Vatican unseals archives of controversial Second World War era Pope Pius XII

Pope Pius XII (Wikimedia Commons photo - Michael Pitcarin - public domain)

The Vatican reached a historic turning point on March 2 when it finally unsealed its archives on the wartime papacy of Pope Pius XII, kept secret for decades amid accusations that the pope turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.

At least 200 scholars from around the world have already requested access to the mountain of documents, made available after an inventory that took more than 14 years for Vatican archivists to complete, reported Agence France-Presse.

Prof. Michael Marrus, who for years was Canada’s leading voice on the need to open the archives, will not be among them.

Now 79 and retired from the University of a Toronto, where he taught history and is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Holocaust Studies, Marrus said it’s time for a new batch of experts to examine the historical record of the war-time pope.

“I’m ready to pass the torch to another generation,” Marrus told The CJN.

Since the end of the Second World War, two opposing myths have surrounded the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust, Marrus noted: That either Pius secretly collaborated with the Nazis and had every intention of turning the Holy See against the Jews or that the Vatican was a champion of the Jewish people and did what it could for them.

“What was missing, of course, was the archival collections that would establish the truth once and for all,” he said.

Governments and the Red Cross slowly released their documents, “and the Vatican did not. It was very frustrating at the time. We were unable to persuade the Vatican that it was in its interest, and the interests of historical truth, to release these documents.”

Pope Francis signalled a change a year ago when he announced that the war-era archives would be opened.

“The Church is not afraid of history,” he said at the time. The Pius XII papacy was marked by “moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence,” Pope Francis told researchers.

Before becoming pope, then Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli served as the Holy See’s representative in Germany during the 1920s where he witnessed the early rise of Nazism. He served as pope from 1939 to 1958.

German historian Hubert Wolf, a specialist on the Pius XII pontificate, was blunt in a recent interview: “There is no doubt that the pope was aware of the murder of Jews,” he told the AFP news agency.

Marrus’s involvement in the controversy over the Pius archives peaked in 2001, when the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission on which he served disbanded after failing to gain access to certain Vatican documents.

At the time, Marrus, one of three Jewish members of the commission, said the body “ran up against a brick wall” after the Vatican released 11 volumes of wartime documents devoted to Pius XII but remained steadfastly silent on further queries. The commission lasted only two years.

Marrus said the documents made public up to then were released with an eye toward the defence of the Vatican.

“The Vatican, like every other government in Europe, was eager to defend its wartime case,” he said, adding that the released volumes were “helpful but hardly the basis from which one could draw definitive conclusions.”

The millions of pages unsealed this month will take years to comb through, Marrus said, and should shed light not only on the war-era pope, “but the whole apparatus of the government of the Holy See.”

Historians who have defended Pius XII have estimated that the Church hid around 4,000 Jews in convents and other institutions during the war.

Some Vatican observers have said the controversy over Pius XII’s papacy has held up his elevation to sainthood.