constantin Costa-Gavras's controversial film Amen, reported on in The Catholic Herald on July 12, will be of compelling interest to all who are concerned about Pope Pius XI 1's wartime activity — defenders and detractors alike. Loosely based on Rolf Hochhuth's The Representative, it examines the struggle of two men, from within Germany, to stop or instigate the killing of Jews, which, at one stage, was proceeding at 10,000 people a day.
One is an SS Officer, Kurt Gersteiner, a character taken from real life, who was disgusted by the systematic gassing and incineration of Jews. Miraculously, he survived imprisonment and the war, with a report on the Holocaust, which also survived, and was vindicated 20 years later.
The other main character, Fr Ricardo Fortuna, SJ, is fictional, but is based on a composite of the many priests in Germany who were horrified by the Holocaust.
Archbishop von Galen appears as a towering figure, whose courageous stand proved that the Nazis would not dare to respond to protest by merely stepping up their atrocities — provided the protest was full-blooded and not ambiguous or half-hearted. A dramatic scene shows him thundering his condemnation from his pulpit in 1942 against the Nazi euthanasia/extermination programme. Widespread public indignation was roused and the programme was dropped, never to be taken up again.
No comparable protest was ever made in the case of the Jews. No guilt for this can be imparted to Pope Pius XII, who single-handedly saved nearly a million Jews from the gas chamber. The making of a general protest, however, was more complicated, particularly from 1942 onwards. Pius's hands were tied by the Concordat policy; any deviation from strict neutrality on the part of the Holy See was considered as a fatal obstruction to the Pope's longed-for role as peacemaker. Victory, moreover, against the main enemy of Christianity, namely communism — Germany being the principal potential agent of this — remained the primary objective.
Pius Xll's formidable intelligence service, furthermore, alerted him to the danger of a schism in the German Church if he uttered an unambiguous condemnation of Nazism (though a protest earlier on might have succeeded). He could not, at this late stage, bear with equanimity the imposing of so heavy a burden on the conscience of German Catholics, most of whom supported Hitler.
The so-called defence of Pius that he refrained from making an all-out anti-Nazi protest against Nazi atrocities for fear that they would contemptuously respond by killing more Jews, would, if true, be a grave insult to Pius's memory. It would imply that a supposedly courageous Pope was reduced to humiliating silence by a "morally" stronger Hitler in face of the greatest organised evil in the whole of history.
The film for all its faults, is compelling cinema.
Gerard Noel is editorial director of The Catholic Herald.