One of the most persistent and controversial debates about the history of World War II concerns the role of the Catholic Church during the Holocaust, and specifically, the actions of Pope Pius XII. In the view of some historians, Pius manifestly failed to protect the Jews of Europe or effectively protest their fate, even those who were under his own nose in Rome, during the Nazi Holocaust. But other historians take a diametrically opposite view, holding that Pius actually did all he could to defend the Jews of Europe, and that he will ultimately be remembered for having saved—to quote the late, distinguished historian Sir Martin Gilbert—“hundreds of thousands” of them.
In other words, it is a polarized debate, often bitterly so. On Monday, when the Vatican opens the secret war archives of Pius XII, new layers of evidence will emerge that should offer unprecedented clarity on what the pope and the church did and didn’t do in the face of the greatest moral challenge in the history of Europe.
Preparation of the archive for use by scholars has taken about 15 years; in that time, doubts were continually sown about whether the archive would be opened at all. On March 4 last year, Pope Francis announced definitively that its doors would open with the observation that the Catholic Church was “not afraid of history—on the contrary, she loves it.” Francis added that he had taken the decision to open the archive “with a serene and confident soul,” certain that the documents in the archive would showcase Pius XII’s “moments of exaltation” during the Nazi era, as well as those “moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence.”
The fate of the Jews is, of course, only one element of this enormous archive, and so the church will be able to make the case for the saintliness of Pius XII by referring to what Pope Francis called the “pastoral … but also theological, ascetic, diplomatic” activities that the wartime pontiff engaged in on behalf of Catholics living under Nazi occupation. At the same time, however, church leaders seem convinced that the controversies over Pius’s stance during the Holocaust will be laid to rest in his favor.
In a recent interview with Vatican News, Monsignor Sergio Pagano—Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archives—was asked whether the archive contained unseen documents that would prove “the Church’s work under the papacy of Pius XII to save Jewish people” during the Holocaust. “Without a doubt,” replied Pagano. Researchers would now have access to documents, he explained, that contained “numerous testimonies of the assistance given by simple Christians, as well as by religious institutes and the bishops themselves for the salvation of this poor population so cruelly persecuted.”
Even more importantly, perhaps, the archive would provide answers to the complaints about Pius’s “silence” during the Holocaust, exemplified by the fact that he never once mentioned the Jewish people as a victim group of the Nazis in his entire time as pope. According to Monsignor Pagano, the documents in the archive provide “a new, more detailed explanation” for that silence.
For many in the Jewish world, the opening of the archive will be a seminal moment in the relationship between Catholics and Jews since the Second Vatican Council of 1965 famously exonerated the Jewish people of the charge of “deicide”—collective, eternal responsibility for the suffering and death of Jesus. Abraham Foxman, the former national director of the Anti-Defamation League who survived the Holocaust in Poland after he was hidden by his devoted Catholic nanny, told me that it was no accident that Pope Francis, whom he called “very sincere in his understandings and sensitivities towards the Jewish people,” had authorized the opening of the archive.
Nor should we underestimate the enormous significance of what Foxman called “one of the most secretive organizations in the history of human society”—i.e., the Catholic Church—opening itself up to scrutiny. For those reasons, Foxman argued that the archive will not allow for a simple whitewash of Pius XII. If a consensus does finally emerge among scholars of the period, Foxman believes that this will recognize that the Church “did more than we know about, but less than it could have done.”
To some extent, this more nuanced interpretation of Pius’s role has already surfaced. A 2011 book by the historian Paul O’Shea titled A Cross Too Heavy: Pope Pius XII and the Jews of Europe, made a powerful case that Pius was certainly not a Jew-hater or Nazi sympathizer, but neither could he be seen as a “lamb without a stain.”
According to O’Shea, Pius’s behavior was governed “by his conscious and deliberate choices to do all within his limited economic and political power, as he perceived it, to help European Jewry while keeping the fiction of papal neutrality, and not endangering the position of the Catholic Church in Germany or occupied Europe.” On the question of the pontiff’s “silence,” O’Shea described this as a “strategy to protect Vatican interests, including rescue activities.” Within these parameters, therefore, there will always be differences between those who insist that Pius did have the power to be more assertive in the face of Nazi savagery towards the Jews, and those who argue that he showed wisdom in deploying his skills to save as many Jews as possible without endangering his own institution.
In William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the Danish prince of the title says of his late father, the king: “He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” With the opening of the papal archive, we may well reach the same conclusion about Pius XII. Regardless, the opportunity has finally come to learn more not only about the wartime pope but about the church he headed. Many Catholics endured persecution under the Nazis at the same time that many of their fellow believers, as Foxman put it to me, “killed Jews from Monday to Friday, and then went to church on Sunday.” Amid all this heat, those scholars who will now enter the archive have a vital responsibility to shed light as well.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author who writes a weekly column on Jewish and international affairs for JNS.