Vatican opens archives to discover why Pope Pius XII stayed silent on Nazis’ extermination of Jews

Historians will today begin combing the archives of the world’s most contentious pope, hoping to discover why Pius XII stayed silent during the Holocaust.

More than 200 researchers applied for permission to settle in one of the small studies of the Vatican Apostolic Archives to begin poring over millions of letters and documents the Vatican kept under lock and key.

The historic moment was preceded by decades of controversy and debate about why the pontiff, who headed the Catholic Church from 1939 until his death in 1958, never spoke out about the slaughter of six millions Jews in Nazi concentration camps across Europe.

‘The Church is not afraid of history,’ Pope Francis declared when he chose to open one the Vatican’s most painful moments up for world scrutiny a year ago.

Historians will today begin combing the archives of the world's most contentious pope, hoping to discover why Pius XII (pictured in September 1945) stayed silent during the Holocaust

Historians will today begin combing the archives of the world's most contentious pope, hoping to discover why Pius XII (pictured in September 1945) stayed silent during the Holocaust

Historians will today begin combing the archives of the world’s most contentious pope, hoping to discover why Pius XII (pictured in September 1945) stayed silent during the Holocaust

The pontiff, who headed the Catholic Church from 1939 until his death in 1958, has been criticised for not speaking out about the slaughter of six millions Jews in Nazi concentration camps across Europe

The pontiff, who headed the Catholic Church from 1939 until his death in 1958, has been criticised for not speaking out about the slaughter of six millions Jews in Nazi concentration camps across Europe

The pontiff, who headed the Catholic Church from 1939 until his death in 1958, has been criticised for not speaking out about the slaughter of six millions Jews in Nazi concentration camps across Europe

‘For millions of people, Catholic and Jewish, these archives are of enormous humanitarian interest,’ Suzanne Brown-Fleming, international programmes director at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, told AFP.

The Vatican first published the essentials covering the Holocaust four decades ago, an 11-volume work compiled by four Jesuits priests.

But some crucial pieces are still missing, such as the pope’s replies to notes and letters – including those about the Nazi horrors.

The unsealed archives additionally cover a post-World War II era in which writers were censored and some priests hounded for suspected communist sympathies.

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII's reticence, which some view as unforgivable

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII's reticence, which some view as unforgivable

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII’s reticence, which some view as unforgivable

Pictured: The minutes of Pius XII's speech to RAI employees with autograph corrections from December 1944

Pictured: The minutes of Pius XII's speech to RAI employees with autograph corrections from December 1944

Pictured: The minutes of Pius XII’s speech to RAI employees with autograph corrections from December 1944

The Vatican first published the essentials covering the Holocaust four decades ago, an 11-volume work compiled by four Jesuits priests

The Vatican first published the essentials covering the Holocaust four decades ago, an 11-volume work compiled by four Jesuits priests

The Vatican first published the essentials covering the Holocaust four decades ago, an 11-volume work compiled by four Jesuits priests

German researcher Sascha Hinkel was one of those to have gained access to the trove through the summer months.

‘This is a great opportunity,’ said Hinkel, who is one of the researchers assisting the religious history scholar Hubert Wolf, an expert on Pius XII and the Nazis.

Hinkel thinks it will take researchers about five years to answer the main questions, although the entire mountain of documents available for the first time ‘will occupy historians for at least 20 years’.

The Vatican’s focus on transparency was symbolised a few days ago by the presence of reporters’ cameras in the bunker of the central archive – officially known as the ‘secret archive’ until as recently as last year.

The 50-miles web of dusty shelves includes a section dedicated to Pius XII, protected behind locked metal gates.

Pictured: A satirical cartoon from archives on Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939-1958, depitcting Cardinal Pacelli hugging a woman

Pictured: A satirical cartoon from archives on Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939-1958, depitcting Cardinal Pacelli hugging a woman

Pictured: A satirical cartoon from archives on Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939-1958, depitcting Cardinal Pacelli hugging a woman

Pictured: Inside the VaticanApostolic Library during the opening of the archive of Pope Pius XII

Pictured: Inside the VaticanApostolic Library during the opening of the archive of Pope Pius XII

Pictured: Inside the VaticanApostolic Library during the opening of the archive of Pope Pius XII

The Vatican Apostolic Library opened the Holy Sees wartime archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII between the years 1939 to 1958 on March 2

The Vatican Apostolic Library opened the Holy Sees wartime archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII between the years 1939 to 1958 on March 2

The Vatican Apostolic Library opened the Holy Sees wartime archives on the pontificate of Pope Pius XII between the years 1939 to 1958 on March 2

On this occasion, Archbishop Sargio Pagano, the central archives’ manager, took out some tattered leaflets.

They were drawings and letters from German children thanking the pope for sending them first communion gifts in 1948.

Kept confined to the Vatican by the Nazis and then Italian Fascists, Pius XII was a German-speaking Italian aristocrat who witnessed Hitler’s rise while posted as the Holy See’s ambassador in Germany for 12 years.

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII’s reticence, which some view as unforgivable.

A list of those shot during the Fosse Ardeatine massacre seen in the archive of Pope Pius XII

A list of those shot during the Fosse Ardeatine massacre seen in the archive of Pope Pius XII

A list of those shot during the Fosse Ardeatine massacre seen in the archive of Pope Pius XII

The unsealed archives cover a post-World War II era in which writers were censored and some priests hounded for suspected communist sympathies

The unsealed archives cover a post-World War II era in which writers were censored and some priests hounded for suspected communist sympathies

The unsealed archives cover a post-World War II era in which writers were censored and some priests hounded for suspected communist sympathies 

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII's reticence, which some view as unforgivable

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII's reticence, which some view as unforgivable

The archives will give historians a chance to better understand Pius XII’s reticence, which some view as unforgivable

Others note that the Church still saved around 4,000 Jews from certain death by hiding them in its Roman institutions – and that he had to stay neutral to better shield Catholics from the unfolding devastation.

Will these documents finally settle the debate? Historians are less than certain.

Pius XII ‘never raised his voice and I doubt that these documents will contradict this,’ said Italian historian Anna Foa, characterising his style as ‘very diplomatic and traditional’.

‘During the war, he thought his duty was to save lives but not to condemn ideologies,’ said Foa.

‘Pius XII was a product of his time. He was not particularly anti-Jewish, but he refused to disavow the anti-Jewish history of the Church.’

While opening the archives, the Vatican also appears to be shutting down talk of Pius XII’s beatification – a first step toward canonisation backed by the German-born Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

The idea triggered an outcry from Jewish groups.

WHO WAS POPE PIUS XII?

An undated photograph of Pope Pius XII

An undated photograph of Pope Pius XII

An undated photograph of Pope Pius XII

Pius XII had a long, tumultuous, and controversial pontificate between 1939 and his death in 1958. 

During his reign as pope, he was faced with World War II, the persecution of Jew at the hands of the Nazis, fascist, and Soviet regimes, the horror of the Holocaust and the threat of communism and the Cold War. 

During World War II, Pius XII called for peace from the leaders of Europe and used his diplomatic training to try to avoid war. 

The Vatican observed strict impartiality during World War II just as it had done in World War I. This did not prevent Pius XII from trying to keep Mussolini’s Italy out of the war or from warning the Allies of the imminent invasion of the Low Countries in 1940.

Pius XII was the first pope to use radio to broadcast messages of peace and to condemn the evils of modern warfare. Although expressing sympathy for the innocent victims, he did not condemn the Nazis outright.

Deemed a ‘saint of God’ by his admirers, he was criticized by others for his alleged ‘public silence’ in the face of genocide.

He also faced criticism for his apparently contradictory policies of impartiality during World War II but anticommunism views following the war.

Some Jews have long accused Pius 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. 

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