Costa-Gavras’s 2002 movie about the role of The Vatican in World War II (you can watch it here) was certain to be controversial, as opinions are strongly felt, relevant information is still secreted in Vatican archives, and the movie is based on a controversial play, The Deputy, by an erratic German playwright, Rolf Hochhuth. (The movie promotion, like this poster, offended many, as well.)
Most interesting is the portrayal of an SS officer hired to help “control vermin” at military bases—typhus was a big problem—using deadly Zyklon B gas. At a concentration camp, he witnesses the gas being used against people and is so horrified, he makes many efforts to bring religious leaders’ attention to the carnage, believing that if they would only speak out, the horror will stop. He befriends a (fictional) young Jesuit who joins his crusade and takes these concerns all the way to Pope Pius XII.
In real life, and improbably, such an SS officer did exist. Kurt Gerstein was thrown out of the Nazi party in the 1930s, yet allowed to join the SS in 1941 and, because of his engineering and medical education, soon became head of the Technical Disinfection Services. In custody after the war, he wrote lengthy testimony about the death camps that became prominent evidence in subsequent war crimes trials, including at Nuremberg. Gerstein died in French custody in 1945, reportedly by suicide. His story is included in Europe Central, a National Book Award-winning novel by William T. Vollman.
Throughout the period, the Pope’s pronouncements were consistently anti-war, but vague. In the movie, he doesn’t speak out about the Jews, specifically, for a number of reasons (explored in an interesting article by Jewish historians here): The Vatican’s neutrality (the Allies and the Nazis both criticized it for favoring the other side); fear that Church properties in Germany would be seized, or The Vatican itself invaded; and concern that opposition to Germany would give support to the atheistic Soviets, with communism deemed the greater long-term threat to the Church. When this issue came up during a visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau, an American Catholic defended the Church, saying rather heatedly that the Pope couldn’t speak out, or “the nuns and priests would be next.”
Despite all this, many individual clergy and religious moved to protect threatened individuals, and the Pope himself quietly urged Catholic churches, convents, and other facilities to take in Jews, and the movie includes this. Amen. makes for interesting viewing, and perhaps we will never know the full story.
As a side-note, I learned about this movie when visiting Romania last year. Because filming inside The Vatican was not allowed, the movie Vatican was the enormous, surreally empty “People’s Palace” in Bucharest.