VATICAN CITY — A German historian’s claims to have found a document purportedly showing anti-Semitism in the Vatican that helps understand Pope Pius XII’s approach to the Jewish Holocaust have been roundly criticized by Catholic and Jewish defenders of Pius as “sensational,” “wildly erroneous” and “ridiculous.”
The claims of Father Hubert Wolf, a professor of Church history at the University of Münster, relate to findings he and a team of six other researchers from his university made during a short visit in early March to the newly opened archives of Pius XII at the Vatican.
Pope Francis opened the archives of Pius’ entire 1939-1958 pontificate to the public in March after many years of requests from historians keen to find out for themselves how much the wartime pope knew about the Holocaust and what action he took to try to halt it.
Along with his team of researchers, Father Wolf, who called for a vote on the ordination of women in 2016 and advocated for married clergy before last year’s Amazon synod, was one of the first to be allowed access to the archives, but his visit was abruptly cut short by the coronavirus outbreak.
At the center of Father Wolf’s discovery is a secret 1942 U.S. report, based on information from the Jewish Agency for Palestine in Geneva, which said around 100,000 Jews had been massacred in and around Warsaw and an additional 50,000 killed in Lviv in German-occupied Ukraine.
The U.S. government had doubts about the information at the time, and diplomat Myron Taylor gave the report to the Vatican in September 1942 to see if Vatican officials could confirm the information with their own sources and, if so, if it had any ideas on how to rally public opinion to oppose the Nazi atrocities.
Father Wolf said he found documents confirming that Pius read the American report and other documentation confirming that the Vatican had received letters corroborating the massacres.
But Father Wolf said that the Vatican told Washington it could not confirm the Jewish Agency report, and the basis for this was a memo by a low-ranking Vatican official, Msgr. Angelo Dell’Acqua, who later became a cardinal.
Father Wolf said that in the memo Msgr. Dell’Acqua warned against believing the Jewish Agency report because Jews “easily exaggerate” (although according to Michael Hesemann, a Catholic historian and expert on Pius XII’s wartime record, the text actually is much less inflammatory: “It is necessary to make sure,” Msgr. Dell'Acqua wrote, that the information “corresponds to the truth, since exaggerations easily happen, also among Jews”).
Father Wolf said the memo is not in the Actes et Documents, an 11-volume compilation of wartime archives by four Jesuit historians and commissioned by Pope Paul VI in 1965 to defend Pius XII’s wartime reputation, and therefore undermines that work.
“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 cry out against the Holocaust,” Father Wolf told the German Catholic journal Kirche + Leben, in comments later reported in The Washington Post.
He also claimed the Actes et Documents took some documents out of their chronological order, thereby making it harder to understand them in context.
“That’s why we have to be skeptical about the whole 11-volume series and check it against the archive document by document,” the priest said. “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.”
‘Not Compromising at All’
But historians who have long studied Pius XII’s war record and written about it in detail dismiss Father Wolf’s findings as exaggerated and revealing nothing new.
Hesemann, author of The Pope Who Defied Hitler: The Truth About Pius XII, told the Register that “when you read the full document in question, which I did, it is not compromising at all.” Since the 1960s, he said it had been known that Pius was aware of the U.S. report and received it from Taylor personally.
Hesemann also said Msgr. Dell’Acqua was ordered to check the Jewish Agency claims that the Nazis were “systematically evacuating the ghettos, the Jews were being transported to death camps and shot, their bodies were being turned into fat and their bones into fertilizers, and not a single Jew is alive in East Poland and the German occupied parts of Russia.”
The first two claims were subsequently found to be true; the last two were not, Hesemann said, and at that point in time, Msgr. Dell’Acqua could not find confirmation for any of the four claims. He only knew about the massacres in Ukraine, but not the death camps.
Hesemann said that in his memo, Msgr. Dell’Acqua firstly warned “not to believe those documents blindly since also among Jews exaggerations were possible,” and, secondly, he wrote that “any joint American-Vatican protest could be harmful, not so much for the Holy See as for the persecuted Jews, fearing retaliation measures by the Nazis.”
Hesemann said this was “completely justified,” as Dutch Archbishop Johannes de Jong’s protest in July 1942 against the deportation of Dutch Jews “caused the Nazis not only to send all Dutch Jews to Auschwitz, but also to arrest, deport and eventually kill all converts (Jews who became Catholics), who were originally excluded, including Edith Stein.”
“Wolf turns this internal note, which did not say more than ‘trust but verify,’ into a key document, just to base his claims of a Vatican cover-up on it,” Hesemann asserted, adding that because it was written by a low-ranking official and included no new information, nor influenced papal policy, as it remained the same, the memo was not included in the Actes et Documents.
It is therefore “ridiculous” to assert on this basis that the Actes et Documents are worthless, Hesemann said. And he stressed that, in any case, the memo reflected the “personal opinion of Msgr. Acqua” and therefore had “nothing to do with Pius XII.” Hesemann also called it “far-fetched” to accuse Msgr. Dell’Acqua of being an anti-Semite, as all people of whatever race sometimes exaggerate, “even German professors.”
Not New Evidence
Ronald Rychlak, professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law, said Father Wolf’s findings cover “several issues that I and others have repeatedly dealt with.”
He said what Father Wolf trumpeted as “new evidence” — the secret report the U.S. diplomat gave to the Vatican in 1942 on the Warsaw massacre — was already covered in Chapter 12 of the second edition of his book Hitler, the War and the Pope. “I think Wolf may not have known that it was already published,” he said.
Rychlak’s own record of events is that, having received the secret report in September, the Holy See replied in mid-October, saying it, too, “had received reports of ‘severe measures’ taken against the Jews, but that it had been impossible to verify the accuracy of the reports.” He also pointed out that the Vatican’s reply also stated that the Holy See was “taking advantage of every opportunity offered in order to mitigate the suffering of non-Aryans.”
From his own research, Rychlak also learned that the Vatican, the U.S. bishops and the Roosevelt administration were in total agreement in their approach to what the U.S. bishops once called “a deep sense of revulsion against the cruel indignities heaped upon the Jews in conquered countries.”
Among other many examples of Pius’ attacks against Nazism and its anti-Semitism, Rychlak also quoted an editorial in The (London) Times that predated Pius’ 1942 Christmas address famous for its denunciation of extermination on the basis of race. The editorial said Pius’ words leave “no room for doubt. He condemns … the persecution of the Jewish race.”
‘Repacking Old News’
William Doino, who contributed to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII, criticized Father Wolf for “repacking old news,” making “wildly erroneous” claims, “selectively quoting from the Vatican archives, then unjustly questioning the honor” of the Jesuit researchers of the Actes et Documents, two of whom Doino said he knew personally and were men of “absolute honesty and high integrity.”
The 11 volumes had already proven that Pius XII “received terrifying reports about the Nazi Holocaust. No informed researcher denies this,” Doino told the Register, noting that the Holy See had in fact already broken the news about the Nazi atrocities against Jews and Catholics in Poland in a 1940 address on Vatican Radio (see video) — a fact reported on at the time by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
As with Hesemann and Rychlak, Doino went on to list many other documented examples of Pius defending the Jews, in private and in public, including his involvement in “no less than three plots” to overthrow Hitler. “Any fair evaluation of Pope Pius XII’s conduct during the Holocaust would highlight these facts,” Doino said, “but the Pope’s critics never do.”
Gary Krupp, the Jewish founder of Pave the Way Foundation, has long defended Pius XII and conducted extensive research into Pius’ wartime record. He rejected Father Wolf’s analysis as a “typical ‘cut-and-paste’ example of sensational journalism.” He also said that, based on Pave the Way’s own research of 76,000 pages of primary source documents and eyewitness testimony, he found the accusations of Pius being anti-Semitic “outrageous.”
As well as citing the many prominent Jewish people from Albert Einstein to Golda Meir who defended Pius XII, he stressed that it was Pius who used German military fears of “potential riots all over Europe,” if a plan by Hitler to invade the Vatican and kidnap him went through, to help the Church save 6,381 Jewish lives on October 16, 1943 during the arrest of the Roman Jews. “Mr. Wolf,” Krupp said, “Nazi-collaborating anti-Semites never do that.”
“I am afraid of the historian who will claim that history has to be rewritten, based on just a single document,” Hesemann said, quoting comments of Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archives, made just a week before the opening of the Vatican archive in March.
For Hesemann and others, Father Wolf’s work is “not serious methodology.” His team, he said, “had only five days in the archives, their project was interrupted due to the coronavirus crisis, so to make any claim is premature, but to exaggerate the importance of a personal note of a monsignor and to misuse it for such big claims is just ridiculous.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.