A few days ago, the Vatican newspaper, the Observatore Romano, announced that the Vatican archives of the period of the Second World War will be released within five years. This is welcome news for historians and people of good will. Jewish organizations have asked for the release of the archives because there is considerable controversy over the role of Pope Pius XII regarding his lack of clear condemnation of the Final Solution as proclaimed at the Wannsee Conference.
Last month, at the Graduate Center, I attended a conference and remembrance of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. There was an Italian documentary regarding the treatment of Jews in Italy and occupied parts of Europe during the tragic period of the Shoah. The Chief Rabbi of Rome and Signor Pacifico, the spokesperson of Italian Jewry, attended. Signor Pacifico felt the Pope could have given moral support and comfort to the victims of the Nazis if he spoke out explicitly and forcefully and not in the obscure terms that he used to describe the horror.
It is important to understand Pope Pius was an aristocratic diplomat who did not have the charisma of a pastoral leader. A Jewish friend of mine believes he was anti-Semitic and was not unhappy with the outcome the Nazis had envisioned for the Jews of the world. Controversy and debate is important regarding Pope Pius XII and will always be part of our history. All wartime leaders share this fate.
Pope Pius XII, a devoted admirer of the German culture and people, was clearly not a Nazi supporter. Before his elevation to the Papacy, he had a treaty signed between the Nazis and the Vatican that was always subject to abuse by the Nazi regime because the church demanded their rights through the treaty to have some formation of education of catholic youth. Nazi ideology wanted complete control of the formation of thought in Germany. Pope Pius elevated Bishop Von Galen to the Red Hat or to be a cardinal after the Second World War. This was one of his first acts after the war. Cardinal Von Galen was a forceful foe to the Nazis. He was one of the inspirations for the White Rose student protest movement in Germany. German resistance counseled the Vatican not to speak too forcefully against the Nazis. In Holland the denunciation of the deportation of Jews by Dutch bishops proved A FUTILE GESTURE. Many believed working secretly would save more lives. Only six percent of Italian Jews perished mainly because of church intervention and subterfuge.
Pope Giovanni XII also helped save many Bulgarian Jews.
Vatican policy was to remain as neutral as possible in order to perform as a mediator for peace talks if that was possible. Pope Benedict XV, the Pope during the First World War, called that war the suicide of Europe. He called all world leaders to use the auspices of the Vatican as a mediator at a peace conference. All the belligerents refused, believing the Vatican was not neutral. It is also not clear that world leaders take the Pope’s statements regarding peace and genocide seriously. Did George W. Bush listen to the protests of Pope John Paul II regarding Iraq? Would Hitler have listened?
Signor Pacifico, at the conference, did not know if the Pope would have saved any more lives with a forceful statement of protest. It is clear that behind the Vatican walls many were saved. Many had political beliefs the Pope would not have shared.
We will and must debate those tragic times but at the same time history is always complex and does not conform to easy categorization. The Jewish Virtual Library, a division of The American Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, has an interesting article regarding Pope Pius XII. I urge all to read the posting.