The controversy over the canonization of Pope Pius XII concerns whether he spoke out enough against the slaughter of Jews during World War II. But that question is a red herring when trying to grasp the big picture of the Vatican's role during the war.
The real question is whether the Vatican supported the world order, or at least aspects of it, that the Third Reich promised to bring, a world order in which dead Jews were collateral damage - which Pius indeed regretted. The answer can be found in a region of Europe that is generally ignored despite being the nexus of world wars: the Balkans.
The Catholic Church was looking for a bulwark against expanding, ruthless, church-destroying communism, but in doing so it supported a Croatian movement called Ustasha, which rose to become the genocidal regime of Nazi satellite Croatia.
American historian Jared Israel points to a February 17, 1941 New York Times article which reported that the archbishop of Zagreb (Croatia's capital), Alojzije (Aloysius) Stepinac, was holding conferences in Vatican City "seeking the freedom of Catholic priests detained in [pre-Nazi] Croatia in connection with the circulation of... 'Free Croatia!' pamphlets, attributed to Ante Pavelic." Pavelic, who once criticized Hitler for originally being too soft on the Jews, was the founder of the fascist Ustashas, who were engaging in terrorism all over Europe to "liberate" Croatia from Yugoslavia. He famously said, "A good Ustasha is one who can use a knife to cut a child from the womb of its mother."
Israel explains the significance of the understated Times article: "The arrested priests were agitating for a fascist coup d'etat," and if these had been rogue priests, "the Vatican would have disciplined them and perhaps issued a statement condemning them; it certainly would not have [held] top-level conferences to manage their defense."
At the time, Pavelic was being harbored in Mussolini's Italy - where his Ustasha soldiers were being trained - after France sentenced him to death for masterminding the 1934 double assassination of Yugoslavian King Alexander I and French foreign minister Louis Barthou. When Hitler invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, Pavelic was activated and became fuehrer, or "Poglavnik," of the new, clerical-fascist Croatia.
Archbishop Stepinac held a banquet for Pavelic, blessed the Ustasha leader and regime, calling them "God's hand at work," and the following month had Pavelic received by Pius XII. This was four days after the massacre in the town of Glina, where the Ustashas locked hundreds of Serbian Orthodox inside their church and burned it down, as became standard practice in Pavelic's Independent State of Croatia (known by its Croatian acronym NDH). Pius XII received Pavelic despite a Yugoslav envoy's request that he not do so, given the atrocities taking place.
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