Why ‘Hitler’s Pope’ was really his most feared enemy

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Pope Pius XII is pictured at the Vatican in a file photo dated March 15, 1949. (CNS file photo)

It is “a symbolic act,” but once open, the Vatican archives on Pope Pius XII, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, “will confirm what we already know: about 967,000 Jews survived the Holocaust due to the help and initiatives of Pius XII and the Holy See,” according to German historian and author Michael Hesemann.


Hesemann’s comments were made in response to Pope Francis’ March 4 announcement that all Vatican archives regarding Pius XII’s pontificate will be opened for consultation by researchers on March 2, 2020, the 81st anniversary of Pius’ election. “The Church is not afraid of history,” Pope Francis said at the time of the announcement, which was made to managers and staff of the Vatican Secret Archives. “On the contrary, she loves it, and desires to love it more and better, as God loves it.” The documentation is expected to enlighten the crucial role played by Pius XII during World War II, related to the long-standing controversy on allegations about him not speaking out publicly against the Holocaust and the hidden work he did to help many victims of the Nazis.

The Vatican archivists had begun work in 2006 on the inventory and cataloging of the documentation of the archives surrounding the pontificate of Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli, which took 14 years. Hesemann’s latest book, which catalogues the results of 10 years of research in the Vatican archives, is titled: “The Pope and the Holocaust.”

Our Sunday Visitor: As an expert of the Vatican Archives and Pius XII, who you also fully researched along within them, why is the opening of these archives from the time of this pontificate significant?

Michael Hesemann: Because it is a symbolic act. The Vatican has nothing to hide, especially about this great and heroic pope, Pius XII.

OSV: Are all the documents of this pontificate held in the Vatican Archives still unpublished?

Hesemann: Pope Paul VI in 1964 already commissioned a team of four international historians to publish 5,500 of the most relevant documents on Pius XII, World War II and the Holocaust in a 11-volume edition, completed in 1981. Still, there were doubts. In 2010, we published several important documents proving that Cardinal Pacelli, as Vatican Secretary of State, in January 1939, requested visas for 200,000 Jews at a time when about 230,000 Jews still lived in Hitler’s Reich. Even the sceptical historians of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, were impressed and exchanged a formerly negative chart about Pius XII into a neutral one. Still, it concluded, “Until all relevant material is available to scholars, this topic will remain open to further inquiry.”

OSV: What do you think the impact of the opened archives will be on the canonization cause of Pius XII?

Hesemann: A German Church historian, Hubert Wolf, demanded to halt the beatification process until the archives are open. Well, very soon, in less than a year, the archives will be open — nobody has any more excuses!

OSV: Will there be haunting, troubling evidence of issues during that war-plagued period for Pius XII?

Hesemann: My first prediction is that whoever speculated about any negative “smoking gun,” “covered up by the Vatican,” will be disappointed. The documents will only confirm what we already know.

Pope Pius XII visits Vatican Radio in this undated photo. CNS photo via Vatican Radio

OSV: How would you summarize the story of Pius XII?

Hesemann: Pius XII was extremely careful to avoid any public condemnation of the Holocaust, since he knew that Hitler would only react with even more severe measures against both the Jews and the Catholic Church — the only institution still strong enough to help and save so many Jews. Pius XII did not want to buy the applause of the free world with the blood of even more innocent victims. There is no evidence for the claims of the critics. They never use any evidence. Their negative view on Pius XII is based on fake news, anti-Catholicism and a KGB defamation campaign: Rolf Hochhuth’s fictitious and slanderous play “The Deputy.”

OSV: What ought to be the response, then, to those who say Pius XII was “Hitler’s Pope?”

Hesemann: In reality, Pius XII was Hitler’s most dangerous and most feared enemy. Already in 1923, as nuncio in Munich witnessing Hitler’s rise, Pacelli informed the Holy See about the “anti-Catholic character of the Nazi movement.” A year later, in a memorandum to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Pius XI’s first secretary of state, he called Nazism “the most dangerous heresy of our times.” In 1939, U.S. diplomat A. Klieforth reported to the U.S. State Department: “He (Pacelli) regarded Hitler not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel, but as a fundamentally wicked person … not capable of moderation.” Between 1939 and 1944, Pope Pius XII collaborated with a group of German officers who conspired against Hitler and planned to assassinate him. He wanted nothing more than a Germany liberated from the evil of Hitler and Nazism.

OSV: What does your research show about Pius XII and the Jews?

Hesemann: Pius XII tried everything humanly possible in order to: first, to get rid of Hitler — including his collaboration with the German military resistance and its “Valkyrie” coup d’etat; second, evacuate as many Jews as possible — but unfortunately, no state was willing to grant more than 3,000 visas; third, stop or at least delay their deportations into the ghettoes and death camps in occupied Poland. We know of more than 40 diplomatic interventions on behalf of the Jews. Pius XII even sent his nuncio in Berlin to Hitler, unfortunately without success. But the wartime pope was successful in Hitler’s vassal states. In Vichy France, Slovakia and Croatia he managed several times to delay deportations, which gave Jews a chance to hide. In Hungary, a telegraph from Pius XII caused the head of state to end the deportations and even return a train full of Jews before it crossed the border of the Reich. In Romania and Bulgaria, the Jews were not delivered to the Nazis at all but remained in their countries. In Rome, a papal intervention — he sent the Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal to the German military commander — stopped the deportation of the Jews after a few hours. Instead of the planned and ordered 8,000, “only” 1,007 Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

About 4,500 Jews were hidden in 230 Roman monasteries and in the Vatican, after the pope organized 550 stamped and signed orders marking a building as “Vatican State Property” and prohibited any German soldier or SS man to enter it. Indeed, the order was followed and all the hidden Jews of Rome survived.

OSV: How many Jews do you think can thank Pius XII for being saved?

Hesemann: We can prove that altogether about 967,000 Jews survived the Holocaust due to the help and initiatives of Pius XII and the Holy See. This heroic pontiff put even the Vatican at great risk to save far more Jews than anyone else in this darkest hour of human history.

Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.

In his own words

The following is a portion of Pope Francis’ address to officials of the Vatican Secret Archives on March 4.

The figure of [Servant of God Pius XII], who found himself guiding the Barque of Peter at one of the saddest and darkest moments of the 20th century, agitated and lacerated by the last world war, with the consequent period of reorganization of the nations and post-war reconstruction, has already been investigated and studied in many aspects, sometimes discussed and even criticized (it could be said with some prejudice or exaggeration). Today he has been appropriately re-evaluated and indeed placed in the correct light for his many qualities: pastoral, above all, but also theological, ascetic, and diplomatic.

At the behest of Pope Benedict XVI, since 2006 you superiors and officials of the Vatican Secret Archive, as well as of the Historical Archives of the Holy See and of the Vatican City State, have been working on a common project for the cataloguing and preparation of the substantial documentation produced during the pontificate of Pius XII, part of which was already rendered consultable by my venerable predecessors St. Paul VI and St. John Paul II. …

This constant and significant effort, on your part and on that of your colleagues, enables me today … to announce my decision to open to researchers the archival documentation related to the pontificate of Pius XII, up to his death at Castel Gandolfo on 9 October 1958.

I have decided that the opening of the Vatican Archives for the Pontificate of Pius XII will take place on 2 March 2020, exactly one year after the 80th anniversary of the election to the See of Peter of Eugenio Pacelli.

I have assumed this decision after hearing the opinion of my closest collaborators, with a serene and confident mind, sure that serious and objective historical research will be able to evaluate, in the proper light and with appropriate criticism, the praiseworthy moments of the pontiff and, without any doubt, also moments of serious difficulties, of tormented decisions, of human and Christian prudence, which to some might have seemed to be reticence, and which instead were attempts, humanly also very hard-fought, to keep the flame of humanitarian initiatives lit during periods of more intense darkness and cruelty, of hidden but active diplomacy, of hope in possible good openings of hearts.