Scholars Don’t Expect to Find Much As Vatican Opens Its Prewar Archives

The Vatican has paved the way for scholars to examine thousands of documents relating to the Holy See’s relations with prewar Nazi Germany.

But archivists and scholars acknowledge there is little chance that researchers will turn up any shocking new evidence to bolster accusations that Pope Pius XII did too little to stop the Holocaust.

“They will find copies, contextual elements and some new details, but they probably won’t find any sensational revelations,” the Rev. Sergio Pagano, the prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, told the Milan daily Corriere della Sera.

He said the 650 files of diplomatic documents unsealed Saturday consist mostly of correspondence, not internal Vatican documents, and that scholars already have had access to copies of many of them in German and other archives.

The newly public documents all date from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 until his death in February 1939.

During this period Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pope Pius XII on March 2, 1939, served as Vatican ambassador in Berlin and as Vatican secretary of state.

In these positions, he both wrote and received regular reports on the situation in Germany.

The documents include thousands of pages of material from the diplomatic collections of the Papal Nunciatura in Munich and Berlin and the Vatican State Secretariat.

The Pius XI-era documents were originally slated to be released in 2009, in line with Vatican policy to make available the material from each pope’s reign all at once, about 70 years after the death of the pontiff in question.

But the Vatican announced a year ago that it would speed up the release of records relating to its relations with Nazi Germany as a response to the bitter debate over the Vatican role in the Holocaust — and particular over the role of Pius XII, whom critics have long accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust and allowing Jews to die because of his silence.

The recent movie “Amen,” which is based on a 1963 play, “The Deputy,” reinforces these accusations and has placed the church’s behavior during the war in the public spotlight.

Scholars and Jewish groups in particular have long called for the secret archives to be opened to clarify the matter, particularly as a process is under way to beatify Pius XII, who reigned until his death in 1958.

Peter Gumbel, the Jesuit priest promoting the beatification process — the last step before sainthood — told the National Catholic Reporter that staff at the archives had assured him there was no “smoking gun” in the new material.

He said, however, that one item known to be in the collection was a letter to Pius XI concerning the Nazi threat to European Jews written in 1933 by the Edith Stein — a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a nun, was killed at Auschwitz and was proclaimed a saint by Pope John Paul II.

Another set of documents released Saturday include a set of prewar dossiers opened by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which in that period compiled numerous confidential studies on Nazism, fascism and communism.

Seymour Reich, the immediate past chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, called the Vatican’s decision to accelerate the opening of the archives “a major step forward” in strengthening Vatican-Jewish relations.

In 1999, Reich had helped set up a Catholic-Jewish team of scholars to study previously published wartime Vatican archives. The team bitterly collapsed in 2001 after it was unable to gain access to all the archives.

“Access to the Vatican’s unpublished secret files have been an issue of controversy for a number of years,” he said. “Historians, church researchers and Jewish groups have long pressed the Vatican to open the archives, but until now have been unsuccessful.”

He added: “Under the Holy See’s new policy, additional documents related to Vatican policies are expected to be made available in the future.”

All documentation from the papacy of Pius XI is expected to be released in two or three years. The latest estimate for release of documentation from the papacy of Pius XII is somewhere between 2007 and 2009, that is, about 10 years ahead of the normal schedule.

A Jewish source with close Vatican contacts said that speculation that the Vatican might fully open the Pius XII archives much earlier than that is “wishful thinking.”

The Vatican Secret Archives are made up of millions of documents housed on 50 miles of shelving.

They are open only to qualified scholars from institutions of higher education pursuing academic research.

Scholars must apply in advance for admission and follow strict regulations aimed at safeguarding the collections, which date back centuries.

NEXT STORY