The Catholic Church’s actions during World War II have long been a matter of historical debate
To critics, the pontiff’s refusal to publicly condemn the Nazis represents a shameful moral failing with devastating consequences. In his polarizing 1999 biography of Pius, British journalist John Cornwell argued that the religious leader placed the papacy’s supremacy above the plight of Europe’s Jews, winning a modicum of power—and protection from the rising threat of communism—by becoming “Hitler’s pope” and pawn. Supporters, however, say that Pius’ silence was calculated to prevent German retaliation and ensure the continued success of the Catholic Church’s behind-the-scenes efforts to aid victims of Nazi persecution.
Documentation related to the pope’s wartime activities has long been housed in the Vatican Archives, which remained largely closed to researchers until earlier this year. Now, historians examining newly opened files from the vast collections say they’ve found evidence, detailed in German weekly Die Ziet, that suggests Pius learned of the mass slaughter of Jews in fall 1942. The papers also indicate that, on the advice of an advisor who dismissed the reports as exaggerated, the pontiff told the United States government that the Vatican was unable to confirm news of Nazi crimes.
Interest in Pius’ actions spiked in 1963 following the premiere of a German play that portrayed the pope as indifferent to European Jews’ suffering. In response to the outcry sparked by the drama, the Vatican published an 11-volume collection of the pontiff’s wartime documents. The papers, published between 1965 and 1981, were criticized as “selective and insufficient,” according to the New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo.
A crucial moment in Pius’ relationship with the Nazis arrived in 1933, when the then-cardinal spearheaded an agreement between the German Holy See and the Third Reich. As Robert A. Krieg wrote in Jesuit publication America magazine in 2003, this so-called “concordat” was “ambiguous in its day,” with Adolf Hitler treating it as a sign of international approval of the Nazi regime and the Vatican simply stating that it was made to protect the church’s interests.
Adopting a stance of official neutrality, the Vatican refused to yield to Allied pressure to speak out against the Nazis. And, since “[e]veryone wanted to claim the Pope was on their side, … political leaders weren’t going to publicly chastise [him] or accuse him of cozying up to fascists or Nazis,” David I. Kertzer, author of The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, told Time’s Olivia B. Waxman in 2019.
Per Religion News Service’s Tom Heneghan, historian Hubert Wolf of the University of Münster and a team of German academics traveled to Rome for the archives’ historic unveiling in early March. Wolf’s team was only able to conduct research for a week before COVID-19 shuttered the archives. In that short timespan, the scholars discovered a host of documents that, in Heneghan’s words, “do not look good for Pius or the Catholic Church.”
On September 18, 1942, Pius’ assistant, the future Pope Paul VI, received an eyewitness report of “incredible butchery” of Jews in Warsaw. One month prior, Ukrainian Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki had delivered a similar report informing the pope of atrocities carried out in the Lviv Ghetto, reports Haaretz’s Ofer Aderet.
Soon after, the United States’ envoy to the Vatican asked if it could corroborate accounts of mass killings in Warsaw and Lviv. In response, Vatican Secretary of State Luigi Maglione reportedly stated, “I don’t believe we have information that confirms this serious news in detail.”
While sifting through the papers, the researchers also found a memo from a Vatican staffer that warned against believing the reports, dismissing these accounts on the grounds that Jews “easily exaggerate” and “Orientals”—a reference to Archbishop Sheptytsky—“are really not an example of honesty.”
The memo was conspicuously absent from the 11-volume collection published by the Vatican in defense of Pius’ reputation, reports Religion News Service.
“This is a key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly anti-Semitic and shows why Pius XII did not speak out against the Holocaust,” Wolf tells Catholic weekly Kirche + Leben, as quoted by Religion News Service.
Under normal circumstances, papers covering Pius’ papacy would have been under lock and key until 2028, or 70 years after the end of his tenure. But last year, at a gathering marking the 80th anniversary of Pius’ election, Pope Francis announced the archives’ impending opening, telling those gathered that the church “is not afraid of history; rather, she loves it.” Speaking with Reuters’ Philip Pullella in February, Father Norbert Hofmann, the Vatican’s top official in charge of religious relations with Jews, added, “I don’t think [researchers] will find a smoking gun.”
Pius’ supporters—many of whom have advocated for the pope’s canonization—point out that the Catholic Church saved thousands of Jews by hiding them in churches and monasteries across Italy, as well as in the Vatican itself. Though acolytes argue that Pius’ inaction and silence allowed these secret actions to continue, critics cite the treatment of Jews living in Rome during World War II.
As NPR’s Sylvia Pogglioli points out, a plaque standing just 800 yards from St. Peter’s Square states, “On 16 October 1943 entire Jewish Roman families ripped from their homes by the Nazis were brought here and then deported to extermination camps. Of more than 1,000 persons, only 16 survived.”
Wolf says scholars are still in the early stages of determining the context surrounding the pope’s actions.
“We have to first check these newly available sources,” he tells Kirche + Leben. “If Pius XII comes out of this study of the sources looking better, that’s wonderful. If he comes out looking worse, we have to accept that, too.”
Due to COVID-19, the Vatican plans to keep its archive closed until summer at the earliest.
Still, says Wolf to Die Zeit’s Evelyn Finger, “There are enough questions to keep the whole team busy for ten years.”