What the Pope’s Notes Might Say

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German paratroopers in front of St. Peter’s Basilica during the German occupation of Rome, September 1943-June 1944. (Yale Univesity Press; B Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R24391)

An interview with renowned Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum on plans to open the files Of World War II-era Pope Pius XII


News that Pope Francis plans to open the Vatican archives on Word War II-era Pope Pius XII has piqued the attention of scholars of the period, who hope that access to documents long kept under wraps could shed light on long-unanswered questions on the pontiff who has been criticized by many for his public silence over the Holocaust.

The present pope announced the news with confidence that any new information that would come to the fore after the files are opened would only serve to exonerate Pius, the 20th century’s most controversial pope. Yet, Holocaust researchers have long been cynical about what hidden Vatican papers from the time would reveal about Pius’ hesitancy to condemn Nazi atrocities more directly, and whether there was more he could have done to save the lives of Jews and others marked for death by Hitler’s Germany.

Hamodia spoke with noted Holocaust renowned historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum about what questions he felt could be answered by the soon-to-be-revealed documents.

“The first questions are, what did they know and when did they know it?” he said. “The Vatican had the greatest intelligence network in the world. They had priests, bishops, papal Nunicos, and other officials in every country. What kind of information was being reported to the Pope and how did it affect his decisions?”

Priests traveled with the German military, including SS units, and many should have had firsthand information about atrocities. Dr. Berenbaum added that many priests heard confessions from Nazi soldiers, and while not allowed to reveal information about individuals, some presumably relayed general information to their superiors, which eventually made its way to Rome.

As in all international wars, the Church maintained a policy of neutrality through World War II, though Pius was personally accused by German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop as early as 1940 of siding with the Allies. According to news articles at the time, the pope responded by defending his sympathies by listing several Nazi atrocities against Jews and Christians in Germany and Poland.

Despite Vatican City’s independent status, it is highly likely that its location in the middle of what was then Fascist Italy, and later German occupation, limited Pius’ ability to act independently.

Even so, Pius has been repeatedly faulted for failing to use his international religious authority to call out the mass crimes that were being committed by the Nazis and their allies around Europe. That fact, that he had deep connections to Germany from the years he had spent there as a papal representative in the 1920s has been an additional cause for suspicion by some scholars.

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Pope Pius XII

Dr. Berenbaum said that being able to see documents from the time could shed light on the motivation for the pope’s approach.

“One can assume that his main motivation was to protect the church as an institution,” he said. “That still would not exonerate him though, because sometimes a leader has to think about the moral record of the institutions he’s defending. Sometimes you have to open up your institution to some uncomfortable risks to truly defend it. I don’t think that he woke up in the morning and asked ‘how can I get the Jews,’ but I could be surprised.”

Even though we know most of the major decisions that Pius made during the war years, learning more about the context in which they were made, Dr. Berenbaum said, could be revealing.

“What was he hearing from German bishops as opposed to from Polish and American ones? Despite his spiritual status, like the head of any large enterprise, he had different players trying to pull him in different directions. Were there letters demanding that he speak out? Were there threats to the church? What did he ask his own officials to find out about what was going on in Nazi Europe?” he said. “Seeing what else was on the Pope’s desk when he made decisions could go a long way in understanding why he did what he did.”

One specific instance that Dr. Berenbaum said could be revealing was any response that the Vatican had to a German Bishop Clemens August Graf von Galen, who was a vocal critic of Nazi euthanasia programs and other inhumane polices. Whether the Pope acknowledged von Galen’s efforts positively or not would be one of many points to study.

The issue is only one of many instances of what Dr. Berenbaum said was a wider trend of individual Catholic parishes and clerics doing more to help Nazism’s victims than the Vatican itself.

“It raises an important question of why was this the case and were these actions being done with or without the Pope’s support,” he said.

Another criticism of Pius extends into the postwar era, as he has been faulted for inaction in returning Jewish children who had been hidden from the Nazis in church institutions or with Catholic families.

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Italian Jews at forced labor at a lumber mill in Gorizia, Italy, September 1942. (USHMM, courtesy of Marcello Morpurgo)

“Rabbi [Isaac] Herzog, who was then Chief Rabbi of Palestine, met with him about the children and after the meeting, he immediately asked to be taken to the mikveh, which reveals an awful lot about what he thought of Pius,” said Dr. Berenbaum. “We know that the Pope did nothing about that issue, but it would be interesting to see what his minutes from that meeting say.”

Dr. Berenbaum was confident that the Vatican would release all relevant documents in their original form, saying that historians would eventually catch any omissions or tampering through cross-references and other overlapping material. As such, church officials likely know that any attempt to mar or distort research would end in “humiliation.”

Despite Pope Francis’ assurances that the documents will show historical criticism of Pius to be the result of “some prejudice or exaggeration,” Dr. Berenbaum was skeptical that new findings would place the wartime pope in a better light.

“They have already given scholars limited access to all the exonerating information,” he said. “If they had exculpatory material that would have made him look better, it’s hard to believe the Vatican wouldn’t have released it a long time ago.”