How the Catholic Church Sheltered Nazi War Criminals
Redacted from an astounding in-depth, painfully factual expose’
By Kevin J. Madigan
Complete article available from COMMENTARY, December, 2011
SHORTLY AFTER THE END of the Second World War, an Austrian, Franz Stangl wandered into Rome looking for a Catholic prelate. He needed the help of a bishop he thought was named Hudal. After a short walk, the Austrian arrived at the episcopal residence he was seeking. “You must be Franz Stangl” the bishop said, warmly holding out both his hands. “I was expecting you.”
Stangl had been commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka concentration camps. Wanted for the murder of nearly a million Jews, he was desperately seeking to escape the clutches of Allied forces justice. He had come to the right man. Bishop Alois Hudal (1885-1963) was rector of a college in Rome known as the “Anima,” a seminary for German-speaking priests. He was also a profound sympathizer with National Socialism and dedicated to extending papal charity to Nazi war criminals. After finding Stangl a job at the German College, the bishop eventually supplied him with travel documents, a steamer ticket, and a factory job in Syria. Later, Stangl was extradicted to Brazil, where he would bring his wife and family.
While it would be consoling to suppose this act of benevolence was an isolated incident, in the deliverance of ex-Nazis, SS men, and known criminals, it was repeated hundreds of times by prelates and priests. Their actions were not only known to diplomats in the highest echelons of the Catholic hierarchy, they were morally and financially supported by them—and, horrifyingly, supported by unknowing American Catholics and some of their all-to-knowing leaders.
With so much attention given to the conduct during the Shoah of the Catholic Church, the Vatican, and Pius XII, there has been little attention paid to the social role played by men like Hudal in the immediate aftermath of the war. As it happens, a recently published book by another Austrian, the brilliant young scholar Gerald Steinacher, lays out in powerful detail, how and why the Catholic church, through its personnel, financing, and aid from institutions, committees, and priests, protected Nazi war criminals.
The Catholic priests and prelates who helped spring the Nazis were part of an organization called the Vatican Relief Commission (Pontificia Commissione di Assistenza, or PCA). They supplied invaluable, indeed, crucial aid in sheltering Nazi war criminals, SS men, and ordinary Nazis. Steinacher tells us that the PCA viewed itself as a sort of papal mercy program for National Socialists and Fascists. The most stunning, and well-supported, claim in Steinacher’s book is that enthusiasm for the general mission of the PCA went to the very top of the Vatican hierarchy. “Pope Pius XII supported this aid organization whole-heartedly,”
By far the most influential figure of the National Welfare Conference that supplied the major portion of funds was the redoubtable archbishop of New York, Cardinal Francis Spellman. Spellman was a close confidant of the pope and owed the pontiff for a major boost up the ecclesiastical career ladder. This debt he paid back with munificent contributions to the organization that would free the Pontif’s beloved Germans. Spellman directed the flow of money from the United States into the Vatican coffers.
Among the men aided by Catholic prelates, diplomats, and priests, and supported by papal funding, was not only Stangl but Auschwitz “doctor” Josef Mengele, who was already wanted (according to a contemporary warrant) for “mass murder and other crimes.” Also supported was Adolf Eichmann, the SS lieutenant colonel and the principal organizer of the Holocaust.
Authors Gerald Steinacher and David Cymet emphasize that not only Germans and Austrians were aided by the Catholic organizers of the so-called rat-line. Cymet estimates that some 30,000 Croatian Ustashis and roughly a similar number of Slovak Hlinkas, nominal Catholics, all were hurried along the rat-line with the help of Catholic clerics.
STEINACHER is not much interested in the controversial issues surrounding Pius XII, but Cymet emphatically is. He is also quite angry with Pius’s defenders. Indeed, the title of his book, History vs. Apologetics, says it all. What Pius’s defenders are doing, in Cymet’s view, can be classified as apologetics, in the cruder sense of the word. But Cymet goes much further in his criticism of the untruths and deception expressed in the writings of those who would vindicate Pius XII. Cymet finds it reprehensible, first of all, that Pius, who acted neutrally during the war and never intervened vigorously on behalf of victims of the Shoah, actually sought leniency after the war for Einsatzgruppen and death-camp commanders. According to the private diaries of Muench, who was his personal representative in occupied Germany, Pius sought pardons for Einsatzkommando Otto Ohiendor, a close associate of Hummer. Cymet rightly calls this “one of the saddest chapters of his postwar activities.”
The second issue was Pius’s heartless intransigence in preventing Jewish war orphans, many of whom had been baptized for protection (and many, less nobly, for the purpose of being saved in a religious sense), from being released from Catholic institutions and individuals after the war’s end. In stories that appallingly resemble the heartbreaking case from the 19th century of Edgardo Mortara,* we hear, to our amazement, Pius’s refusing to allow any child who had been baptized to return to his Jewish parents or to parties who “had no right to them”—that is, to Jewish organizations requesting the care of these children.
We are indebted to Steinacher and Cymet for bringing this shameful record to the light of day. As is now painfully obvious, the very top of the Catholic Church, in the postwar years, cared more about the perpetrators of the atrocity than thir countlesss victims. Hardly a priest can be identified in the PCA who was his Jewish Brother’s keeper. For the mortal sins of its priests, for the monstrous evil of which they were guilty in collaborating with Nazi male factors, the church wll bear an ugly blemish, one that no amount of extenuation or special pleading can erase.
KEVIN J. MADIGAN is Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard. He is the author, with Jon Levenson, o/Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press, 2008). His last article for COMMENTARY, “Two Popes, One Holocaust,” appeared in the December 2010 issue.