The Pope’s Last Crusade

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How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler

What would have happened before the start of World War II if a great moral voice could have convinced world leaders that the Nazis had to be stopped? THE POPE’S LAST CRUSADE is the fascinating, untold story of Pope Pius XI’s personal campaign against Hitler, Mussolini and antisemitism.

PETER EISNER tells a timely history about how religious leaders acted when faced with worldly decisions. The story carries clear overtones to the present following the choice of Pope Francis I, the first Jesuit pontiff.

On June 25nd 1938, Pope Pius XI enlisted American Jesuit John LaFarge to draft a declaration condemning Nazism and anti-Semitism in the form of a papal encyclical−one of the highest public statements employed by the Holy See−in an attempt to rally world leaders to stop Hitler, Mussolini, and the Nazi onslaught before the start of an impending European war. LaFarge’s recent book, Interracial Justice, which argued that “racialism and nationalism” were fundamentally the same, had come to the Pope’s attention, and Pius XI was confident LaFarge was perfect for the task.

Pope Pius XI’s campaign to stop Hitler was halted by his own death in 1939, at which time Cardinal Pacelli was ordained Pope Pius XII. For seventy years, only parts of this story have been known. With materials heretofore unpublished in English, THE POPE’S LAST CRUSADE reveals Pius XI’s courageous stance, and his intention to declare the Vatican’s rejection of Nazism. With great intrigue and suspense, Eisner deftly recounts how, after the death of Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli, in league with other conservative churchmen, purposely put a stop to LaFarge’s encyclical, and how, willing to appease Hitler, they plotted in the background to block one of the most significant and progressive pronouncements ever commissioned by the Vatican.

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PRAISE FOR The POPE’S LAST CRUSADE

“Eisner brings up important history here….sobering to think what could have been.” — Library Journal

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“This narrative reads like a detective story or a true spy tale.” – Americans for Religious Liberty.

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“An exciting reminder of how Vatican machinations continue to haunt history.” — KIRKUS REVIEWS

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23 responses to “The Pope’s Last Crusade

  1. Matt McCracken

    Peter, I just finished The Pope’s Last Crusade, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Like all histories of that period, it ends tragically in that Fascism is not stopped until it was too late, but your book opened a window into the courage of Pope Pius XI. Of course I try not to judge the leaders of the Western world too harshly during that period. Europe lumbered into World War I and had nothing to show for it but carnage, and the leaders of the 1930s did not want to repeat that, but Hitler was different. Anyway, thank you for such a good read. I live in Arlington and would love to meet you. Please let me know if you have any book signings in the area.

    Sincerely, Matt McCracken

  2. Robert Randell (Bob)

    Found your piece on Huffington Post Religion today, I was so moved. I was going to try to find you to ask about background reading, but obviously you have written it already. I was born in 1937 and am very fascinated by the incredible polarization of the world in that period. I haven’t found a good summary yet. I gather that many in the US and Canada thought we should have supported the Fascists and started the Cold War earlier.

  3. Al Cannistraro

    Letter to the Times Union newspaper, of Albany, NY

    AS PRINTED
    The story about the Albany High School teacher suspended for
    insensitivity cries out for more context, more background information,
    more details, etc. So far, the teacher comes off as clueless, and the
    resulting criticism seems so utterly predictable.

    I would hope some yet-to-be-revealed legitimate method exists to the
    teacher’s apparent madness.

    The group-think surrounding the rise of Naziism needs to be understood
    in the context of the times. Researching only the official propaganda
    strikes me as insufficient for a “Think like a Nazi” persuasive writing
    assignment.

    Anti-Semitism was defended at virtually all levels and sectors of
    European gentile society at the time, but demonstrably so in Germany and
    Italy.

    I’m reading “The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope
    Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler,” by Peter Eisner. Eisner shows how
    unpopular pro-Jewish opinion was during the rise of Hitler, so much so
    that Pope Pius XI’s planned encyclical that would have strongly
    condemned Hitler was surreptitiously quashed by his secretary of state
    and future successor, Pius XII, and by Wlodemir Ledochowski, the
    superior of the Jesuit ghost writer recruited for the task by Pius XI.
    The “common sense” thinking among the Catholic hierarchy at the time was
    that Naziism was acting much less anti-Catholic than was Communism, so
    better to suck up to Hitler. This meant the pro-Jewish encyclical the
    pope commissioned was not issued.

    Maybe a better assignment would have been to argue the position of the
    above conspirators. At least that would have involved some historical
    research, and thus been more defensible.

    http://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Letter-Nazi-assignment-needed-to-be-put-in-to-4466808.php

    http://blog.timesunion.com/opinion/albany-highs-other-lesson/24700/

    http://www.timesunion.com/default/article/NY-teacher-who-assigned-Nazi-letter-put-on-leave-4432295.php

    AS WRITTEN
    The story about the Albany High School teacher suspended for
    insensitivity cries out for more context, more background information,
    more details, etc. Based solely upon what little has been published,
    the teacher comes off as literally clueless, as the resulting criticism
    seems so utterly predictable. I would hope that there was some
    yet-to-be-revealed legitimate method to the teacher’s apparent madness.

    Certainly, the group-think surrounding the rise of Naziism needs to be
    understood in the context of the times. Researching only the official
    propaganda strikes me as insufficient for a defensible “Think Like a
    Nazi” argumentation assignment. According to what I have read and
    learned over the years, antisemitism was defended at virtually all
    levels and sectors of European Gentile society, but demonstrably so in
    Germany and in Italy.

    I currently happen to be reading “The Pope’s Last Crusade: How an
    American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI’s Campaign to Stop Hitler,” by Peter
    Eisner. Eisner shows how unpopular pro-Jewish opinion was during the
    rise of Hitler: So much so that Pope Pius XI’s (Achille Ratti) planned
    encyclical that would have strongly condemned Hitler was surreptitiously
    quashed by his secretary of state and future successor, Eugenio Pacelli
    (Pius XII), and by Wlodemir Ledochowski, the superior of the Jesuit
    ghost writer recruited for the task by Pius XI, John LaFarge.

    The “common sense” thinking among the Catholic hierarchy at the time was
    that Naziism was acting much less anti-Catholic than was Communism, so
    better to suck up to Hitler and focus instead on bashing Stalin. That
    and the antisemitism that had suffused Catholic theology and culture
    over the centuries. So the pro-Jewish encyclical that the pope
    commissioned LaFarge to draft for him, Humanis Generis
    Unitas (On the Unity of the Human Race), was not issued.

    Maybe a better assignment would have been to argue the position of the
    above anti-anti-Nazi conspirators. At least that would have involved
    some historical research, and thus been more defensible.

    Al Cannistraro

  4. Rebecca Marshall

    Dear Mr. Eisner:

    I was reading your column on Foxnews.com about Pope Francis. In it you incorrectly stated that his name was Jose Mario Bergoglio. His first name is, in fact, Jorge. Please check your facts before you publish things. It makes you look ill-informed.

    Sincerely,
    Rebecca Marshall

  5. Mary Podlesak

    Mr. Eisner,
    I am very interested in the death of Pius XI. I just perused my copy of Pope Pius XI and world Affairs by William Teeling from 1937. He describes Pius as being sickly and speculates on whether it would not be best if a pope retired at a certain age limit. I’m also interested in the conclave of 1939. Any good leads on that? Sorry I missed the event today in Arlington. I would have come if I had known about your book. If you have another reading please email me. Mary Podlesak

    • Thanks for getting in touch. In the book, I discuss the 1939 conclave, which in retrospect has something in common with the most recent conclave, among other things, the uninformed speculation about the “front-runners.” In late 1936, Cardinal Pacelli sent out word prematurely to Church leaders around the world that Pius XI was moribund. The pope recovered quite well, and through most of 1937 and 1938 conducted church affairs with considerable vigor. Two books of interest are Thomas Morgan’s biography of the pope, written in 1936, and Emma Fattorini’s recent book, Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican.

  6. Richard Escobales

    I just learned of your book. I wrote an article some years ago,
    “In Defense of Pius XI” by Richard Escobales, Catholic International, August 2003, pp. 92–96.)

    • Thanks for letting me know. I’ll track down the article. Hope you get a chance to read the book.

      • Escobales, Richard H

        Dear Mr. Eisner:

        Attached is my article that appeared in the now defunct “Catholic International.” Fr. LaFarge once taught at Canisius College. I had written an earlier piece for the “Western New York Catholic,” some years before.

        All the best, Richard Escobales ________________________________

  7. Mike Brady

    Peter Eisner — I thoroughly enjoyed “The Pope’s Last Crusade.” I am also involved with the Literary Corner at Milwaukee Irish Fest, August 16-18, 2013. I wanted to know if you are doing any travel to promote and share your stories about the book. As Milwaukee is home to Marquette University, Pius XI High School and as the Milwaukee Irish Fest has one of the largest outdoor Masses annually with over 8,000 participants, I know there would be many persons at Irish Fest interested in the story of Fr. John Lafarge and Pope Pius XI. Let me know if there is an opportunity for you to join us in Milwaukee this summer, or in the future.
    Thank you. Mike Brady, Irish Fest Literary Corner, 414-899-1564, brady4718@gmail.com

  8. Paula Hougen

    Peter, I just finished The Pope’s Last Crusade and found it both fascinating and disturbing also educational, not being a Catholic. I also read The Freedom Line and could not put it down. Now I have started The Little Cyclone. I asked myself if I would have had the courage of so many you have written about, an unanswerable question. Thank you for your wonderful work. Paula Hougen, Williamsburg, VA.

  9. Pete Brockmann

    My wife and I just finished reading The Pope’s last Crusade. Super research job that also reads as well as a novel. Thank you.

  10. Claire

    Hi Peter, I haven’t read the book yet but intend to do so very soon. I just wanted to thank you for having written this book. I am proud to say I am a distant relative of Achille Ratti, a man I have always felt has been lost to history.

    Thank you again, it means a lot to our family.

  11. Thanks much for getting in touch. All best. Peter.

  12. MARIO TAMIETTO

    Dear Mr. Eisner,
    My name is Mario Tamietto and I am writing from Italy.
    I have read with interest your book “The Pope last crusade…”.
    You certainly do not know that in 2012 I published a novel in italian dealing with the same subject: the disappeared Encyclical “Humani Generis Unitas” written by pope Pius XI.
    Mine is a novel containing historical and mystery elements with invented characters but the topic of the story is just the Encyclical you take into consideration in your fine work.
    At the end of the novel there are some historical documents among wich the complete text of “Humani Generis Unitas”.
    The title of my novel is “IL PESCATORE” (“THE FISHERMAN”) (Lazzaretti Editore).
    Should you like to get further information do not hesitate to contact me at my e-mail address
    mario.tamietto@istruzione.it
    Best regards and congratulations on your book.
    Mario Tamietto

  13. Peter,
    I am a Theology teacher at Pius XI High School in Milwaukee, WI. Our school was founded in 1929 and named after the then current pontiff. A colleague and friend of mine gave me your book, The Pope’s Last Crusade, and I couldn’t put it down. It was terrific! Would you consider coming to Milwaukee to talk to our staff or student body about Pope Pius XI?
    In 19 years here as a teacher of Church history I’ve tried to educate my students about their school’s namesake. I have a large papal flag draped in my classroom which my students study, and they are expected to understand its symbolism…and that it was Pius XI who commissioned it. Our school colors are gold and white in reference to the papal flag, and our sports teams are nick-named “the Popes.”
    I maintain that Pius XI was a courageous leader for his encyclicals against Communism and Fascism, but I also stress his wonderful, yet less-talked-about encyclical on Christian education. He was a man ahead of his times in holding up the Catholic model of education as rigorous, effective and inclusive.
    I am saddened to learn from your book that he is the only pope from the 20th century not being considered for beatification or sainthood. Still, Achille Ratti has become one of my spiritual heroes. It is tantalizing to think of the “what ifs” had Pius XI lived another week…or month…or year.
    I thank you for a wonderful and absorbing book, and would welcome your suggestion of one biographical book that you believe best captures Achille Ratti – the man and the pope.
    Thanks again!

    • Many thanks for getting in touch, Al, and for your comments. I would recommend the book, A Reporter at the Papal Court. by Thomas B Morgan, New York: Longman, 1937. It was clearly written with the help of the pope himself and provides a close-up view of his life. best regards. Peter

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