13 April 2019

Pope Pius XII and Benito Mussolini - opening the papal files

Beginning in 1965, 12 volumes containing thousands of Papal documents were published. Many suspected that the Jesuit editors selected out documents unflattering to the Church, but the volumes did show that following Mussolini’s over-throw in 1943, the pope’s Jesuit emissary urgently sought out the new government’s justice minister. While the Vatican thought the anti-Semitic racial laws that the Fascist government had enacted several years earlier had many good qualities and should be retained, they stated that the government should no longer take baptised Jews to their demise.

Decades later, John Cornwell published his book Hitler's Pope, the Secret History of Pius XII (2000). Pope Pius, who  reigned 1939-58, was exposed as displaying culpable pass­ivity in the face of the persecution of Italian Jews.

In the book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (2015), author David Kertzer announced that the Catholic church was generally portrayed as the courageous opp­onent of Fascism, but it wasn’t always true.  Kertzer argued that much of Fascist ideology was inspired by Cath­olic tradition – authoritarianism, intolerance of opposition and profound suspicion of the Jews. It certainly found a soft spot with Pope Pius. The accession of Benito Mussolini (Duce 1925–1943) didn't augur well for the papacy - the Fascist squads had been terrorising clerics. But Mu­ss­olini wanted to use the church to legitimise his power. So after two generations of secularism, there were again crucifixes in It­aly's public facilities. Slowly the Pope became persuaded that, with Mussolini's help, Italy might become a Catholic state again.

Pope Pius XII

In Jan 1938, Mussolini called 2,000+ priests and bishops to par­tic­ipate in a celebration of his policies. The Pope feared off­end­ing the dictator so the priests marched in procession through Rome and laid wreaths on a monument to Fascist heroes. They saluted Mussol­ini as he stood on his bal­cony. That the Fascists used Cath­ol­ic rituals could perhaps be taken as a compliment to the church, but not to rec­ruit its priests for the worship of a Duce. It was easy to manipulate the Church, Mussolini told his allies in Nazi Germany.

The Vatican believed its first priority had to be to pro­tect the institutional Church; everything else came second. Pius was concerned that the Fascists could work against the Church, and so did what he did to work against their power base, without taking into account the help­less victims caught in the middle. Presumably Mussolini granted favours to enhance the role of the church in Italy, and the Pope saw many advantages to be gained from a strong and sympathetic government in Rome.

After decades of controversy, Pope Francis has finally said he’d be opening the Vatican’s sealed archives from the WW2 papacy of Pius XII. Papal archives are trad­it­ionally opened 70+ years after a pope’s death, meaning no one ex­pected the secrets of Paul XII, who died in 1958, to be made ac­ces­sible until 2028. By decid­ing to open them early, Francis ackn­ow­ledged that the archives of Pius may not be entirely fav­ourable, but he claimed the Church wants true history. Francis said Pius had “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence.”

It is indisput­able that thousands of Jewish people were dragged from their homes in Rome and taken to camps under the shadow of the Vatican. In one incident in Oct 1943, 2,000+ Italian Jews were taken away, of whom only 16 survived.

Some Catholics authors claimed the Pope may actually have helped save Jewish lives by not condemning Hitler publicly. Historian Mark Riebling, author of Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler (in 2015), documented how Pope Pius XII chose to resist Adolf Hitler with co­vert action, in lieu of overt protest. He drew on wartime docum­ents and interviews with American intelligence agents to tell how Pope Pius XII secretly provided support for three attempts to overthrow Hitler.

Other scholars studying the WW2 pope’s actions have argued that the Vatican did absolutely nothing to stop the atrocities. So Pope Francis, who met the International Jewish Committee on Inter Religious Consultation regarding the opening of the Roman archives, lamented rec­ent anti-Semitism. With study, Francis said, scholars would find the small flame lit of human­itarian initiat­ives, of hidden but active diplomacy - dur­ing periods of the greatest darkness and cruelty.

And Lorenzo Cremonesi,  a member of the Vatican-appointed commission of Catholics and Jews, revealed that Pius XII knew about the Holo­caust as early as June 1942. Yet he cautioned against giving the Catholic Church credit for the initiatives of local churches in many count­ries who on their own took action to save their Jews. Cremonesi said Pius XII was very open to the German cause; not to Hitler but to Germ­any. This was because he saw the Germans as a bastion against the Communists, the Comm­un­ists being the primary concern of the Vat­ican.


German Pope Benedict XVI endorsed Pius for sainthood in 2009, but the process has stalled. So the opening of these archives early is a special favour to Pope Benedict, ill since he resigned in 2013. If the archives prove that Pius DID protect Jews, his cause for sainthood would advance. And Benedict would love to be alive for the beatification of Pius!

While it will take a long time for them to catalogue 17 million pages of documents in the central Vatican archives, will the Vatican be entirely open and honest? There would be no way to cover up huge gaps since many hist­or­ians are going to be checking the files against already available docum­ents, unless those record were destroyed long ago.


Mike@Bit About Britain said...

This is an intriguing article; most of it was news to me. I seriously doubt that we will ever know the full story about what happened to the millions of lost human beings during WW2. Which is kind of sick.

Hels said...


Emeritus Pope Benedict, who always supported Pope Pius’ innocence during the war, has consistently believed that Pius worked behind the scenes to protect Jews. I am thus afraid that the people who open the war time documents will select, publish and analyse mainly those documents that support Emeritus Pope Benedict's views (since he is still alive).

The current Pope Francis is brave and honest, but I think he should be very worried as well.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Hels! I do have a copy of Hitler’s Pope somewhere among my clutter. Hopefully I’ll find it soon, as I de-clutter!

I’m afraid I would offer those who believe in Pius’s innocence this bridge I happen to own and want to sell. But I imagine that the Church would rather not look bad, and you are probably right about the cherry picking - a bit like the Mueller report in the US, which is unikely to be released in its entirety any time soon.

If that man becomes a saint, just to please an ex-Pope, I am going to be very angry.

Hels said...


I read John Cornwell's book "Hitler's Pope, the Secret History of Pius XII" and thought it was very well presented. But the title was exaggerated. If Pope Pius had been merely passive and uncaring, he was not Hitler's own pope. If Pius was an active collaborator, we would have more explicit evidence already.

You are spot on about the Mueller report to the American Congress (and people?). The President and anyone else threatened by Mueller's findings will make sure the complete report is hidden, redacted or destroyed, and Mueller and his staff will end up unemployable :( Julian Assange will be gaoled for life or executed by the Americans for a similar reason :(

Deb said...

My parents lost their entire family on both sides in Poland. The Catholic Church there did not listen to any instructions that might have been coming from the Vatican.

peppylady (Dora) said...

Catholic faith has some real ugly history behind. But all religion does. Look at Puritans here in America and Salem witch trials.
Coffee is on

Hels said...


Pope Pius (reigned 1939-58) issued an encyclical in Oct 1939 called "On the Unity of Human Society".This was the time when WW2 commenced with the Nazi/Soviet invasion of Catholic Poland. Without mentioning Jewish communities, Pius recommended Catholic resistance to: war, racism, the Nazi invasion of Poland and the persecutions of the Church.

It clearly failed. Perhaps Poland was not one of Pius' "cooperative nations" or perhaps his encyclical wasn't explicit enough to ensure the Jewish communities in Poland survived.

Hels said...


that is an interesting thought. I don't believe any authentic religions persecute communities and annihilate peoples for God's Sake. But I am sure leaders, administrators and generals do, often for political or military reasons.

The Salem Witch Trials were hideous, but not because God ordered the women dead. The town leaders and judges did :(

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I had not known that politics-as-usual was a criterion for beatification. If so, we had better start saving our money to buy plastic statuettes of St. Donald (no offense to the original St. Donald!). The Salem Witch trials not only injured Cotton Mather's historical reputation, but also damaged his credibility during his lifetime, and prevented his becoming president of Harvard College.

Andrew said...

**** the Catholic church. It has been evil in the past and is evil to this day. While I well may moan on about Muslims, the history of the Catholic Church is appalling and not getting better in third world countries even now

Hels said...


The evil doers may be caught up with, eventually, and they may have to pay a price with their careers (eg Rev Cotton Mather) or even their life (eg Adolf Eichmann). But largely the evil doers seem to live out their lives in relative comfort.

So the question becomes: what have we learned from these tragic events and can we prevent them from happening again? I suspect the answers are "not much" and "definitely not".

Hels said...


On the whole I really do think that most proper religions believe in forgiveness, protection of the innocents, the raising of children in loving families, respect for the elderly, care for the sick etc etc. The trouble is that religious leaders can be nasty, vicious or bigoted bastards who don't care much about the value of human life.

I can think of many examples, long before World War Two and the Holocaust. Consider the Crusades, for example.

bazza said...

I the light of the way that the world seems to be going today, this is depressing to read. The history of the Christian Church is littered with ancient wrongs but this is within living memory.
On the other hand, I was watching a programme on the History Channel which described how the people of Denmark, (including government, church and even Nazi officials!) helped many of their Jews escape to neutral Sweden during the war.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s madly munificent Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


It is such a dilemma. Pope Pius XII had no influence in Anglican or Calvinist countries, the countries that did relatively well in protecting their own citizens from Nazi extermination eg Denmark, Sweden etc. But what about those churches in the Eastern Orthodox communion?

On the other hand, the same Pope should have had great influence on his Church in Catholic countries, had he tried to exert that influence.

mem said...

There is no way they will be open and honest . They have a very long track record of end justifying the means . The end has always been the protection of the institution . We have sen that up close here in Australia and there is NO reason to believe they will be any different anywhere else. Maybe Pope Francis is doing this to ensure it actually happens under his watch so that the truth whatever that is will have a chance to come out . I don't believe Pope Francis is a"baddy " but certainly there are many who are and will obfuscate and interrupt as much as they can to hold up proceedings .Again we have a very good example of that behaviour languishing in prison . It would be wonderful though is it didi come out that he did make some very real efforts and might encourage the current Israelli government to show a little more decency in dealing with their own Palestinians.

Hels said...


Without knowing what is really in Pope Francis' mind, it seems he really does want to get to the truth about the late 1930s and 1940s. And even post-war, when the ratlines took Nazi escapees to South America _via the Vatican_.

But you are absolutely correct about protection of the institution. Who knows among the millions of documents whether the real history was:
1. never committed to writing
2. was written but since redacted, hidden separately or lost,
3. are found intact, yet withheld from Pope Francis.

Pope John Paul I died after 33 days on the papal throne. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that popes too can become unpopular and endangered, like anyone else.

Dr. F said...

Please excuse this late comment on your post about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. While you tried to express some balance, the subsequent comments reflect a lamentable degree of mis-information much of it stemming from John Cornwall’s book, Hitler’s Pope. Although much criticism led Cornwall to walk back much of his criticism of the Pope, the damage has been done.

Instead of Cornwall, I would refer your readers to “Three Popes and the Jews” by Pinchas Lapide, an Israeli diplomat who had also served in a Jewish commando unit during WWII. Lapide’s unit came upon thousands of Jews in southern Italy who had been sheltered and saved by the actions of Pius XII and the Catholic church during the war.

His experience during the war led Lapide to conduct a meticulous investigation of the activity of the Pope and his Nuncio’s in Europe during the war. His country by country investigation led to the conclusion that over 800000 Jews owed their survival to the Pope. More recent studies have only confirmed Lapide’s assessment.

I don’t know if Pius XII will ever be declared a saint but it is a real shame and disgrace that the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel has not seen fit to honor this man who saved over 800000 lives.

Hels said...

Dr F

I welcome late comments and am still learning about lecture topics and posts from decades ago :) I have not read “Three Popes and the Jews” by Pinchas Lapide but I can easily find it in my local Hebrew-English library.

Re the 800,000+ Jews who were saved by Pope Pius, they must have lived in many countries before and during the war. There were only 40,000-45,000 Italian Jews.

Dr. F said...

At the express direction of Pope Pius XII, Papal nuncios (ambassadors) worked all over Europe to save Jews from deportation to concentration camps or to provide them with exit visas to safety. Lapide detailed the extensive efforts not only in Italy but also in Slovakia, Hungary, Roumania, and Bulgaria. At the urging of the Pope even Fascist Spain became a haven for Jews. It is true that the Pope had little influence in Poland where the Nazi conquerors launched an all-out attack on the Catholic church before they could turn on the Jews. In Poland the Pope could not even save thousands of his own priests who were murdered or sent to camps to die.

If you can’t find Lapide’s book, a recent scholarly study by Professor Ronald Rychlak, “Hitler, the War, and the Pope,” provides an excellent account of the Pope’s activity as well as an examination of the critics of the Pope.

Hels said...

Dr F

Thank you for the extra reference. You will be keen to read the documents in the central Vatican archives, once they are published.

The Papal nuncios did very well in Slovakia and Romania, without a doubt. Bulgaria I know nothing about, but Hungary I do. It was probably as dangerous as Poland. My late father in law was the sole survivor out of two parents, two brothers, one sister in law, 7 children, 8 aunts and uncles, and 17 first cousins.