Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1970.
Photo AP

BerlinHot on the heels of the announcement that Mitte’s Mohrenstraße and its corresponding U-Bahn station will be renamed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, campaigners have their sights set on renaming another street.

Pacelliallee in Dahlem, situated in leafy Steglitz-Zehlendorf, is a pleasant street lined by trees, grand villas and a garden centre. It is named after Eugenio Pacelli, perhaps better known as Pope Pius XII, who, prior to his time at the helm of the Catholic Church from 1939 until his death in 1958, served as the Apostolic Nuncio to Germany – the equivalent of the Vatican’s ambassador in Berlin – between 1920 and 1930.

As one of three popes to previously hold this role, his name holds great significance in German Catholicism. However, it is his role in the signing of a controversial treaty between the Vatican and Nazi Germany, which remains in place today, and his other actions – or lack thereof – during the Nazi era that have led to calls for the removal of his name from the street.

Historians Ralf Balke and Julien Reitzenstein have started an online petition to rename the street as Golda-Meir-Allee, in honour of Israel’s first female prime minister. At the time of writing, the petition has been signed by more than 270 people. On a website linked to their campaign, the two historians outline an extensive manifesto for why the street should be renamed.

They describe the former pope as a “highly problematic character” and claim there are “countless examples” of his antisemitism, racism and misogyny.  As someone who “used the Catholic Centre Party as a pawn in his policy of Nazi appeasement” and is accused of enabling the culprits of Nazi crimes to escape justice after the war, they believe his name is “extremely unsuitable” for a street in modern-day Germany.

Pacelliallee itself, and many of the grand houses that line it, have a significant historical context. The building which is now the Iraqi embassy was once the home of the Jewish linen manufacturer Richard Semmel, who fled Germany for the USA in 1933. Like many Jews in the same position, he was forced to sell the house for a price far below what it was worth.

This story was uncovered by historian Reitzenstein, who previously discovered there was a similar story to be told about Villa Wurmbach on nearby Pücklerstraße, now the official residence of the German president – it was once the home of the Jewish lawyer and businessman Hugo Heymann, who died following Gestapo interrogations in 1938.

The historians’ initiative has been backed by Felix Klein, the government’s representative for antisemitism, who said the wartime pope “was silent” on the Holocaust and the murder of Sinti and Roma people, many of whom were Catholics themselves – or at least “did not protest audibly”.

Opinion on Pacelli’s legacy is substantially divided, with his role in the signing of the Reichskonkordat, a treaty between the Vatican and Nazi Germany signed on 20 July 1933, proving one of the most controversial moments of his career. At that time, he was the Cardinal Secretary of State, responsible for all the Vatican’s political and diplomatic functions.

The Reichskonkordat guaranteed that Catholics would remain free to practice their faith in Germany, but required bishops to swear an oath of loyalty either to their state’s governor or the president of what was then the German Reich, and clergy were banned from taking political positions or working with political parties. That effectively removed the Catholic Centre Party from the field of Hitler’s political opposition. Controversially, the treaty remains in place today – in 1945 Pacelli, who by then was the new pope, argued for it to be upheld, despite opposition from bishops and Allied Forces.

Hitler's pope

Scholars have differing opinions on the treaty; some finding it justifiable for the survival of the Catholic church in Germany, others saying it gave spiritual legitimacy to the Nazi regime and led to a cult of silence on the crimes committed against Jews, who at the time of the treaty’s signing were already being stripped of the rights which the treaty enshrined for Catholics. British author and academic John Cornwell wrote a book on the pontiff called “Hitler’s Pope”, and Katharina Schmidt-Hirschfelder, writing in the Jüdische Allgemeine, said the agreement saw the Vatican hand the Nazi regime “its first foreign policy success”.

For present day cultural associations representing the communities who faced the most persecution under the Nazis, the appeal has opened up a discussion not just on Pius’ legacy, but of the wider actions of Germany’s Catholic church at that time.

The Central Council of German Sinti and Roma backs the historians’ petition, and condemned the pope for his “silence” on the Holocaust and the murders of Sinti and Roma people. In a statement, the Council said: “In their passivity, both Eugenio Pacelli, later Pope Pius XII, and the Catholic church in Germany declined to offer a helpful voice against this crime against humanity.”

The Vatican’s “Secret Archives” only released millions of pages of documents relating to Pacelli in March of this year – those items, including those dating to his time as Secretary of State and as pope, will no doubt be revealing. But the Council says other historical evidence proves senior figures in Germany’s Catholic church were aware of the killing of Christian Sinti and Roma at Auschwitz-Birkenau, yet did little to act – a possible example of what some have called the Reichskonkordat’s cult of silence.

On 5th April 1943, Sinto Oskar Rose – whose parents and a number of other relatives were killed in the Nazi genocide – went to the official residence of Cardinal Michael Faulhaber, Archbishop of Munich, hoping to alert him to the situation and call on the church to take action. Faulhaber wrote in his diary that a man called Adler (the fake name Rose lived under in Munich) had reported 14,000 “gypsies” being sent to camps and forcibly sterilised – but added that he was “unable to offer any prospects of help”.

Oskar Rose also wrote anonymously to the Archbishops of Breslau and Freiburg, Cardinal Adolf Bertram and Conrad Gröber, but they too did not speak out. The Documentation and Culture Centre for German Sinti and Roma highlights the efforts of other clergy, such as Bishop of Hildesheim Joseph Godehard Machens, who called on church figures including Cardinal Bertram to join him in a joint public protest.

The Centre’s research has also documented how Nazi commanders instructed Catholic priests to hand over details from church records on the ethnicity of churchgoers as far back as the 16th century, so as to complete the records of “race researchers” tracking down – and rounding up – those of Sinti or Roma descent. Anyone who was “1/8 Gypsy” then became a target. According to the Documentation and Culture Centre, there was little resistance from the church, and few priests refused to do what was being asked of them.

The statement continues: “The reappraisal of the role played by churches after 1945 is overshadowed by it holding on to the name of one individual who is linked to this failure. The Catholic church’s actions during the era of national socialism must now obligate it to stand with our minority today in light of resurgent nationalism.”

It remains to be seen whether Pacelli, then the church’s most senior figure, was just as aware of the extent of the Nazis’ crimes. The Apostolic Nunciature in Berlin, the office he once held, defended him as the street’s namesake, describing him as an “outstanding diplomat and an unconditional friend of Germany and Berlin”. They added that as pope, he had done “everything he could to alleviate the suffering and need faced by people regardless of the person, their origin or religion, and to move towards peace”.

Their statement called Felix Klein’s proposal that Pacelli had not spoken out loudly enough against the Nazi regime’s crime “simply ridiculous”, and quoted the very person who is being suggested as his replacement namesake: at the time of the pope’s death in 1959, Golda Meir said he had “raised his voice for our people during their hour of need and of their persecution”.

Nice gesture

The Vatican’s representation in Berlin also said a thorough, even-handed examination of Pacelli’s past during the Nazi era had yet to be conducted, due to its archives from the time only having recently been opened – and the coronavirus pandemic then delaying a proper inspection of them. The recently released files include 17 million pages from the Vatican archives, 76 “special units” containing Pacelli’s papers, and 2,394 envelopes of dozens of pages each, which detail the pope’s personal charities.

The lawyer Gregor Engelbreth, who leads the Berlin-Brandenburg Catholic Office, also called for a refrain from hasty action before archives could be properly reviewed. He said that the opening of the archives will now give historians an opportunity to “gain a wide-ranging overview of the pope’s actions, and build a scientifically-founded appraisal which, unlike what has previously been the case, is not based purely on individual stories or personal memories”.

The choice of Golda Meir as the street’s new namesake is down to there being only one other street in Dahlem bearing a woman’s name – Königin-Luise-Straße, named after the one-time Queen of Prussia. The two historians say the world’s third freely elected female head of government was an “ideal candidate”, referencing her work to resolve conflicts through dialogue and provide workers’ rights to both Jews and Muslims living in Israel. And they emphasise her links to Berlin: she invited the city’s then mayor, Willy Brandt, to Israel in 1960 and again in 1973 when he was chancellor, making the visit the first by a German chancellor to the country.

Historian Abraham Ingber takes a view that intersects the whole debate. He is for the renaming of the street – but questions the choice of Meir as Pacelli’s replacement. An Israeli citizen living in Berlin for eight years now, he approves of how the campaign has “invited Berliners to review their own history”.

However, he questions the choice of Meir in light of her stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which he said heightened tensions between the two, and her Zionist beliefs, the logic of which he said had “had a damaging effect on Israel’s image to the rest of the world to this day”. He also says Germany’s continued efforts to reconcile with and demonstrate its tolerance towards the global Jewish community “do not always need legitimation from Israel”.

Instead, he would like to see the street renamed after Ignatz Bubis, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, who “fought for multi-perspective Jewish insight in Germany through many public debates”. With the Council marking its 70th anniversary this year, he thinks that would be a “nice gesture”.