The Vatican unseals the archives of history's most contentious popes on Monday, potentially shedding light on why Pius XII stayed silent during the extermination of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
Award-winning German religious historian Hubert Wolf will be in Rome on Monday, armed with six assistants and two years of funding to start exploring documents from the “private secretariat” of the late pope.
Wolf, a specialist on the relationship of Pius XII with the Nazis, is anxious to discover the notes of the his 70 ambassadors -- the pontiff's eyes and ears during his time as head of the Catholic Church between 1939 and his death in 1958.
There should also be records of urgent appeals for help from Jewish organisations, as well as his communications with the late US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The unsealed archives additionally cover a post-World War II era in which writers were censored and some priests hounded for suspected communist sympathies.
The Vatican first published the essentials covering the Holocaust four decades ago, an 11 volume work compiled by Jesuits.
But some crucial pieces are still missing, including the pope's replies to notes and letters -- for example, those about Nazi horrors.
The Jesuits already published “documents the pope received about the concentration camps, but we never got to see his replies,” Wolf said in an interview.
“Either they do not exist, or they are in the Vatican,” he told AFP.
“There is no doubt that the pope was aware of the murder of Jews,” Wolf said.
The Christmas message
On December 24, 1942, Pius XII delivered one of history's most debated Christmas radio messages.
Buried in its long text was a reference to “hundreds of thousands of people who, without any fault of their own and sometimes for the sole reason of their nationality or race, were doomed to death or gradual extermination”.
Was his message -- delivered in Italian and aired just once, and which never explicitly mentioned either the Jews or Nazis -- heard and understood by German Catholics?
“The only ones who heard it were the Nazis,” said Wolf, noting that the radio waves were scrambled and that the pope could have spoken German -- if he had really wanted to reach the German faithful.
“After the war, Pius XII told a British ambassador: 'I was very clear.' And the ambassador will say in reply: 'I did not understand you',” the historian said.
“Quite a few Jews were saved in convents,” David Kertzer, an American historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for a book about the era, told AFP.
“But why were they murdered by people viewing themselves as Christians?”For Kertzer, the reasons behind the “silence of the pope” are key.
“He wasn't happy about mass murder. He seemed upset. He knew by 1941,” said Kertzer. And yet “never uttered the word Jew”.
Wolf, the German historian, added that Pius XII “remained very withdrawn after the war, saying nothing about the Holocaust”.
He also never recognised the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Four things to know about Pope Pius XII's archives
Published Holocaust archives
Archives covering World War II have already been widely published by the Vatican. Now researchers will have direct access to an even greater number of documents -- including some of the most sensitive ones.
And none of the pope's post-war papers have previously been released.
Suzanne Brown-Fleming, international programmes director at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, urged caution.
“It strikes us here at the museum as imprudent to suppose one way or the other what we might find, especially knowing we're talking about 16 million pages and dozens of languages,” Brown-Fleming told AFP.
“And the most interesting archival materials are often in hidden folders, or not hidden, that's the wrong word, in unexpected folders. Let's say ones labelled 'miscellaneous'.”Philippe Chenaux, a Pius XII biographer and professor of modern and contemporary Church history at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University, agreed.
“It is not certain that the opening of the Vatican (archives) is likely to bring an end to the controversy over Pius XII's 'silence',” he said in an interview.
“The major contribution of the documents made available concerns the post-war period, or if you prefer, the Cold War, marked by the antagonism between the Christian West and the great Soviet Satan,” said Chenaux.
“The end of the 1940s and 1950s have so far been a blind spot in the history of the pontificate.”
Church defends 'just man'
The Catholic Church has always argued that Pius XII helped rescue several thousand Jews by having them hidden in religious institutions in Rome during the Nazi occupation. It also believes the Pope's refusal to verbally attack the Nazis avoided reprisals against Catholics in Europe.
The process for the beatification of Pius XII began in October 1967. Then-Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him “venerable” in 2009, the first step towards sainthood on condition that a miracle be recognised -- a decision that spurred an outcry among Jewish organisations.
Critics attack his silence
Pius XII -- a moral voice likely to have been heeded by German Catholics -- is vilified by many historians for never having explicitly condemned the extermination of the Jews by the Nazi regime.
The member of the Roman nobility is also criticised for having remained silent when on October 16, 1943, over a thousand Roman Jews were rounded up in their ghetto not far from the Vatican.
Following the roundup, some Jews were hidden in Catholic institutions, but critics point out that no written document exists to prove that Pius XII was responsible.