A new light will be cast on one of the most controversial periods in Vatican history on Monday when the archives on Pope Pius XII – accused by critics of being a Nazi sympathizer – will not be sealed.
A year after Pope Francis announced the move, saying that “the church is not afraid of history”, the documents of the papacy of Pius XII, which began in 1939 on the brink of World War II and ended in 1958, will be opened, initially in a small number of scholars.
Pius XII’s critics accused him of keeping silent during the Holocaust, without ever publicly condemning the persecution and genocide of Jews and others. His defenders claim to have quietly encouraged convents and other Catholic institutions to hide thousands of Jews and that public criticism of the Nazis would have risked the lives of priests and nuns.
“The opening of the archives is decisive for the contemporary history of the church and the world,” said Cardinal José Tolentino Calaça de Mendonça, archivist and librarian of the Vatican last week.
Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archive, said that scholars should express a “historical judgment”. He added: “The good [that Pius did] it was so great that it will make the few shadows pale. “Evaluating the millions of pages in the archives would take several years, he said.
Over 150 people have applied to access the archives, although only 60 can be hosted in offices simultaneously. Among the first to view the documents will be representatives of the Jewish community of Rome and scholars of Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
David Kertzer, an American expert on the relationship between the Catholic church and fascism, who will begin reviewing the newspapers this week, said there were “signs of nervousness” in the Vatican about what would emerge from the archives. The Vatican archives allegedly provided an “immense amount of fresh material from millions of pages,” he said Observer.
“On the big question, it’s clear: Pius XII never publicly criticized the Nazis for the mass murder they were committing against the Jews of Europe – and knew from the outset that a mass murder was taking place. Various clerics and others urged him to speak, and refused to do so.
“Although there are many testimonials showing that the church protected the Jews in Rome, when more than 1,000 were gathered on October 16, 1943 and kept for two days adjacent to the Vatican [before deportation to the death camps]Pio decided not to publicly protest or even to send an appeal to Hitler privately not to send them to death in Auschwitz. Hopefully what we will find from these archives is why he did what he did and what discussions took place behind the Vatican walls. “
Mary Vincent, professor of modern European history at Sheffield University, said that many criticisms of Pius Xll lacked nuance. “He was an attentive, austere and unpleasant man who tried to guide a path through almost impossible circumstances. He had a clear vision of what he considered the threat of Soviet communism and his vision of Italian fascism was somewhat softer. But classifying it as good or bad isn’t useful: it’s about the decisions he made and the space he had to make those decisions. “
Pius – whose birth name was Eugenio Pacelli – was Vatican secretary of state under his predecessor, Pope Pius XI, and a former papal nuncio, or envoy, to Germany. In 1933, he negotiated a concordat between the Catholic church and Germany. After being elected pope, six months before the outbreak of the war, the Vatican maintained diplomatic relations with the Third Reich and the new pontiff refused to condemn the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.
In December 1942, Pius XII spoke in general terms of the suffering of the Jews, although he had known for several months about the Nazi extermination plans. In 1943 he wrote to the bishop of Berlin, claiming that the church could not publicly condemn the Holocaust for fear of causing “greater evils”.
Hitler Pope, a controversial biography of Pius XII by British author John Cornwell, published in 1999, stated that the pope was an anti-Semite who “was not taken out of moral outrage at the plight of the Jews.” He was also narcissistic and determined to protect and advance the power of the papacy, the book claimed. Pius XII was “the ideal pope for Hitler’s unspeakable plan. He was Hitler’s pledge. He was Hitler’s pope”.
Cornwell’s claims have been contested by some scholars and authors. He later admitted that Pius XII had “a field of action so small that it is impossible to judge the reasons for his silence during the war”, although the pontiff never explained his position.
In 2012, Yad Vashem changed the text of an exhibition on the papacy of Pius XII, from “did not intervene” to “did not publicly protest”. The new text acknowledged several assessments of the pope’s position and Yad Vashem said he “looks[ed] waiting for the day when the Vatican archives will be open to researchers so that we can arrive at a clearer understanding of the events “.
Pope Benedict, Francis’ predecessor, in 2009 declared that Pius XII had lived a life of “heroic” Christian virtue, a step towards possible holiness. But in 2014 Francis said that no miracle – a prerequisite for beatification, the last step towards canonization – had been identified. “If there are no miracles, he cannot go on. He is stuck there,” said Francis after visiting Yad Vashem. Last year, Francis said that Pius XII had led the church during one of the “saddest and darkest periods of the 20th century”. He added that he is confident that “serious and objective historical research will allow for evaluation [of Pius] in the correct light “, including” appropriate criticism “.