The Vatican Will Unseal Records About Holocaust-Era Pope Pius XII. Here's What We Already Know About His Controversial Legacy

Olivia B. Waxman

On Monday, Pope Francis announced a decision that promises to shed light on a controversial period of Vatican history: starting on March 2, 2020 — years ahead of schedule — the Vatican will let historians access sealed documents about Pope Pius XII, who led the Church during the Holocaust.

Eight decades after Pius XII was elevated to Pontiff on March 2, 1939, his legacy has become the subject of great debate. He has been portrayed as having not done enough to publicly condemn the Nazi genocide of Jewish people in Italy and throughout Europe, and his critics hope historians studying the archive will be able to figure out exactly what his role was in the Church’s approach to that issue. On the other hand, those who say Pius XII privately helped save Jews in other ways hope the new batch of unsealed documents will contain more evidence of this kind, especially anything that could bolster his case for sainthood.

“The church is not afraid of history,” Pope Francis said on Monday, while acknowledging that Pope Pius XII’s legacy includes “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”

Before he became Pius XII, the Pope in question was Eugenio Pacelli, son of a Vatican lawyer. Before he became pope, he served as both the Vatican’s ambassador to Germany and the Vatican’s Secretary of State. During his tenure, he supported General Franco during the Spanish Civil War and the harmonious Vatican-Mussolini alliance led to the creation of the sovereign state of Vatican City in 1929. It was during Italian dictator Benito Mussolini‘s Fascist rule that Pacelli was declared Pope. From the beginning, the world had many questions about the nature of the working relationship between the Vatican and the Fascist regime. “In general the most serious charges against the Church concern the skill with which the Vatican and its hierarchs have fished and swum in the Fascist sea surrounding them,” TIME noted in an Aug. 16, 1943, cover story on the issue.

And yet, feeling about the Pope was perceived as generally positive during the war. Though he never publicly condemned the Nazis for the murder of Europe’s Jew, Pius XII would often speak in general terms about protecting minorities and hating war. In 1942, a Vatican official said Pope Pius XII “neither understands nor approves” of the persecutions of French Jews, and the Church as an institution was often seen as contrary to the values of Fascism. “No matter what critics might say, it is scarcely deniable that the Church Apostolic, through the encyclicals and other papal pronouncements, has been fighting against totalitarianism more knowingly, devoutly and authoritatively, and for a longer time, than any other organized power,” TIME noted back in 1943. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Israel Zolli, praised his efforts in 1944.

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That praise came in a complicated context. After all, the Pope wasn’t the only one who had to make calculations about how to reach his goals in that war-torn era.

“Everyone wanted to claim the Pope was on their side, so political leaders weren’t going to publicly chastise the Pope or accuse him of cozying up to fascists or Nazis,” says David I. Kertzer, who wrote about this period in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. For example, in the U.S., the government wanted to “win over” any Catholics in America, especially any who might support Mussolini, to the Allied cause.

But after the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, debate about his actions — or inactions — increased. Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy accused the Pope of not openly condemning Hitler’s anti-Semitism because he saw Nazi Germany as a barrier between Christians and communists. Here’s how TIME summed up what was then known about the issue:

Pius ignored Allied pressure to speak out against Nazi genocide. In the autumn of 1942, Myron C. Taylor, Franklin Roosevelt’s personal representative to the Vatican, gave the Holy See evidence of the anti-Jewish campaign, and the U.S. Minister to Switzerland warned the Vatican that failure to condemn these atrocities “is undermining faith both in the church and in the Holy Father himself.” Baron Ernst von Weizsaecker, who claimed that he tried to protect the Pope from Hitler’s wrath while serving as German envoy to the Holy See, cabled his Foreign Ministry superiors: “The Pope has not allowed himself to be forced into any demonstrative utterances against the deportation of the Jews.”

[German Jesuit Robert Leiber, Pius XII’s secretary,] admits that Pius “found it difficult” to speak out clearly against the murders, but adds, “This was providential. Otherwise, I fear greater harm would have been the result.” Catholics point out that after the Dutch bishops issued a joint pastoral letter attacking the deportation of Jews, the Nazis retaliated by arresting Catholic converts from Judaism. In 1942 Cracow’s Archbishop Adam Sapieha pleaded with the Vatican not to broadcast accounts of German atrocities since it would only make things harder for his people.

The best evidence of Pius’ own judgment is his 1943 letter to Berlin’s Bishop Konrad von Preysing: “We leave it to the pastoral leaders on the spot to weigh whether and to what degree the danger of retaliation and pressure in case of remonstration by bishops make it appear advisable to exercise restraint to prevent greater evil, despite the listed grievances. Here lies one of the reasons why we ourselves impose limitations on ourselves in our public utterances.”

Over the next decade, at least a half-dozen books came out on the subject. “If anything,” TIME reported, the books, specifically a volume on the Vatican’s efforts to help Jews in eastern Europe, only “heightened the debate rather than resolved it.”

In the 1999 book Hitler’s Pope, British journalist John Cornwell argued that Pope Pius XII’s career as a diplomat helps explain why he didn’t openly condemn the Nazi persecution of Jews. Crucially, he had helped orchestrate the concordat — a word used to describe the Vatican’s agreements with secular governments — approved by his predecessor Pope Pius XI and Hitler’s government. Cornwell’s research popularized a theory that this agreement gave Vatican near-total control over churches in the country in exchange for the disbandment of the predominantly Catholic, anti-Nazi German Center Party, leading Cornwell to argue that the agreement “imposed a moral duty on Catholics to obey the Nazi rulers.” However, that timeline is controversial because there is no direct evidence of such an exchange occurring, and it is not clear exactly what led to that series of events and those decisions.

Kertzer sees things a bit differently. Despite the concordat, which was viewed as favorable to Hitler, Pius XII did not have a good working relationship with the Nazi dictator. “There was really strong tension between the Vatican and the Nazi regime,” he says.

To Kertzer, one of the main factors to consider is how the pontiff would have seen the state of the world outside the Vatican. At the beginning of the war, when it seemed like the Axis would win, Kertzer argues, Pius was reluctant to condemn the Nazis despite that tension, not “because he was pro-Nazi, by any means” but because, in part, he was anxious not to “endanger the position of Catholics in the Axis countries, that they would be discriminated against by the Nazi governments.” (Catholics were a minority among German Christians.) Later in the war, when it became clear the Allies would win, his goal was the same and he strove not to be “compromised” by his earlier decisions. For example, in that later period, after Mussolini was overthrown by his fellow Italian Fascists and installed as the leader of a puppet regime by the Germans subsequently, the Pope refused to recognize that regime despite having kept up an alliance with Mussolini in the past.

“The general contours of this picture we already know, but the archives will flesh out that picture,” says Kertzer. “For much of the war, the Pope was hoping to play the role of unbiased mediator between the two sides, and that’s part of the rationale for not taking a stand against the Nazis. He saw his main obligation as supreme pontiff as protecting the reputation of the church. If you look at it that way, that explains a lot of his actions.”

It’s up to a current pope to decide when to open a past pope’s archives, so the time that has passed between a death and the opening of such archives has varied; right after Pius XI’s archives were opened in 2006 the Vatican turned to the effort already underway to prepare Pius XII’s archive, per the German-born Pope Benedict XVI’s orders. But over the last two decades especially, Jewish groups have pushed for a shorter timeline, while Holocaust survivors seeking clarity are still alive.

“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,” Sara J. Bloomfield, Director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in a statement.

So far, arguments about why the Pope would have been reluctant to speak out have been based primarily on studies of the 12 volumes from the archives that the Vatican has already released between 1965 and 1981 and the reports of discussion with people in the Pope’s inner circle. Historians hope that the new documents released next year will shed light on internal discussions that may have taken place at the Vatican.

Pope Francis has said that Pope Pius XII has to be evaluated in the context of the time in which he was serving, when it was arguably “better for him not to speak so that more Jews would not be killed.” Kertzer says that’s “the main narrative for his defenders,” but that the flip side is that a massive number of European Jews were already being killed, and by people who were theoretically Christian. “The idea that the Pope, by not speaking out, saved Jewish lives, I find hard to credit seriously,” he says. Some of Pope Pius XII’s defenders hope that there is evidence for specific behind-the-scenes efforts he may have taken to save the Jews, such as confirmation of claims that he quietly ordered convents to take in Jews. Historians also hope that the new documents will shed light on the fears throughout the 1950s of a Communist takeover of Italy during the Cold War.

But matter what the records show, they will likely underline the paradox of the papacy as it relates to foreign relations — a paradox that has long been apparent.

“As symbol Pius XII is a spiritual autocrat of incalculable power,” TIME observed in 1943. “But despite the massiveness of the symbol, the Pope is also supremely important as a man. Pope (when he speaks ex cathedra), he is infallible. But as a man, he is fallible like any other. And this fallibility determines his place among the ‘good’ Popes or the ‘bad’ Popes, and hence his influence upon history.”