The Vatican recently expanded access to its archives up to 1939, and it is expected to open its archives from World War II within five years. Many scholars believe documents in the archives may help clarify questions about the Vatican's conduct during the Nazi period, including the Holocaust.
Although the opening of the archives is an important development, evidence already in the public record shows that - contrary to the beliefs of many - both Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) and Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) opposed the Nazis and the persecution of the Jews.
On behalf of Pope Pius XI, the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli - the future Pope Pius XII - drafted an encyclical, "Mit Brennender Sorge," that condemned Nazi doctrines and Germany's persecution of the Catholic Church. The encyclical was smuggled into Germany and read from Catholic pulpits March 21, 1937.
The Nazis considered the encyclical a threat to their security and sought to prevent its further dissemination. On March 26, 1937, Hans Dieckhoff, an official in the German Foreign Ministry, wrote that this "encyclical contains attacks of the severest nature upon the German government, calls upon Catholic citizens to rebel against the authority of the state, and therefore signifies an attempt to endanger internal peace."
In September 1938, Pope Pius XI's condemnation of anti-Semitism, which he made during an audience granted to Belgian pilgrims, received international attention. Additionally, Diego von Bergen, Germany's ambassador to the Vatican, reported the pope's comments to the German Foreign Ministry.
After the death of Pope Pius XI, Cardinal Pacelli was elected pope March 2, 1939, and took the name Pius XII. During World War II, the pope was far from silent. In speech after speech, he championed human rights for all people and called on the belligerent nations to respect the rights of all civilians and prisoners of war.
The Nazis understood the pope's words. For example, after studying Pope Pius XII's 1942 Christmas message, the Reich Central Security Office concluded: "In a manner never known before, the pope has repudiated the National Socialist New European Order. ... Here he is virtually accusing the German people of injustice toward the Jews and makes himself the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals."
The pope sought to undermine Adolf Hitler at every possible opportunity. According to documents available in the British archives, the pope, in early 1940, acted as an intermediary between a group of German generals who wanted to overthrow Hitler and the British government. Although the conspiracy never went forward, the pope kept in close contact with the German Resistance and was given knowledge of two other plots against Hitler.
Pope Pius XII's critics also ignore his wartime assistance to the Soviet Union, which is established by documents in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's archives. In response to private appeals made by the president in the fall of 1941, the pope agreed that American Catholics could support the extension of military aid to the Soviet Union after it was invaded by the Nazis.
The Vatican previously published an 11-volume collection of its wartime documents, which detail its assistance to Jews and other civilians. Throughout the war, the pope's deputies frequently ordered the Vatican's diplomatic representatives in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries to intervene on behalf of endangered Jews. One of many examples of this came in early 1943, when the Vatican succeeded in obtaining refuge for a group of Croatian Jewish children, including the son of Chief Rabbi Miroslav Freiberger in Zagreb, in neutral Turkey.
Many Jewish leaders, organizations and newspapers expressed their gratitude to the Vatican. For example, in his April 7, 1944, letter to the papal nuncio in Romania, Chief Rabbi Alexander Shafran of Bucharest wrote, "It is not easy for us to find the right words to express the warmth and consolation we experienced because of the concern of the Supreme Pontiff, who offered a large sum to relieve the sufferings of deported Jews."
The 11-volume collection also shows how the Vatican, starting in 1941, helped alleviate the famine in Greece during the Nazi occupation. Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, a Vatican diplomat and the future Pope John XXIII, helped save many Greek civilians from starvation.
Several scholars, such as the Rev. Giovanni Sale and Matteo Luigi Napolitano, who have examined the new documents, have said that they confirm the Vatican's opposition to both Nazism and anti-Semitism. It remains to be seen whether Vatican critics, who have long clamored for the opening of the archives, will make any use of this new material, which might force them to modify their views.
Dimitri Cavalli is a writer and editor in New York City. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.