Pope Pius XII personally saved more than 15,000 Jews during the Second World War. This is the latest finding of the in-depth study carried out by a German historian on unpublished documents from the Vatican archives, inaccessible until recently. The black legend of a silent and complicit pope has definitely had its day.
The chief archivist of the Bundestag (German parliament), Michael Feldkamp, spent part of his life trying to gain some clarity about the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the Jews during the Second World War, making him a recognized expert in the field.
Having recently gained access to unpublished documents, the historian brushes aside the thesis of an ignorant and indifferent Pius XII regarding the horror of the concentration camps: “What is new now, and what we have always known so far, is that Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII, knew about the Holocaust very early on,” explains Michael Feldkamp.
Better informed than the American secret services, the Roman pontiff at the time had even alerted the still free West, without being listened to: “regarding the systematic extermination of European Jews, Pius XII sent a message to U.S. President Roosevelt in March 1942 – two months after the Wannsee conference.”
“In it, he warned him that something was happening in Europe in the war zones. These messages were not considered credible by the Americans.” The silences are therefore not what we thought they were.
“Today we know … that Pius XII was confronted with the persecution of the Jews almost on a daily basis. He had been presented with all the reports, and had created his own office within the Second Section of the Secretariat of State, where the staff had to deal exclusively with such matters. There was Bishop Domenico Tardini …and Bishop Dell'Acqua,” two future cardinals, “who explained the situation to him daily,” explains the German historian.
The study of the most recent archives recently declassified thus makes it possible to estimate that “Pius XII personally saved about 15,000 Jews through his own personal efforts: opening monasteries and cloisters so that people could be hidden there, and so on. The archival findings I have found now in the Vatican shows me how accurately Pacelli was informed,” he adds.
“New facts have finally come to light: Pope Pacelli’s support for the Jews went so far that the Papal Palatine Guard, a kind of bodyguard for the Pope – like today’s Swiss Guard – was involved in fights with the Waffen-SS, with Wehrmacht soldiers, to hide Jews in the Roman basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore,” reports Michael Feldkamp.
“Now we can see and prove all this. In this way, we can now correct many of these vague assumptions or even accusations . . . above all, there is the accusation that Pius XII did nothing and remained silent,” says the historian.
Indeed, the non-denunciation of the crimes for which the Pope was then accused can be “considered reasonable, considering that he was leading people into hiding in covert operations. He could not then draw further public attention to himself by organizing protests or writing protest letters, but to divert attention, he conducted negotiations with the German embassy and the Italian police force, even with Mussolini and the Italian foreign minister and so on. He always tried to get as much as possible through negotiations.”
Nevertheless, Michael Feldkamp is aware that lies die hard, and that it will not be easy to reestablish the truth about the pontificate of Pius XII: “there are still people who say that they cannot imagine that, for 70 years we have believed what was wrong, and now it is supposed to be different. I encounter this skepticism often, both inside and outside the Church.”
It must be said that within the Catholic hierarchy, there seems little hurry to rehabilitate a pope known for having opposed the spirit of novelty which swept through the Church in the 1950s, and which was to triumph in the following decade.