The issues are many. The question most often posed, regarding the pope’s silence during the Holocaust, is itself part of a larger issue: the pope’s reluctance to publicly condemn Nazi Germany. From the very first days of the war, with Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, the pope was under great pressure to speak out on behalf of heavily Catholic Poland. That he refused to condemn the Germans for the invasion was only the first of many similar moments about which the Vatican documents promise to provide insight. There is also the question of Italy’s own merciless campaign against the Jews. Some scholars have made an unflattering comparison between the outbursts by Pius XI, Pacelli’s predecessor, against Mussolini’s “racial” campaign, which began in 1938, and Pius XII’s failure to speak out against it—ever. What will the Vatican archives reveal about discussions inside the Vatican regarding the persecution of Italy’s Jews, which the Fascists were justifying in no small part as simply putting into practice restrictions on the Jews long urged by the popes?
Most dramatic of all was the Nazi-military encirclement of Rome’s ancient ghetto on October 16, 1943, and the extraction from their homes of more than 1,000 of the city’s Jews, mainly women and children. They were held for two days in a military complex close to the Vatican. The pope could have called publicly for their release. He could have sent a private message to Hitler, pleading on their behalf. He did neither. The Jews were put on a train that would take them to Auschwitz and to their deaths. What might the Vatican archives tell us about the discussions within the Vatican leading to the pope’s decision not to intervene?
Public attention, naturally enough, is focused on the war years. But the postwar years are likely to provide their own surprises and insights. In Europe, this was a tense and eventful time. Of special interest is the drama of postwar Italy—its cities in ruins, its king disgraced, its society riven by acute tensions as former Fascist persecutors lived uneasily alongside those they had tormented. The Communist Party was growing rapidly. The Church played a crucial and well-known role in blocking the Communists. But just how the pope conducted his behind-the-scenes campaign remains in good part unknown. And then there is the role the Vatican played in helping Nazi and Fascist war criminals escape to countries like Argentina. That the so-called ratline, which depended on Church institutions and high Catholic prelates, was in operation is hardly disputed among scholars. But how did it operate? What did the Vatican know about it? Did anyone there try to stop it?
The questions that researchers can now probe more deeply are all too topical today. The term fascism is much bandied about in reference to major parties and leaders in various parts of the world, not to mention its frequent use in characterizing America’s own would-be strongman. These analogies are easily dismissed as polemical overreach. Yet the opening of the Vatican archives offers a timely opportunity to take a new look at the classic question of how fascism arises in democratic societies, as it did in Italy and Germany. No less urgent is the task of understanding the influential role that religious leaders played then, and play now, in supporting authoritarian leaders. In reflecting today, too, on how hatred of the “other” is generated, the role that religion plays, whether in Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish societies, remains an uncomfortable but necessary question. The mass murder of Europe’s Jews in mid-20th-century Europe, and the role played by the Christian churches in the demonization of the Jews, remains the inescapable exemplar.