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TCC TV: Pope Vs. Hitler

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Hitler and Pope Pius XII

We’ve heard numerous accounts of the life and mind of Adolf Hitler, but who was his contemporary, Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII? Was he the cold Vatican bureaucrat, indifferent to the fate of the Jews at best, and desirous of their elimination, at worst? “Pope vs Hitler,” from natgeotv.com, begins with reenactments of the confirmation of the young Adolf Hitler and the ordination of Eugene Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. Both men were born in the same year, and both men were baptized Roman Catholics. The story is about their divergence, from 1939 — the year Pacelli became pope — going forward. It is the story of their struggle against one another, a struggle to the death, as each man works to kill the other.

I don’t think Robertson’s and Boteach’s arguments are satisfactorily answered.

The story here contradicts the commonly accepted and false notion of Pius XII as “Hitler’s pope,” a man who stands silently by as Hitler murders Jews and all other people labeled by the Nazis as subhuman, among them the disabled, the mentally ill, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, and dissenters. Rather — based on the books, Church of Spies by Mark Riebling and Spies in the Vatican, by David Alvarez — it posits an early and determined group of German dissenters who sought and forged an alliance with Pius XII to assassinate Hitler. Perhaps the most interesting story in this docudrama is one heretofore unknown to me, the story of Catholic Josef Mueller (here called, as though we had slipped into “The Godfather Goes to Germany,” “Joey Ox.”) Mueller, a devout Catholic, becomes the courier between the German conspirators and the pope, using his membership in the Bavarian Flying Club as a way to make the hand-offs of letters and documents. Early on, the plan is to kill Hitler. Father George W. Rutler argues on camera that Pius XII understood and accepted “the legitimacy of tyrannicide,” based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

He that kills the tyrant for the liberation of the country is praised and rewarded. (In 2 Sentences, 44.2.2)

The docudrama tells the story of the plots against Hitler’s life, and the pope’s part in them. All of the plots were unsuccessful. Nigel Jones, the author of Countdown to Valkyrie, the account of the last, and most famous plot against Hitler’s life, one in which the pope played no direct part, says, “It’s almost as if the devil was on Hitler’s side.”

But why didn’t Pope Pius XII, in Geoffrey Robertson’s words, come out and directly “denounce the killing of Jews as a mortal sin?” Rabbi Shmuley Boteach argues that Poland, a Catholic country, would have resisted the extermination of the Jews if their pope had called on them to do so. He argues that, when the Jews of Rome were first rounded up on October 18, 1943, the pope should have walked to the deportation point, a few blocks from the Vatican and ordered the soldiers to cease their deadly work. This docudrama argues in response that every effort from the Vatican to denounce the killings only resulted in an acceleration of the murders and, in addition, that, once the Germans invaded Rome in September 1943, the pope directly intervened to hide Jews on Church property, including within the Vatican walls. Still, I don’t think Robertson’s and Boteach’s arguments are satisfactorily answered, and “Pope Vs Hitler” should provoke more reading and study among Catholics. It should also provoke more reading and study among those who reflexively accept as true any and all condemnations of Pius XII.

You’ll want to watch this docudrama to learn the ultimate fate of Josef Mueller, and to learn something I certainly never knew, which is that Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the leader of the Valkyrie plot, went to church the day before he carried the bomb into the conference room where he was to meet with Hitler, and, further, that he went to confession to ask for “St. Leo’s Absolution” for an act he had yet to commit. (Have you heard of this? Me, neither.) If that doesn’t send you to your theology books, nothing will.

Too bad the fashion has turned from documentary to docudrama, for the worst parts of “Pope Vs. Hitler” are the acting sequences interwoven with the interviews and archival footage. The actors are not up to the material and another “Adolf Hitler” chewing the scenery just puts one in mind of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. “Von Stauffenberg” is all eyepatch and empty sleeve, as if the props alone are enough to carry the drama. They aren’t. The other problems with the drama in the docu is the made-up dialogue. We’re shown Von Stauffenberg in the confessional. But do we really know what he said there? We’re shown “Pius XII” having conversations that may or may not have actually occurred. It’s confusing and ultimately works to undermine the serious argument Riebling, Alvarez, Rutler and others have come forward to make. Still, the piece tells a fascinating, and important, story of the Church and her pope in the midst of war.

-Melissa Musick