Nearly 40 years ago, Rolf Hochhuth’s play “The Deputy” accused Holocaust-era Pope Pius XII of moral cowardice and indifference while millions of Europe’s Jews were being murdered.
The German playwright’s work triggered a worldwide wave of anti-Pius XII criticism, prompting the Vatican — in an unprecedented move — to unlock some of its secret wartime archives in an attempt to refute the charges, arguing he worked behind the scenes to save Jews and did not speak out for fear of a backlash against Catholics and Jews.
Almost four decades later, a film based on the “The Deputy” had its world premiere last week at the Berlin Film Festival. “Amen,” by renowned director Constantin Costa-Gavras, comes amid a new wave of charges against Pius XII — including several devastating new books labeling him an anti-Semite — as well as a concerted push by Pope John Paul II to make him a saint.
And once again, the Vatican is breaking precedent.
Two days after the debut of “Amen,” Pope John Paul II ordered the release next year of selected new documents from the Church’s secret World War II archives about Pius XII and his actions before and during the Holocaust.
Specifically, the Vatican said it would next year make available 640 files dealing with its relations with Germany between 1922 to 1939 during the reign of Pius XI.
Holocaust scholars consider this important because during this period Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, served as the Vatican’s ambassador, or nuncio, in Germany, and later became Vatican secretary of state — the second most powerful post after the pope.
The rest of the files of Pius XI will be made available in about three years, the Vatican said.
But also to be rushed into print beginning next year are secret documents dealing with Pius XII’s aid to prisoners of war.
“The publication over a period of years and in several volumes … aims at acquainting the historians with Pius XII’s grand work of charity and assistance to numerous prisoners and other victims of the war, of all nations, religions and races,” the Vatican stated.
In three years, after the complete Pius XI archives are open, John Paul has ordered that selected secret documents be opened about the Vatican-Nazi Germany relationship from 1939 to 1958 — during Pius XII’s reign.
“The Holy Father holds the opening of these particular Vatican Archives as close to his heart, for obvious reasons, since during Pius XII’s Pontificate the Second World War took place and, with it, also the deportation of the Jews and the tragedy of the Shoah,” the statement said.
These documents could be available by 2005.
Then, the rest of Pius XII’s legacy could be opened by 2009, according to one Vatican official.
“Naturally, no one can fail to note the exceptional nature of this gesture by the Holy Father, who has made an exception to (traditional procedures) in order to contribute to putting an end to unjust and ungrateful speculations,” according to the two-page statement by officials of the Vatican Secret Archives and the Secretariat of State issued Feb 15.
The announcement stunned interfaith observers and Holocaust experts, who for years have appealed to the Vatican to open the wartime archives so scholars can try and resolve the thorny issue of Pope Pius XII’s Holocaust legacy, a major stumbling block in Jewish-Catholic relations.
Some Jewish leaders say there can never be a full healing until the truth of what the Church did during the Holocaust is revealed.
The announcement also comes on the heels of last summer’s bitter collapse of the first-ever joint Catholic-Jewish historical commission officially sanctioned by the Vatican and a Jewish coalition to study Pius XII and the Holocaust.
The commission analyzed 11 Vatican volumes published after “The Deputy,” concluding it could not complete its mission without access to the secret archives.
But the Vatican refused. In response, the commission suspended its work, and later disbanded amid bitter charges.
Several interfaith experts and Holocaust scholars welcomed the new archives initiative.
“Obviously this is a very significant development and I think it should be welcomed without reservations in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “The more transparency there is, the better, to avoid acrimony and misinterpretation.”
“I must say I was positively surprised,” said Father John Pawlikowski, director of Catholic-Jewish Studies at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union.
“Hopefully it can lead to a more honest assessment of the papacy of Pius XII. It’s an important step in terms of the integrity of the Catholic Church.”
But neither cleric believed the documents would put an end to the controversy.
“My position is, I don’t believe even unlimited access will resolve the controversy because the documents will be subject to interpretations,” Rabbi Rosen said.
“I’m not sure it will solve the problem,” said Father Pawlikowski. I don’t know that without some individual research into the archives of nation-states like Argentina and some personal archives that we will have a complete picture.” He added that “we still need some of the information that many of us feel are in these archives.”
Lawrence Frizzell, director of the Institute of Judeo-Christian studies at Seton Hall University, also hailed the news. “It means that pertinent portions of the archives will be ‘released’ before the 75-year limit, which for the reign of Pope Pius XI would come in 2014.”
He was referring to the Vatican’s traditional lag time opening papal archives.
Brown University historian David Kertzer, who researched secret Vatican archives to write “Popes Against the Jews” (Knopf, 2001), welcomed the announcement as a “positive step” for Holocaust history.
He stressed the importance of the Pius XI documents.
“From my point of view we shouldn’t become obsessed with a single person — Pius XII — because it is much more important to understand how Jews came to be demonized in Europe in the decades preceding the Holocaust.”
But pioneering Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander was skeptical about the Vatican’s motives and criticized the failure to open all the files now.
“They give the impression of movement but they postpone all the time letting researchers see Pius’ [XII] attitude toward the German extermination of the Jews. That is why we are historians are so upset.”
Friedlander, the Tel-Aviv and UCLA scholar and Holocaust survivor who is the first holder of a chair in Holocaust studies, raised questions about how the documents would be selected and who would get to see them.
“There’s something mysterious about the whole thing,” he told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “Will researchers be allowed to go into the archives independently to study the German-Vatican documents, or will they provide the documents, which is quite a different thing obviously.”
He also questioned the Vatican’s assertions that more time is necessary because the files need to be organized.
“If there is such a problem in cataloguing these archives, how come 30 years ago they managed to publish volumes of documents — this in itself demanded very well-organized archives.
“How did they get disorganized? It’s an excuse. It’s a pretext to postpone opening the archives.”
Friedlander and Seton Hall Vatican archives expert Father John Morely confirmed that the 11 volumes were edited and released in the mid-1960s under the direction of Pope Paul VI to counter “The Deputy” debacle.
“There’s no question,” Friedlander said. “Obviously I think that the film is one of the reasons they are doing it again.”
Veteran interfaith expert Rabbi Leon Klenicki said, “it seems like history repeating itself.”
He said the Vatican initiative didn’t seem like a “reckoning of the soul” for what Pius XII did or didn’t do but “self-defense of the Church and the Pope.”
Interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin called for the Vatican “to fully open the World War II records to competent scholars so the public can reach its own conclusions.
Nothing less will suffice at this unique moment in history.”