Skip to comments.Vatican archives may shed light on pope's role in WWII
Posted on 02/15/2003 2:42:00 PM PST by NYer
- ROME - Scholars and historians anxiously await the expected opening Saturday of Vatican archives that document pre-World War II relations between the church and Germany.
In a highly unusual move, the Vatican is releasing papers of Pope Pius XII, the World War II- era leader of the church who has been criticized by Jews for failing to speak out or take action against Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. The documents and letters will cover the years from 1922 to 1939, before the pope took office and when he worked in Germany as the Vatican's ambassador and later secretary of state.
Critics say the papers will prove their point, that Pius XII could have been much more helpful to Jews. The Vatican and his supporters, including two prominent Catholic officials in Rome with Denver ties, say the papers will prove he did much for the Jewish cause.
"He was the best informed of any European leader about what happened in the Holocaust," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights organization in Los Angeles. "He did little or nothing before 1944."
But Cardinal Francis Stafford, the president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Laity and former Denver archbishop, disagrees: "I am personally convinced that Pius XII did as much as could be expected in those horrendous circumstances."
The archives house documents dating back 1,000 years, all the way to Pope Sylvester II. The Vatican has said that many of Pius' papers from 1931 to 1934 were destroyed during the bombing of Berlin in 1945 and in a fire at the apostolic nuncio's palace. Increasing pressure, including 14 books on the subject over the last three years, has forced the Vatican's hand. That has Jewish groups optimistic about what the papers will reveal.
"They're under pressure," Hier said. "They're not releasing them voluntarily. If it was voluntarily, they could've released them the day after the war ended."
Under Pius XII's leadership from 1939 to 1958, church membership grew from 375 million to nearly 500 million. Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, praised him. Trees in Israel were planted in his honor. In 1955, the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra flew to the Vatican for a special concert.
As pope, he earned high marks for opening convents and monasteries to Jewish refugees during the war. In 1941, he made a Christmas radio address many felt denounced anti-Semitism.
His critics today say his post-tenure praise came in a different era.
"Golda Meir, at that time, had no documents available," Hier said. "In 1944, the pope rescued the Jews, but it was too little and too late.
"When he tried to help rescue the Jews in Rome, no one in Europe at that period felt Hitler could win the Second World War. My point is it's very easy to help someone when you think the end is in sight and you think the Allies are going to win. But in the critical year when it could've made a difference, in '39 and '40 and '41 and '42 and '43, he was totally silent."
In Rome, there is keen interest outside the Vatican. The Jewish community there is the oldest in Europe, and the Jewish Ghetto, a popular tourist area, is where Pope Paul IV banished Jews behind a wall in 1555. The vast majority of the Jews in the ghetto during World War II were sent to concentration camps.
"The most important thing is the silence," said Rabbi Riccardo Shmuel Di Segni of the Synagogue of Rome. "At least from a moral point of view. The Jews of Rome were taken all together and put in jail and sent to a railway station and put on a train. If someone was going there and told them to stop the train, I imagine it would stop.
"This wasn't done."
The Vatican maintains otherwise. It said Pius XII managed with "quiet diplomacy." It said any outward revolt against the Holocaust would have made the Nazis come down harder on Jews in occupied territories.
Stafford pointed to 1942, when Nazis exterminated many Dutch Jews following a general condemnation of Germany's occupation of the Netherlands.
"The reaction of Nazi occupiers was even more ruthless," he said.
The Rev. Richard Costigan, professor at Loyola University's Rome Center of Liberal Arts, taught at Denver's Regis High School from 1958 to 1960 and taught political science at Regis College. He also has heard all arguments and thinks any stance from the Vatican during World War II would have been fruitless.
"I don't think it would've done much good," Costigan said. "That's one reason why he didn't say more than he did. Hitler was a fanatic. The whole of Nazism had a fierce determination about it. I doubt any comments by the pope would've had much impression on Hitler or (SS head Heinrich) Himmler."
Supporters say Pius XII denounced the treatment of Jews by the Vichy government, the puppet government in the southwest and south of France after Germany's overthrow of France in 1940.
They also point out reports in which Hitler, angry at Pope Pius XII's stance, twice planned to occupy the Vatican before local commanders delayed him. In 1939, the pope called for one last peace conference and was turned down.
No one is sure which side will be satisfied more after the readings. Scholars say it will take more than a week to form a conclusion.
One of my former staff is a Sephardic Jew. She detailed for us, on many occasions, how the catholic church hid her in a convent school in Italy during WWII. There the sisters continued her education in Jewish scripture. To this day, she is grateful to the catholic church for saving her life.
Not true at all. No archive is immediately open, and that is a statement in bad faith, because the Vatican has explained its position again and again. Because of the questions about the 2nd w w era, the Vatican has already allowed access to many of Pius' papers, and prepared an edited edition of documents relevant to the war years.
It is well known, in the scholarly community, that an archive has to be CATALOGED, before it is open to general scholarship. This is a tremendous task, expecially in a slow and bureaucratic organisation such as the Vatican. If they just threw open the files for public viewing in 1945, not able to reference them, the whole thing would become jumbled and lost.
Also, there is the 50 year rule about government papers. This is no joke, it is a convention between nations. As a head of state, the Pope receives communications from governments, and is expected to keep them in a closed archive, depending upon their status for 10, 30 or 50 years. Just try turning up in Britain, and saying that you want all the state papers about the Suez Crisis of 1956. Go on, ask away ... if you want to waste your time.
Finally, the Pope's correspondence would have contained numerous confidential matters about people still living. They could not have been passed out, at random, the day after the war ended. No organisation, except the Vatican, has been badgered about its archives in this manner.
I particularly laughed at your statement about the Vatican's slow and bureaucratic organisation. Cardinal Ratzinger has stated that it's slowness can be a blessing in disguise, particularly from the standpoint of what his "job function" entails.
You are probably thinking that when the Vatican has those decades in open archive, then the situation is finally resolved. But already, several times, I have heard critics of Pius XII say that the Vatican has had plenty of time to destroy incriminating evidence. (This was on the academic list H-Catholic.) So the evidence was there, you see, but they destroyed it ... Impossible to disprove.
The debate about the Vatican's role in the Holocaust is unique in contemporary history. For one thing, it is very moralistic, in these times when no one normally dares mention right or wrong (these are "cultural constructions" Grin!) Also, it is a debate about what DIDN'T happen. Why didn't the Vatican prevent the Holocaust? Even posing that question is quite strange. Try it with some other examples:
Why didn't the ArchBishop of Canterbury prevent the Stalinist purges?
Why didn't the Vatican prevent Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia?
Why didn't the Ayatollah Khomeniei prevent the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla?
If anyone went to an academic conference and even asked that, they would be laughed at.
But this "Nazi Pope" stuff is no laughing matter. All the prestige presses, like Yale U.P., and the big foundations, publish attacks on the Vatican's 1930s policy. No one publishes another view. For young scholars seeking tenure, it would be quite fatal to not follow the party line on this.