Misinterpreting Pius XII: an Essay by D.I. Kertzer- THE VATICAN FILES.NET - Storia - Testi - Documenti

Misinterpreting Pius XII: an Essay by D.I. Kertzer

Italian Version

For A New Historiographical Democracy:

The Opening of the Archives on Pius XII and the Prejudices to be Debunked (*)

Matteo Luigi Napolitano (**)


pio12_napolitano_orOver a year ago, scholars welcomed the decision of Pope Francis (on March 2, 2020) to open the archives from the pontificate of Pius XII—the Pope who governed the Church during an unprecedented time in the twentieth century, marked by the Second World War, the Shoah, reconstruction, new European hopes and the Cold War. Francis’s intention was to open a new season of studies on this subject. But as we know, the temporary closure of the archives, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, stopped research in its tracks, after only five days, until mid-June, when the Vatican archives reopened and then were closed again for the summer. At the moment, therefore, the actual amount of time which researchers had for working there on the new documents of Pius XII is estimated to be about forty days.

Nevertheless, some scholars rushed to present their conclusions after very limited research: one of these after just five days, before the closure due to Covid.

David Kertzer has just published in The Atlantic magazine an article entitled "The Pope, the Jews, and the Secrets in the Archives," as a preview to a longer essay which is in preparation. Among the topics covered: the situation of the Jews in 1943 and the case of the Finaly brothers, the two Jewish orphans baptized by a French Catholic woman.

For Kertzer, the silence of Pope Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli) determined the sad fate of the Jews in the concentration camps, condemning Pacelli to a damming memory in times to come.

Kertzer maintains that the new Vatican papers not only confirm this "silence" of Pius XII during the Shoah, but reveal the anti-Semitism of the Church and "the role it played in making possible the mass extermination of European Jews perpetrated by the Nazis."

These are strong but unproven claims. If the strategic plan is to prove the threadbare thesis about the silence and anti-Semitism of Pius XII, why even open the archives? Why engage in long and involved years of investigation and commentary?

A second thesis of Kertzer is that the 11-volume series published as the Actes et Documents du Saint-Siège rélatifs à la seconde guerre Mondiale (The Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relating to the Second World War, or the “ADSS” for short), created in 1965 after the first controversies about Pius XII, reveals the malicious omissions of the editors (the four Jesuit Fathers Pierre Blet, Robert Graham, Angelo Martini and Burkhart Schneider). Such omissions would be clear in the ninth volume, which concerns the victims of war in 1943 and, in particular, the Nazi raid on Rome’s Jews on October 16, 1943.

The weakness of Kertzer’s thesis is obvious. The ADSS came to be when the Vatican’s millions of wartime documents remained unorganized and uncatalogued—in a state of archival chaos -- amidst the first controversies about the "silence" of Pius XII. The editors had to give scholars "the other side" of the history of Pius XII in an essential, albeit not exhaustive, way. The situation of 1965, however, is not even remotely comparable to that of 2020. Today the Vatican archives from Pius XII’s pontificate (1939-1958), now fully organized and available—after years of painstaking work by the Vatican’s archivists, it should be noted -- allow us to find the desired papers immediately; no one could have achieved this in the 1960's.

Consequently there is no malice in the Vatican’s original 11-volume Actes et Documents, but only the classic limitation that is encountered in archives that are not yet organized, a situation not uncommon. In Italy, for example, it was necessary to wait until the end of the 1980s for the main archive of "the diplomat Mussolini" to be reorganized, once it was discovered in the palace of a Roman noble. It follows that the first volumes of Italian documents on the subject, released three decades earlier, have been affected by significant gaps in the face of subsequent discoveries.

But a decisive denial of Kertzer’s thesis is a very important source: the diary of one of the four ADSS’ editors, Father Robert Graham, which was discovered in the United States. On the date of October 20, 1973 (volumes VIII and IX of the ADSS were being assembled) we read: "At this moment I have the bozze [original in Italian]of volume VIII, humanitarian work for 1943. Schneider says I should now prepare the introduction, which will have to be very good, because of the nature of the documentation, naturally on the Jewish question and relief in Rome. I said there is the whole documentation of letters sent to the Pope after 16 Oct (none of which indicated the knowledge of what was in store). And then the whole list of appeals [for the] brothers, arrested in the fall of 43". Are these very private notes by Father Graham compatible with the thesis that the ninth volume of the ADSS is full of malicious omissions?

We now come to a corollary of Kertzer's thesis. He states that the Vatican always adopted anti-Semitic language in preparing its official documents. The reference is in particular to Monsignor Angelo Dell' Acqua, a minutant (clerk) of the Secretariat of State, who later became Secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs and finally Bishop and Cardinal Vicar of Rome. For Kertzer, it was Dell' Acqua who convinced the Pope not to protest against the Germans after the deportation of the Roman Jews, as was asked instead by Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, the Jesuit known for having negotiated the Lateran Pacts. Kertzer cites two unpublished notes, reproduced in the appendix to his article. One dating back to mid-December 1943, by Father Tacchi Venturi; the other by Monsignor Angelo Dell' Acqua, dated 20 December 1943.

Tacchi Venturi had prepared a verbal note on the Jewish situation in Italy, which he said was not serious, as in other countries, due to both the limited number of Jews present in the Kingdom and the large number of mixed marriages. In short, there was no "real feeling of distrust of the Jews." There was no "Aryan environment decidedly hostile to the Jewish environment". Many Jews had in the past reached "very high positions" now lost; several had been Senators, others were related to important families "of pure Aryan lineage." Others had fought for Italy, from the "Risorgimento" (Italian unification) to the March on Rome. This is why the Italians detested the German practices "against Jews born in Italy and provided with Italian citizenship". From this Tacchi Venturi observed that the Church could not remain silent "without failing in its divine mission".

The text by Tacchi Venturi (prot. 7769/43) was given on December 19, 1943, by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Luigi Maglione, to his assistant, Domenico Tardini, during an audience (the acronym "Eae" in the accompanying sheet means Ex audientia Eminentissimi; and not Eadem, as Kertzer reports in the appendix). Tardini entrusted it to Dell' Acqua with the following comment: "It seems to me that in this verbal note there is much verbosity and dissonant notes!"

Dell' Acqua studied the document and made some remarks. "One thing is the persecution of the Jews which the Holy See rightly deplores, especially when it is carried out with certain methods; and it is quite another thing to be wary of the influence of the Jews: this may be a very opportune thing." It was therefore necessary to make distinctions, according to Dell’Acqua : having disagreements with the Jewish community, over theology or public affairs, for example, did not mean remaining passive or “silent” about the brutal Nazi persecutions against them. Was this an anti-Semitic attitude, as Kertzer seriously alleges? The actual text of his thoughts reveals something quite different. Dell' Acqua wondered why he would limit himself to intervening on behalf of Jews of Italian citizenship, but not on behalf of any foreigners, both Jewish and Catholic, many of whom were also living in Italy at the time?

Dell'Acqua then asked whether it was right to speak openly in an official note about the mistreatment inflicted on Jews by the Germans, and their shameful ways, as Tacchi Venturi suggested. From this Kertzer pinpoints evidence of Dell'Acqua's anti-Semitism and of the "silence of the Church." But the truth is read immediately afterwards: "I don't think expressions of this kind can serve to achieve the purpose.” And what was the purpose, two months after October 16, 1943? Do not compromise the network of aid that had been activated throughout Rome, by the Holy See and its companions, to ensure that Jews and targeted people of all sorts escape arrest and deportation. Astonishingly, Kertzer takes no account of this important fact.

Dell'Acqua also observed that on several occasions Pius XII had already spoken out against racism and the "racial question" in messages and speeches. But was it appropriate to threaten a new intervention? "Won't it get the opposite effect?" If we return to the "Nazi Rome" of 1943, the meaning of this question will be better understood. The aim was ad maiora mala vitanda: to avoid worse evils, two months after the "black Saturday," of October 16th, when the Nazis raided Rome’s Jewish quarters. One word too many, and the rescue network in Rome would be broken forever. We know that on the morning of October 16, 1943—though Kertzer also astoundingly omits this fact, even though it is proven in volume 9 of the ADSS (see, “Notes du Cardinal Maglione,” document 368, pp. 505-506)  -- Pope Pius XII ordered Secretary of State Maglione to summon the German ambassador Ernst von Weizsäcker, asking him to stop the raid, “in the name of humanity, in Christian charity,” emphasizing the Pope’s deep concern for the persecuted Jews three times. The ambassador warned that the order came from the highest place, and he asked Cardinal Maglione what the Holy See would do if the raid were to be continued. Maglione's response was the following: "The Holy See must not be put in a position where it is forced to protest: if the Holy See were obliged to do so, it would rely, for the consequences, on Divine Providence."

Kertzer then forgets that the aired Vatican protest is reflected in the English archives. In fact, on October 31, 1943, the British minister in the Vatican Osborne wrote to his Government: "As soon as he heard of the arrests of Jews in Rome Cardinal Secretary of State sent for the German Ambassador and formulated some [sort?] of protest. The Ambassador took immediate action, with the result that large numbers were released…Vatican intervention thus seems to have been effective in saving a number of these unfortunate people. I enquired whether I might report this and was told that I might do so but strictly for your information and on no account for publicity, since any publication of information would probably lead to renewed persecution."

It is also highly significant (though Kertzer appears entirely unaware of it) that Michael Tagliacozzo, a leading authority in Jewish studies and himself a survivor of Nazi raid of Rome’s Jews, testified that because of Pius XII’s intervention, the great majority of Rome’s Jews (over 80%) were saved, commenting: “I know that many criticize Pope Pacelli [Pius XII]. I have a folder on my table in Israel entitled, ‘Calumnies Against Pius XII,’ but my judgment cannot but be positive. Pope Pacelli was the only one who intervened to impede the deportation of Jews on October 16, 1943, and he did very much to hide and save thousands of us. It was no small matter that he ordered the opening of cloistered convents. Without him, many of our own would not be alive.”

In the files of Yad Vashem’s Archives there is more. In answering to some questions of historian Meir Michaelis about the Vatican’s role in Nazi roundup in Rome, Tagliacozzo said: "During that period the Church preferred to alleviate the sufferings of the victims through reserved diplomatic acts on a local level - this in parallel with a tireless work of rescue and assistance. This was done in increasingly harder conditions, due to restrictions imposed by the occupying forces and for other serious causes - not least the Vatican non-recognition of the Italian Social Republic's Government. Instead, the Vatican maintained, as it is known, diplomatic relations with the Southern Kingdom only. However, discreet collaboration with the monarchic Government did actualize even by sanctuary given, in one of its extraterritorial zones, to the clandestine Italian Committee for the National Liberation led by Ivanoe Bonomi".

Kertzer does not even take into account the diary of the Slovakian ambassador, Karl Sidor (published by Peter Slepćan and Róbert Letz); and this additional omission is particularly regrettable, since this diary has an important page on the date of October 31, 1943. Sidor noted: "Fr. Prešeren [one of Father General Ledóchowski's assistants for the Slavic provinces of the Society of Jesus] made known a very interesting thing. On the orders of the Holy Father, more than one hundred Jews and Italian officers are hidden in the Jesuit Generalate. Likewise, Jews with their entire families are hidden in every convent. The Holy Father provides for their nourishment. Money and food arrive from the Vatican. This is very important news. This is the way the Vatican is dealing with the Jews. The Germans know this and it cannot be ruled out that it is done with the awareness of some complicit Germans. Not only that, all of Rome knows it, and also where they are hidden. The Germans have not yet decided to attack the convents and will not even have the courage to do so. The world would rebel not so much in defense of the Jews as of the convents."

As we can see, by broadening the gaze synoptically to other archives and documents, less narrow panoramas are discovered.

It should also be added that Monsignor Dell'Acqua "rejected" Tacchi Venturi's proposal for another reason: the Vatican had already written on the "racial question" twice in confidence to the German ambassador to the Holy See. A first letter to get information on the Jews deported from Rome; a second letter asking not to proceed with the arrest and confiscation of the properties of the Jews of Venezia Giulia (the operational area controlled by Hitler). Kertzer is silent about these two confidential letters; but there is ample trace of it in the aforementioned ninth volume of the ADSS. Dell'Acqua therefore thought it appropriate to write again to the German ambassador to the Vatican on the tragic situation of the Jews; and he suggested (Kertzer again overlooks) that some influential person should approach Marshal Graziani (Minister of War of the Italian Social Republic), to advise Mussolini to act with caution on the Jewish question. "But we should also let the Jewish Signori know to speak a little less and to act with great prudence."

This last sentence of Dell'Acqua for Kertzer is yet more contemptuous proof of anti-Semitism. But it is not so if we keep in mind the lines that immediately precede it. Lastly, the unpublished documentation demonstrates that Tacchi Venturi's note never reached the Pope's desk.

On the Finaly case, regarding the two orphaned Jewish brothers, baptized by Catholic guardians and taken to Spain to escape French law which had assigned them to an Israeli aunt, Kertzer highlights the alleged insensitivity of the Holy See, whose relationship with the Jews would change, he claims, only with John XXIII, and later with Paul VI and Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate declaration.

Things are obviously much more complex if we look at the Jewish sources. We know from them that the bishop of Grenoble and the archbishop of Lyon collaborated with the judicial authorities in tracking down the Finaly brothers in Spain. A secret Jewish-Catholic agreement was then concluded on March 6, 1953. And the Jewish sources narrate that the French clergy have already intervened with the Spanish clergy and they are on the point of taking the children back home. From the same sources we know of a double register of French Judaism in the Finaly Affair: the Rabbinate wanted to maintain dialogue with the Vatican, while other organizations would have fought it publicly, to be exploited by the media.

That the picture is much more complex is proven by a witness such as Vittorio Segre, press officer at the Israeli Embassy in Paris at the time: "It is logical to assume that there was support from the Vatican for the initiative implemented by Cardinal Gerlier through Miss Ribière, former secretary of De Gaulle, charged with tracing the Finalys. The story has had a very strong impact in the press." And regarding this case, there was never "a conflict between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community." In fact, says Segre, "Miss Ribière worked in complete freedom, without encountering obstacles in the hierarchies. There were difficulties, but they came from a much lower level."

Another observation on Kertzer's essay concerns the "new Vatican documents available here reported for the first time." Tacchi Venturi's document, Kertzer presumably knows, was partially published in the ninth volume of the ADSS. In the unpublished dossier there is also an integral version in German: a sign that Tacchi Venturi was sure that the Vatican would approve it in whole or in part, to the point of preparing a version ready for Berlin. It is very strange that Kertzer does not inform us about this, since this document is found just one page after Dell'Acqua's memo. And the examples could continue: from the note of Monsignor Pizzardo on January 23, 1953 (published for the first time in French in 1998; and in Italian in 2005); to long-known documents about the events of Jewish children in 1945-46.

But there is more. Monsignor Dell'Acqua was for several months a close collaborator of Monsignor Roncalli (the future John XXIII) in Turkey. After entering the Secretariat of State, he was one of Pius XII's most faithful collaborators. Once elected, John XXIII consecrated him bishop in St. Peter's on December 27, 1958. Dell'Acqua would remain with Pope Roncalli, "a faithful executor of his will," assisting him in the reform of the Roman Curia. John XXIII also thwarted the attempt by the "most refractory curial circles" to remove Dell'Acqua by making him nuncio in Paris (thus Enrico Galavotti). Is it even conceivable that the "good Pope" John, so admired for his relations with the Jewish community, would have raised Dell'Acqua to the episcopal dignity if he had the slightest suspicion of any anti-Semitic inclinations in him? Is it even conceivable that Paul VI, the Pope who promulgated Nostra Aetate would have elevated an anti-Semite to the episcopacy on June 26, 1967, assigning him to the important function of Cardinal Vicar of Rome? These are discrepancies and inconsistencies that Kertzer does not resolve. But history, like nature, does not allow for leaps.

Regarding Pius XII we are at the dawn of a new season of studies which we hope will be long and fruitful. The efficiency with which the Vatican archives are accessible to scholars will certainly help. Think of the "digital democracy" experienced in the historical archive of the Secretariat of State, where every scholar now has access to all the papers on Pius XII in real time from his terminal, thus cutting the request and waiting times for dossiers and optimizing the process. It is a case more unique than rare and a model for other important archives in the world.

If the prospects for this new season of studies are what we hope for, from a new "digital democracy" will spring a new "democratic historiography" which will make the historical discussion of the events in question ever richer and more articulated.

(*) This is a slightly expanded English-language version of an essay which appeared in L’Osservatore Romano, September 4, 2020). I would like to thank Dr. Marilyn Mallory, for her full English translation of this slightly expanded article, as well as William Doino Jr. for his additional assistance.

(**) Professor of History of International Relations, University of Molise.