The controversy over Pius XII’s role in protecting Jews from the Nazis is not merely an academic dispute but involves U.S. State Department interests, new WikiLeaks documents show.
The British newspaper The Guardian released four U.S. government cables related to research into the papacy of Pope Pius XII.
The first cable from the U.S. Vatican Embassy, dated Aug. 13, 2001, recounts a meeting with Fr. Peter Gumpel, S.J., who is involved in opening the Vatican archives. The document alluded to a previous cable which explained U.S. government interests in promoting a “positive productive dialogue” quickly because of the passing of the Holocaust generation.
Fr. Gumpel explained to the U.S. officials the procedures for accessing the Vatican archives and also reported inadequate staffing for his task. According to the cable, he recounted the perceived inadequacies of the Jewish-Vatican commission studying Pius XII’s role in the Second World War, such as most members’ inability to read the relevant documents in the original Italian.
The priest told the U.S. officials that Pope John Paul II was aware of the situation regarding the research.
He also objected to media descriptions of him as the “German Jesuit.” He recounted that his family had been victims of the Nazis and he himself fled Nazi Germany as a refugee. He also noted that at one point a reporter had planned to print an assertion that he was himself a Nazi, which Fr. Gumpel said was libelous.
Another confidential cable from the Vatican Embassy, dated Dec. 31, 2001, discussed the Jewish-Vatican commission in its report on a conversation between U.S. Ambassador Jim Nicholson and Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
Nicholson said the commission had dissolved “amid some acrimony,” according to the cable, and there was interest in the U.S. about whether it would be re-formed. The cardinal attributed the commission’s failure to personality problems and its lack of a clear mandate, insisting this was not a failure of Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
The cardinal called Fr. Gumpel the Vatican’s best-informed living expert on Pius XII’s papacy and he expressed hope that a commission could be re-formed with highly qualified academics not directly associated with either the Catholic Church or with Jewish agencies.
Cardinal Kasper “averred” that claims Pius XII was pro-Nazi were “without foundation” and he thought the archives would bear this out, the U.S. cable reported. The cardinal cited Israeli leader Golda Meir’s post-war praise for the Pope and he claimed that the Jewish community “became obsessed” with Pius XII’s wartime actions only after revisionist historians began publishing in the 1960s.
In the cable’s words, the cardinal thought the Pope communicated opposition to Nazism “subtly but clearly.”
“The convents all around here were full of Jews, at great risk, even though the SS was in this very building,” commented Cardinal Kasper, who was speaking in the Apostolic Palace.
The cable’s analysis said that the Vatican remains “highly sensitive” to criticism of Pius XII and characterized the Vatican archive as “a hard nut to crack.” It also noted the Vatican’s insistence that its twelve-volume series culled from the Pius XII archive was a reasonable start.
A Feb. 22, 2002 cable followed up on the issue, noting the announcement of the archives’ partial opening. The cable’s author saw the move as an attempt by Pope John Paul II to “silence accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against his predecessor Pius XII” and also as a possible sign of renewed Vatican interest in beatifying the pontiff.
Pope John Paul II’s decision to sidestep standard release procedures shows that “whatever the Pope wants, does in fact happen,” concluded the cable, which was apparently signed by Nicholson.
The fourth cable dates from Oct. 16, 2009 and concerns the Holy See’s withdrawal from an agreement to become an international observer on the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. The Vatican Embassy cable speculated that the Vatican’s “relatively inexperienced” new deputy foreign minister Mgsr. Ettore Balestrero made the decision, but it also wondered whether the move also signaled concerns about the task force’s pressure to release records related to Pius XII’s pontificate.
Task force members, including Austrian Ambassador Ferdinand Trauttsmandorff, U.S. Professor Steve
Katz of the Elie Wiesel Center at Boston University, and Israeli academic advisor Dina Porat, expressed “considerable disappointment” about the setback. Trauttsmandorff insisted that the task force sought a relationship with the Vatican not only to access the archives but also to work jointly with Catholic leaders in many countries on anti-racism and Holocaust remembrance education.
The cables have their source in the WikiLeaks website, which acquired more than 250,000 of the documents. Its media partners, which include The Guardian and The New York Times, have helped shape the selection and the timing of the released cables and have also redacted information believed to be sensitive.
The insights into U.S. officials’ views of the investigation of Pius XII’s papacy comes just before the publication of French scholar Joël-Benoît d’Onorio’s new analysis criticizing a “myth of the archives.”
In an article excerpted in the Dec. 23 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, d’Onorio argued that the archives will never produce proof of “what doesn’t exist … proof of the voluntary weakness of Pius XII.”
D’Onorio, who is president of the federation of Catholic jurists of France, wrote a Dec. 22 response in the French newspaper La Croix to Richard Prasquier, president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions.
Prasquier contended there is “no certain historic proof” that Pope Pius XII saved numerous lives during World War II. He rebuked the wartime pontiff’s alleged “silences” and “fear of speaking out.”
To this, d’Onorio replied that there are documents that already attest to Pius XII’s acts, such as 1943 records from Rome’s Augustinianum which show he ordered a monastery to open its doors to thousands. When Nazi occupiers asked Jews for 50 kilograms of gold to ransom 300 Jewish hostages, the Pope quickly ordered 15 kilograms to supply what the Jews lacked.
D’Onorio said there is “much more evidence” in Pius XII’s favor. “The valid studies are numerous and come from different sources, but they are deliberately ignored to sustain a black legend,” he charged.
The Pope’s alleged fear of speaking out in fact hid “a grand charity in action.”