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Catholic Church 'cover-ups must stop!'

Was Pope Pius XII a silent bystander during the Holocaust or did he secretly contribute to saving Jews? The Vatican Secret Archives could end speculation on the controversial issue, says German historian Hubert Wolf.

In Ralf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, a Christian tragedy, Pope Pius XII is portrayed as having failed to speak out against the Nazis and the Holocaust. The work, translated into more than 20 languages, triggered controversy worldwide.

Hidden facts on the controversial pope are now set to be revealed, as Pope Francis has announced that the Vatican will open its Secret Archives on the World War II-era pope in 2020.

The Vatican usually waits at least 70 years after the death of a pope to open archives related to his office. In the case of Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958, that would have been in 2028.

But in light of the controversy, along with the fact that Pius XII has been in the process of canonization for years, an exception has been made to the case. While some critics accuse Pius of "not doing enough" or of being "a silent bystander" during the Holocaust, supporters believe his secret intervention contributed to saving thousands or even tens of thousands of Jews.

The Vatican came to its own verdict long ago. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI elevated Pius XII to the status of Venerable, a title preceding sainthood. That triggered protests from Jewish groups across the world.

Scene from the play 'The Deputy' in Berlin in 1963 (picture-alliance/dpa/K. Giehr)

The play 'The Deputy' premiered in Berlin in 1963

The archives are to be made accessible to researchers on March 2, 2020, on the 81st anniversary of the election of Eugenio Pacelli to papacy. Pope Francis hopes this will shed light on the work of his predecessor. "The Church is not afraid of history," he said. "On the contrary, it loves it."

DW's Stefan Dege spoke with German historian Hubert Wol, after the announcement that the archives would be opened early to get his view on what to expect.

DW: Professor Wolf, as an expert on the Vatican Secret Archives, do you expect any new revelations in 2020?

Church historian Hubert Wolf (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster)

Church historian Hubert Wolf

Huber Wolf: That's very difficult to say. Around 200,000 archival units with up to a thousand pages each, which were produced during the pontificate of Pius XII from 1939 to 1958, will be made accessible next year. In this respect I already believe that they will definitely answer a whole series of questions and also put an end to a variety of speculations.

There was a play by Rolf Hochhuth in the 1960s that portrayed Pius XII as "the Pope who kept silent about the Holocaust" and even referred to him as "Hitler's Pope." Will this viewpoint still hold?

I don't want to speculate. There are actually two interpretations to this. The first is that he kept silent to prevent even worse events from happening. After the Dutch bishops protested, the number of deportations went up.

The other interpretation is that he absolutely should have spoken out and that in doing so, he could have prevented further deportations. That is the accusation Hochhuth lobbed against the pope.

From there we also have to look into different questions: When did the pope know what, exactly? When did he know about the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Question? When did he know about Auschwitz? Who told him about it? What was discussed internally in the curia? Who did the pope then talk to? Were commissions established to discuss the issue?

There has only been speculative answers to these questions until now, so we hope to learn something new there. And I think we will. But we will have to look at it in a differentiated way: What did the nuncio [the pope's diplomatic representative] actually report from Switzerland? What about the Apostolic Delegates in the USA? What contacts did the pope have with American secret services? These are all questions that I cannot yet answer.

Pope Pius blessing the crowd at the Vatican in June 1939 (Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Keystone)

Pope Pius XII blessing the crowd at the Vatican in June 1939

Currently dealing with a series of sex abuse scandals, the Catholic Church is not looking too good at the moment. Why did Pope Francis decide to address this other hot topic now?

One could say that it was long overdue. We know that Benedict XVI gave the order in 2007 to organize these documents, and that the opening of the archives was actually planned for much earlier. Now, of course, since it turned out to be so massive — I already mentioned it consists of 200,000 units — it is said that the archivists simply needed longer to get organized. That may be the case; we cannot judge that from the outside.

Some also claim that the pope wanted to divert attention from the abuse scandals, and that is why we are now discussing the Holocaust and the behavior of the Church during World War II. That, too, is very difficult to judge.

How much did the controversy surrounding Pope Pius harm the Catholic Church?

Basically, dealing with the Holocaust and the role of Pius XII is just one example of a general problem in the Church. All these cover-up actions surrounding abuse are basically systemic.

I think that what is now being said, at least symbolically, by opening up the archives is something that must generally apply: The cover-ups must stop!

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