Myth vs Historical Fact


Fr Pierre Blet, S.J.

Text from: L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, v31, n17(1539), 29 April 1998.
[orginally published in Italian in the 21 March 1998 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica.]

When he died on 9 October 1958, Pius XII was the object of unanimous tributes of admiration and gratitude: "The world", President Eisenhower declared, "Is now poorer after the death of Pope Pius XII. And Golda Meir, Foreign Minister of the State of Israel, said: "The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out about great moral truths above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace".[1] A few years later, beginning in 1963, he had become the villain of a sinister myth: during the war, either out of political calculation or cowardice, he was supposed to have remained impassive and silent in the face of crimes against humanity which his intervention might have prevented.

When accusations are based on documents, it is possible to discuss the interpretation of the texts, to check whether they were misunderstood, accepted uncritically, distorted or selected with a specific bias. On the other hand, when a myth is put together with disparate elements and fantasy, the argument is baseless. The only thing possible is to counter the myth with historical reality, proven by indisputable documents. To this end, Pope Paul VI, who as the Substitute of the Secretariat of State had been one of Pius XII's closest co-workers, authorized the publication in 1964 of the Holy See's documents relating to the Second World War.

The organization of 'Actes et Documents'

Indeed, the dossier in which the activities of the Pope and his offices can be followed from day to day, and sometimes from hour to hour, is kept in the archives of the Secretariat of State. They contain Pius XII's messages and addresses, the letters exchanged between the Pope and civil and ecclesiastical authorities, notes of the Secretariat of State, memos of subordinates to their superiors reporting information and proposals, as well as private notes (in particular those of Mons. Tardini, who had the habit, most helpful to historians, of commenting with pen in hand), the correspondence of the Secretariat of State with the Holy See's representatives abroad (Nuncios, Internuncios and Apostolic Delegates), and the diplomatic notes exchanged between the Secretariat of State and ambassadors or ministers accredited to the Holy See. These documents are for the most part issued in the name and with the signature of the Secretary of State or of the Secretary of the First Section of the Secretariat: this does not mean that they do not express the Pope's intentions.

On the basis of these documents, a work could have been written describing the Pope's attitude and policy during the Second World War, or a White Paper could have been written to show that the accusations against Pius XII were false. Since the main accusation was that he had kept silent, it was especially easy, on the basis of the documents, to highlight the Holy See's activity on behalf of war victims, and, in particular, of the victims of racial persecution. It seemed more appropriate to undertake a complete publication of the documents relating to the war. Various collections of diplomatic documents already existed, many volumes of which concerned the Second World War: Documenti diplomatici italiani; Documents on British Foreign Policy: 1919-1939; Foreign Relations of the United States: Diplomatic Papers; Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik 1918-1945. In view of these series and following their example, it was advantageous to allow historians to study in these documents the Holy See's role and activities during the war. With this in mind, publication began of the seriesActes et Documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale.[2]

The difficulty lay in the fact that for this period the archives &emdash; both those of the Vatican and of the other States &emdash; were closed to the public and to historians. The special interest in the events of the Second World War and the desire to write its history based on the documents, and not only on more or less indirect accounts and testimonies, had persuaded the States involved in the conflict to publish the documents that were still inaccessible to the public. The trusted people charged with this task were bound to certain rules: not to publish documents which refer to people still living or which, if they were revealed, would impede negotiations currently under way. The volumes of the Foreign Relations of the United States regarding the 1940s were published on the basis of these criteria, and the same criteria were used in the publication of the documents of the Holy See.

The task of publishing the Holy See's war documents was entrusted by the Secretariat of State to three Jesuit Fathers: Angelo Martini, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, who had already had access to the Vatican's secret archives, Burkhart Schneider, and the present writer, both teachers on the faculty of Church history of the Pontifical Gregorian University. The work started at the beginning of January 1965, in an office close to the archives of the then Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and the First Section of the Secretariat of State; it was there that the documents relating to the war were normally kept.

These conditions entailed particular advantages and disadvantages for the work. The problem was that because the archives were closed to the public, there were no systematic inventories to facilitate research; the documents were neither classified in strictly chronological order nor in geographical order; documents of a political character, which thus concerned the war, were sometimes filed with documents of a religious, canonical or even personal nature, stored in reasonably manageable boxes but sometimes containing a great variety of contents. Information on Great Britain might well be found in dossiers on France, if the information had been sent through the Nuncio in France. Likewise, interventions on behalf of Belgian hostages were in the boxes of the Nuncio in Berlin. It was therefore necessary to examine each box and sift through its contents to identify the documents relating to the war. The,research was simplified however by an old rule of the Secretariat of State from the time of Urban VIll, which prescribed that Nuncios should treat only one subject in each letter.

In view of these difficulties, we had some notable advantages. Working in an office of the Secretariat of State and on commission, we were not subject to the restrictions of researchers admitted to the reference rooms of the public archives; one of us took the boxes of documents directly from the shelves in the storeroom. Another considerable advantage was that they were mostly separate, typewritten documents (the manuscripts to be typed for the printers were an exception); thus, as soon as a document was recognized as pertaining to the war, we only needed to pull it out, photocopy it and send the printers the photocopy with the relative notes, as scholarly work requires.

Although the work proceeded fairly quickly in the winter of 1965, we asked for the help of Fir Robert Leilber, who had retired to the German College after being the private secretary for over 30 years of Pacelli, first Nuncio then Secretary of State, and finally Pope Pius XII. He had followed Germany's affairs very closely and it was he who revealed to us the existence of the minutes of Pius XII's letters to the German Bishops; these formed the material of the collection's second volume and are the documents which best reveal the Pope's thinking.

The individual volumes

The first volume, which covers the first 17 months of the pontificate (March 1939-July 1940) and which reveals Plus XII's efforts to avert the war, appeared in December 1965 and was generally well received. During 1966, while Fr Schneider was busily preparing the volume of letters to the German Bishops, Fr Robert A. Graham, an American Jesuit on the staff of America magazine, who had already published a work on the Holy See's diplomacy (Vatican Diplomacy), asked for information about the period on which we were working. In reply he was invited to join our group, especially since we had become aware of Pius XII's increasingly frequent contacts with Roosevelt and of the documents in English which we came across rather frequently. He immediately set to work preparing the third volume, dedicated to Poland and based on the model of the second volume concerning the Holy See's relations with the Episcopates. But the direct exchanges of letters with the other Episcopates turned out to be far less intense, so that the second volume and the third (in two tomes) remained the only ones of their kind. We therefore decided to divide the documents into two sections: the first section continued the first volume on mostly diplomatic question, entitled Le Saint-Siège et la guerre en Europe, Le Saint-Siège et la guerre mondiale, comprising volumes IV, V, VII and Xl. Volumes V], VIll, IX and X entitled Le Saint-Siège et les victimes de la guerre, gather in chronological order the documents relating to the Holy See's efforts to help all those who suffered from the war in body or spirit, prisoners separated from their families and exiled far from their loved ones, peoples subjected to the devastations of the war and victims of racial persecution.

The work lasted over 15 years; the group divided the tasks according to the projected volumes and to the time each member had available. Fr Leiber, whose help had been so valuable, was taken from us by death on 18 February 1967. Fr Schneider, while continuing to teach modern history at the Gregorian University, after publishing the letters to the German Bishops, had devoted himself to the section on the war victims and, with the help of Fr Graham, prepared volumes VI, Vill and IX, which were completed at Christmas 1975; but in the summer of that same year he was stricken by an illness which was to cause his death the following May. Fr Martini, who had devoted himself full time to this task and had in some way worked on all the volumes, did not have the satisfaction of seeing the work entirely completed: all he could see, in early summer 1981, were the proofs of the last volume, before leaving us as well. Volume XI (the last of the collection) appeared towards the end of 1981, edited by Fr Graham and myself. Although he was the oldest of us, Fr Graham had thus been able to collaborate until the work was completed and also to undertake, in those 15 years, complementary research and publications, which appeared for the most part as articles in La Civiltà Cattolica and represent a source of information which Second World War historians will be able to consult profitably. He left Rome on 24 July 1996 to return to his native California, where he died on 11 February 1997.

At the beginning of 1982, I had resumed research on 17th-century France and Vatican diplomacy. But seeing that after 15 years our volumes were still unknown even to many historians, I spent 1996-1997 compiling the essential material and conclusions in a volume of modest size, but as complete as possible.[3] An objective perusal of this documentation reveals in their concrete reality Pope Pius XII's attitude and conduct during the world war and, consequently, that the accusations made against his memory are groundless. The documents show how his diplomatic efforts to avoid the war, that to dissuade Germany from attacking Poland and to convince Mussolini's Italy to break with Hitler were as great as possible. No trace can be found of the so-called German partiality which he is supposed to have absorbed during the period he spent at the Nunciature in Germany. His efforts, combined with Roosevelt's, to keep Italy out of the conflict, the telegrams expressing solidarity on 10 May 1940 to the rulers of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg after the invasion of the Wehrmacht, and his courageous advice to Mussolini and King Victor Emmanuel Ill suggesting a separate peace certainly do not indicate this. It would be ridiculous to think that with the halberds of the Swiss Guard, or even with a threat of excommunication, he could have stopped the Wehrmacht's forces.

But he is repeatedly accused of remaining silent in the face of the racial persecution of the Jews even to its ultimate consequences and of having given free rein to Nazi barbarity. Now, the documents show the Pope's tenacious and continuous efforts to oppose the deportations, whose purpose was becoming increasingly suspicious. His apparent silence concealed a secret activity by means of the Nunciatures and Episcopates to avoid or at least to limit the deportations, the violence and the persecution.

The reasons for this discretion are clearly explained by the Pope himself in various addresses, in his letters to the German Episcopates, or in the deliberations of the Secretariat of State: public declarations would have served no purpose; they would have only aggravated the fate of the victims and increased their number.

Recurring accusations

With the intention of obscuring this evidence, Pius XII's detractors questioned the seriousness of our publication. Very unusual in this regard is an article that appeared in a Parisian daily on 3 December 1997: "Those four Jesuits have produced [!] texts in the Actes et Documents which excuse Pius XII from the omissions of which he is accused.... But those Actes et Documents are far from complete". It was suggested that we had ignored documents embarrassing for the reputation of Pius XII and for the Holy See.

In the first place, it is not clear exactly how the omission of certain documents would help to exonerate Pius XII from the omissions alleged against him. On the other hand, to say in peremptory tones that our publication is incomplete is tantamount to asserting what cannot be proved: to this end it would be necessary to compare our publication with the archives and show which documents in the archives are missing from our publication. Although the corresponding archives are still inaccessible to the public, some people have even claimed to have proof of these lacunae in the Actes et Documents. In doing so they have revealed their poor idea about indepth exploration of the archives, some of which they are demanding to have opened.

Repeating the identical statement of a Roman newspaper on 11 September 1997, the cited article of 3 December mentions that Plus XII's correspondence with Hitler is missing from our publication. Let us first point out that the Pope's letter informing the head of the Reich of his own election is the last document published in the second volume of Actes et Documents. As for the rest, if we did not publish Pius XII's correspondence with Hitler, it is because it exists only in the journalist's imagination. He refers to Pacelli's contacts with Hitler while Nuncio in Germany, but he should have checked the dates: Hitler came to power in 1933 and would have had the opportunity to meet the Apostolic Nuncio only after that date. But Archbishop Pacelli had returned to Rome in December 1929. Pius XI made him a Cardinal on 16 December and Secretary of State on 16 January 1930. Above all, had that correspondence existed, the Pope's letters would have been preserved in the German archives and there would normally have been a record of them in the archives of the Reich's Foreign Ministry. Hitler's letters would have ended up in the Vatican, but one would find mention of them in the instructions to the German ambassadors, Bergen and later Weizsäcker, charged with delivering them, and in the dispatches of those diplomats noting that they had presented them to the Pope or to the Secretary of State. There is no trace of any of this. In the absence of these references, it must be said that the seriousness of our publication has been questioned without a shade of evidence.

These observations on the supposed correspondence between the Pope and the Führer also apply to other documents that really exist. Vatican documents are often attested to by other archives: for example, notes exchanged with ambassadors. One can presume that many Vatican telegrams had been intercepted and decoded by the intelligence services of the belligerents and that copies of them would be found in their archives. Therefore, if we had tried to conceal certain documents, it would be possible to know of their existence and thus to have a basis for questioning the seriousness of our work.

The same article in the Paris daily, after inventing relations between Hitler and the Nuncio Pacelli, mentions an article in theSunday Telegraph of July 1997 which accuses the Holy See of having used Nazi gold to help war criminals flee to Latin America, especially the Croat, Ante Pavelic: "Certain studies give credit to this theory [!]". It is remarkable how easily journalists can be satisfied with documenting their own assertions. Historians, who often work for hours to check their references, would be envious of them. One can understand a journalist trusting a colleague, especially when the English title of the paper gives it an appearance of respectability. But there are still two assertions which deserve to be examined separately: that Nazi gold, or more precisely, Jewish gold stolen by the Nazis, was deposited in Vatican accounts, and that it was used to help Nazi war criminals escape to Latin America.

Indeed, certain American newspapers had produced a document from the Department of the Treasury in which the Department is informed that the Vatican had received Nazi gold of Jewish origin via Croatia. A "document from the Department of the Treasury" can sound impressive but one has to read below the headline and then one discovers that it is a note taken from the "communication of a trustworthy Roman informer". Anyone who takes such assertions as truth should read what Fr Graham wrote on the cleverness of Scatolini, an informer, who lived on information he invented and which he passed on to all the embassies, including that of the United States, which faithfully transmitted it to the State Department.[4] In our research in the Secretariat of State's archives, we found no mention of gold stolen from Jews which was supposedly deposited in Vatican accounts. It is obviously the duty of those who make these assertions to supply documented proof, for example a receipt, which would not have remained in the Vatican archives, such as Pius XII's letters to Hitler. What is recorded instead is Pius XII's prompt intervention when the Jewish communities of Rome were subjected to blackmail by the SS, which demanded 50 kg. of gold from them; on that occasion the Chief Rabbi turned to the Pope to ask him for the 15 kg. they still needed, and Pius XII immediately gave orders to his officials to do what was necessary.[5] Recent investigations have discovered nothing more.

Furthermore, the report of the Vatican supposedly helping Nazi criminals escape to Latin America is not new. We obviously cannot exclude the ingenuity of a Roman ecclesiastic who made use of his own position to facilitate the escape of a Nazi. The sympathies of Bishop Hudal, rector of the German national church, for the great Reich, are well known; but on this basis to imagine that the Vatican organized a large scale flight of Nazis to Latin America means attributing a heroic charity to Roman ecclesiastics. In Rome the Nazi plans for the Church and the Holy See were well-known. Pius XII mentioned them in his address in the Consistory of 2 June 1945, recalling how the regime's persecution of the Church had been further aggravated by the war "when its supporters even entertained the illusion that, as soon as the military victory had been won, they would be done with the Church for ever".[6] Nevertheless, the authors to which our journalist refers have a somewhat elevated idea of the forgiveness of wrongs practised in the Pope's circles, if they imagine that a number of Nazis were taken in by the Vatican, conducted to Argentina, protected by the dictatorship of Perón, and from there taken to Brazil, Chile and Paraguay, to save what could be saved of the Third Reich: a "Fourth Reich" would have been born on the pampas.

In these reports it is difficult to distinguish history from fiction. To those who love novels, we can recommend reading Ladislao Farago's À la recherche de Martin Bormann et des rescapés nazis d'Amérique du sud (in English: Aftermath. Martin Bormann and the Fourth Reich). The English title "the Fourth Reich" says it all. The author takes us from Rome and the Vatican to Argentina, Paraguay and Chile on the trail of the Reichsteiter and other escaping Nazi leaders. With the precision of an Agatha Christie, he describes the exact position of every person at the moment of the crime, indicates the number of the hotel rooms occupied by fleeing Nazis or by the Nazi-hunters chasing them, and describes the green Volkswagen transporting them. One is impressed with the modesty of an author who presents his own book as "an investigation in the French style, a serious study, but with no claims to mere erudition"!


The reader will certainly realize that the Vatican archives contain none of this, even if there were something real to it. If Bishop Hudal had enabled an important Nazi figure to escape, he would certainly not have asked for the Pope's permission. And if he had told him about it after the event, we would know no more about it. Among the things that the archives will never disclose, we must remember the conversations between the Pope and his visitors, except for the ambassadors who mentioned them to their governments, or to de Gaulle, who spoke of them in his memoirs.

This does not mean that when serious historians want personally to examine the archives which provided the documents published, their desire is not legitimate and praiseworthy: even following as accurate a publication as possible, the consultation of archives and direct contact with the documents are useful for historical understanding. It is one thing to question the seriousness of our research and quite another to wonder if we missed anything. We did not deliberately overlook any significant document, because we would have considered it harmful to the Pope's image and the Holy See's reputation. But in an undertaking of this kind researchers are the first to wonder whether they have forgotten anything. Without Fr. Leiber, the existence of the minutes of Pius XII's letters to the German Bishops would have escaped us and the collection would have been deprived of what are perhaps the most valuable texts for an understanding of the Pope's thinking.[7] Nevertheless, that entire section in no way contradicts what the notes and the diplomatic correspondence tell us. In those letters we have a better idea of Pius XII's concern to use the teaching of the Bishops to put German Catholics on guard against the perverse flattery of National Socialism, more dangerous than ever in wartime. This correspondence published in the second volume of the Actes et Documents thus confirms the Church's tenacious opposition to National Socialism; but the first warnings from German Bishops such as Faulhaber and von Galen, from many religious and priests and, lastly, from the Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, read in all the churches of Germany on Palm Sunday 1937 despite the Gestapo, were already known.

Thus we can only consider as a pure and simple lie the assertion that the Church supported Nazism, as a Milanese newspaper wrote on 6 January 1998. In addition, the texts published in volume V of Actes et Documents thoroughly deny the idea that the Holy See could have supported the Third Reich for fear of Soviet Russia. When Roosevelt asked the Vatican's help in overcoming American Catholic opposition to his plan to extend to Russia, at war with the Reich, the support already granted to Great Britain, he was heard. The Secretariat of State made the Apostolic Delegate in Washington responsible for entrusting an American Bishop with the task of explaining that the Encyclical Divini Redemptoris; which exhorted Catholics to refuse the hand offered by communist parties; did not apply to the present situation and did not forbid the USA from lending a hand to Soviet Russia's war effort against the Third Reich. These are irrefutable conclusions.

Therefore, without wishing to discourage future researchers, I seriously doubt that the opening of the Vatican archives relating to the war period would increase our knowledge of this period. In those archives, as I explained earlier, the diplomatic and administrative documents are filed with documents of a strictly personal character; and this demands a lengthier process than with the archives of the foreign ministries of States. Anyone who wants to delve more deeply into the history of that period of upheaval without waiting can already work fruitfully in the archives of the Foreign Office, the Quai d’Orsay, the State Department and the other States which had representatives to the Holy See. The dispatches of the British Minister Osborne will bring to life, better than the notes of the Vatican's Secretary of State, the situation of the Holy See, surrounded by Fascist Rome, which then came under the control of the army and the German police.[8] It is by dedicating themselves to such research, without demanding a premature opening of the Vatican archives, that they will show they are really seeking the truth.


[1] In L'Osservatore Romano, 9 October 1958.

[2] Actes et Documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la seconde guerre mondiale.

édités par P. Blet, A. Martini, R. A. Graham (from vol. III), B. Schneider, Vatican City, Libr. Ed. Vaticana, 11 vol. in 12 tomes (two tomes for vol. III), 1965-1981.

[3] Cf. P. Blet, Pie XII et la seconde guerre mondiale d'après les archives du Vatican, Paris, Perrin 1997.

[4] Cf. R. A. Graham, "Il vaticanista falsario: L’incredibile successo di Virgilio Scatolini", in Civ. Catt. 1973, Ill, 467-468.

[5] Cf. Actes et Documents, vol. IX, cit., 491 and 494.

[6] Pius XII, "Allocuzione concistoriale" (2 June 1945), in AAS 37 (1945) 159-168.

[7] Thus when we had prepared the first volume, we still did not know who was the author of Pius XII's appeal for peace on 24 August 1939, appropriately corrected and approved by the Pope. It is only further research which enabled us to discover that the author was Mons. Montini (cf. B. Schneider, "Der Friedensappell Papst Pius' XII vom 24 August 1939" inArchivum Historiae Pontificiae 6 [1968], 415-424), even if it is difficult to attribute the individual sections to the two authors.

[8] Cf. O. Chadwick, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War, Cambridge, 1986.


This article was orginally published in Italian in the 21 March 1998 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica