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Vatikan Geheimarchiv
Image: Imago Images

Opening the Secret Files on Pius XII

November 10, 2020

The Vatican opened once-secret records on Pope Pius XII on March 2020. This gave researchers a brand new insight into the Catholic Church during the Nazi era. What did the Pope know about the Holocaust?

Vatikan Papst Pius XII
Pope Pius XII.Image: imago

Pius XII, born Eugenio Pacelli, is one of the most controversial figures in recent church history. New archive material sheds light on his career and politics. As ambassador of the Holy See in Germany and Cardinal Secretary of State of the Vatican, Pacelli witnessed Hitler’s rise to power.

He was elected Pope in 1939, just months before the start of World War II. But what role did he play during the Holocaust? Many accuse him of shirking his responsibilities; of complicit silence while minorities were murdered, especially the Jewish.

Forscher beginnen Spurensuche im Vatikan zu Pius XII.
Image: picture alliance/dpa/AP/G. Borgia

Just days after the archives opened, church historian Hubert Wolf discovered a document describing the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto. Pope Pius XII read the paper on 27 September 1942, but its contents were never published. Nor were the notes in the margins by members of the Secretariat of State. But the Vatican claimed for decades that nothing was kept from the public. 

Vatikan Papst Pius XII  1945
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AP

Defenders of Pius XII say he acted in secret to save the lives of many Jews. Thousands were hidden in church institutions, and the Roman Curia helped them to escape abroad. But the credibility of the Roman Curia during the Holocaust is now at stake, with many still unanswered questions. Why did Pius XII not join the Allies’ protest in December 1942 against the extermination of the Jews?

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