What the Vatican Archives Really Say About Pius XII

February 2000Dimitri A. Cavalli

Dimitri A. Cavalli is a freelance writer in the Bronx, New York, and has written frequently about Pope Pius XII.

Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican.  By Rev. Pierre Blet, S.J. Paulist. 304 pages. $29.95.



In a recent address, Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, accused the Vatican of refusing to open its archives from World War II, the implication being that the Vatican would be embarrassed by Pope Pius XII’s conduct in regard to the Holocaust. But Pope Paul VI, in fact, opened the archives in 1964, and Rev. Pierre Blet, S.J., a professor at the Gregorian University in Rome, and three other Jesuit scholars conducted research in the Vatican archives that produced 11 volumes of historical documents with the French title Actes et documents du Saint Siège rélatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Actes).

In the book under review here, Fr. Blet observes that these 11 volumes have somehow “escaped the attention of many who speak and write about the Holy See during the war.” For instance, of 677 citations in John Cornwell’s book attacking Pius XII, Hitler’s Pope, only 21 are citations of the Actes. But Fr. Blet makes impressive use of these primary sources, along with diplomatic documents from the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, and Italy, that together provide a clear portrait of Pope Pius XII during World War II. Thus his arguments in defense of Pius XII’s actions have substantial credibility.

In the lexicon of the accusers of the Vatican, “the silence of Pius XII” means that the Pope did nothing to save Jews from the Nazi death camps. Fr. Blet shows that the Vatican consistently opposed the persecutions and deportations of Jews in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries.

In Slovakia, which was headed by an anti-Semitic Catholic priest, the Vatican officially protested the anti-Jewish laws and deportations. Vatican Secretary of State Luigi Cardinal Maglione frequently instructed the Vatican’s diplomatic representatives in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Italy, and even Germany to intervene on behalf of endangered Jews.

On October 30, 1941, Cardinal Maglione encouraged the papal nuncio in France to intervene with the Vichy regime in order to soften the application of the anti-Semitic laws. The nuncio’s protest against the deportation of French Jews in August 1942 received international attention.

Fr. Blet also shows that it is untrue that the Vatican did nothing to stop the arrests of Roman Jews in October 1943. As soon as Pius XII heard of the arrests, he had Cardinal Maglione lodge a strong protest with the German ambassador. The Pope also ordered Bishop Alois Hudal, the rector of the German Catholic Church in Rome, to protest the arrests to the German Military Governor of Rome. Along with these protests, shelter was given to thousands of Jews in Catholic convents, monasteries, and the Vatican itself.

In response to the deportations of Hungarian Jews in June 1944, the Pope personally addressed an open telegram to Hungarian Regent Nicholas Horthy, urging him to spare “so many unfortunate people” from “further afflictions and sorrows.” The Holy Father’s intervention along with those of the Red Cross, the King of Sweden, and President Roosevelt brought a temporary halt to the deportations. When the deportations resumed in October, the papal nuncio in Hungary, acting on orders from Rome, continued to make protests. (Fr. Blet does not mention other documented interventions on behalf of Jews in Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, Poland, Lithuania, and even Japan.)

Fr. Blet notes that important Jewish leaders and organizations such as Chief Rabbi Miroslav Freiberger of Zagreb, Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog of Jerusalem, Chief Rabbi Alexander Shafran of Bucharest, Chaim Barlas of the Jewish Agency, the World Jewish Congress, and the American Jewish Committee often expressed their gratitude to Pius XII. If the Pope did little or nothing to help the Jews and sympathized with the Nazis, then why did so many Jews in nearly every part of the world praise him on so many occasions?

In addition to helping Jews, the Vatican assisted prisoners of war and other civilians, helping in 1941 and 1942 to alleviate the famine in Greece during the Nazi occupation. As Fr. Blet writes, “The very mass of documents by itself stands as an eloquent testimony of the intensity of the care that the pope showed on behalf of the human problems that the war brought throughout the world.”

During World War II the Vatican publicly maintained its impartiality between the warring powers. This attitude often angered both sides. However, the Vatican often violated its own impartiality. For example, in the early months of 1940, the Pope acted as an intermediary between the British government and a group of German generals who wanted to overthrow Hitler. Unfortunately, the conspiracy never went forward.

Critics of the Vatican such as Saul Friedlander and Guenther Lewy often explain the Pope’s “silence” by suggesting that he saw the Nazis as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. In fact, Pius XII indirectly assisted the Soviet Union during the war. In response to diplomatic appeals made by President Roosevelt in the fall of 1941, Pius XII agreed that American Catholics could support the extension of the Lend-Lease program to the Soviets. While the Vatican always condemned Communism, the Pope had nothing but paternal sentiments for the Russian people. Along these lines, the extension of Lend-Lease to the Soviets could be morally justified because it helped the Russian people, who were the innocent victims of Nazi aggression.

The Fascists wanted Pius XII to bless the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union publicly and were bitterly disappointed when he refused. On September 5, 1941, Msgr. Domenico Tardini, Cardinal Maglione’s deputy, explained to Italy’s ambassador to the Vatican the Vatican’s refusal to back the invasion: “I would be very happy to see Communism out of action. It is the worst enemy of the Church. But it is not the only enemy. Nazism has conducted a veritable persecution against the Church and continues to do so.” Tardini added that the Pope could not publicly condemn Communism without condemning “the errors and persecutions of Nazism” at the same time.

Instead of embracing the Nazis, Pius XII strongly opposed their persecution of the Catholic Church in Germany and the occupied countries. In a letter of May 7, 1939, to the Archbishop of Berlin, the Pope urged the German bishops and the clergy to resist Nazi persecution.

In January 1940 the Pope ordered Vatican Radio to broadcast Polish Cardinal August Hlond’s reports on the persecution of the Catholic Church in Poland. These reports were independent confirmation of media reports about Nazi atrocities, reports previously dismissed as Allied propaganda. Fr. Blet omits to mention that these broadcasts also described atrocities against Jews.

Unlike many historians and journalists, Fr. Blet discusses what Pius XII actually said in public, and how his statements were greeted by both sides. Throughout the war the Pope insisted that an important condition for a “just and honorable peace” was the protection of all “ethnic minorities.” In speech after speech, he also warned the occupying powers that they would face God’s wrath if they failed to treat all civilians with justice, charity, and humanity.

In his 1942 Christmas message, Pope Pius XII spoke of the “hundreds of thousands of people who, without any fault of their own and sometimes because of their nationality or race alone, have been doomed to death or to progressive extermination.” Unlike most critics, who dismiss these words as vague, the Reich Central Security Office concluded that the Pope “virtually accuses the German people of injustice toward the Jews….” On June 2, 1943, Pius XII once again spoke of persons “because of their nationality or their race…destined, even without fault on their part, to the threat of extermination.”

Although Fr. Blet’s book successfully refutes the allegations against Pope Pius XII, revisionists like Rabbi Hier can always safely retreat to the position that the Pope didn’t do or say enough. This tactic is intellectually disingenuous because there can be a world of difference between “doing nothing” and “not doing enough.”

Perhaps the debate should now shift to the question of which wartime leader actually did the most to rescue Jews from the Nazis. In 1980 Fr. Michael O’Carroll asked if any other government or private institution could show a record of similar concern for the Jews.

At a time when attempts to derail Pope Pius XII’s prospective beatification are intensifying, both Catholics and non-Catholics can finally educate themselves about this controversy by consulting Fr. Blet’s extraordinary book. When reporters asked Pope John Paul II about his much-maligned predecessor, he immediately referred them to Fr. Blet’s work.



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