Opening of 'Hitler's Pope' Archive May Shed More Light on Roles of Vatican and Pius XII During World War II

In April 1938, the Vatican diplomat Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli sent a confidential memorandum to American officials. In the note, he expressed antipathy toward the Nazi regime: "Evidence of good faith" by the Nazis was "completely lacking. ... The possibility of an agreement" with the regime was "out of question." One year later, Pacelli ascended to the papacy, becoming Pope Pius XII. He never spoke of those feelings again.

It was this silence by Pius and the Vatican during the Holocaust—in which more than six million Jews were killed across Europe—that led historians to declare the pope a Nazi sympathizer. As those communiques from the 1930s remained unknown during the Second World War and for many years after, Pius was branded "Hitler's Pope."

Seventy-five years since the liberation the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, more than 150 historians and researchers will access for the first time the Vatican archives of Pius XII, a record largely shielded by the Vatican for nearly a century. Scholarship on Pius, and Italy's complicity in the Holocaust, devolved without direct access to the archives, birthing warring legends about the wartime pontificate.

Ahead of the archives opening on March 2, Cardinal José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça told reporters that nationality, faith and ideology would not preclude researchers from requesting permission to use the Vatican's Apostolic Library. "The church has no reason to fear history," he told reporters.

In an interview with Reuters, Father Norbert Hofmann, the top Vatican official in charge of religious relations with Jews, said: "I don't think you will find a smoking gun."

For years the case for whether Pius should be beatified—the final step toward sainthood—hung in the balance as church officials in the United States and Rome were deterred by negative images of the pope, stemming in part from the success of books such as Hitler's Pope by John Cornwell and Constantine's Sword by James Carroll. The books argued Pius was complicit in Nazi crimes for his silence throughout the German occupation.

"We know that publicly, he was silent, but privately, he may have helped, for example, by providing funding for convents and monasteries that were hiding Jews," Aliza Luft, who will be at the archives this summer researching a book about the Catholic Church in France during the Holocaust, told Newsweek. "I think and hope the archives will show how important moral authorities are in dangerous times."

Vatican Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII during the Assumption of Mary ceremony, Vatican 1950. Photo by Archivio Cicconi/Getty Images

Pius led the church during a fraught period, from 1939 to 1958. He was at odds with his leeriness of Nazi actions and worry about suppression of the Church. He held the post at a time when democratic leaders and policies swept across Europe, similar to the rise of alt-right and populist movements today. The Roman Catholic Church has said that Pius never intervened when more than 1,000 Jews were taken from Rome and sent to their deaths, but that he did sequester thousands of Jews in religious institutions nationwide.

More than 8,000 Jews throughout Italy eventually died in Nazi camps, with 30,000 having lived in hiding until Allied forces liberated them.

"We trust that the independent scholarly review of these archival materials will provide greater clarity as to what positions and steps were taken during this period by the Holy See, and help resolve the persistent debates and controversy in this regard," Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, wrote in a statement to Newsweek. "Such necessary transparency is also to the credit of the Church and will further enhance the mutual trust and excellent relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community built up over the last 55 years."

Pius' public stance on the occupation was scrutinized for decades. Then in 2003, while researching an unrelated biography, the diplomatic documents and a report by an American consul general from the 1930s were discovered and described in an article written by a Jesuit historian.

In 2012, Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum and memorial, revised an exhibit about the pope's actions, changing the language from saying Pius "did not intervene" in actions against the Jews deported from Rome to noting he "did not publicly protest." The revision followed the opening of the Pius XI archives, 30,000 volumes where much of what is known about Pius XII originates.

Several archives will be accessible to researchers and academics with the opening in March, the largest of which is the Vatican Apostolic Archive. Paramount to understanding the political history of those years are also the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith archives.

"This is not simply a matter of understanding Church history, but getting a better understanding of European and world history for these eventful years, not only the years of the war, but the political conflicts and dramas of the postwar years," David Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University whose research focuses primarily on the Italian Fascist regime, wrote in an email.

Kertzer said the focus on the Roman Catholic Church and the pope's silence about the Jewish genocide was misplaced.

"For me the much more important question is the role played by the Church (and the Protestant churches as well) in demonizing the Jews in the decades leading up to the Holocaust," he said, "and so allowing tens if not hundreds of thousands of Europeans thinking themselves good Catholics or good Protestants to murder Jewish babies, Jewish children, Jewish women, Jewish aged."

Pope Benedict XVI edged Pius closer to clearing his name toward sainthood in 2009 by determining the fraught Pius had lived a "heroic" life. Pope Francis said in 2014 that a miracle toward sainthood had not been identified, though he called Pius "a great defender of the Jews," ultimately leaving the final pages of a life of critically received Christian virtue unwritten.

This article has been updated with a statement from the AJC.