During a revealing World War II meeting between Pope Pius XII and the British ambassador to the Vatican, the pontiff said he had no complaints against the Nazis occupying Rome and expressed concern about the trouble his city would encounter when they left, according to a recently declassified U.S. memo obtained by The Jewish Week.
And when the British diplomat details for the pope German abuses, the pope does not directly respond, according to the two-page document which records the Nov. 1, 1943, meeting between Pius XII and British Ambassador Francis D’Arcy Osborne.
Jewish interfaith leaders said the document raises further questions about the apparent failure of the controversial wartime pope to speak out sufficiently against German atrocities, and underscores the need for the Vatican to open its World War II archives.
“It’s a startling and distressing document,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, after being shown the memo.
But a Catholic Church spokesman said the memo only records the pope’s correct attempt to maintain neutrality in World War II in the face of German tanks surrounding the Vatican, and pressure from the Allies to join their side.
“You have to see this in the context of the times,” responded Eugene Fisher, director of Ecumenical Affairs for the U.S. Catholic Conference.
“One has to understand the Holy See has a right to its own policy [on neutrality.]”
The document emerges as the debate over the Vatican World War II archives heated up this week when a top Vatican leader told a group of Jewish leaders meeting in Washington that all relevant Vatican wartime documents have already been made public. The British document did not come up at the meeting.
In response to questions by Jewish leaders, Fisher told The Jewish Week that Archbishop Jean Louise Tauran, the Vatican’s Undersecretary of State, responded “that as far as he knew they [the Vatican Secretary of State] didn’t have anything else relevant” in its archives that was not already published in an 11 volume series released years ago.
Participants said the Jewish delegation was not happy with the observation.
“There was total disagreement with him,” said Rabbi Leon Klenicki, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League. “We told him many many things were not published or only partially published.”
Klenicki said he believes there is a vast untapped reservoir of documents from the masses of communications between the Vatican and its ambassadors, called nuncios, stationed around Eastern Europe.
“I told him [Tauran] to investigate and open those files,” Klenicki said. But “there was no response.”
U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat in recent months has several times called for the Vatican to open its wartime records.
Meanwhile, the British document is a fascinating glimpse into the high stakes politics of the Vatican during Germany’s occupation of Rome after Italy surrendered and six months before Allied troops liberated the country after a bloody campaign.
The memo records a pope who refuses to leave his post, is greatly concerned about food shortages in Rome, is reminded of German persecution of Jews, and is urged to use his moral authority more forcefully.
The memo unveils the substance of an hourlong meeting in the Vatican between the pope and Osborne. It was transmitted to American intelligence by future British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who at the time was serving as England’s political liaison to the Allied Forces in North Africa.
Pius XII tells Osborne that German police under the command of a “General Von Stahel” had been respecting the neutrality of the Vatican.
“He replied that, so far, at any rate, the Germans had behaved correctly in this respect,” Osborne reported in the National Archives document, declassified Dec. 28, 1998.
But the British diplomat said he told the pope that the German promise of protecting Rome as an open city “was a farce.”
Osborne told the pope that the Germans “were systematically stripping [Rome] of all supplies, transport and labour, were arresting Italian officers, Carabinieri and youth and were applying their usual merciless methods of persecution of the Jews.
“Rome was suffering the fate of all cities occupied by the Germans and the Italians were learning the nature of the New Order for which they had been fighting,” Osborne recorded.
Osborne said he also urged Pius XII to use his moral authority. “I said it was the opinion of a number of people that he underestimated his own moral authority and the high respect in which it was held by the Nazis because of the Catholic population in Germany,” Osborne wrote. “I added that I was inclined to share this opinion and I urged him to bear it in mind in case, in the course of coming events an occasion might arise for taking a strong line.”
The memo does not record Pius XII’s response.
Several Jewish groups have criticized Pius XII for failing to take a stronger public stand against the Nazis as the Holocaust unfolded. The debate has been growing louder as Pope John Paul II and the Vatican are seen to be putting Pius XII on the fast track towards sainthood.
Last March, Pope John Paul II said Pius XII had been a “great pope,” and a wise diplomat, and defended him against accusations that he had remained silent about the Nazi Holocaust.
Steinberg said the document provides troubling data about Pius XII. “On the verge of the liberation of Rome, the pope is, according to this document, not welcoming the liberators. We appear to have the British ambassador lecturing the pope on the ruthlessness of the Germans, specifically with respect to persecution of the Jews, and urging the pope to speak out.”
Steinberg cautioned that the document only portrays the British account.
“What we don’t have is the Vatican’s version of this meeting. We don’t accept at face value the British embassy’s interpretation, but in the absence of any Vatican documentation that’s all we have.”
He said the Vatican’s continued refusal to make its wartime records available to a team of qualified scholars — as suggested last year by the Vatican’s own Jewish liaison — “only reinforces the historical interpretation of Pius XII as the silent pope.”
- Catholic Church
- Elan Steinberg
- Secretary of State
- Stuart Eizenstat
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Leon Klenicki
- Eugene Fisher
- Jean Louise Tauran
- Arcy Osborne
- Ecumenical Affairs
- Eastern Europe
- Staff Writer
- Anti-Defamation League
- executive director