Opening the secret archive of Pius XI, who headed the Church from 1922-1939, will reveal the Holy See's attitude towards Nazism just before WWII. Some historians believe it might be even more interesting than his successor's secret archive
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Pius XI (photo: Documentatie Centrum, Nijmegen)

Countdown to the Holocaust

PUBLISHED IN |  Aug 8, 06

On September 18, when the Vatican library reopens after the summer recess, the secret archive of Pope Pius XI, who headed the Catholic Church from 1922-1939, will be open to the public – for the first time.

The archive consists of millions of documents, apparently mostly in Italian, part of the magnificent library on some 85 kilometers of shelves. Those who are interested should come with a reference from a recognized academic institution, be modestly dressed (as specified in library regulations) carry no pens (lead pencils only) for fear of damaging documents.

Since the mid-1960s Jewish organizations and historians have been calling for the opening of the archives of the successor to Pius XI, Pope Pius XII, who served during World War II and has been condemned for his silence during the Holocaust. However, the archive that is now opening may turn out to be the more interesting one.

That is the opinion of Alberto Melloni, a historian and director of the Pope John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies in Bologna. Melloni, who first reported the opening of the archives in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, believes that the new documents are likely to bring about a substantial change in the prevailing view on the Catholic Church and the rise of Fascism and Nazism during the papacy of Pius XI.

“The archive of Pius XII is from the period of the war itself,” said Melloni in an interview with Haaretz. “Everything there will be influenced by the war and the atmosphere of chaos. There will be there a large number of documents there with diplomatic correspondence from the war period, letters of ambassadors to the Vatican, discussions about the situation of the Catholic prisoners and POWs and about maintaining religious practices in the war zones. You have to remember that the Second World War was not only the Holocaust. On the other hand, the period of Pius XI is calmer, and we will be able to carry out a cleaner and more precise examination of the stance of the Church toward the rise of Fascism and Nazism.”

Melloni proposes paying special attention to the reaction of the Church to several crucial events that took place during the period of Pius XI. A short historical reminder: In October 1922, eight months after the beginning of the reign of Pius XI, Benito Mussolini came to power in his famous march on Rome. In 1929 the Vatican signed the Lateran Treaty of mutual recognition with Fascist Italy, which ended the crisis between the young Italian state and the Holy See. Thus the Vatican recognized the Italian state, and indirectly the Fascist regime.

Internal debate

Pius XI (photo: Documentatie Centrum, Nijmegen )

Pius XI (photo: Documentatie Centrum, Nijmegen )

Melloni suggests examining the attitude toward Nazi Germany during the 1930s, from the signing of the Concordat with Adolf Hitler in 1933, continuing with the Nuremberg Laws, and up to the outbreak of the war, while the connection between Italy and Germany strengthened and attitudes toward the Jews deteriorated.

“To date,” says Melloni, “only the documents relating to the relations between the Church and Nazi Germany have been publicized, in other words, the diplomatic correspondence between the two sides. We know nothing about the internal debate in the Church, about the various opinions expressed in the discussions inside the Vatican regarding the Italian racial laws, which were passed in 1938, or regarding the entrenchment of fascism and Nazism.

“The treaty in 1929 is a very interesting one, because Mussolini granted the Church the freedom it requested, which previous democratic regimes had been unable to grant it. This treaty created a pro-Fascist attitude in the Vatican, and reinforced the assumption that an authoritarian regime was the only answer to the Communist threat, which the Vatican greatly feared.”

David Kertzer, professor of social sciences, anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, believes that the archives are likely to shed light on the pope and his opinions, in the prologue to one of the most difficult periods in European history, when the head of the Catholic Church still had considerable influence on his congregants, especially in Italy. From a Jewish point of view, says Kertzer, who is now writing a book about the relations between Pius XI and Mussolini, the most interesting questions deal with the Italian racial laws and the rapprochement between Italy and Germany.

“It would be interesting to know,” says Kertzer in an interview with Haaretz, “what discussions took place in the Vatican. Who called on the pope to oppose the racial laws? What was the role of Eugenio Pacelli, who was the Vatican secretary of state during the period of Pius XI [a position parallel to prime minister] and later became Pope Pius XII?

The documents will reveal the internal dynamics in the Vatican. There is correspondence there with bishops, archbishops and cardinals. Popes do not generally put their thoughts on paper in official documents, but one can learn about their opinions from such documents as the regular memoranda that were sent by Vatican ambassadors all over the world to Rome, and the replies of secretary of state Pacelli, after he had spoken with the pope. We will also be able to find letters to the Vatican, usually from ordinary citizens or from petty clerics.”

Explosive combination

Pius XI speaks to radio Vatican (photo: Documentatie Centrum)

Pius XI speaks to radio Vatican (photo: Documentatie Centrum)

Pius XI was born Achille Ratti in 1857 near Milan. Kertzer writes in one of his previous books, “The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism” (Knopf, 2001) that as a young priest Ratti was attracted to work in the library and was put in charge of the Vatican library ibn 1914. In 1918 Pope Benedict XV appointed him apostolic delegate to Poland, an assignment that changed the face of 20th-century Church history, says Kertzer, since when he returned to Rome in 1921 Ratti was appointed archbishop of Milan and a cardinal. Seven months later, upon the death of Benedict XV, he was elected pope.

In his book Kertzer wrote that Pius XI was the man who determined the response of the Church to the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazism in Germany. It was he who decided how the Church would react in the 1930s to the anti-Semitic laws promulgated by Germany and Italy, and that is why his mission in Poland was of such great importance. In Poland Ratti encountered the “Jewish problem” for the first time, says Kertzer, and in Poland, which had Europe’s the largest Jewish population, Ratti experienced the explosive combination of Catholicism, nationalism and anti-Semitism.

In his book, Kertzer mentions two events that have attracted the attention of historians. One was the visit to the Vatican by a group of Belgians in September 1938, in which Pius XI told them that “anti-Semitism is not compatible with the the thinking and the sublime reality that are expressed in this text [i.e., a missal]. It is a hateful movement, a movement that we cannot, we Christians, take any part in.” He added, “We are all spiritually Semites.”

Secondly Kertzer notes the pope’s decision to convene all the Italian bishops and cardinals in the Vatican in February 1939, to mark the 10th anniversary of the Lateran Treaty. Fascist Party documents indicate that Mussolini feared Pius XI was about to publish a condemnation of the regime and call on Catholics to stop cooperating with the state. Two days before the convocation, Pius XI died.

His death under those circumstances, says Kertzer, left an opening for conspiracy theories that the pope had been murdered. Kertzer adds Pius XI has serious health problems and there is no evidence of unnatural death.

Pius XI came to regret the treaty he had signed with Hitler in 1933, when he still saw eye-to-eye with him regarding his anti-Communist and authoritarian policy. When the Fuehrer visited Rome in 1938, the pope preferred to stay in his summer home, and not meet him. Clearly at the end of his life Pius XI opposed Hitler, says Kertzer, not because of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, but because he saw him as a rival: Hitler’s deification of the state and its leader stood in total opposition to the Church’s position.

Melloni believes that the Vatican decision to open the archives of Pius XI is important as continuing the Vatican policy of opening up to external historical criticism. He and Kertzer believe the papers of Pius XII will be opened but it will take some years. Of Pius XI, Melloni says that the question is not whether the pope himself was anti-Semitic. If that only were the case, he thinks, there would be no problem. He says that the question is to what extent the pope reflected the general mood and the prevalence of the approach he represented as an important component of European history. “If we do not know this, we will lose a part of the history of the Continent.”