By 1944 the Germans and their helpers had already exterminated a large part of all the Jews they would eventually murder during the Second World War. Hungary was the last country with a large Jewish population who had been spared until then. Determined to completely eliminate every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe, the Germans, with the eager assistance of the Hungarian authorities, deported over 430,000 Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz extermination camp between May and July of 1944, where 90% of them were exterminated on arrival. It was during this period that Auschwitz was killing at maximum capacity, killing about 10,000 Jews every day. Unable to burn that many bodies in the crematoria, the Germans dug pits next to them and burned the corpses there.
During this period many foreign diplomats and heads of state, including Pope Pius XII, urged the head of the Hungarian state, Admiral Horthy, to stop the deportations. Papal apologists often claim that Admiral Horthy stopped the deportation of Hungarian Jews due to the telegram Pope Pius sent him. Not so.
The deportations were halted only after Admiral Horthy had received a deluge of protests from many countries including an ultimatum from President Roosevelt, threatening to be particularly rough in his military treatment of Hungary. An unusually heavy bombing raid on Budapest followed this. The Vatican waited until that time to make a protest to halt the deportations. By then most of the 430,000 Jews the Germans would eventually deport had already been deported. So, claiming that Pius XII’s telegram to the Hungarian head of state asking him to stop the deportations resulted in a halt to the deportations is false and misleading, because someone not familiar with the historical context may think that the Pope’s action stopped the deportations, which it didn’t do. Moreover, the papal nuncio in Budapest, on conveying the message to Horthy, took advantage of the opportunity to clarify that the Vatican’s protest was not at all due to a “false sense of compassion” for the Jews.
One of the salient points about the deportation of the Jews of Hungary is the extent of the involvement of the local authorities, as well as the local antisemites, particularly from the fascist Arrow Cross Party. These people were not brainwashed SS, who had been subjected to years of relentless Nazi racial propaganda. The SS officer in charge of the deportation was Adolf Eichmann, who supervised the operation with only 20 officers and a staff of 100, including cooks, drivers, etc. Clearly the only way just 20 SS men could manage to deport half a million people in about two months was because they enjoyed the close assistance of the local population. Even Eichmann was impressed by the eagerness and zeal of the local auxiliaries. Why was the local population so predisposed to help?
Six years earlier, and after anti-Jewish legislation constituting grave civil rights violations had been passed in Germany, Italy and Hungary, then Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, later to become Pope Pius XII, visited Hungary. There he addressed the International Eucharistic Congress held in Budapest in 1938, where he discussed godless Nazi and communist regimes, among other things. When he referred to the Jews, however, this is what he had to say:
“Jesus conquers! He who so often was the recipient of the rage of his enemies, he who suffered the persecutions of those of whom he was one, he shall be triumphant in the future as well. . . . As opposed to the foes of Jesus, who cried out to his face, “Crucify him!”—we sing him hymns of our loyalty and our love. We act in this fashion, not out of bitterness, not out of a sense of superiority, not out of arrogance toward those whose lips curse him and whose hearts reject him even today.”
As you see, Cardinal Pacelli was not talking about atheist Nazis, communists or “military godless” here (despite the fact that that may have been the thrust of the rest of the speech). No, the “foes of Jesus” who supposedly cried “Crucify him!” that Pacelli was talking about were not middle eastern Nazi ancestors, they were the Jews the New Testament and further Christian writings blame for killing Jesus, for persecuting him, for cursing him and for rejecting him, all false accusations Cardinal Pacelli had no qualms in repeating three years after the Nuremberg anti-Jewish laws were passed in Germany, and in the same year they were passed in Italy and Hungary, where he was giving this speech and where he found no objection to raise. Here we clearly see the commonly held traditional Catholic conception of Jews as the enemies of Jesus. We see the Jews presented as not only cursing and rejecting Jesus, but also persecuting him and calling for his crucifixion.
When attempting to explain why Cardinal Pacelli would utter such antisemitic words, papal apologists will remind you that the focus of the conference was on the godless Nazi and communist regimes. One needs to wonder why that would matter at all. Who cares if the conference was about atheist Nazis or the health benefits of eating spinach? Unquestionably Pacelli was talking about the Jews in the passage above. The Vatican Secretary of State was not referring to Nazi lips that cursed Christ and Nazi hearts that still rejected Christ even to that day. He was referring to “the Jews”.
This anti-Jewish passage is not a tragic example of rogue theological and doctrinal absurdity. Instead, that type of statement was the norm. Pacelli was a product of his time. He imbibed these anti-Jewish teachings prevalent in Catholicism. How else could he not have done so? He was steeped in the same Christian teachings about Jews as all other Catholics who hated Jews, except that because of his family history and career he was even more so.
Pacelli felt the need to spread even more anti-Jewish sentiments when he referred to “the Crucifige of the masses, who had been misled and stirred up by a propaganda of lies … the mockeries and curses at the foot of the Cross … the redemptive mission and preaching of the Good News falsely portrayed as a rebellion against earthly powers”. Here we see Pacelli once again accusing Jews of deicide. He attempted to justify their assumed reprehensible behavior to having been “misled and stirred up by a propaganda of lies”, but ultimately that was immaterial. To him, the Jews were Christ-killers. Here we have another instance of Pacelli thinking and talking about the Jews in the same terms as he likely wrote at about the same time for Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Mit brennender Sorge: “. . . the Christ who took His human nature from a people that was to crucify Him.”
Given the background of anti-Jewish sentiment instilled in the Hungarian population for centuries by traditional Christian teachings, reinforced by the Vatican’s second most important person on the eve of Holocaust, should we really be surprised at all at the eagerness ordinary Hungarians showed when the Germans gave them the chance to eliminate the Jews?