In the aftermath of World War II, the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust has been a subject of controversy and debate among historians and scholars. A recently unearthed letter among the private papers of Pope Pius XII, however, casts new light on the Pope’s knowledge of the Holocaust during the darkest days of the Nazi regime. This discovery reignites the ongoing discussion on the role of the Vatican and Pius XII during this grim period of human history.
The letter, found by Vatican archivist Giovanni Coco and discussed in an interview with Massimo Franco, was sent by anti-Nazi German Jesuit Lothar König to the Pope’s private secretary, Robert Leiber. It mentions the SS crematory oven in the Bełzec camp in German-occupied Poland and also refers to Auschwitz, although another report mentioned in the letter has not been found. This correspondence is crucial evidence of the flow of information about Nazi crimes reaching the Holy See during the genocide.
Previously, the Vatican may have considered the camps as merely concentration camps. However, the information provided by König went beyond that, as the letter describes the Bełzec “blast furnace” near Rava Rus’ka, where “up to 6,000 men, mainly Poles and Jews, die every day.” The death machine is described in all its unspeakable horror.
The silence of Pius XII in the face of mass crimes by the Third Reich has been a subject of heated discussions among critics and defenders of Pope Eugenio Pacelli. His beatification process, initiated in 1967, has been highly controversial within the Catholic Church itself.
A significant development occurred on March 2, 2020, when archives long awaited for were opened, making available all documents related to Pius XII’s pontificate from 1939 to 1958. The accessibility of this vast material allowed scholars to intensify their work to clarify the Pope’s behavior.
Coco’s research, included in the volume “Le ‘Carte’ di Pio XII oltre il mito,” is a crucial step in the ongoing historiographical reconstruction. An international conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome from October 9-11 will provide an opportunity to compare different perspectives on the new documents from Pius XII’s pontificate and their significance for Jewish-Christian relations.
At this point, it is undeniable that during World War II, while the Vatican received increasing and detailed news about Nazi atrocities, Pius XII chose to remain silent or, at most, express his sorrow in general terms. A notable instance is a brief passage from Pope Pacelli’s Christmas speech on December 24, 1942, where he referred to “hundreds of thousands of people, who, without any fault of their own, sometimes only because of their nationality or race, are destined for death or progressive deterioration.”
It can even be hypothesized that the Pope made those remarks following the revelations just received from König about the Nazi camps. However, an explicit condemnation of the Third Reich and its regime was never issued by the Holy See, nor did Pius XII ever clearly identify the Jews as victims of the ongoing extermination. His predecessor, Achille Ratti, Pius XI, had been much more decisive in expressing his hostility towards the racist and neo-pagan ideology of the Hitler regime.
Perhaps the Pope feared that a clear stance would worsen the situation, making it harder for the Church to aid the persecuted during those dark days. Everything became more complicated after the German occupation of Rome in September 1943. Several explanations can be found for the Vatican’s cautious approach: certainly, the Holy See’s diplomacy was concerned with maintaining its “impartiality” concerning the warring parties. Perhaps the heavy legacy of millennia-old Christian aversion towards Jews also played a role.
However, with the additional elements provided by Coco in the interview with Franco, it becomes impossible to argue that Pius XII was not sufficiently informed about the inhumane treatment the Nazis reserved for their victims. Not only Polish sources or those linked to the side fighting against Germany, but even a German Jesuit had provided the Vatican with solid evidence to understand the horror unfolding in the heart of Europe.
Click on this link to read this article in French version