L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO Weekly edition in english 29 April 1998
                       Myth vs Historical Fact

                       by Fr Pierre Blet, S.J.

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". 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

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 auswaurtigen 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 series Actes et Documents du
Saint-Siaege relatifs a' la seconde guerre mondiale.

The difficulty lay in the fact that for this period the archives
both those of the Vatican and of the other States 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 Civilta' 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 VIII,
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 Fr Robert Leiber, 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 Pius 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-Siaege et la guerre en Europe, Le Saint-Siaege
et la guerre mondiale, comprising volumes IV, V, VII and XI.
Volumes VI, VIII, IX and X, entitled Le Saint-Siaege 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

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, VIII 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 Civilta' 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. 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 III 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

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

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 in-depth 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
Pius 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
Weizsaucker, 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 Fuehrer 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 the
Sunday 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. 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. 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". Nevertheless, the authors to which our
journalist refers have a somewhat elevated idea of the
forgiveness of wrongs practiced 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 Peron,
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 a' la recherche de Martin Bormann et des
rescapeas nazis d'Amearique 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 Reichsleiter
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. 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

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. 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.


In L'Osservatore Romano, 9 October 1958.

Actes et Documents du Saint-Siaege relatifs a' la seconde guerre
mondiale, eaditeas 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.

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

Cf. R. A. Graham, "Il vaticanista falsario: L'incredibile
successo di Virgilio Scatolini",in Civ.Catt. 1973, III, 467-468.

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

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

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" in Archivum Historiae
Pontificiae 6 [1968], 415-424), even if it is difficult to
attribute the individual sections to the two authors.

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
issue of La Civilta' Cattolica.

(L'Osservatore Romano - 29 April 1998)


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