FORUM: Vatican Archives Expert: On Pius XII Claims, ‘Trust, But Verify!’

Reaction Against ‘Fakenews’ on Wartime Pontiff in Times of the Coronavirus

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By Dr. Michael Hesemann, Historian. Dr. Hesemann, the German representative of the Pave the Way Foundation, teaches Church History at the Gustav-Siewerth Academy in Bierbronnen/Germany. Since 2008, he has researched in the Vatican Archives. He was one of 25 international experts who studied the newly-opened files on Pius XII. He also is author of ‘My Brother: the Pope’, with Georg Ratzinger.


“I fear a man who has just read one book”, St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote. “And I fear a man who has just read one document”, Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican’s Apostolic Archives (formerly: Secret Archives), stated on a press conference in late February 2020, just before the opening of the files from the pontificate of Pope Pius XII on 2 March. Now a German historian claims he found the one document that can prove the Vatican’s cover up of the wartime’s Pope’s knowledge about the holocaust. With this discovery he hopes to stop the ongoing beatification process of Pius XII – at least until he and his team evaluated the last of the 15 Million pages Pope Francis made available for historical research.

Hubert Wolf is a Catholic priest and professor of Church history at the University of Muenster in Germany, known for his liberal positions. In his books, he argued against the celibacy and in favor of the ordination of women. He promoted the conspiracy theories of the American historian David Kertzer who claimed that Pius XII, before he became Pope, covered up the last encyclical of Pope Pius XI, “The Unity of the human race”, on order of the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. In reality, the encyclical was never completed. A first draft, prepared by four Jesuits for the Pope, did not find his approval and was returned to the authors in January 1939. When Pius XI died the following month, his Camerlengo Eugenio Pacelli had no way to confiscate it, just because it had already left the Papal desk a month before. The draft remained at the Jesuit’s archives until it was eventually published.

Still, Wolf was one of 25 international historians who were the first to get access to the Vatican files on Pius XII, and so was the author of these lines. As all of us, he originally planned to stay in Rome for several weeks, but had only access for five days, since the Archives closed on March 6 due to the Coronavirus crisis in Italy. Although his research project was prematurely interrupted, he did not hesitate to make big claims afterwards.

The single piece of evidence he presented in the liberal German media last Thursday was an “Appunto”, an internal note written by a low-ranking Monsignore (“Minutante”) working for the Secretariat of State who was asked by his superiors to search in the files to answer a request of US President Franklin Roosevelt. On 27 September 1942, Roosevelt’s personal envoy, Myron Taylor, was sent to Pius XII with a report by the “Jewish Agency for Palestine”, the first which ever mentioned the death camps of the Nazis. The Americans were not sure if they should believe its claims and wanted to know if the usually well-informed Vatican was able to confirm it. After a careful investigation, Cardinal Secretary of State Maglione replied to the Americans that the Vatican knew about the atrocities of the Nazis but was not able to confirm what the new report claims (the existence of death camps). This was, as we know today, the truth. The Vatican was informed about massacres and mass executions of Jews in the German occupied Ukraine since the summer of 1941 (and confirmed by a Papal agent sent there in person four month later), but the existence of death camps was only confirmed in 1944. An Italian businessman, Count Malvezzi, who had visited Poland in the summer of 1942, knew only of the massacres and even the Ambassador of the Poles in Exile, Papée, mentioned just an anonymous “statement of a citizen of the axis-powers who had visited these places (the death camps)”, but was not able to verify it. All this is nothing new and was known among historians since the 1980 ies. In my book “The Pope and the Holocaust” (2018), I describe it on five pages.

Unknown was only Wolf’s “big evidence”, the note by Msgr. Dell’Acqua warns not to draw premature conclusions on the new information: „It is necessary to assure that they are true, since exaggerations happen easily, also among Jews.” With other words: Trust but verify!

For Wolff, this is evidence for the Vatican’s antisemitism during the pontificate of Pius XII. For him, it means, and this is how he paraphrases it in several interviews with German media: “All Jews are liars”. But it means nothing like that. Humans generally, including Jews, do exaggerate sometimes. And indeed the “Jewish Agency’s” report contained several rumors which were not true at all, as we know today. It claimed that “in all Eastern Poland and the occupied Russian territories, not a single Jew is alive anymore”. We know that thousands survived in the underground or became partisans. It also claimed that the Nazis produced fat from the corpses of the murdered Jews and fertilizer from their bones– what turned out to be a “black legend” of the holocaust. No government in the world would act on a single report, but waits for an independent verification – that’s why President Roosevelt asked the Vatican, in the first place.

And indeed Msgr. Dell’Acqua was not an anti-Semite at all, just because he considered the human weakness also among Jews, but warns, one sentence later, that any open protest side by side with the Americans “could have unpleasant consequences, not only for the Holy See, but above all for the Jews themselves, who are in the hands of the Germans.” No Papal protest would have moved Hitler to stop the deportations to the death camps. Instead, they would have provoked him to proceed even faster, to send more Jews into death.

Still, the Allies informed the world about the holocaust on 17 December 1942. Pius XII did not protest together with them. Officially siding with the Allies would have caused Hitler to persecute the Church in Europe even harder, to declare it an instrument of the enemy and destroy its existing infrastructure, which was needed also to save ten thousand Jews. He knew he needed to remain neutral, at least officially, to successfully intervene on diplomatic channels to stop the ongoing deportations of Jews by Hitler’s vassal states such as Vichy France, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria – and indeed he succeeded several dozen times. Still, he was not silent, but confirmed the Allied statement a week later in his Christmas message, when he spoke of “those hundreds of thousands who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only by reason of their nationality or race, are marked down for death or gradual extinction.”

For sure, the Monsignore’s “Appunto” did not influence the Papal policy, which remained the same before and after, nor does it contain any new information. It is one man’s reminder to trust and to verify and nothing more; and that’s why it was not included in the 11 volume Vatican’s edition of wartime documents, released between 1964 and 1981. Not because of a Vatican cover-up, but because it’s irrelevant. Just a German professor misuses it for his own agenda – and risks his reputation as a serious historian. He is the man who “has just read one document” and draws premature conclusions, blames the Vatican of a cover-up and creates sensationalist headlines, after his research project was interrupted prematurely.


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Jim Fair

Jim Fair is a husband, father, grandfather, writer, and communications consultant. He also likes playing the piano and fishing. He writes from the Chicago area.

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