What Pius XII Learned From the Armenian Genocide

German Historian Says Pacelli’s Experience With Ottoman Empire Influenced His Behavior With Hitler

Though historians contest it, Pius XII is still accused of failing to do enough to help the Jews during World War II. In particular, he is criticized for too much silence.

But well-known German historian Michael Hesemann says the Pope’s decision to be guarded in protest was a result of what he’d learned some years before, when while working in the Vatican Secretariat of State and as nuncio, he was privy to the Vatican’s information on the Armenian genocide and its attempts to stop it.

Protests from Pope Benedict XV and his diplomats only made the situation worse for the Armenians and that was history Pius XII didn’t want to repeat, Hesemann explains.

In an interview with ZENIT ahead of Pope Francis’ Nov. 28-30 trip to Turkey, Hesemann analyzes this massacre, and gives insight into the parallels with the Holocaust and Pius XII’s actions during the war.

ZENIT: Could you give a little information about yourself and your studies on both the Armenian genocide and Pius XII?

Hesemann:  For the last 10 years, I worked on Pope Pius XII and tried to understand the motives for his alleged “silence” during the Holocaust and his numerous actions to save as many Jews as possible at the same time, which, may initially sound contradictory.

There is no doubt that the Jews were dear to his heart and important for him, but why didn’t he protest when he learned of their fate? This was a question I wanted to solve.

As a matter of fact, before he became Pope, Eugenio Pacelli had a long history serving in Vatican diplomacy, beginning with his career in the Secretariat of State, his 12 years as nuncio in Germany and his nine years as cardinal secretary of state under Pope Pius XI. When I, as a historian, received permission to study his files in the Vatican Secret Archives, I came across several documents dealing with the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, which piqued my interest. To learn more, I started to dig deeper into this subject and eventually located about 2,000 pages of hitherto unpublished documents on the biggest crime of World War I.

ZENIT: Could you please briefly explain the Armenian Genocide and what happened? 

Hesemann:  Under close scrutiny, the “Armenocide” appears like a model for the Shoah. Obsessed by a racist and nationalist worldview, the Young Turks, a political movement which came to power just before World War I, intended to transform the multinational and multireligious Ottoman Empire into a homogenous “Volksgemeinschaft” [literally “people’s community,” a term which referred to Hitler’s vision for an ideal German society]. Since racial characteristics were difficult to determine in the mixed population of Turkey, religion became the indicator of “true Turkishness:” A “true Turk” had to follow Sunnite Islam. Only homogenous “purity,” they believed, would save Turkey from “inner microbes” and “parasites” and make it strong enough to fight for the Pan-Turkish vision of this movement. 

As “microbes” and “parasites,” the Young Turk ideologists recognized the Christian minorities: Armenians, Greeks and Syriac Christians. When the Germans dragged Turkey into World War I, when the Sultan, backed by the Sheikh-ül-Islam, the highest Muslim authority in Turkey, declared the djihad (“Holy War”) in November 1914, the Young Turks saw the opportunity they had been waiting for to solve their “Armenian problem” by eliminating the Armenians.  

On April 24, 1915, hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and leaders in Constantinople were arrested and deported to the interior of the country, and most of them were murdered afterwards. To justify their actions, the Young Turk government accused the Armenians of a conspiracy with Russia and the preparation of a revolt, although it was never able to present any evidence for this claim. At this point, most male Armenians already served in the Turkish Army and were suddenly forced to do slave labor or got massacred. Beginning in May 1915, nearly the entire remaining Armenian population (of 2.1 million, before the war) was, province by province, town by town and village by village, deported. On foot, with nearly no bread and not even water, old men, women, children and those Armenians who were wealthy enough to avoid military service, were sent to Der Zor in the Syrian desert. On those death marches, hundreds of thousands died of exhaustion, starvation or diseases. Those who survived the miserable conditions were forced into concentration camps, starved there or died from cholera, typhoid and dysentery during the following months, became victims of massacres or were sent even deeper into the desert where local tribesman slaughtered them.

ZENIT: How did the Vatican learn about it?

Hesemann: By mid-June 1915, the apostolic delegate in Constantinople, Msgr. Angelo Dolci, learned about “rumors of massacres,” as he wrote in a telegraph to the Holy See. About a week later, he received confirmation that indeed a “persecution” with the purpose “to remove the element of the Christian Armenians from the entire province” took place. Among the victims were many Catholic Armenians, too. Even the Catholic bishop of Mardin, Msgr. Ignatius Maloyan (who was canonized by John Paul II), and several of his dignitaries were slaughtered after their deportation by mid-June. After learning the details of this massacre, [Msgr.] Dolci sent a written protest to the Grand Vizier, the “Prime Minister” of the Sultan, requesting the immediate stop of those deadly deportations at least for the Armenian Catholics. He did not even receive a reply. When the massacres continued, the Armenian-Catholic Archbishop of Chalcedon, Msgr. Peter Kojunian, sent an emotional letter to Pope Benedict XV, stating that “a systematic extermination of the Armenians in Turkey” was taking place

ZENIT: Did the Pope react to this letter?</p>

Hesemann: Immediately! Benedict XV wrote a handwritten letter to Sultan Mehmet V, appealing to his “high-hearted generosity” and requesting his compassion for the innocent Armenians. The papal initiative was made public and reported by newspapers all over the world. At the same time, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri contacted the nuncios in Vienna and Munich, ordering them to promote the Holy See’s initiative to Turkey’s allies and urging them to interfere so that “these barbaric acts should immediately be stopped.” At the same time in Constantinople, Msgr. Dolci desperately tried to get the papal autograph to the Sultan but was refused several times by the Sublime Porte (Ottoman Porte). Only when the German ambassador interfered, Msgr. Dolci was received by Mehmet V on Oct. 23, 1915, after nearly six weeks. One month later, he was invited to pick up the sultan’s reply, justifying the deportations by the claim of an Armenian conspiracy.

ZENIT: Did the deportations, did the massacres, stop?

Hesemann: Not at all! The Turks promised all sorts of things, they promised to spare the Armenian Catholics … They promised that all deported Armenians would be home for Christmas, but these were all lies and false promises. The deportations and massacres continued until late 1916. Far away from being spared, at the end, 87% of the Armenian Catholics were murdered, an even higher percentage than that of the Orthodox Armenians, of which “only” 75% were killed. The papal protest not only had no success, it turned out to be counterproductive!

ZENIT: How did the Pope react?

Hesemann: Well, Benedict XV continued to try his best.  In an allocution to the consistory on Dec. 6, 1915, he explicitly mentioned “the unlucky people of the Armenians who are nearly completely sent to extermination.” In 1918, when the Russians withdrew their troops from northeastern Turkey and new massacres occurred against the surviving Armenians, Pope Benedict sent a second letter to the Sultan; once again without any success. He had to learn that public protests just did not work and were even counterproductive, triggering the anger of the aggressor even more. Eventually, Msgr. Dolci, the apostolic delegate, wrote to – yes, indeed! – Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli: “By defending the Armenians, I lost the grace of Caesar, the Nero of this unlucky nation. I mean the Secretary of the Interior, Talaat Pasha, Grandmaster of the Masonic Orient. He must have learned of the great pressure which followed after the intervention of the Holy Father in form of his autograph, by the other embassies. Since then, I receive only malevolent looks from him.”

ZENIT: What does that mean for Pius XII and the Holocaust?

Hesemann:  Well, all historians agree that his experience during World War I and especially the papal policy of neutrality and peacemaking, followed by Benedict XV, highly influenced the performance of Pius XII during World War II. Of course it did, since Pacelli already served in key positions during della Chiesa’s [Benedict XV’s] pontificate, first as secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Affairs of the Secretariat of State, then as nuncio. I discovered that nearly all information on the Armenian genocide went over his desk. The document I just quoted was only one example. So he also learned that all papal protests were not only useless, but even turned out to be counterproductive.

Pacelli, when confronted with the Holocaust, knew that Adolf Hitler would never react any better. Keep in mind that he knew Hitler for 19 years at that time; as nuncio in Munich, Pacelli had followed even the earliest footsteps of the Nazi dictator, describing National Socialism, in a memorandum sent to the Holy See already on May 1, 1915, as “the most dangerous heresy of our times.” In a conversation with the American consul in Cologne, reported to the [US] State Department in 1939, Pacelli’s views on Hitler, to quote the reporting diplomat “surprised me by their extremeness… He regarded Hitler not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel, but as a fundamentally wicked person … not capable of moderation.”

He knew that an open protest, which didn’t work in 1915, would never work in 1942, when he dealt with an even more evil, uncompromising and unscrupulous leader. He knew a protest would not help the Jews at all but only cause Hitler to turn against the Church and destroy the only infrastructure able to help and save many Jews.

ZENIT: Pope Francis is going to Turkey this month. Should he address this subject?

Hesemann:  Indeed, it is a shame that the Turkish government still denies the Armenian genocide, using the very same lies and excuses as they did in 1915 in their reply to the papal initiative. Pope Francis experienced this on his own, when in June 2013 he called the events of 1915 absolutely, correctly “the first genocide of the 20th century.” Ankara immediately protested, called back its ambassador from the Holy See and called the Pope’s remark “absolutely unacceptable.”

But Pope Francis was right … Every neutral historian would support his view. I am very proud that this great Pope did not give up, but remembered the martyrdom of the Armenian nation again on May 8, 2014, when he received the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Karekin II in the Vatican. And I am sure he will not ignore this subject during his visit to Turkey, since the Turkish attitude is just unacceptable.

Next year, on April 24, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of that genocide. Don’t you think it is eventually time to admit that it happened? I mean, look, I am German. My nation has committed the biggest crime in human history, the Shoah. We can’t bring 6 million Jews back to life, unfortunately. But we can regret, we can try our best to reconcile, we can learn from our history and prevent it from repeating. Isn’t it an originally Catholic concept that God will forgive you any sin when you only sincerely regret it, confess it and do penance? Nobody would blame modern-day Turks for what their ancestors did. But we blame them for denying it today, since any denial of a crime makes you an accomplice, a partner in that crime, a protector of murderers! 

 ZENIT: Do you think the Pope should also travel to Armenia?

Hesemann: That would be wonderful, since it would be a sign of fraternal solidarity with a suffering nation, a nation of martyrs. A sign against the silence, covering up so many endless chapters of human suffering, and a victory of the truth! I pray that he will visit Armenia in 2015, without any fear of diplomatic consequences. And I trust he will, since he fears only God, not men. But even more important would it be to reconcile those two nations. This can and will only happen when Turkey admits what happened a century ago. Only the truth makes us humans free to forgive.

ZENIT: How do you believe this visit can happen, or these steps toward reconciliation be achieved?

Hesemann: Well, who am I to recommend anything to the Successor of St. Peter? I trust in the intuition, the empathy and the genius of Pope Francis. Look what he did on his trip to the Holy Land, establishing a dialogue and the first step towards a reconciliation of Israelis and Palestinians, inviting them to a common day of prayer in the Vatican? This was so wonderful! Maybe such a gesture, bringing both, victims and ‘committers’ together, presenting the facts and inviting them to reconcile, would be the right sign for 2015. I have full trust in the Holy Father, that he will find the right words and gestures, once again.

***

On the NET:

Michael Hesemann Official Website: www.michaelhesemann.info

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a micro-donation

Subscribe to the ZENIT Daily Email Newsletter

Receive the latest news of the Church and the world in your inbox every day. 

Thank you for subscribing! We will confirm your subscription via email. Please check your spam folder if you do not receive it soon.