Vatican opens archives on wartime pope

Vatican opens archives on wartime pope

The Vatican to 60 historians has opened its archives on the pope during the Second World War, Pius XII, who has been accused of ignoring the Holocaust.

Dubbed “Hitler’s Pope”, he has been accused of knowing that the Nazi regime was exterminating Jews and failing to speak out. He was in office from 1939 to 1958 and the controversy is thought to have halted his elevation to sainthood.

The Vatican claims Pius XII subtly worked with the authorities to spare Jewish lives. 

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s secretary for relations with states, said Pius XII “emerges as a great champion of humanity, a man deeply concerned about the fate of humankind during those terrible years, somebody who was very sensitive and concerned about those who were being persecuted, somebody who was also the object of the hatred of Nazis and fascism.”

The reforming Pope Francis decided last year to open the archives. 

“The church is not afraid of history,” the pope said, adding that the wartime papacy was marked by “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence”.

David Kertzer, an anthropologist and Italian scholar at Brown University, used an example of the Vatican’s inaction during the rounding up of 1,000 Jews in Rome in October 1943 for transfer to Auschwitz in Poland.

“We know the pope was upset and we know he knew they would be killed,” the academic said. “He had his secretary of state summon the German ambassador and tell him he was unhappy.

“We also already know that the ambassador replied that the order came from very high up, adding that the Vatican could lodge a complaint, even if it would displease people. The secretary of state effectively responded, ‘No, we’ll leave it to you.’

“So we know what Pius did and didn’t do. I would like to know in this case what his close advisers were suggesting at the time,” Kertzer added.

Bishop Sergio Pagano of the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives said the Second World War documents included millions of pages, with much of it now digitised. 

The consulting area had been booked for this year, said Pagano.

The Catholic Church is credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Nazis, which is acknowledged by the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem. Around 4,000 Jews were hidden from the Nazis in convents and churches. 

But John Cornwell, who wrote the 1999 book “Hitler’s Pope”, said Pius made it clear to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler that he would not speak out about the Holocaust.

During the 1920s then-Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli witnessed the rise of the Nazis as the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany. 

Jesuit reports to the Pope told him about the concentration camps but historians have not yet seen his replies.

The post-1945 archives are also of interest because western governments saw the church as a key ally against communism at the start of the Cold War.

Scholars are also intrigued about the “ratline” escape route involving some Catholic priests which allowed Nazi war criminals to reach Latin America after the fall of the regime. 



German forces in Rome in 1944. Picture credit: Wikimedia 

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