National Catholic Register


Gatekeeper of the Vatican’s War Records

BY Eugene Fisher

March 16-22, 1997 Issue | Posted 3/16/97 at 2:00 PM


FATHER ROBERT GRAHAM, an American Jesuit and historian, was a man of dignity and wry wit who spent the last three decades of his professional life poring over the archives of the Vatican. He died quietly in California last month at age of 84. A highly competent scholar with a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of his subject, Graham's major accomplishment came as the English language editor of a collection of correspondence between the Holy See's Secretariat of State and its nuncios (ambassadors), mainly in Europe and mainly, therefore, in non-English European languages. There were three other equally competent Jesuits involved in the 11-volume project, each of whom died without much fanfare or notice.

Father Graham wrote no great historical tomes nor did he inspire any new schools of academic inquiry. Indeed, much of what he wrote in his many articles and books never had quite the impact beyond Church circles he probably hoped for. Normally, the end of such a life of quiet scholarly pursuit doesn't lead to much sensation beyond an immediate circle of friends and, if one is fortunate, fellow scholars. Yet both The New York Times and L'Osservatore Romano devoted major, two column obituaries to assessing his life and his work, as did Catholic News Service and The Tablet of London.

What was different about Father Graham's scholarly life was the subject matter. For three decades he was at the center of a storm of raging moral and academic passions. That subject was the Holocaust and what the Catholic Church, in general, and its head during the period, Pope Pius XII, in particular, actually had done, should have done, or could have done to prevent or put and end to it once in progress. These are not minor historical issues, but questions that shape and define what Pius XII's successor Pope John Paul II has aptly called “the Century of the Shoah.” They are questions that have been at the center of highly-publicized controversies among historians of all backgrounds and between Jews and Catholics: the Auschwitz convent, the meeting of John Paul II with Kurt Waldheim, the (false) allegation of a witting Vatican role in spiriting Nazis out of Europe after World War II. Lying just beneath all of these controversies was (and remains) the commonly accepted notion that Pope Pius XII could have ended the Holocaust at any time if only he had spoken out more forcefully, if only the Vatican had acted in timely fashion to save the Jews of Europe.

This was not a notion that prevailed in popular or scholarly historical opinion during the war or for the first two decades after it ended. Rather, it was a notion popularized by a German dramatist, Rolf Hochhuth, in a much celebrated play produced in the mid-1960s, ironically almost simultaneously with the promulgation of Vatican II's historic declaration on the relationship between the Church and the Jewish People, Nostra Aetate (In Our Age). Hochhuth's dramatic premise in The Deputy was that a clearer papal statement would somehow have convinced the Nazi regime to desist from its genocidal policies, but that the Pope, who had been a Vatican ambassador to Germany (and, by implication, a Germanophile) feared communism more than Nazism (and therefore secretly hoped that the Germans would conquer Russia, thus destroying the source of the communist threat).

Neither Hochhuth's play nor its premise were supported by any historical evidence. But they were psychologically appealing in the very simplicity of their logic. If one could accept the premise, one could, in effect, exonerate Germany and, indeed, Europe as a whole, from complicity in the murder of two out of every three Jews who lived within its boundaries in the late 1930s. Guilt would fall on one man alone, one man who, as Pope, could symbolize all the rest. Thus, whether one was “liberal” or “conservative” one could go about one's business in Cold War Europe while closing the chapter on “the War.” Hochhuth's play was as convincing as it was convenient. The Italian Pope had been conscripted to play the role of the ultimate Nazi collaborator, thus letting everyone else in Europe off the hook.

The Holy See's response was not, as one might expect, a barrage of denials and apologetics. Rather, it commissioned the “Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relative to the Second World War,” an unprecedented 11-volume compendium of virtually all Vatican archival material in any way relevant to the historical record of the period. This was a full decade before the U.S. government's own “Freedom of Information” act and almost three decades before the current release of Eastern (and Western, such as the French) “classified” materials from the war years.

As The New York Times reported in its obituary, in the course of Father Graham's meticulous work of editing the raw archives into publishable form, he “found records indicating that Pius XII had operated a vast underground railroad that rescued more than 800,000 European Jews from the Holocaust.” He also found evidence of American spies “planted in the Vatican during the war” and of the disinformation efforts of Soviet spies (designed to blame the Church for the Holocaust) during and after the war. In 1996, Father Graham published a book, The Vatican and Communism During World War II: What Really Happened? (Ignatius Press), detailing these discoveries.

Rather early on, Father Graham became the chief spokesperson for the project, not because of the quantity of material in English (that was relatively a minor portion of the documentation, as noted), but because many of the people interested in it, especially in the Jewish community, spoke English. And also, I think, because he was an extraordinarily good historian with a sense of balance and of the immense complexities facing decision makers—such as the Pope—during World War II. While he always felt that the Hochhuth thesis was dangerous polemical nonsense (a conclusion with which I concur), he was able to acknowledge the perspective of those times, the dilemmas, and the actual failings of representatives of the Holy See during the war and its immediate, chaotic aftermath.

One measure of the objectivity and success of the editing team of Jesuits of “Acts and Documents” can be found in the work of Father John Morley of Seton Hall University and, in the 1960s, a classmate of mine at New York University's Institute of Hebrew Studies. Father Morley wrote a dissertation for N.Y.U. that became a book analyzing the first nine volumes of the “Acts and Documents” (the final two volumes did not appear until 1980–81, too late to be included in his dissertation). Based upon that material and augmented by materials from Jewish sources, Father Morley, who has also lead an exemplary priestly life of service to the Church, came to a less positive, though also nuanced conclusion on the question of whether the Vatican's diplomatic corps had done all that it could in extremis to save Jewish lives during World War II.

Father Graham strongly criticized the Morley study for failing to take into account the many activities of the Holy See toward the end of the war to save Jews that were detailed in those final volumes. Father Morley, for his part, has agreed that a full analysis would have to take them into account, though his reflections on them have yet to he published. It is rather poignant to note that Father Graham will never see the results of Father Morley's analysis of the later material. On the other hand it is pertinent to note that in 1990, when the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews was faced with the prospect of a full-scale, joint inquiry into the issue of the Church and the Holocaust in a meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee, it invited the participation of both Fathers Graham and Morley, whose conclusions based on the same material were so disparate. These invitations to the Committee's now famous meeting in Prague, then-still Czechoslovakia, illustrate convincingly, to my mind, that the work of Father Graham and his colleagues in the project was indeed, objective and inclusive, and that there are few if any “skeletons” in the Vatican archives that will be unearthed with reference to World War II once the archives are finally, fully opened to scholarly perusal in the course of time.

In a meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in Baltimore in 1992, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin suggested that the World War II Vatican archives be opened so that responsible scholars of whatever religious background could study them. When that happens, Father Graham, who should be remembered as one of this century's greatest, wisest, and most knowledgeable Catholic historians, will certainly receive his full measure of vindication and honor for his great service to the Church—not only in editing but also interpreting for the public the Vatican archives.

Eugene Fisher is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.