MYTH: The recurring accusations against Pope Pius XII

Author: Rev. Pierre Blet, SJ

The recurring accusations against Pope Pius XII

Pierre Blet, S.J.

When he died on 9 October 1958, Pius XII was the object of unanimous tributes of admiration and gratitude: "The world", declared President Eisenhower, "is now poorer since the death of Pius XII". Golda Meir, the Foreign Minister of the State of Israel: "The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace"1. A few years later however, beginning in 1963, he had become the subject of a black legend: during the War, it was claimed, due to political calculation or faintheartedness, he remained impassive and silent in the face of crimes against humanity, which would have been prevented had he intervened.

When accusations are based on documents, it is possible to discuss the interpretation of texts, verify whether they have been misunderstood, received in a non-critical way, misrepresented or chosen selectively. But when a legend is created from unrelated elements and with the aid of imagination, discussion is meaningless. The only thing possible is to counter the myth with the historical reality proved by incontestable documentation. For this reason, Pope Paul VI, who as Substitute of the Secretariat of State had been one of the closest collaborators of Pius XII, as early as 1964 authorized the publication of the documents of the Holy See relating to the Second World War.

The lay-out of Actes et Document

The Archives of the Secretariat of State preserve the files in which it is often possible to follow day by day, sometimes hour by hour, the activity of the Pope and his offices. Here are found the messages and addresses of Pius XII, the letters exchanged between the Pope and civil and ecclesiastical authorities, notes of the Secretariat of State, service notes from junior officials to their superiors to communicate information and suggestions and, in addition, private notes (in particular, those of Monsignor Domenico Tardini, who had the habit, most fortunate for historians, of thinking with pen in hand), the correspondence of the Secretariat of State with the Holy See's representatives abroad (Apostolic Nuncios, Internuncios and Delegates) and the Diplomatic Notes exchanged between the Secretariat of State and Ambassadors or Ministers accredited to the Holy See. These documents are for the most part sent with the name and signature of the Secretary of State or the Secretary of the First Section of the Secretariat of State: this does not detract from their expressing the intentions of the Pope.

On the basis of these documents it would have been possible to write a work describing the attitude and policy of the Pope during the Second World War. Or an official report could have been produced to demonstrate the groundlessness of the accusations against Pius XII Since the main charge was that of silence, it would have been particularly easy to use the documents to illustrate the Holy See's activity on behalf of war victims and particularly on behalf of the victims of racist persecutions. It was considered more suitable to undertake a complete publication of the documents relating to the War. Various collections of diplomatic documents already existed, many volumes of which dealt with the Second World War: Documenti; diplomatici italiani; Documents on British Foreign Policy: 1919-1939; Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers; Akten zur deutschen auswartigen Politik 1918-1945. Given the existence of these collections and on the lines of such models, it seemed useful to allow historians to study from the documents the role and activity of the Holy See during the War. With this perspective the publication of the collection entitled Actes et documents du Saint-Seige relatifs a la seconde guerre mondiale was begun 2.

The difficulty lay in the fact that for this period the archives—both of the Vatican and of other States—were closed to the public and also to historians. The particular interest in the events of the Second World War, the desire to write its history on the basis of the documents, and not only from more or less direct accounts or testimonies, had led the States involved in the conflict to publish the documents still inaccessible to the public. Trustworthy persons charged with such a task are subject to certain rules: not to publish documents which would call into question people still living or which, if revealed, would hamper current negotiations. On the basis of these criteria the volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States relating to the Forties were published, and the same criteria were followed in the publications of the documents of the Holy See.

The task of publishing the documents of the Holy See relating to the War was entrusted to three Jesuit priests: Angelo Martini, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, who had already access to the secret archives of the Vatican, Burkhart Schneider and the author of the present article, both professors in the Church History Faculty of the Pontifical Gregorian University. The work began in the first days of January 1965, in an office near the storeroom containing the archives of the then Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and First Section of the Secretariat of State; documents relating to the War were normally kept there.

In such conditions, the work was both easy and difficult. The difficulty was that since the archives were not open to the public there were no systematic inventories geared to research, documents were not classified, either in chronological or strictly geographical order. Those of a political nature, and hence relating to the War, were sometimes stored with documents of a religious, canonical or even personal nature, placed in fairly manageable boxes but sometimes with widely differing contents. Information relating to Great Britain could be found in files on France, if the information had been sent through the Nuncio in France, and naturally interventions on behalf of Belgian hostages were in the boxes of the Nuncio in Berlin. It was therefore necessary to examine every box and go through the entire contents in order to identify the documents relating to the War. The research was simplified, however, thanks to an old rule of the Secretariat of State in force since the time of Urban VIII: Nuncios were to deal with only one subject in each letter.

Despite such difficulties, certain circumstances made our task easier. Since we were working in an office of the Secretariat of State and as members of the Commission, we were not bound by the conditions placed on researchers given access to the public storerooms in the consultation areas; one of us would take the boxes of documentation directly from the storeroom shelves. Our task was also made considerably easier by the fact that the documentation was for the most part typewritten and had been stored as separate letters (except for manuscripts to be typed for the printing office). Thus when a particular document was recognized as pertaining to the War it could simply be removed and photocopied, and the photocopy together with explanatory—notes as scholarly work requires—given to the printing office.

Although in the winter of 1965 the work was proceeding quickly enough, we decided to ask the help of Father Robert Leiber, who had retired to the German College after serving for more than thirty years as private secretary of Pacelli, first when the latter was Nuncio, then Secretary of State and finally Pope Pius XII. Leiber had followed the situation in Germany very closely, and it was he who had told us of the existence of drafts of Pius XII's letters to the German Bishops. These became the material of the second volume of the series and are the documents which best reveal the thoughts of the Pope.

The Individual Volumes

The first volume, which covers the first seventeen months of the Pontificate (March 1939 - July 1940) and which reveal Pius XII's efforts to stave off war, was published in December 1965 and was given a generally positive reception. In 1966, while Father Schneider was busy preparing the volume of the letters to the German Bishops, Father Robert A. Graham, an American Jesuit of the magazine America who had already published a work on the diplomacy of the Holy See (Vatican Diplomacy), asked for information covering the period on which we were working. In reply to his request, he was invited to join our group, especially as we had learned of the ever more frequent contacts of Pius XII with Roosevelt and since we were coming across documents in English fairly frequently. He worked directly on the preparation of the third volume, which was devoted to Poland and modelled on the second volume, concerning the relationships of the Holy See with the Bishops. But the direct exchange of letters with other Bishops proved much less intense, with the result that volumes two and three (in two parts) remained the only ones of their kind. Thus we decided to divide the documents into two sections: one was to be a continuation of the first volume, for questions primarily diplomatic in nature, as indicated by their title Le Saint-Siege et la guerre en Europe, Le Saint-Siege et la guerre mondiale. These were volumes 4, 5, 7 and 11 Volumes 6, 8, 9 and 10, entitled Le Saint-Siege et les victimes de la guerre, present in chronological order documents pertaining to the efforts of the Holy See to help all suffering in body or spirit because of the War, prisoners separated from their families and exiled far from their loved ones, peoples subjected to the devastation of the War, and victims of racial persecution.

The work lasted more than fifteen years; the group divided the workload according to the planned volumes and the time that each member could give. Father Leiber, whose help had been so valuable to us, was taken from us by death on 18 February 1967. Father Schneider, after the publication of the letters to the German Bishops and while continuing to teach Modern History at the Gregorian University, had devoted himself to the section on the victims of the War. With the help of Father Graham he prepared volumes 6, 8 and 9, which were completed at Christmas 1975. But in the summer of that same year he had been stricken by the illness from which he would die the following May. Father Martini, who had devoted himself full-time to this work and had in some way worked on every volume, did not have the satisfaction of seeing the work completed in its entirety: he was only able to see the proofs of the last volume, at the beginning of the summer of 1981, before he himself passed away. Volume 11 (the last of the series) came out towards the end of 1981 under the auspices of Father Graham and myself. Thus Father Graham, although the oldest among us, was able to work until the project was brought to completion. During those fifteen years he was also able to work on related research and publications, which mainly came out as articles in La Civilita Cattolica, and which themselves also constitute a source of information which historians of the Second World War can profitably consult. He left Rome on 24 July 1996 to return to his native California, where he ended his days on 11 February 1997.

Since the beginning of 1982, I had resumed my own researches on seventeenth century France and papal diplomacy. But seeing that after fifteen years our volumes remained unknown even to many historians, I devoted the years 1996-97 to putting the essence and conclusions of that work into a single volume of modest size, but as complete as possible3. A dispassionate reading of this documentation clearly brings to light in its concrete reality the attitude and conduct of Pius XII during the World War and, consequently, the unfoundedness of the accusations made against him. The documentation clearly shows that he did everything he possibly could in the area of diplomacy to avoid the War, to dissuade Germany from attacking Poland, to convince Mussolini's Italy to dissociate itself from Hitler. There is no trace of the alleged pro-German partiality that he is purported to have developed while he was at the Nunciature in Germany. His efforts, joined with those of Roosevelt, to keep Italy out of the conflict, the solidarity telegrams of 10 May 1940 to the Sovereigns of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg after the invasion of the Wehrmacht, his courageous admonition to Mussolini and to King Victor Emanuel calling for a separate peace certainly do not point in that direction. It would be unrealistic to think that with the halberds of the Swiss Guard, or even with the threat of excommunication, he would have been able to stop the tanks of the Wehrmacht.

But the accusation which is often repeated is that he remained silent about the racial persecution aimed at the Jews, even when this was carried to its ultimate consequences, and that he thus left the way open for the Nazi atrocities. The documentation, however, shows the Pope's unfailing and constant efforts to oppose the deportations, the outcome of which was the subject of ever increasing suspicion. The apparent silence hid a clandestine activity on the part of the Nunciatures and Bishops to circumvent, or at least limit, the deportations, the violence, the persecutions. The rationale behind this caution is clearly explained by the Pope himself in different speeches, in the letters to the German Bishops, and in consultations within the Secretariat of State. Public declarations would have been of no use: they would have only served to make the fate of the victims worse and to increase their actual number.

Recurring accusations

In an effort to obscure this evidence, the detractors of Pius XII have cast doubts upon the seriousness of our publication. Quite remarkable in this regard is an article published in a Paris evening newspaper on 3 December 1997: "Those four Jesuits have produced [!] in the Actes et documents texts which have absolved Pius XII of the omissions with which he is charged [ ... ]. But those Actes et documents are far from being complete". It is insinuated that we had omitted documents which might prejudice the memory of Pius XII and the Holy See.

First, it is not clear how the omission of certain documents would help to clear Pius XII of the failures of which he has been accused. On the other hand, to state peremptorily that our publication is not complete is to state something impossible to prove: to do so, one would have to compare our publication with the archival material and indicate documents present in the archives but missing in our publication. Even though the pertinent archival material is still closed to the public, some people have gone so far as to furnish alleged proofs of such gaps in the Actes et Documents. In doing so they have shown their scanty knowledge of research into archival collections, the opening of some of which they are demanding.

Repeating an identical statement in a Roman daily newspaper on 11 September 1997, the 3 December article states that the correspondence between Pius XII and Hitler is missing from our publication. Let us first note that the letter in which the Pope informed the Head of State of the Reich of his election is the last document published in the second volume of the Actes et documents. As for the rest, if we did not publish any correspondence between Pius XII and Hitler it is because such correspondence exists solely in the imagination of the journalist. The latter mentions contacts between Pacelli, then Nuncio in Germany, and Hitler, but, he should have checked his dates: Hitler came to power in 1933 and thus would only have been able to meet the Apostolic Nuncio after that,, date. But Archbishop Pacelli had returned to Rome in December, 1929; Pius XI had created him a Cardinal on 16 December 1929 and Secretary of State on 16 January 1930. Most importantly, had such correspondence ever existed, the Pope's letters would have been preserved in the German archives and it would be natural for some trace of them to be found in the archives of the Foreign Ministry of the Reich. Hitler's letters would have ended up in the Vatican, but some mention of them would be found in the instructions given to the German Ambassadors, Bergen and then Weitzsacker, who were charged with delivering them, and in the reports filed by these diplomats confirming that they had in fact transmitted them to the Pope or the Secretary of State. There is no trace of any of this. In the absence of such references, it must be said that the seriousness of our publication has been impugned without a shred of evidence.

These observations about the alleged correspondence between the Pope and the Fuhrer are also applicable to other documents, ones which actually existed. Very frequently documents from the Vatican, e.g. notes exchanged with ambassadors, are attested to by other archives. One can presume that many telegrams from the Vatican were intercepted and deciphered by the information services of the warring powers, and that copies can be found in their archives. Consequently, had we in fact attempted to hide certain documents it would be possible to establish their existence and thus have a basis for casting doubt on the seriousness of our work.

The same article in the Paris newspaper, after imagining relations between Hitler and the Nuncio Pacelli, refers to an article in the Sunday, Telegraph in July 1997, which accuses the Holy See of having used Nazi gold to help war criminals flee to Latin America, and in particular the Croat Ante Pavelic: "Some studies support this thesis". One is amazed at the casualness with which journalists can content themselves with documenting statements. Historians, who often labour for hours in order to verify their references, will envy them. One can understand that a journalist will trust a colleague, especially when the English name of the paper gives him an air of respectability. But there are two other statements which deserve to be studied separately, namely the arrival in the Vatican coffers of Nazi gold, or more exactly the gold belonging to Jews and stolen by the Nazis, and its use to facilitate the flight of Nazi war criminals to Latin America.

Some American dailies had in fact produced a document from the U.S. Treasury Department in which the Department was informed that the Vatican had received, through Croatia, Nazi gold of Jewish origin. The fact that the document was "from the Treasury Department" might appear impressive, but one has to read what is printed beneath the headline and one discovers that it is a note based on the "report of a trustworthy Roman informant". Those who take such statements for gospel truth should read Father Graham's article on the exploits of the informant V. Scattolini, who made a living out of "information" concocted in his own imagination which he then passed on to all the Embassies, including the American Embassy, which dutifully forwarded it to the State Department 4. In our search of the archives of the Secratariat of State, we found no mention of the alleged entrance into Vatican coffers of gold stolen from Jews. Obviously those who make such statements have a responsibility to furnish documented proof, for example a receipt, not kept in the Vatican archives, as in the case of the alleged letters of Pius XII to Hitler. In the archives themselves, one finds only the prompt response of Pius XII when the Jewish communities of Rome were subjected to extortion by the SS, which demanded that they hand over fifty kilograms of gold. At that time the Chief Rabbi turned to the Pope to ask him for the fifteen kilograms needed to make up the amount, and Pius XII immediately ordered his offices to make the necessary arrangments5. Recent checks of the archives have discovered nothing further.

Nor is the report about Nazi criminals fleeing to Latin America with the alleged help of the Vatican something new. Obviously we cannot exclude the naivete of some Roman cleric who may have used his position to facilitate the escape of a Nazi. The sympathies of Bishop Hudal, Rector of the German national church in Rome, for the Great Reich are well-known; but on these grounds to imagine that the Vatican organized a large-scale escape of Nazis to Latin America would be to attribute heroic charity to the Roman clergy, as the Nazi plans for the Church and the Holy See were well-known in Rome. Pius XII referred to them in his Consistorial Address of 2 June 1945, recalling that the persecution by the regime of the Church had been intensified by the War, "when its adherents still entertained the illusion that, following a military victory, they would eliminate the Church once and for all"6. The authors referred to by our journalist have a rather lofty idea of the forgiveness of wrongs practised in papal circles, if they imagine that a number of Nazis were sheltered in the Vatican and thence taken to Argentina, under the protection of the Peron dictatorship, and then on to Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, as a way of salvaging whatever could be salvaged of the Third Reich: thus a "Fourth Reich" would have been created in the pampas.

In these reports it is hard to differentiate fact and fiction. For those who like to read fiction we can recommend Ladislas Farago's Aftermatb: Martin Bormann and the Fourth Reich. The phrase "the Fourth Reich" says it all. The author takes us from Rome and the Vatican to Argentina, Paraguay and Chile on the trail of the Reichsleiter and other fleeing Nazi leaders. With the attention to detail of an Agatha Christie, he describes the exact position of each character at the moment of the crime, indicates the numbers of the hotel rooms occupied by the fleeing Nazis and the Nazi hunters hot on their trail, and paints a picture of the green Volkswagen which transported them. One is struck by the modesty of the author, who presents his book as "a typically French investigative report, a study which is serious yet without pretensions to pure scholarship(!)".


The reader will understand that the Vatican archives may contain nothing of all that, even if it actually happened. If Bishop Hudal did help some prominent Nazis to escape, he certainly would not have gone seeking the Pope's permission. And if he had later confided to him what had happened, we would know nothing of it now. Among the things which the archives will never reveal we must mention the conversations between the Pope and his visitors, with the exception of the ambassadors who reported on them to their governments, or de Gaulle who speaks of them in his Memoirs.

This does not mean that when serious historians wish personally to check the archives from which published documents have been drawn their desire is not legitimate and praiseworthy. Even after a publication carried out as accurately as possible, consultation of the archives and direct contact with the documents makes for historical understanding. It is one thing to cast doubt on the seriousness of our research, and another altogether to wonder if something perhaps escaped us. We have not deliberately ignored any significant document on the grounds that it seemed to us to damage the image of the Pope and the reputation of the Holy See. But in an undertaking such as this the person doing the work is the first to wonder whether he has forgotten something. Without Father Leiber, the existence of the drafts of Pius XII's letters to the German Bishops would have gone unnoticed, and the collection would have been deprived of the texte which are perhaps the most valuable of all for an understanding of the Pope's thinking7. Yet those letters do not contradict in any way what we had learnt from the notes and diplomatic correspondence. In them, we see more of Pius XII's concern to depend upon the teaching of the Bishops in order to put German Catholics on their guard against the perverse seductions of National Socialism, more dangerous than ever in time of war. This correspondence, published in the second volume of the Actes et Documents, therefore confirms the tenacious opposition of the Church to National Socialism, though we knew already of the first warnings of German Bishops like Faulhaber and von Galen, of many religious and priests, and finally the Encyclical Letter Mit brennender Sorge, read in all the churches of Germany on Palm Sunday 1937, despite the Gestapo.

We can therefore only consider as a pure and simple he the claim that the Church supported Nazism, as a Milan newspaper wrote on 6 January 1998. Moreover, the texts published in the fifth volume of the Actes et Documents deny outright the idea that the Holy See supported the Third Reich because it was afraid of Soviet Russia. When Roosevelt sought the Vatican's help to overcome the opposition of American Catholics to his plan to extend to Russia at war against the Reich the support already granted to Great Britain, he was listened to. The Secretariat of State charged the Apostolic Delegate in Washington to entrust to American Bishops the task of explaining that the Encyclical Divini Redemptoris—which enjoined Catholics to refuse the hand held out by the Communist parties—did not apply to the current situation and did not forbid the USA to help Soviet Russia's war effort against the Third Reich. These are unassailable conclusions.

Therefore, without wishing to discourage future researchers, I very much doubt whether the opening of the Vatican archives of the War years will change our understanding of the period. In the archives, as we have explained earlier, the diplomatic and administrative documents are mixed with documents of a strictly personal character; and this demands a longer closure than in the archives of the Foreign Ministries of the various States. Those who do not want to wait but wish to study in depth the history of that convulsed period can work fruitfully in the archives of the Foreign Office, the Quai d'Orsay, the State Department, and in the archives of the other States which had representatives accredited to the Holy See. Better than the notes of the Vatican's Secretariat of State, the dispatches of the British Minister Osborne evoke the situation of the Holy See, surrounded by Fascist Rome which then fell under the control of the German army and police8. It is by devoting themselves to such research, without asking for a premature opening of the Vatican archives, that they will show that are really seeking the truth.
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1  L'Osservatore Romano, 9 October 1958.

Actes et documents du Saint-Siege relatifs a la seconde guerre mondiale, edited by P. BLET - A. MARTINI - R. A. GRAHAM (from the third volume) - B. SCHNEIDER, Citta del Vaticano, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 11 volumes in 12 parts (2 parts for volume 3), 1965-81.

3  Cfr P. BLET, Pie XII et la seconde guerre mondiale d'apres les archives du Vatican, Paris, Perrin, 1997

4  Cfr R. A. GRAHAM, "Il vaticanista falsario. L'incredibile successo di Vittorio Scattolini", in La Civilta Cattolica 1973 111 467-478.

5  Cfr Actes et documents, vol. 9, 491 and 494.

6  Pius XII, "Consistorial Address" (2 June 1945), in Acta Apostolicae Sedis (1945)159-168.

7  Thus when we prepared the first volume, it was not known who edited Pius XII's appeal for peace on 24 August 1939, opportunely corrected and approved by the Pope. Only later research allowed us to discover that the editor had been Monsignor Montini (cfr B. SCHNEIDER, "Der Friedensappell Papst Pius' XII. vom 14 August 1939", in Archivum Historiae Pontificiae 6 [1968] 415-414), although it is difficult to attribute particular sections to the two authors.

8  Cfr O. CHADWICK, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War, Cambridge, 1986.