Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

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Newsletter- September 2001- Vol. VII, no. 9

 

 

Dear Friends,

Thanks to all of you who responded so warmly to my last issue
at the end of July, despite the holiday season! I trust that you
will now take advantage of my offer to send me some
contribution, either a review of a book you have recently read,
or a note on some event of interest to our fraternity, such as
announcements of future conferences.
This month's Newsletter which comes to you a day or two early
because of the forthcoming Labour Day, consists of one item:
an Editorial. I hope this proves interesting and would welcome
your comments.

Contents:
1) Editorial:
How not to deal with history

At the end of July the Joint Catholic-Jewish
Commission established in 1999 up to assess the Vatican's
wartime role announced that it had suspended its deliberations
because the Vatican authorities had supposedly posed
unacceptable conditions for the continuation of its work. This
is a setback for the desirable goal of improved relations
between Catholics and Jews through collaborative
investigations of contentious historical issues. It is to be hoped
that the flurry of recriminations and unwarranted accusations
which have resulted in the past few days will soon be forgotten
and the whole incident regarded as no more than a regrettable
stumble. But because there are significant issues involved for
all historians, this commentary may be of some help to those
who have not been able to pay close attention to this
controversy.

As is well known, debate has recently been stirred up
again over the policies of the Vatican during the Second World
War, and more specifically, over the alleged failure of Pope
Pius XII to adopt an attitude of protest against the Nazi
persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust. In the
past few months, no fewer than 10 books on this topic have
been published, and more are now in the works. Some, like
John Cornwell's Hitler's Pope, take a highly critical view of
the Pope, Eugenio Pacelli, personally, while others stress the
deficiencies of the Vatican structures. Not surprisingly these
publications have given rise to defensive replies by outraged
Catholics, or alternatively have been applauded by some
Jewish commentators, who see these authors, views as
vindicating their own critical appraisal of institutional
Catholicism's stance in the 1940s.

This controversy arose at the time when the present
leaders of the Catholic Church, led by Pope John Paul II
himself, are engaged in striking measures to improve relations
with the Jewish people. In the eyes of one Jewish scholar,
these efforts constitute "the most remarkable progress in
Catholic-Jewish relations that seasoned observers can ever
remember, . . .and are a genuine and sincere effort of the
leadership of the Church to promote awareness of the
Holocaust among Catholics and a climate of healing between
the two communities.

It was in part a result of this new approach that in 1998
Cardinal Cassidy, then President of the Pontifical Commission
on Religious Relations with the Jews, proposed that a team of
Catholic and Jewish historians should together review what
was already published on the sensitive issue of the Vatican,s
wartime activities, and if so desired, "pose questions about
unresolved matters. This unprecedented team of six scholars,
three Catholic and three Jewish, began its work in October
1999. Five men and one woman were selected by their
respective agencies: on the one side by Cardinal Cassidy,s
Pontifical Commission, and on the other by the International
Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation. The
Catholic members were all American citizens, and apparently
were asked to serve because of a known sympathy for the aims
of Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. So far so good.

But the terms of their mandate were less satisfactory.
They were invited to look first and foremost at the eleven
volumes of documents from the Vatican archives dealing with
this subject which were published between 1967 and 1982.
These large collections of documents, entitled Actes et
documents du Saint Siège relatifs a la seconde guerre
mondiale had been compiled and edited by an international
team of four Jesuits, Fathers Blet, Graham, Schneider and
Martini, acting on the explicit instructions of Pope Paul VI.
The purpose of this publication was clearly to provide the
documentation to refute the criticisms and attacks launched in
the early 1960s against Pope Pius XII's wartime policies,
beginning with Rolf Hochhuth,s sensational drama The
Representative. In order to undertake this task, the Jesuit
editors were given unique and unprecedented permission to
have access to the otherwise closed Vatican archives.
According to Fr. Graham, they were able to see all the
documents they wanted and were not subject to any censorship
or pressure to produce results favourable to the Vatican
authorities. But the very fact that these editors were all Jesuits
and that no one else was allowed to see the documents in
question raised objections from outsiders. Despite assurances
to the contrary, suspicions remained that the whole venture had
been a well-organized effort at damage control.

The documents themselves are drawn from the files of
the Vatican,s Secretariat of State, and consist mainly of the
telegrams and memoranda exchanged between the Holy See
and its representatives, principally the Nuncios or Apostolic
Delegates accredited to the various governments around the
world. These exchanges are almost all in Italian, though
documents in other languages, English, German, French and
even Latin also appear. The editorial introduction to each
volume is however in French. Acting on a traditional principle,
the editors included only those documents which originated in
one of their own diplomatic service,s offices, or related
ecclesiastical structures, and hence did not print, but only
referred in a footnote to other documents, however significant,
supplied by outsiders, such as, for example, statements
presented to the Vatican,s representatives by Jewish contacts.
Had these been included, it is possible that much criticism of
these Vatican volumes might have been averted, even though
in fact these valuable documents have usually appeared in print
elsewhere.

The scope of these eleven volumes is two-fold. The
editors sought to present the documentary evidence on two
main subjects: first, the efforts made by the Vatican, from the
beginning of Pope Pius XII's reign in March 1939, to preserve
peace, or, after the outbreak of war in September 1939, to
prevent the spread of hostilities. These efforts included the
hope that the Vatican could play an effective part in any
mediated peace settlement - as it had sought to do in the First
World War. Also included were the various endeavours to
mitigate the effects of the war, such as the extensive efforts
designed to secure agreement to making Rome an Open City
and hence spared from bombing attacks. The second theme
was to record the Vatican's endeavours to assist the victims of
the war. Almost daily exchanges on this subject occurred
throughout the Vatican,s network of diplomatic contacts.

It is in this latter context that the Vatican,s actions on
behalf of the stricken Jewish communities are to be found.
Although, at first, the prime concern was to seek to provide
relief supplies and assistance to the Catholic victims of Nazi
aggression in Poland, very soon the horizons widened.
Catholics of Jewish origin soon came to the Vatican's notice,
through appeals to find them some refugee haven in a Catholic
country overseas. But from 1941 onwards, it is clear that the
Vatican's leaders were aware of the scale of persecution
inflicted on all the Jews, and were prepared to instruct their
officials to offer help, including protests against these
atrocities to those governments where such Papal pressure
might be effective. The documents relating to Slovakia,
Roumania, Hungary and France are a clear indication that these
interventions went beyond a defence merely of Catholic
interests or persons. These interventions were all the more
notable since the Vatican officials were well aware that the
Catholic leaders in these countries were unsympathetic to the
plight of the Jews. In Slovakia, for instance, the situation was
made more difficult by the fact that the President of Slovakia
was Monsignor Josef Tiso, a well-known antisemite.
Energetic representations were made by the Papal Apostolic
Delegate in Bratislava, Msgr Burzio, in 1942 and 1943. But the
results were disappointingly negative. Indeed, in July 1942,
Msgr Tardini, one of the Vatican,s senior staff members,
bitterly commented:

"It is a great misfortune that the President of Slovakia is
a priest. Everyone knows that the Holy See cannot
bring Hitler to heel. But who will understand that we
can't even control a priest? 1)

From 1942 onwards, the Pope's prudent and fearful
stance brought him to the conclusion that a more outspoken
policy of protest would lead to increased repercussions or
vengeance from the Nazis and hence inflict still more suffering
on the victims. The overall picture to be drawn from these
volumes is therefore of the significant reduction of Papal
influence during these years of war and terror. The evidence
makes clear that, despite the Pope's sincere efforts to mitigate
the effects of the war and to bring relief to its victims, his
initiatives were spurned, and his advice ignored, as the forces
of violence and destruction escalated.
Particularly in the later volumes, and especially for the
period of nine months when the German army occupied Rome,
the sense of foreboding and frustration is very evident. The
Pope and his officials were imprisoned within the Vatican's
boundaries, surrounded by German troops. Their offices were
infiltrated with Nazi spies, and their communications censored.
At any moment, they feared, the Pope might be carried off into
captivity and exile. This claustrophobic nightmare was only in
part moderated after Rome was liberated by Allied troops in
June 1944, and its precious architectural heritage preserved
from any further bombing raids. But the premonition of
apocalyptic doom which the end of the war might bring,
through the use of new and even more terrible weapons of
destruction, was still present. The powerlessness of the Papacy
to prevent any such final catastrophe was an unwelcome but
undeniable reality.

The critics of Pius XII and his wartime policies,
beginning with Hochhuth in the 1960s and repeated by the
more recent authors, have ignored these considerations.
Instead they claim that a more vigorous and prophetic stance of
protest against the Nazi atrocities would not only have been
effective but would have resulted in the saving of many more
lives, particularly Jewish lives. Several of the recent books
contain numerous passages advancing such hypotheses as: "If
only the Pope had protested at this juncture . . " or "The
Papacy should have taken steps . . " Historical evidence to
back up such claims is however lacking, and certainly is not to
be drawn from the Actes et documents. Rather such notions
are the product of wishful thinking. In effect these claims
vastly exaggerate the moral and political power of the Papacy,
and fail to recognize its greatly diminished influence during the
Second World War. And while no one can say what might have
happened if the Vatican and its local representatives had
adopted other policies, it is necessary to recognize that such
optimistic speculations have been put forward mainly for
non-historical reasons.

It would seem that many of the Vatican's critics,
whether Jewish or Catholic, are unfamiliar with the already
published documentary sources. This is hardly surprising since
these volumes appeared at irregular intervals over a fifteen
year period, and the language barrier, particularly for
English-speaking commentators, is clearly evident. This was
also the case for some of the members of the Joint Commission
who apparently found themselves "linguistically-challenged.
But, more seriously, this series of documents, and the historical
value of the contents, has suffered the same fate as befell other
significant collections of documents relating to the policies and
actions of various governments in both the First and Second
World Wars. Starting in 1919, all the major European states
authorized the publication of extensive documentary series,
designed to provide the evidence of their nation,s purity of
motives and tactics in the crisis of 1914 which led to the
outbreak of war. The self-justifying and apologetic purpose
was obvious. And even though these collections were edited
by distinguished historians, they inevitably came to be regarded
as self-serving and biased presentations. Their appearance did
not in fact prevent or dissuade criticism, and the charges
continued to be made that such editions, prepared by
"in-house professionals, were carefully screened to suppress
publication of any embarrassing material which would damage
their nation,s reputation, if necessary by the removal of
incriminating documents altogether. Officially-sponsored
document collections of this kind were suspect.

It was exactly this consideration which led the Joint
Commission to refrain deliberately from inviting any member
of the Vatican,s staff from joining their team, including the
sole survivor of the four Jesuits, Fr Pierre Blet, or the current
"expert in the Vatican, Fr. Peter Gumpel S.J., the
officially-appointed relator in charge of promoting the cause
for the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who for several years has
been assembling documents for this purpose. It would seem
that the presupposition was made that an independent panel of
experts would be able to reach an accurate version of events
which would carry greater credibility, especially in hostile
circles.

The issue of credibility has been a sensitive and indeed
vital issue throughout the history of this controversy over the
past forty years. But it has to be placed in a wider context than
merely the question of the authenticity of the Jesuits, selection
of documents. We have to recognize - and indeed to
sympathize with - the continuing and sincerely-motivated
search, particularly by survivors of the Holocaust, but also by
the Jewish community at large, and a growing number of
Christians, for some overall explanation for the unprecedented
persecution and destruction of so many million Jews at the
hands of the Nazis and their accomplices. There is a
widely-shared view that the horrors of the Holocaust may be
made more tolerable if the failures of other governments and
agencies to halt the Nazi atrocities can be pin-pointed and
brought to light. What might appear to be a search for
scape-goats should, in reality, be appreciated as a kind of
therapeutic necessity to bring relief for the unmitigated
suffering involved - regardless of the historical facts of the
case. It is in this context that the view has grown up that, if
only Pope Pius and his officials had been more energetic in
protesting the Nazi crimes, or in mobilizing Catholics to take
inhibitory action, the Holocaust might never have happened, or
at least that its devastating effects would have been modified
or lessened. The concomitant expectation is that evidence to
support such an hypothesis exists in the Vatican's files. If the
previous publication did not lead to this conclusion, it was
because of the officially-sponsored nature of the project, or
because the editors were determined not to reveal "the
smoking gun, which advocates of this theory believe still
exists hidden in the Vatican vaults. Hence the demand put
forward that the Vatican should give access to its unpublished
files and open its archives for this period to all comers, so that,
once and for all, the issue can be resolved.

The view that an independent, but part-time, group such
as the Joint Commission could reach a more conclusive verdict
than the editorial team which laboured for so long in the 1960s
and 1970s is, by any objective standard, a questionable one.
But it had its own political dynamic. Necessarily the Joint
Commission felt impelled to adapt a critical stance towards
their predecessors, labours. But in the end, their Preliminary
report on the Actes et documents, which was presented to the
Vatican in October of last year, sought clarification of 47
specific issues which they felt had not been adequately
answered in the printed collection. Yet, even while expressing
appreciation for the work of the four Jesuit editors, the Joint
Commission members adopted the professionally
understandable point of view that another look based on wider
access was desirable. And this in turn led on to their explicit
request, echoing demands frequently made by the Vatican,s
critics, that full disclosure and unfettered research should be
made possible through the release of all relevant
documentation, and that the Vatican archives for the period
should be opened up, thereby allowing the truth to emerge.
Any continued refusal to accede to this request would
seemingly confirm the impression that there are still secrets or
scandals which the Vatican wants to conceal.

This suggestion, or request, however, also rests on the
questionable assumption that such a wider enquiry would in
fact discover materials substantially different from those
already published. If such a freer enquiry found only that the
earlier editors had been correct in their selection, then the
Vatican,s original case would be vindicated, and any new
investigation would be superfluous. On the other hand, as one
of the Joint Commission members noted:
"Every documentary collection is based on a selection
of material; inevitably, scholars want to make their own
selection, and decide for themselves what is relevant. Further,
historians also need to know what material was not in the
published volumes - again highlighting the need to see the
unpublished material. And finally, the original selection was
made by scholars of another era - in some instances working
more than thirty years ago. Once again, an argument for
access.

This is the counsel of perfection. No historian is happy
about archival closures. All would like to see free and open
access on an unlimited scale. But the reality is otherwise. All
governments and agencies have rules about the extent to which
their records are open to public scrutiny. In many democratic
countries, such as the United States, Canada, or Britain, their
government collections are not made available for research
purposes until thirty years after their inception. But even here
there are exceptions when materials are withheld and no
reasons provided. The situation in countries such as Russia is
even more erratic. In the case of the Vatican, the world,s oldest
diplomatic entity made up its own rules. Until the end of the
nineteenth century, the Vatican guarded its archives with total
secrecy. Only during the reign of Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903)
was it recognized that the mission of the Church could be
enhanced by opening up the rich treasures of the past, even if
this involved revelations about past scandals, such as the
Galileo affair. As a result, the Vatican authorities came to the
decision that public access could be granted, as a privilege, not
a right, after a suitable interval had elapsed. Because the
Vatican's history is usually divided into the periods of the
reigns of successive popes, it was decided that the records of
each reign would be collected and then made available en bloc
to interested scholars. But no automatic date of transfer was
edicted. Rather, when this transfer is to take place is left up to
the current holder of the pontificate. So far, in the twentieth
century, the records are now released for the reigns of Pope
Leo XIII, Pope Pius X (1903-1914), and Pope Benedict XV
(1914-1922). Rumour has it that the papers of Pope Pius XI
are now being worked on, which would bring the story up to
1939. But no one has ventured to suggest a time-frame when
the records of Pope Pius XII (1939-1958) will become
available.

The Vatican archives are hence open only up to 1922.
The records of the more than 75 subsequent years remain
closed "for technical reasons. It would seem clear that the
Vatican has (too) few archivists and that the resources devoted
to this project are inadequate. Doubtless, for such lengthy
reigns as those of both Pius XI and Pius XII, the work of
preparing the papers for transfer a public reading room is a
massive task. But 75 years seems excessive. One further
factor has to be noted: the Vatican archives fall under the
supervision of the Cardinal Secretary of State, Cardinal
Sodano, who is the most senior official of the Curia under the
Pope. He thus outranks the newly-appointed Cardinal Walter
Kasper, the current President of the Pontifical Commission for
Religious Relations with the Jews. There could therefore be
no question that the latter could do no more than pass on to the
former the request made by the Joint Commission for the
opening up of the archives for the period of the Second World
War. Nine months after the submission of the Preliminary
Report, Cardinal Kasper wrote to the Joint Commission to say
that the archives would remain closed. A month later, the five
remaining members of the Joint Commission decided to
suspend their work - at least for the present period.

When the Joint Commission was established two years
ago, it would appear that the then President of the Pontifical
Commission, Cardinal Cassidy, expressed the hope that Jewish
and Catholic historians meeting together could move the
controversy away from inaccuracy and media sensationalism.
The Vatican,s understanding was that each scholar would read
the eleven published volumes, and add their authority to the
findings of the earlier editors. Cardinal Cassidy and his staff
were therefore disappointed when the Joint Commission failed
to do what it was charged to do, either because of other
commitments, or because its members did not know Italian.
But the Cardinal would have to be exceedingly naive if he did
not realize that the Joint Commission would inevitably take up
the long-standing and deeply-felt view voiced among the
Jewish community that only the release of the relevant
documents and unfettered access to these materials would
suffice. The Vatican authorities could surely have foreseen
(or even shared) the view that coming to terms with such a
traumatic past requires special steps to secure full disclosure of
the sources. The refusal of the Joint Commission,s very polite
request was bound to have repercussions. The justification
given - that the archivists are not yet ready to deal with the
documents of that period - must appear specious and
self-serving. The subsequent outburst of Fr. Peter Gumpel,
accusing the Joint Commission members of "irresponsible
behaviour, of misrepresentation of the Vatican,s intentions, or
of being engaged in a "campaign with a clear propagandistic
goal to damage the Holy See, is surely inexcusable.

On the other side, it remains to be clarified as to when
the Commission members were made aware that the records of
the reign of Pius XII could not and would not be opened within
a matter of months. It is inconceivable, in fact, that they were
not fully aware of this situation during their deliberations.
Their expectation that the Vatican authorities would yield to
this form of pressure from an outside group, at the instigation
of the "Jewish lobby, was surely unrealistic, and could even
be considered provocative. And it is far from clear that they
had thought through the consequences for the appropriate
officials, from the Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano or the
Librarian and Archivist, Cardinal Jorge Mejia. Acceptance of
this recommendation would not only have meant the
abandonment of the Vatican,s established procedures, but
probably have led to other demands for a similar favourable
treatment by the advocates of other causes. In any case, giving
priority to this one issue, for what is clearly a political not an
historical reason, might set an unwelcome precedent. It would
also involve a massive reallocation of personnel and resources.
In view of these considerations, it was surely impolitic for one
of the Joint Commission members to accuse the Vatican of
"sending a message that would confirm many people,s worst
suspicion that there is something to hide. Similarly it was
unfortunate that a commentator from the World Jewish
Congress should make reference to a "cover up, or label the
Vatican's stance as "a profound moral failure. Such mutual
accusations of bad faith or recriminations about lost
opportunities to open up the Vatican archives cannot help to
advance the cause of improved mutual understanding.

Where do we go from here? The lesson surely to be
learnt from this unfortunate tale is that this is not the way to
deal with history. The pursuit of historical accuracy should not
be merged with other agendas drawn from political or
theological considerations. Nobody doubts that investigations
into the Holocaust, and the role of the Catholic Church in it,
should continue. In due course, the Vatican archives for the
period will be opened. The issue is not whether, but only
when. In the meanwhile, like historians of other epochs,
scholars should make more use of the abundant evidence
already available, which, as noted above, has been under-used
since the Actes et documents first appeared. It can only be
hoped that the example of scholarly co-operation set by the
Joint Commission members will be infectious enough to
encourage the continuing study of this significant if painful
subject, sine ira et studio. As the American Cardinal of
Baltimore, William Keeler, commented: "Joint efforts by
Catholic and Jewish scholars working together can bear fruit in
the long run, provided the dialogue is conducted in the spirit of
mutual respect and trust. 2)

1) Notes of Monsignor Tardini, Actes et documents, Vol. 8, no
426,598.
2) Statement by Cardinal William H.Keeler, Episcopal
Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations, United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops, 27th July 2001

With every best wish to you all,
John Conway
jconway@interchange.ubc.ca

Association of Contemporary Church Historians: website:
http:www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/akz/