News Analysis

Will opening the Pius XII archives change the debate about the wartime pope?

Pius XII gives his blessing at the end of a radio broadcast in 1943 (CNS)

The Holy See announced last week that the Vatican Secret Archives will open files related to Pope Pius XII’s pontificate. The news caused quite a stir in the press, owing in large part to the controversy surrounding the man who reigned from 1939 to 1958 – through the Second World War and well into the post-war settlement.

The task of preparing the files has been gargantuan, the effort herculean. They include some 17 million pages in the Secret Archive – a significant portion of which has long since been available to select researchers. They also include: the archives in various dicasteries, such as the Secretariat of State; 76 “special units” containing the papers of Eugenio Pacelli – the man who would become Pius XII on March 2 1939; and 2,394 envelopes – each containing dozens of pages – detailing the personal charities of Pope Pius XII. All this and much more is now organised, searchable and consultable.

The process of preparing the files began in earnest in 2006, under Pope Benedict XVI, and has taken a dozen years of constant labour. The archives will be officially opened on March 2, 2020, exactly 81 years to the day after Eugenio Pacelli was elected and took the name Pius XII. It was also seven months before Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, unleashing the violence of previously inconceivable evil and inaugurating the most destructive conflict in human history.

Detractors and conspiracy theorists are likely to look first for information regarding Pope Pius XII’s dealings with Adolf Hitler and his regime in Nazi Germany, and more broadly for signs of his attitude toward and efforts – or lack thereof – to help Jews seeking to escape the clutches of both Nazis and Fascists and their allies and sympathisers in Italy, Germany and across Europe.

During the war, Pius XII was hailed in the editorial pages of the New York Times as “a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe” and praised, in that same Christmas 1941 editorial, as “about the only ruler left on the continent of Europe who dares to raise his voice at all”, even as he “left no doubt that the Nazi aims are irreconcilable with his own conception of Christian peace”.

Historians have long since established that the Nazis – and Hitler personally – considered Pope Pius XII an enemy, specifically for his efforts in behalf of European Jews. There is also significant evidence that Pius XII was involved, as historian Mark Riebling has argued, in plans to achieve “regime change” in Nazi Germany.

After the war, and into the early 1960s – some years after his death – Pius XII enjoyed generally high esteem. “When fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the Pope was raised for its victims,” wrote Israel’s then foreign minister (later prime minister), Golda Meir, on learning of Pius XII’s passing. She continued: “The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict.” Meir concluded her condolence, “We mourn a great servant of peace.”

During the 1960s – some say owing to a coordinated Cold War propaganda campaign out of the Eastern Bloc, others to a penchant for revisionism – Pius XII’s reputation suffered. The nadir of public esteem was arguably reached with the publication, in 1999, of Hitler’s Pope by John Cornwell. Within five years, however, the tide of opinion, both scholarly and popular, had begun to turn again, and Cornwell himself would significantly attenuate some of his central claims.

The archives will offer detail, nuance, and a good deal of substance to the story as it is already known, without altering its basic structure: that of a man who tried to do good in an impossible situation; who could have done more when there was no such thing as doing enough and too many did nothing at all; who might have spoken out more, and who made some bad and other debatable decisions.

Pope Francis arguably put it best, when in a speech to officials of the Vatican Secret Archive on March 4, he explained the reasons for his decision. He told them: “I have assumed this decision after hearing the opinion of my closest collaborators, with a serene and confident mind, sure that serious and objective historical research will be able to evaluate, in the proper light and with appropriate criticism, the praiseworthy moments of the Pontiff and, without any doubt, also moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some might have seemed to be reticence, and which instead were attempts, humanly also very hard-fought, to keep the flame of humanitarian initiatives lit during periods of more intense darkness and cruelty, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in possible good openings of hearts.”

Researchers are guaranteed to find in the documents soon to be available a nearly inexhaustible source of information regarding diplomacy, Church-state relations, ecclesiastical politics, personal friendships and enmities, and a whole innumerable host of other areas of inquiry, all playing into and out of one another in that impossibly intricate and too often terribly wicked weave called history.