Review of Pierre Blet's Book

Author: Konrad Repgen


Konrad Repgen

Blet offers excellent guide for volumes on Pius XII

On Monday, 5 March, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung published an article on Pius XII during the Second World War, written by Konrad Repgen, professor emeritus of the University of Bonn. The article reviews the book by Fr Pierre Blet, S.J.: "Papst Pius XII und der Zweite Weltkrieg". Aus den Akten de Vatikans (English title: Pius XII and the Second World War, according to the Archives of the Vatican"), translated from French by Birgit Martens-Schöne (edition Ferdinand Schoningh, Paderborn 2000, XIII, 313 pages). Here is a translation of the German article on Fr Blet's book.

Even in a world dominated by the media and their feverish changes of topic, some subjects are always timely. One of these is Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, who was elected on 2 March 1939 and died on 10 October 1958. In comparison with his predecessors in the 20th century, he received greater attention from the press during his life and at his death, among Christians and in the Westernpolitical world. The figure of Pacelli has fascinated many people. In his time, what the Pope said was absolutely authoritative in the Church. Politicians of the day thought that, he had steered the Church excellently through the stormy seas of the Second World War.

This collective memory of Pope Pacelli, which held him in such high esteem changed, overnight, when, in February 1963, the play "The Vicar" by the then unknown Rolf Hochhuth was staged. That theatrical production caused a commotion. Respect for Pius XII, widespread until then, rapidly turned into negative opinion. Hochhuth claimed that the Pope had remained silent, for reprehensible reasons (selfishness of the institutions, concern for papal finances), precisely when an official pronouncement from him could have put an end to the killing of the Jews being perpetrated by National Socialism. Countless articles and discussions addressed "the Pope's silence". From that time, his behaviour during the Second World War appears, at the least "questionable".

Confronted by this situation, at the end of 1964, Pope Paul VI (1963-78), one of Pope PiusXII's closest collaborators during the Second World War, decided to counter the fictitious Pacelli of Hochhuth's play with an important publication, of the authentic. historical records concerning the practical actions of the true Pacelli in history and in practice. Four Jesuits were charged with the task, all of whom were well-known historians: Robert Graham, American (d. 1997), Angelo Martini, Italian (d. 1981), Burkhart Schneider, German (d. 1976), and Pierre Blet, French (b. 1918). The latter, a student of Roland Mousnier, graduated from the Sorbonne in 1958. He taught at the Gregorian University and the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in Rome.

The Actes et Documents du Saint Sièges relatifs à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (ADSS), edited by the Secretariat of State, were published in 11 volumes between 1965 and 1981. They contain more than 5,000 complete records and the footnotes include references to thousands of other texts. Most of the documents are correspondence between the Secretariat of State and the Holy See's representatives abroad (Nuncios, Delegates, etc.) and internal protocols, notes, projects, etc. The records contained in each volume, arranged in chronological order, have been divided by the editors into main sections.

Five volumes cover the Pope's attempts to exercise influence over the political events of the war, four volumes describe the Holy See's efforts to help "war victims", wherever the word "victims" does not exclusively refer to those of the Shoah. A further two volumes document the correspondence of great political importance between the Pope and the German and Polish Bishops during the Second World War.

The quality of this Vatican publication conforms to the high standard of similar publications of records by other Western States. With regard to the credibility of these records, doubts of a political nature were and are still being raised, but since they have not been confirmed, it is difficult to address them scientifically. It is true that the records in the Vatican Secret Archives can only be consulted up to 1922, so that even if the historian were so inclined, he would not be able to verify the reliability of the Vatican publication with regard to the years of 1939-1945. However, he certainly cannot be reprimanded for accepting acritically a publication which the Secretariat ofState of Vatican Cityentrusted to editors who were far from unknown: in the first place, the historian can (and truly must) also apply to these historical records all the methods of historiographical analysis; secondly, in a great many cases, he can consult opposing versions.

Until now, this has only been done by one major scholar: Owen Chadwick. In 1986, he published a very convincing study "Great Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War". In this study, the Vatican publication passed the test of reliability with flying colours. Moreover, historiographical research, even by Germans, did not pay sufficient attention to the "Actes et Documents". Up until now, there have been no important monographic studies on the topic "Pius XII and the Second World War".

Nor does the elderly Fr Blet, the only one of the four editors who is still alive, offer us a text of this kind with his recent work. He does not raise this point in any way. His work appeared in French in 1997. It is now published in German for quite a different purpose. Blet starts with the fact that "the content, or even the existence", of the Vatican publication of the acts "escaped many of those who speak and write about the Holy See's activity during the Second World War".This is a lapidary statement, which unfortunately corresponds to the truth. It is widely known that the current historical image offered to us by the media contains very little of the information offered by the ADSS.

To forestall this situation, the editors prefaced the individual volumes with numerous detailed introductions full of exact references. These introductions formed the basis of long articles published in L'OsservatoreRomano on the occasion of the publication of the individual volumes.

It is certain that neither the introductions nor the accompanying articles that appeared in L'Osservatore Romano have produced any permanent acceptance of the published acts. The ADSS are mostly lying unused and dusty on the shelves of the larger libraries while the late night talk-shows are occupied with Pius XII.

Blet would like to remedy this unsatisfactory situation by re-examining the detailed introductions of the time, compressing and enriching them with extracts from the documents section. To make room, he did away with a series of topics (for example, that of the measures taken by the Pope to help prisoners of war, such as the creation of a bridge of news between the prisoners and their families or the donation of medicines, etc.). Thus his new book is not only an addition to the 11 introductions. It does not replace them, but is intended to provide guidance to the introduction to the acts described in them.

Blet offers in a decisively objective, even dry way, in 12 specific chapters that are not in strictly chronological order, an abundant treatment of the content of the ADSS, both about the Holy See's diplomatic activity during the Second World War and the measures taken by the Pope for the victims of the war and of persecution, independently of their religion, denomination, race or original nationality. The language is very abstract, unsentimental and not at all apologetic.

Only in the ten pages of the last chapter does Blet appear more lively and side with Pope Pius XII, who publicly declared after the war, in 1952, that he had done everything he thought possible to avoid and to shorten the war, to alleviate suffering and to reduce the number of victims.Blet affirms: "As far as documents can penetrate hearts, they (the ADSS) lead to the same conclusion".

We can certainly agree with this. The Pope's decisions were neither blind nor easy; they were certainly taken conscientiously and responsibly considered. The documents demonstrate and testify to this fact. However, the chapter "Pius XII and the Second World War" does not end with this affirmation and, over and above history, poses a fundamental question on how far the Pope, by virtue of his ministry, should publicly intervene against the violation of basic human rights. Pius XII himself had also wondered about this from the beginning of his Pontificate, and during the war outsiders had often asked him this practical question.

Day after day he asked himself: how clear and concrete should the Pope's words be, given the possible consequences? This dilemma could not be resolved like a simple arithmetical problem, but was, as he himself said in another context in 1944, "painfully difficult". The Pope is not the lord of this world and is only in a limited way its judge. As far as possible he is its Good Samaritan, but above all, he is its teacher. No more and no less. Hence the sphere of his action is limited.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
29 August 2001, page 10

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