As It Happens

Vatican set to open secret archives of controversial wartime Pope Pius XII

For decades, Catholics have debated whether Pope Pius XII did enough to prevent the Holocaust. And accusations of inaction have delayed his canonization. But now, a new archive could help demystify the wartime pope's complicated legacy.

Pope Pius XII knew about the Holocaust and 'never once spoke out directly against it,' says prof David Kertzer

Pope Pius XII Eugenio Pacelli has been accused of not speaking out against the Holocaust during the Second World War. (Keystone/Getty Images)

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The jury is still out on Pope Pius XII's legacy. But for the first time, Vatican librarians are inviting a select group of researchers from around the world to access the pope's own archives.

To his detractors, the wartime pope was notably silent during the Holocaust — even when thousands of Jews were deported from Rome itself. 

But Pope Pius XII's defenders say his silence allowed the church to do vital work, saving lives behind the scenes. 

David Kertzer is an anthropologist and historian at Brown University. He is one of the researchers being granted access to the archives and he spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about what he expects to find.

Here is part of their conversation.

I know you've already done quite a deep dive on the history of Pius XII for the books you have written. So why are these archives so important to you?

We've been waiting for 50 years for the opening of these archives. Ever since the early '60s, there's been quite a big controversy over the charge that Pius XII was silent during the Holocaust.

The announcement last March, by Pope Francis, that finally those archives would be open has provoked a lot of excitement. There's, I think, a lot still to be learned about that dramatic period.

David Kertzer is an anthropologist and historian at Brown University, who's on his way to Rome to peruse the newly opened archives of Pope Pius XII. (Watson Institute/Brown University)

Are there any particular parts of the archives, any documents, you feel that would shed light on the pope's attitude toward the Holocaust and Jews during that period of time?

One example is on Oct. 16, 1943 the German forces that were then occupying Rome captured a thousand Jews, mainly old men, women and children — most of the younger men had already fled. And these thousand Jews were then held in a holding area right next to the Vatican.

The pope knew what was going on and obviously was not happy. But he had to decide whether to take any dramatic action to try to prevent the Jews deportation to Auschwitz and their death. And he decided not, in fact, to intervene.

We know that. What we don't know is what kind of discussions might have taken place behind the scenes that led the pope to make that decision.

From my perspective, I could hardly see him as a great defender of the Jews. Most of Europe's Jews were murdered under his watch.-

At this point, what are the theories as to why he made that decision?

He did send his secretary of state, which is his number two, to call on the German ambassador to the Holy See.

The secretary of state, on the pope's behalf, said how unhappy he was about this and the German ambassador said to the secretary of state: Well, this order came from the very highest ranks of the government, meaning Hitler, do you really want me to tell him that you protest? He won't be happy with this. 

And after some kind of fidgeting the cardinal secretary of state said, well, no. I'm not saying that you should necessarily do that.

This is part of a larger issue of the decisions that the pope made during the war.

Right. And the arguments that have been given are that he was very concerned about the fate of Catholics and that he didn't know if he did stand up for the Jews, if he stood up to Hitler, what would happen to his flock. And that that was his preoccupation. Is there truth to that?

Yes, that's very true. In fact, the Germans, the Nazi government, was persecuting the Catholic Church in Germany.

So the pope saw his first responsibility as protecting the church. And he was worried that if he angered the Nazi regime that they would take further measures against the Catholics, not only in Germany, but in the lands they were occupying, which had many Catholics. For example, Poland.

And there was also a suggestion that there was a streak of anti-Semitism, or anti-Jewish sentiment, in the church at that time and that Pope Pius XII would have been a product of that way of thinking. Is that fair?

Yes. I think so. In fact, my own view is that all the controversy and debate about the silence of the pope during the Holocaust is somewhat misplaced. That the larger issue about the responsibility of Christian churches has more to do with the decades leading up to the Holocaust — of vilification of the Jews.

Pope Pius XII blessing a vast crowd gathered in St Peter's Square to witness his appearance on the Vatican balcony. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

In the face of all of this, what's curious for many people is why the various figures in the Catholic Church have not just defended Pope Pius but they've described him as someone who was trying to save the Jews. Pope Benedict said that Pius XII was "one of the great righteous, who saved Jews more than anyone else." How do you square that?

For conservatives in the church, he's a hero, partly because he was the last pre-Second Vatican Council Pope. And for some of the conservatives, Second Vatican Council is where the church went wrong. And so, Pius XII is a hero from that perspective as well.

But can I just point out that Pope Francis has also said that he gets a bit of "existential hives" in the face of any attacks on Pius XII. He describes "a great defender of the Jews." So, certainly no conservative, Pope Francis.

Right. I mean I think that's unfortunate, myself, because I admire Pope Francis in many ways. It is true that many Jews hid out in Church institutions, convents, for example, in Rome.

But the pope knew much about the Holocaust as it was happening and he never once spoke out directly against it. So, from my perspective, I could hardly see him as a great defender of the Jews. Most of Europe's Jews were murdered under his watch.

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and John McGill. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.