John Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII (Viking, 1999)
[originally posted 14Nov2001]
I feel guilty abandoning this book. The subject matter is tailor made to suit my tastes, and so many reviews of the book have focused, incorrectly, on Cornwell’s seeming obsession with attacking the Roman Catholic Church and his methods of research, that I couldn’t imagine not liking it when I picked it up. But quite simply, Hitler’s Pope is an unmitigated disaster.
This is not to say that many of its critics are not still incorrect in their assessment of Cornwell’s work. A number of reviewers have stated that the book has already been refuted by “scholarly” sources (without providing any references or other evidence of same), saying that Cornwell’s previously-unused sources are, in fact, not secret at all (despite Cornwell’s exhaustive list of sources, in which he repeatedly states that many of them were previously public—another straw man built by Catholics with axes to grind), pointing out that Pius XII was honored by the Jews for his work in World War II (which, as should be obvious to anyone with half an ounce of logic in their bodies, has nothing to do with what he actually did during WW2, nor does it have anything to do with what Hitler did with his actions before WW2, etc.), or combinations of the above and other similar easily-dismissed attacks on Cornwall. All of them serve the purpose of drumming up more interest in the book and making people wonder what all the fuss is about, thus increasing the book’s readership. These critics, who I suspect mindlessly bash anything containing any anti-Catholic sentiment whatsoever, miss using the most effective arrow in their quivers.
Putting aside all the sectarian nonsense that’s been written about the book and its research methods, Cornwell’s writing simply isn’t all that good. Many assertions are made throughout that should have been footnoted that weren’t, and conclusions are drawn that aren’t labelled as conclusions, so we’ve no idea whether they’re conclusions drawn by Cornwell himself or drawn in his sources. Worse, the prose is dry as the paper upon which the book is printed.
Don’t avoid Cornwell because he has an axe to grind against the Roman Catholic Church (assuming some fragment of that statement is actually true), avoid him because he’s not a good writer. (zero)