Lew’s review of “The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI” by Georges Passelecq … and some thoughts regarding the bounds of historical fiction

Posted by Lew Weinstein on April 2, 2016

hidden & AFOE

In June of 1938, Pope Pius XI asked an American Jesuit priest to prepare a draft of what the Holy Father expected to become a Papal Encyclical denouncing the racial policies and antisemitism of the Nazis. Father LaFarge went to Paris and prepared such a draft, which he brought to Rome in September 1938. What happened next to that draft is not known.

A few months later, in February 1939, Pius XI died and in March 1939 Cardinal Pacelli became Pius XII. The Encyclical was never promulgated and in fact disappeared for decades.

Passelecq managed to obtain the draft and much but not all of the record related to it. Many important facts are likely still buried in Vatican archives, or perhaps destroyed, but what Passelecq obtained is enough for a fascinating story and even more fascinating questions.

Did Pius XI ever see the draft? Was it kept from him, and if so, did Cardinal Pacelli have anything to do with that? Did Pacelli see the draft? Did Pacelli decide to bury it and if so why?

Questions like these can perhaps be answered some day if the Vatican provides all the archives it has. Other questions are more speculative.

Would the Encyclical, if published, have made any difference in the Nazi’s subsequent murder of 6 million Jews? Would the Encyclical have created an anti-Nazi climate where the US might have entered the fight with England sooner? Would the Encyclical have created pressure for Allied bombing of Auschwitz and other murder sites? Would the Encyclical have led to Nazi retaliation against Catholics living in Germany, Poland and elsewhere? Would the Encyclical have encouraged other countries to allow more Jews to get out of Germany before they were murdered?

For me, Passelecq’s book provides much material for one or more possible chapters in Book Two of A FLOOD OF EVIL which I hope to write later this year.


But what are the appropriate rules for writing historical fiction when some of the facts are known and others are not? My guidelines are these:

(1) if I state an historical fact, get it as right as possible;
(2) if responsible sources disagree on the facts, I am free to choose whichever version I want to portray;
(3) for the fictional parts which go beyond the known facts, they must be plausible with regard both to known events and to the reported personalities and inclinations of the historical characters;
(4) there must be no credible negative facts which make the fiction I am writing impossible to have happened.

Given those guidelines, I feel free to create a work of historical fiction which goes beyond the history and presents a plausible version of what might have happened. “The Hidden Encyclical of Pius XI” gives me a huge and powerful canvass on which to create important aspects of my novel.


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