'OPERATION WOLF': PIUS XII AND 'CREATIVE HISTORY'
Hubert Wolf’s Claims About Pius XII and the Vatican Archives.
A Response by a Fellow Historian and Researcher.
by Matteo Luigi Napolitano(*)
1. The Story
Some media outlets (Die Zeit, Kirche+Leben, Religion News Service) have recently reported the following: “German researchers” led by University of Münster’s Professor Hubert Wolf, “found that the Pope [Pius XII]… knew from his own sources about Berlin’s death campaign,” but kept “this from the U.S. government after an aide argued that Jews and Ukrainians — his main source of information — could not be trusted because they lied and exaggerated.”
It is astonishing to see how the media bought into this story, which was based soley on Wolf’s brief visit to the Vatican archives, along with his assistants.
Usually responsible journalists asserted that, in just five days, Wolf and his group had learned the worst about Pius XII, specifically, his alleged indifference to the tragic fate of Jews during the Holocaust.
Before examining this charge, you should know that before the recent release of the remaining archives of Pius XII’s pontificate (1939-1958), papal scholars had been waiting patiently for them. Between 1965 and 1981, the Holy See published 11 massive volumes from Pius XII’s pontificate, covering the War years—known as Actes et Documents du Saint Siege relatifs a la Seconde Guerre Mondiale [Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relative to the Second World War]. They were edited by four distinguished Jesuit scholars.
Though Actes et Documents constitute only a selection of documents from Pius XII’s pontificate, they are nonetheless essential for understanding the Holy See’s many activities during World War II and the Holocaust.
The Actes et Documents were and remain highly praised by scholars who have taken the time to study them, especially those who can read the original languages involved (mainly Italian, German, French, Latin and English).
As of March 2, 2020, thanks to the painstaking work of the Vatican’s archivists, the millions of remaining documents from Pius XII’s pontificate-- having been verified, filed, and catalogued-- were opened to qualified researchers, as authorized by Pope Francis.
It is proper that Pius XII’s pontificate be carefully evaluated by experts in papal history. It is unrealistic, however, to assume that, in just five days (before the new archives were temporarily closed due to the Coronavirus), a group of young scholars, led by Professor Wolf-- now known more for his headline-making claims than his impartial scholarship-- discovered a motherlode of evidence revealing Pius XII’s indifference to the Holocaust and its unspeakable crimes.
Given the severity of the charge, it’s imperative to focus on the specific accusation: Wolf and his group reportedly discovered a document proving that Pope Pius XII was aware of the Holocaust well in advance of others, but he hid this information from the U.S. government after an aide advised him not to believe it. The aide, according to the accusation, claimed that the Jewish and Ukrainian sources, who drafted the memo, either exaggerated reality or were dishonest.
2. Wolf’s anti-Pius roadmap
The timeline and roadmap Wolf outlines to support his charge runs as follows:
a) On September 27, 1942, Ambassador Myron Taylor (President Roosevelt’s personal liaison with the Pope), submitted a memo to the Vatican Secretariat of State about a Jewish massacre in Warsaw’s Ghetto. The memo came from a Geneva-based Jewish Agency for Palestine and reported the killing of 100,000 Jews in Warsaw and/or its surrounding area, adding that another 50,000 Jews had been killed in Lviv, in German-occupied Ukraine.
b) An internal note written by a Vatican official indicated Pope Pius XII read the document.
c) In addition, that Vatican official received two other notes similar to the story outlined in Myron Taylor’s memo:
i) A letter from the Lviv Archbishop Andrey Sheptytsky, of August 1942, reporting that 200,000 Jews had been killed by the Nazis in Ukraine.
ii) A memo regarding a conversation held in mid-September 1942 between Mgr. Montini and IRI (Istituto per la Ricostruzione Italiana) official Count Malvezzi, where the latter described horrific killings of Jews he had witnessed during his recent stay in Warsaw. Mgr. Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) reported the gist of this conversation to Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Luigi Maglione.
Despite being aware of what was happening in Warsaw and Lviv, Wolf argues, Pius XII told Myron Taylor the Vatican couldn’t confirm the news received from Geneva by the US Ambassador.
Why did the Pope say this? According to Wolf, the answer lies in an unpublished document he claims to have discovered in the Vatican archives during his five-day stint there.
Wolf says that document shows that a papal aide, Mgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua — after reviewing the Jewish Agency’s memo and the letter sent by Archbishop Sheptytsky — advised against giving them credence since both Jewish and Eastern informers exaggerated, and were likely dishonest. This opinion, Wolf concludes, convinced the Vatican to keep Sheptytsky and Malvezzi’s reports secret, and respond to Ambassador Myron Taylor in a misleading way, saying the contents of the memo issued by the Jewish Agency in Geneva could not be confirmed.
Wolf adds that Dell’Acqua’s memo does not appear in the aforementioned Actes et Documents [hereafter, referenced as the “ADSS”]. He clearly believes this was a deliberate omission by the ADSS’s Jesuit editors, since the Dell’Acqua memo could embarrass the Vatican, proving the Pope knew about the Jewish massacres in advance, yet remained silent. In fact, Wolf says, “this is a key document that has been kept hidden from us because it is clearly anti-Semitic and shows why Pius XII did not speak out against the Holocaust […]. That’s why we have to be skeptical about the whole 11-volume series and check it against the archive document by document.” He concludes that “these 11 volumes break up the context in which the documents are found in the archive. The result is that one can no longer understand how they relate to each other.”
3. The problems with Wolf’s interpretation
Dr. Michael Hesemann and I, alongside Wolf’s team, were among the few researchers to have access to the new Pius XII archives on the day they were opened. Just as Wolf (who, ironically, is a Catholic priest), and the other scholars received fresh archives to examine, we were told that they would be temporarily closed due to the pandemic.
This is why Wolf’s allegation, so breathlessly reported by the media, after only five days of research, lacks credibility. Numerous other scholars who are very knowledgeable about the events in question, were never given a chance to respond to Wolf’s supposed revelation --at least in the aforementioned media outlets, whose knowledge about Pius XII’s pontificate and the archives is alarmingly shallow.
4. Serious Questions and Criticisms of Wolf’s Accusation
The first question involves Mgr. Dell’Acqua and his unpublished memo. Even though Wolf depicts Dell’Acqua as a major counsellor to Pius XII, he was not anything close to that. In the Vatican hierarchy, he was a minutante of the First Section of the Vatican Secretariat of State – in the initial stage of his Vatican diplomatic career; his statements and/or advice, therefore, would have been filtered and approved by his direct superiors (i.e., Mgr. Tardini). Consequently, an awareness of this background, and the Vatican documents surrounding these events, are essential, for they reveal no evidence of a cause and effect relationship between Dell’Acqua’s memo and a papal lack of confirmation regarding news coming from Geneva. There is no evidence that Pius’ opinions were influenced by a minutante. Moreover, there is no proof that Pius XII even read Dell’Acqua’s remarks about the unreliability of news regarding massacres in Poland and Ukraine, despite claims to the contrary.
In addition, a low-ranking Vatican minutante, not acquainted with a mature and proper understanding of Eastern-rite Catholics, could make erroneous assumptions about them, as he evidently did here, including Cardinal Sheptysky --a man highly respected by Pius XII, and in no way considered “suspect.”
There are additional weaknesses in Hubert Wolf’s assertions, particularly the Holy See’s actual ability to confirm details of all the harrowing reports it received during the War. For instance, consider Count Malvezzi. Was Malvezzi, however well-intentioned, reliable when communicating all the actual events in Warsaw? And did Malvezzi’s information even reach U.S. Ambassador Myron Taylor?
A third discrepancy in Wolf’s theory is his misreading and mistranslation of Mgr. Dell’Acqua’s memo. Michael Hesemann has already provided a far more accurate translation of the key line in Dell’Acqua’s memo: “It is necessary to make sure they [news accounts from Geneva] be true, since exaggerations often happen, even among the Jews.” Note the precise phrasing here: the aide is not claiming that the Jewish community, by nature, cannot be trusted—as Wolf’s tendentious reading would have us believe—but rather, that in times of war, it is very easy for even honorable people and organizations—in this case, leading Jewish ones-- to make innocent mistakes, which explains the memo in an entirely different light.
The full Dell’Acqua note of 2nd October 1942 (in ARSR, AA.EE.SS., Extracta, Germania 742, f. 25) says the following:
“No doubt the news contained in the letter by Ambassador Taylor is very serious. But it is necessary to make sure it is true, since exaggerations often happen, even among the Jews. It is not enough, in my humble opinion, to rely upon information given by the Catholic Ruthenian Metropolitan Bishop of Lviv and by Signor Malvezzi (even Easterners are not unique in matters of sincerity). If the news is proven true, it is appropriate to proceed with great prudence, when confirming it to Mr. Tittmann. For this move also seems to have a political (if not purely political) motive by the American government, which could also give publicity to an eventual confirmation by the Holy See; and this could have unpleasant consequences not only for the Holy See, but also for those Jews in the hands of the Germans, who could worsen the hateful and barbaric measures taken against them. “(emphasis added).
In a nutshell, Dell’Acqua did not advise keeping the information secret, but rather, passing it on to Taylor with warnings about possible inaccuracy and non-verifiability. But, most important, it is erroneous and even reckless to suggest that Dell’Acqua’s memo was not included in the 11-volume series of Vatican wartime documents since it was a “key document that has been kept hidden because it is clearly anti-Semitic.” On the contrary, as is evident by the memo — properly translated, in its entirety, and not by selective and imprecise quotations — Dell’Acqua was concerned about the serious “consequences” that could result by politicizing a grave humanitarian situation and what it could trigger reprisals “not only for the Holy See but also for those Jews in the hands of the Germans, who could worsen the hateful and barbaric measures taken against them.”
Reading these powerful words on behalf of persecuted Jews, how could any fair-minded person possibly maintain that Mgr. Dell’Acqua was an anti-Semite, and that his anti-Semitism was the reason his memo was not published in the ADSS?
Another striking failure by Wolf is that he doesn’t realize that even the memo from the Jewish Agency for Palestine contained inaccuracies. Myron Taylor’s letter claims he personally took that memo to the Vatican Secretariat of State on September 27, 1942. Cardinal Maglione was not in the office, but Montini forwarded the letter to the Pope. Soon after Cardinal Maglione read it, he asked: “I don’t believe we’ve received information, confirming – in detail – this shocking news. Isn’t that so?”
Maglione’s aides answered. “We also heard this from Malvezzi» (ADSS, vol. 8, doc. 493).
Malvezzi was an IRI clerk who was in Warsaw for business and in close contact with Mgr. Montini, whom he met on September 18, 1942. Montini summarized their conversation as follows: “In the last weeks, there are two remarkable serious facts: the bombings of Polish cities by Russians and the systematic massacres of Jews. Massacres of Jews have reached dreadful dimensions and appalling forms. Incredible slaughters happen every day; it seems that in mid-October they want to empty Ghettos of hundreds of thousands who are unhappy and languishing, in order to make room for Poles driven out of their own homes….”
So the main question is this: was the Jewish Agency memo relayed by the Ambassador—in good faith, no doubt-- accurately reporting the situation, and more importantly, could it be confirmed by the Holy See? If we study that document carefully, we see that many important details were not verifiable or accurate.
For instance, the memo said all the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto were being liquidated. The massacres that the memo reported on were not taking place in Warsaw but in Belzek and Lemberg, where 50,000 Jews had been killed. But after a few lines, as in a Matryoshka doll, the memo itself contained another memo claiming massacres had been perpetrated in Warsaw and that 100,000 Jews were killed. Furthermore, the Jewish Agency for Palestine added: “There is not one Jew left in the entire district east of Poland, including occupied Russia.” This information was obviously mistaken –since many Jews still resided in territories reported to have been emptied; and the numbers of killings were entirely different; and so were the locations of the massacres. (Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic papers, 1942, Europe 1942, vol. II, pp. 775-776).
Hence, if the Vatican could not confirm the contrasting news it received, it does not mean that Pius XII wished to keep the information secret from the U.S. Indeed, when we follow the whole story further, we learn that Vatican leadership decided upon the following actions vis-à-vis Myron Taylor: “To prepare a brief note essentially stating that the Holy See has received news about severe mistreatments against the Jews, but that it could not verify the exactitude of all the information and details received. On the other hand, whenever such reports have been received and confirmed, the Holy See has not missed the opportunity to intervene.”
The conclusion is that Ambassador Myron Taylor was not kept in the dark about information the Vatican had received regarding Jewish massacres. The only limitation was a caution that the reported news could not be verified for accuracy.
If we move beyond Vatican sources to others, we discover that in regard to the news about the Holocaust, Pope Pius XII behaved conscientiously and responsibly, as other respected wartime leaders did.
Gerhart Riegner was a German lawyer and a Jewish emigrant to Switzerland, who worked in the World Jewish Congress’ Swiss headquarters during the war. Riegner became famous for his memo of August 8, 1942, which he intended to forward to British and American Jews alarming them of the Holocaust that he had learned about from the German industrialist Edward Schulte, and other sources.
Riegner’s dispatch (intercepted by the British Legation in Berne) said that “in the Führer's Headquarters, a plan has been discussed, and is under consideration, according to which all Jews in countries occupied or controlled by Germany numbering 3 1/2 to 4 million should, after deportation and concentration in the East, be in one blow exterminated in order to resolve, once and for all, the Jewish question in Europe.” The action was reported “to be planned for the autumn” and that “ways of execution were (my italics) still being discussed including the use of prussic acid.”
It continues: “We transmit this information with all the necessary reservations as exactitude cannot be confirmed by us;” even if “our informant is reported to have close connections with the highest German authorities, and his reports are generally reliable” (emphasis added: See PRO file FO.371/30917).
The closing remarks casting doubt about the accuracy of the report came directly from Riegner’s superior at the World Jewish Congress, the international lawyer, Paul Guggenheim, who preemptively ordered Riegner not to mention the existence of a huge crematorium and to make clear that the accuracy of the information received could not be checked and verified.
We now know that certain Allied agents tried to block the dissemination of Riegner’s memo. But there is more. In strange synchronicity with the Jewish memo relayed by Myron Taylor in September of 1942, the President of the American Jewish Congress confessed his personal doubts about the truthfulness of Riegner’s memo (See Breitman, Official Secrets, p.144).
All of which indicates that one of the most reliable sources on the Holocaust during the Second World War, the World Jewish Congress in Geneva, placed itself under close scrutiny about the news it was receiving, because of the need for verification before dissemination.
If we move to American documents, we make another interesting discovery. During the Summer of 1943, the Allies were preparing a statement against Nazi atrocities in Poland – a demarche urgently requested by Jewish Agencies in the U.S., UK, and elsewhere. While preparing this demarche with special attention to the wording, Washington received from London the following news: “At the suggestion of the British Government which says there is insufficient evidence to justify the statement regarding execution in gas chambers, it has been agreed to eliminate the last phrase in paragraph 2 of the Declaration on German Crimes in Poland beginning ‘where’ and ending ‘chambers’ thus making the second paragraph end with ‘concentration camps.’ Please inform the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the change in text.” (FRUS, 1943, III. pp. 416-417).
As a consequence, the final text of the US-UK Declaration on German Crimes in Poland reads as follows:
“Trustworthy information has reached the United States Government regarding the crimes committed by the German invaders against the population of Poland. Since the autumn of 1942 a belt of territory extending from the province of Bialystok southward along the line of the River Bug has been systematically emptied of its inhabitants. In July 1943 these measures were extended to practically the whole of the province of Lublin, where hundreds of thousands of persons have been deported from their homes or exterminated.
These measures are being carried out with the utmost brutality. Many of the victims are killed on the spot. The rest are segregated. Men from 14 to 50 are taken away to work for Germany. Some children are killed on the spot; others are separated from their parents and either sent to Germany to be brought up as Germans, sold to German settlers or dispatched with the women and old men to concentration camps.
The United States Government reaffirms its resolve to punish the instigators and actual perpetrators of these crimes. It further declares that, so long as such atrocities continue to be committed by the representatives and in the name of Germany, they must be taken into account against the time of the ﬁnal settlement with Germany. Meanwhile the war against Germany will be prosecuted with the utmost vigor until the barbarous Hitlerite-tyranny has been ﬁnally overthrown. (Department of State Bulletin, 1943, p. 150)
This document shows us that, in August 1943, the Allies decided to omit any mention of gas chambers in Poland since, in their judgment, no convincing proof of their existence could be produced and taken accurately at face value. Subsequently, the Allies have been accused of maintaining a guilty silence about the gravity and extent of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews in Poland. But, in fact, they reacted like the Holy See did. They needed to carefully verify all information coming from Europe, especially from German-occupied Poland. Having not received verifiable news about gas chambers and crematoria, Jewish warnings notwithstanding, the Allies chose not to disseminate such information in their reports or memos. When all of this is fairly considered, no one can legitimately claim that the World Jewish Congress or all the Allies be put under trial for their “silence” on crematoria and gas chambers.
Neither can Wolf’s judgement on the Holy See’s 11-volume wartime documents be taken seriously. As noted, Wolf argues that “we have to be skeptical about the whole 11-volume series and check it against the archive document by document,” since “these 11 volumes break up the context in which the documents are found in the archive. The result is that one can no longer understand how they relate to each other.”
Wolf’s erroneous assumptions and errors must be corrected.
First, an edited series of archival documents never reproduces all the archives exhaustively. Archives remain archives while edited series reproduce an abundance of crucial papers, but not the archives as a whole.
Secondly, Wolf is seriously mistaken in assuming that the ADSS should now be disregarded as a reliable source of primary documents, simply because some documents (which, as we have seen, Wolf grossly misrepresents) are not included-- even if they are now available in the Vatican archives (which proves that nothing was concealed to researchers by the Jesuit editors to begin with).
In his irrepressible zeal to question the validity of the ADDS, and the integrity of the four Jesuits who edited them, Wolf forgets that his flawed line of reasoning could be used to indict any series of primary documents, however well-established and acclaimed. How many primary source collections could resist the objection that they “break up the context in which the documents are found in the archives”?
In fact, many series of edited documents leave themselves open to such a criticism. American and British ones are thematic and chronological, the Italian documents from the War are chronological, but became thematic a few years ago; the Germany’s are chronological, and so on. Editing work has been subject to momentous changes and fine-tunings, from the paper-era to digitalization; hence the process has not always been as uniform, much less as perfect, as Wolf imagines.
Last but not least, the ADSS series was produced under special circumstances –following the anti-Pius uproar after the appearance of Saul Friedländer’s, Pius XII and the Third Reich, which published documents from the German archives for the first time. Though in a highly partial and biased way. But an authoritative response from the Holy See soon came.
Pope Montini—now St. Paul VI-- ordered the four Jesuit scholars to prepare a documentary collection of Vatican documents on the Second World War. The work was completed and published, more quickly than the Vatican normally declassifies its sensitive internal documents. As mentioned, the series was amply praised by historians, as it was full of indispensable primary source documents coming from many different States and international agencies. The ADSS allowed scholars to get a solid, first-hand impression about the general lines of Vatican diplomacy and its manifold humanitarian efforts on behalf of persecuted Jews and other endangered people during the Second World War. Today--despite Wolf’s efforts to denigrate them-- the ADSS remain among the most important wartime documentary collections in the world.
This point is connected to the recent opening of the Vatican archives on Pius XII.
While in the Vatican Apostolic Archive a great re-ordering was underway, the historical archive of the Sezione Rapporti con gli Stati of the Vatican Secretariat of State records on Pius XII, were digitalized by mirroring their original archival order. In particular, the dossier containing Dell’Acqua’s memo was re-ordered before 2010 by applying the so-called “historical method.” This was followed by the former Director of the archive, intervening on the original order of the records. This means a high probability exists that the digitalized files of that archive could unveil many surprises to researchers concerned with our overall theme.
4. In conclusion…
Obtaining truth from historical archives is an undertaking much more complex than reviewing them for merely five days. It is virtually impossible, in fact, for any scholar or group of scholars to accomplish this task in such a short period of time.
In March, Wolf’s sensational story was reported by various media as if everything he said about Pius XII and the Vatican archives was true and beyond reproach—when, in reality, as we have seen -- his allegations were anything but that.
Painstakingly obtaining historical truth is something quite different—much more complicated and more challenging. It ultimately demands time, patience, dedication and the capacity to research, examine and fairly evaluate millions of newly released documents.
Once the Coronavirus finally passes, we ca'OPERATION WOLF': PIUS XII AND 'CREATIVE HISTORY'
n reevaluate Wolf’s claims even more critically and recapture that serene and impartial spirit which all responsible scholarship demands-- especially on a historical subject as vital as this one.
(*) Professor of International History, Diplomacy and International Relations at the University of Molise, Italy. International Delegate of the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, Vatican City.
English Version edited by William Doino © 2020 New York City