Pius XII: History judges Hitler’s pope – Ofer Aderet

Pius XII

Ofer AderetGerman researchers found documents in the Vatican Archives that indicate that Pius XII had received detailed information on the mass murder of Jews as far back as 1942. – Ofer Aderet

Pope Pius XII received real-time reports of the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust but his associates expressed doubts about the information, in part out of anti-Semitic motives, according to an initial examination of newly released documents from the Vatican archives.

The files were opened to researchers in March but again became off-limits due to the coronavirus pandemic in Italy.

German historians who managed to examine a number of documents in the massive archives published their initial findings last week in the German weekly Die Zeit. The researchers conclude that the Catholic Church knew about the Holocaust well before it had admitted knowledge of it, and that it appears that the Church deliberately concealed documents that might further tarnish the Church’s reputation regarding its conduct during the Holocaust.

Pius XII, whose original name was Eugenio Pacelli, had served as the secretary of state of the Church before becoming pope in 1939. In the years that followed, during World War II, he chose to remain silent about the Nazi war crimes. His critics called him “Hitler’s pope” as a result and accused him of looking first and foremost after the Church’s interests rather than the fate of the Jews.

Supporters of the pope have claimed, however, that his silence was out of fear of Nazi retribution if he condemned the persecution of the Jews. Pope Pius XII worked to help save many Jews, his supporters have said, but he did so behind the scenes rather than publicly.

A group of German historians headed by Professor Hubert Wolf, an expert on the Catholic Church from the University of Munster, examined a number of documents, from the Vatican Archives over a period of a week in early March of this year.

The papers represent just a fraction of the millions of pages of information that the archive has made public on instructions from the current pope, Pope Francis. The researchers found documents that indicate that Pius XII had received detailed information on the mass murder of Jews as far back as 1942.

One document cited in the article in Die Zeit is a letter from the United States that was sent to the Vatican on September 27, 1942 that includes a detailed account of the large-scale killing of Jews across Nazi-occupied Poland.

The report had been sent a month earlier from the Geneva office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine to its office in the United States. It was passed along to the Vatican by Myron Charles Taylor, President Franklin Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the pope. The German historians found proof that Pius XII read the report on the day on which is was received.

The report spoke of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto being at its height, and stated that all of the Jews, regardless of age or gender, were being rounded up, taken out of the ghetto and shot.

Mass extermination, the report said, was not being carried out in Warsaw, but rather in camps that had been especially established for that purpose.

The report specifically mentioned the murder of about 50,000 in Lvov (today’s western Ukraine, then in Poland) and that according to another account, 100,000 had been killed in Warsaw. It chillingly added that in all of eastern Poland, including areas occupied by the Russians, there remained no Jews alive.

Pope Pius XII would also have learned from the report that Jews from Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Slovakia had been transported to Eastern Europe, where they were slaughtered. The Germans had also managed to incite Polish Catholics against the Jews in their country, the report stated. This allegation is particularly significant in light of research indicating the considerable involvement of Poles in assisting the Germans in the persecution of Jews.

Taylor—Roosevelt’s envoy—asked the Vatican to clarify whether it had information that could corroborate the information in the report. Taylor asked that, if in fact the information could be confirmed, the Holy See take action to enlist public opinion and mobilize the civilized world to put a halt to the killings.

The new research indicates that after the pope read the letter and the report, Vatican Secretary of State Luigi Maglione wrote: “I don’t believe we have information that confirms this serious news in detail. Correct?” Other documents show, however, that at the time, the Vatican did have sufficient information to confirm and expand on the report from the Americans, but that out of anti-Semitic and political motivations, Vatican officials chose to minimize and discount their value.

On September 18, nine days before the report was received from the United States, the Vatican received a report of similar seriousness from another source. An Italian businessman who had visited Poland reported to Pius XII’s assistant, Giovanni Battista Montini, who was later to become Pope Paul VI, of slaughter of “shocking” proportions day after day and of the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos in Poland.

Additional information from within the Church itself had been received even before the businessman’s account. As has been published in the past, in August 1942 Ukrainian Archbishop Andrzej Szeptycki informed the Vatican about atrocities that he had witnessed in the Lvov ghetto.

Pope Pius XII was not quick to respond to the American request from Taylor for information confirming the Jewish Agency report. After failing to provide an answer, the Vatican received another request from the Americans on October 1, 1942.

Following that, in internal correspondence, Cardinal Montini wrote that the Americans should be told that the Holy See “had heard about the harsh treatment of the Jews,” but had no way of assessing the accuracy of the information. A letter to that effect was sent by the Vatican to the United States on October 10, 1942.

In an effort to understand what lay behind Pius XII’s approach to the issue, the historians cite an internal memorandum from a papal adviser, Angelo Dell’Acqua, that casts doubt on the authenticity of information from the Jewish Agency about the extermination of the Jews of Poland. The information needs “to be verified,” the memo states, “because the Jews also tend to easily exaggerate.”

In other words, a secretary to the pope was claiming that, due to the Jews’ nature, the report of mass murder might be an exaggeration. Dell’Acqua also cast doubt on the report of the archbishop from Lvov, writing that eastern Catholics were not “an example of reliability.”

Dell’Acqua also expressed concern that the American request for confirmation of the Jewish Agency report was issued out of “political” motives—to arrive at a public understanding between the Holy See and the United States on “the Jewish question.”

Dell’Acqua warned that such a step might endanger not only the Vatican but also the well-being of the Jews themselves, adding that targeted, sporadic efforts on the part of priests, such as a protest by French bishops over the expulsion of the Jews, would suffice.

Two months later, in December 1942, the United States received reliable information about mass killings from the London-based Polish government in exile. Following that, on December 17, the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain issued a joint statement condemning the Germans’ extermination of the Jews.

Pope Pius XII’s was not a party to the statement. Instead, in a Christmas message, he made note of the hundreds of thousands of people who had been sent to their deaths due to their national identities or their backgrounds, but never explicitly used the word “Jews.”

The newly disclosed documentation is just one piece in a larger puzzle most of which still remains to be solved. The Holy See did not issue even a single statement in condemnation of the expulsion of Jews to extermination camps, but in 1944, the pope sent a cable to the ruler of Hungary asking to put a halt to the expulsion of Hungarian Jews.

The pope’s envoy in Hungary, Angelo Rota, was recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust remembrance authority as a righteous gentile during the Holocaust, but historians should now be able to verify the extent of the pope’s involvement in Rota’s work.

They can also verify whether priests who—in France and the Netherlands, for example—publicly condemned the persecution of the Jews were acting of the own initiative or on confidential orders from the pope.

Over the years, the Vatican has defended Pius XII’s conduct, claiming that he worked to better the situation of the Jews. In 1999, the Vatican agreed to appoint a joint Catholic and Jewish team of historians to examine Pius XII’s conduct with regard to the Jews during the Holocaust. For that purpose, the Vatican made a variety of documentation available, but not the entire contents of the archive.

In an initial report published in 2000, the research team stated that Pius XII had received detailed and ongoing accounts of the persecution of Jews in countries under Nazi occupation, and that he was aware of the Nazis’ mass expulsions and atrocities.

But the team also stated that based on the information at its disposal, it was not clear whether Pius XII or other senior Vatican officials knew that these acts were part of a plan for the “Final Solution,” the extermination of the Jews.

The team halted its activities in 2001, after what was described as a lack of readiness on the Vatican’s part to provide the relevant documents from the archives. A year ago, Pope Francis announced that the Vatican Archives would be opened and in March of this year, the complex research process began, until it was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. – Haaretz, 30 April 2020

Ofer Aderet is the history correspondent for Haaretz in Israel.

Prisoners in Auschwitz


2 Responses

  1. Hitler and the Catholic Church

    ‘We were complicit in Nazi crimes’, German branch of the Catholic Church admits in ‘confession of guilt’- Chris Dyer – MailOnline – 1 May 2020 – London

    The Catholic Church in Germany has admitted making itself ‘complicit in the war’ by not opposing the Nazi regime, a new report reveals.

    For decades the Catholic Church has been accused of staying silent over the crimes of the Nazis and even acting to ‘bolster’ the Third Reich.

    In response, the Church has long defended World War II’s Pope Pius XII and avoided saying the ecclesiastical institutions failed.

    But a new report from the council of Catholic bishops in Germany describes how bishops ‘made themselves complicit in the war’ by not clearly opposing Adolf Hitler.

    It also says that bishops did not share the Fuhrer’s racial ideology, but they still helped support ‘both soldiers and the regime’.

    The report into the role of bishops between 1939 and 1945 states hundreds of priests accompanied the Wehrmacht on the front-lines to offer spiritual guidance, according to The Times.

    It also says thousands of Church properties were converted into military hospitals, and tens of thousands of nuns carried out their ‘duty to the fatherland’ by working as nurses.

    The 23-page document does not address the period before the Second World War and Hitler’s rise to power when he was appointed chancellor in January 1933.

    It states: ‘Inasmuch as the bishops did not oppose the war with a clear ”no”, and most of them bolstered the [German nation’s] will to endure, they made themselves complicit in the war.

    ‘The bishops may not have shared the Nazis’ justification for the war on the grounds of racial ideology, but their words and their images gave succour both to soldiers and the regime prosecuting the war, as they lent the war an additional sense of purpose.’

    Some Jewish groups and historians have said Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, did not denounce Hitler during the Holocaust and did not do enough to save lives.

    He has been accused of doing little to help those facing persecution by Nazi Germany and failing to speak out forcefully against the Holocaust, in which around six million Jews were killed.

    His defenders at the Vatican and beyond say he used quiet diplomacy and encouraged convents and other religious institutes to hide Jews.

    On March 2 the Vatican opened up its archives on the wartime pontiff to allow scholars to probe the accusations he turned a blind eye.

    When Pope Francis announced the opening of the archives last year, he said the Church was ‘not afraid of history’.

    But this new report, released days before the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, was described by one prelate as a ‘confession of guilt’.

    It states that when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, bishops were ‘faced with the question of how they would conduct themselves in the war’, with all but one calling for their followers to do their patriotic duty.

    Monsignor Cesare Orsenigo, the Vatican ambassador to Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, ‘was frankly jubilant’ over his election, according to some historians.

    Orsenigo said Hitler saw Christianity as essential to private life and the German state and saw the co-operation of the Nazis as essential for the German Church to defeat Bolshevism, which had persecuted the religion in Russia.

    On July 20, 1933, the Vatican signed an agreement with Nazi Germany that set the parameters of the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the newly formed government.

    The Concordat was Hitler’s first international agreement and it vastly enhanced his respectability in Germany and around the world.

    The new report argues many were motivated by nationalism and anti-communist sentiment and sought to preserve the Church by avoiding a confrontation with the state.

    Right Rev Heiner Wilmer, bishop of Hildesheim and head of the conference’s foreign affairs committee, said: ‘For all its ”inner distance” from Nazism and its sometimes open opposition, the Catholic church in Germany was part of a society at war.

    ‘Even if we can perceive that the bishops’ perspective on events shifted over the course of the war, they did not pay enough attention to the suffering of others.’

    Three months after VE Day, the bishops issued a statement acknowledging that ‘many Germans, including from our ranks, let themselves be beguiled by the false lessons of Nazism’.

    But the Church also denounced the Nuremberg trials against leading Nazis in 1946 as an un-Christian act of revenge.

    And on Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939, churches flew swastika flags and prayed for the ‘Fosterer and Protector of the Reich’.

    Pope Benedict XVI, who himself served in the Hitler Youth as a boy in Nazi Germany and is a defender of Pope Pius, accelerated the process to open the archives ahead of schedule so that researchers could have their say.

    But he also moved Pius one step closer to possible sainthood in December 2009, when he confirmed that Pius lived a life of ‘heroic’ Christian virtue. All that is needed now is for the Vatican to determine a ‘miracle’ occurred.

    Pope Francis said in 2014 that the miracle had not been identified, suggesting that the process would remain on hold, at least for now.

    Father Norbert Hofmann, the top Vatican official in charge of religious relations with Jews, said in March: ‘I don’t think you will find a smoking gun. Pius XII was a diplomat and he was a very shy character and a very, very cautious man.’

    Officials warned that the process of studying the millions of pages of documents from six different archives will be measured in years, not days, weeks or months, and will require patience.

    The documentation includes the archives from the Pius secretariat of state – the main organ of church governance, which includes the Vatican´s foreign relations with other countries – as well as those of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, and the Vatican office responsible for mission territories.

    The CDF documents, for example, include case files of priests disciplined for pro-Nazi political activity, said Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Giménez, archivist at the doctrine office.

    Studying of the papal documents was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak when Italy went into lockdown on February 21.


  2. It is this pope who accepted the St. Thomas in India tale as told to him by Indian Christians and elevated San Thome Cathedral to a Minor Basilica and place of international pilgrimage.

    There are hundreds of Minor Basilicas in the world, at least three of them in India (San Thome in Chennai, Bom Jesus in Goa, and Our Lady of Good Health in Velankanni),and the title has little importance or special favours attached except to give the local bishop his own private altar to say Mass on.


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