Historians have been lining up outside the Vatican for a first look at documents relating to the controversial pontificate of Pope Pius XII which have been released from its archives.
Researchers and scholars are hoping that the records, which have never been made public before, will shed light on why Pius XII, who led the Catholic Church between 1939 and 1958, failed to speak out against the Holocaust.
Critics have long said that the German-speaking Italian aristocrat chose not to act despite being aware that the Nazis had launched a genocidal campaign against the Jews. Yet the Vatican has always maintained that Pius, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, worked quietly behind the scenes to save lives.
A year ago, Pope Francis gave approval to open the Vatican’s archive, declaring: “The church is not afraid of history.”
The move, which many Jewish groups have long campaigned for, was announced by Francis in a speech to members of the Vatican Secret Archive in March 2019.
At the time, he said Pius had to lead the Church during one of the “saddest and darkest periods of the 20th century”, adding that he was confident that “serious and objective historical research will allow the evaluation [of Pius] in the correct light”, including “appropriate criticism”.
More than 200 researchers have applied for permission to pore over the millions of letters and documents in one of the small studies of the Vatican Apostolic Archives, according to the news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Controversy and debate have raged for decades over why the Pope, who presided over the Church until his death in 1958, never spoke about the Nazi genocide.
Pius XII, as Cardinal Pacelli, witnessed Hitler’s rise while posted as the Holy See’s ambassador in Germany for 12 years. During the war he was confined to the Vatican by the Nazis and later the Italian Fascists.
Those who have been granted access include researchers from Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC.
German historian Hubert Wolf, who is an expert on Pius XII, will also be studying the documents closely. Sascha Hinkel, who will be assisting Professor Wolf, described this as a “great opportunity”.
In an interview with AFP, he said that he thought the long-awaited documents would “occupy historians for at least 20 years”.
Sara J Bloomfield, director of the Washington Holocaust museum, said: “Since the end of World War II, scholars, Holocaust survivors and others have asked important questions about the role of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.
“It is long overdue for speculation to be replaced by rigorous scholarship, which is only possible once scholars have full access to all of these records. This is important for the sake of historical truth, but there is moral urgency too: we owe this to the survivor generation, which is rapidly diminishing.”
Archbishop Paul Gallagher, the Holy See’s secretary for relations with states, said the archives would offer “as never before, a comprehensive understanding of what was going on, the type of person he was, the type of policies that Pius XII was issuing in those very terrible years, especially during the Second World War, and of the period immediately afterwards”.
Gallagher says there are about two million documents, many of which are available in digital format, that cover everything from the actions of the Holy See during the Second World War to the humanitarian work of the church.
Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society based at St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Raymund Flandez, communications officer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (firstname.lastname@example.org)
World Holocaust Remembrance Centre Yad Vashem press office (email@example.com)