By Nick Squires (The Telegraph)
Pope Francis has announced that he will open up the Vatican’s secret archives on the papacy of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of failing to speak up about the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews.
Historians have for decades been calling on the Holy See to let scholars study the archives, in order to determine whether Pius XII failed to use his moral authority to oppose the Holocaust.
The argument that Pius should have been far more vocal in condemning the Nazis’ annihilation of six million Jews was put forward most forcefully in the 1999 book Hitler’s Pope, by John Cornwell, a British writer and academic.
Pope Francis announced his decision during a meeting with staff from the Secret Archives, part of the Vatican’s vast repository of documents and records, declaring that “the Church is not afraid of history”.
He said the archive would be opened on March 2 next year to mark the 81st anniversary of the election of Pius XII in 1939.
Francis acknowledged that there had been “moments of grave difficulty and tormented decisions” for the wartime pontiff, saying he had been treated by posterity with “some prejudice and exaggeration”.
Without referring directly to Pius’s actions towards the Jews of Europe, Francis said his predecessor had engaged in “hidden but active diplomacy” in order to pursue “humanitarian initiatives”.
He thanked archive historians for having worked, since 2006, to catalogue and organise the huge body of documentation relating to Pius’s papacy, from 1939 to his death in 1958.
Mr Cornwell, the author of Hitler’s Pope, said he could not wait for the archives to be revealed.
“It should be really interesting. It might show that he did fantastic things to help the Jews. Or it might shed light on whether he had anything to do with the Nazi rat-run, when some Catholics helped Nazis escape to South America at the end of the war,” he told The Telegraph.
He said he called his book Hitler’s Pope largely because of what the future Pope Pius did before the war, when as Vatican secretary of state he drew up an accord in 1933, the Reichskonkordat, that protected the Catholic Church’s rights in Germany but in exchange helped give moral legitimacy to the Nazi regime.
He said Pius was, like many Catholics at the time, anti-Semitic, but conceded that he had little scope for limiting the scale of the Holocaust.
“He didn’t have much room for manoeuvre. He was very much a prisoner inside the Vatican, which was dependent for its light, gas and water on Mussolini’s Italy and then on the German regime. Although I still think he didn’t do enough when the Jews were being rounded up in Rome.”
Hitler even plotted at one time to kidnap the Pope, Mr Cornwell said.
The Vatican insists that by using discreet means, Pius instructed Catholic clergy to give help to the Jews, quietly saving tens of thousands of lives.
“The archives will hopefully shed light on the actual possibilities that were open to Pope Pius in condemning the genocide and to what extent he could have made a difference, and at what cost,” said Austen Ivereigh, a British expert on the Vatican and the author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the making of a radical pope.
While some historians have accused Pius of complicity in the persecution of the Jews because of his decision not to speak out, others insist he did all that he could in the circumstances.
They argue that to have criticised Hitler and the Nazi regime more strongly would have imperiled Catholics across occupied Europe.
“Had he spoken out, it could have been an excuse for Hitler to turn on the Catholic Church. These were very, very difficult moral choices,” said Mr Ivereigh.
The planned opening of the archives was welcomed by Jewish groups around the world.
“We greatly appreciate Pope Francis’s decision,” said Noemi Di Segni, the president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
It would enable historians “to reconstruct with greater clarity the Church’s position regarding the Shoah.”
“It’s shame that we’ll have to wait until 2020, but better late than never,” said Ruth Dureghello, the head of the Jewish community in Rome.
More than 1,000 Italian Jews were rounded up in Rome and deported to concentration camps in October 1943.
The Pope’s decision was also welcomed by Israel. “We are pleased by the decision and hope it will enable free access to all relevant archives,” foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon wrote on Twitter.
It normally takes the Vatican 70 years from the end of a pontificate to open up its archives relating to the period, but there has been intense pressure to make an exception for those of Pius XII.
“Part of the problem is that simply cataloguing the stuff takes a lot of time, especially given that there aren’t many staff in the Secret Archives,” said Mr Ivereigh. “It’s a huge archive because it was a very long papacy.”