct. 9, 1958), Pius XII was greatly praised by all kinds of Jewish organizations and by chief rabbis of diverse countries, especially from the US….The debate about whether a flaming public protest against the crimes against the Jews would have had airy effect will probably continue to a large extent due to biased writers who have an interest to denigrate the Catholic Church.

In my considered opinion, a public pretest would not have saved a single Jewish life. It would only have aggravated the persecution both of Jews and of Catholics. Moreover, it would have impeded and practically made impossible the very extensive silent action of helping Jews in every possible manner. It is well-known that no organization has saved so many Jews as the Catholic Church, and this on the formal order of Plus XII. The latter knew well and is on record that this “silence”-which, however, was not a “silence” at all far anyone who wanted to hear and understand might one day be held against him. However, he was not just concerned for his reputation, but with saving Jewish lives, and this was the only just decision, which clearly required wisdom and a great amount of courage….Cornwell dues not do justice to the facts which, in order to belittle Finches E. Lapide [Jewish historian and author of The Last Three Popes and the Jews–Ed.] who praised Plus XII, he attributes to him secondary motives without producing a shred of evidence.