Imagine being a historian with the Vatican Archives, 1939-1948, opened by the Pope, shut again a week later? That’s what happened in early March this year as Italy went into COVID lockdown. The tens of thousands of unexamined boxes promised insights into the Vatican’s relationship with Nazi Germany, European Jewish communities and the US intelligence agencies, and above all, the silence of Pope Pius XII on the holocaust. But it will be many months before the archives are opened again.
Meanwhile Tom Heneghan of the Washington Post, the Reverend Professor Hubert Wolf, an enterprising and well-prepared historian from the University of Munster, with a team of seven members of his theology faculty, studied some 120 documents, speed-dating with past Vatican officials. A week’s research produced - unsurprisingly - not a great deal: just enough for an article from Father Hubert in Die Zeit Weekly, 22 April , which was first picked up by the Israeli Haaretz and The Times of Israel, and a piece for the religious press by Heneghan. Neither Wolf nor Heneghan felt that, after waiting 75 years, it might be better to wait a while longer before rushing into print.
But Father Hubert has a track record for spotting a good story when he sees one. His 2015 book The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio delved into an astonishing mid 19th century scandal. Translated as Le Vice et la Grace, as the French title suggests it featured sex and mysticism with murder thrown in for good measure. He must be a popular lecturer.
The story that emerged from the archives to date is essentially as follows. On 27 September 1942, Myron Charles Taylor, President Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the Pope, delivered into Pius XII’s hands a report on the mass killing of Jews in Poland, in the Warsaw ghetto and in Lviv (Lemburg). The report had come originally from the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Geneva; the US was seeking confirmation from Vatican sources. The US also hoped the Pope would denounce the deportations, concentration camps and killings. On 10 October the Vatican replied that it had heard of such Polish reports but had no way of verifying the information. But the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Archbishop of Lviv, Andrey Sheptytsky, had brought earlier reports to Rome, and an Italian businessman had brought three photographs and described the terrible slaughter to Monsignor Giovanni Montini, future Pope Paul VI, at that time working in the Secretariat of State. Fr. Hubert unearthed some papal advisers’ reactions indicating that they thought the reports might be exaggerated. Were they in denial? In genuine uncertainty? Or looking for an excuse not to commit? Who knows.
On December 17th 1942, acting on further information provided by the Polish Government in exile in London in a Report, The Mass Extermination of Jews in German Occupied Poland, the USA, Britain, Soviet Union, and ten other allied governments, issued a Joint Declaration by Members of the United Nations. They wrote of the ‘bestial policy of extermination’, but Foreign Secretary Antony Eden, informing Parliament, in carefully crafted language cast doubt on whether anything could be done about it.
Then Pius XII, towards the end of an overlong 1942 Christmas Message, cast in customary turgid Vaticanese, spoke about the “hundreds of thousands of persons who, without any fault on their part, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, have been consigned to their deaths or to a slow decline”. He did not mention the Nazis or the Jews by name. But there wasn’t much doubt to whom he was referring. Berlin would have got the message. Hans Frank, a Nazi General hanged at Nuremberg, had as the Governor General of Polish Galicia in August 1942 sent 50,000 Jews from Lviv to the extermination camp at Belzec. Heavy Allied bombing of German industrial plant and civilian areas had begun in 1942 and, safeguarding Vatican neutrality, Pope Pius also voiced concern for the victims of aerial bombardments.
What are we to make of the work of the University of Munster’s team? Was the Haaretz headline “Pius XII deliberately ignored report on the Holocaust” fair comment? The Pope had indeed remained silent about the Polish holocaust until Christmas. But his silence is the longstanding bone of contention, the conundrum, not breaking news. Remember the furore about John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope? Hubert’s recent findings don’t add very much to our understanding.
Following Pope Benedict XV who described the First World War, as ‘the suicide of civilized Europe’ and tried to mediate, Pius XII continued the Vatican policy of neutrality. A key adviser to the Pope, Monsignor Angelo dell Acqua, thought the American demarche was political rather than humanitarian in intent; they had to be careful not to jeopardize Vatican neutrality. A joint Jewish-Catholic team of historians, with no access to key the sealed documents, reported in 2000 that it was not clear if the Vatican realised that the mass killings were the implementation of a planned extermination of the Jews, “the final solution”, genocide. Calculations are not exact but some six million Poles died in the Second World War, three million of them Jews. The inter-faith team of historians could only wonder whether in 1942 there was any clear sense in the Vatican that they were watching the planned total extermination of the Jews, rather than Jews bearing the brunt of killings which included the disabled, the mentally incapacitated, homosexuals, opponents of the Nazis, the Roma and ‘inferior races/nationalities’. Though it is hard to understand the latter as anything other than a reference to genocide by another name.
Apologists for Pius XII and his unwillingness to unreservedly support the Allied denunciation of the extermination of the Jews still stress his aim of protecting the Church and his fear of making the situation worse. The Pope’s caution made little difference on the ground. Over 400 Polish Catholic priests were killed between Dachau opening in 1933 and VE Day. Bishops in Nazi-occupied countries who denounced the rounding up and deportation of Jews to their deaths fared better. For example, Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas of Montauban, just north of Toulouse, was arrested by the Gestapo for helping French Jewish communities and promulgating a pastoral letter protesting deportations. He was released after ten weeks. He became President of the newly formed Pax Christi in 1945, and was later honoured by Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust, as Righteous among the Nations.
The poignant stories of ordinary Catholics across Europe, and in Rome itself, who sheltered Jews and helped them escape should not be used as a counterweight to the failings of the Pope or his poor judgement. Nor to excuse those Vatican officials who shared the contemporary, demeaning to damaging, stereotyping of ‘races and nations’, stereotypes that today leave them open to the charge of antisemitism. The heroism and martyrdom of lay Catholics should be allowed to speak for itself. The archives will speak for the Vatican. We will have to wait until the archives are re-opened to find out whether they shed more light or leave us no less perplexed and saddened than today.