The art of spin-doctoring was perfected by the Jesuits centuries ago, long before the term was coined to describe those who, in modern times, are expert at manipulating the media and putting their own slant on news items. The aim is to present matters to the public in a manner that will reflect favourably upon their clients when, if the truth was fully revealed and honestly presented, the opposite would be the case. But the truth sometimes cannot be hid, and even the wiliest of Jesuits may be found wondering what to do next in order to prevent the facts becoming generally available. So we find the custodians of the Vatican archives fighting a desperate rearguard action against the scholars who are striving to gain access to all the material which is held under lock and key in Rome and which would shed light, once and for all, on the conduct of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, during World War II, and especially his failure to condemn the actions of those responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews in Nazi concentration camps.
In 1998, the Vatican, in an effort to mend its far-from-cordial relations with Israel and to pave the way towards the canonisation of Pacelli, issued a statement entitled: We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah. “The Church approaches with deep respect and great compassion the experience of extermination, the Shoah suffered by the Jewish people during World War II,” the document said. In its closing paragraph the statement, in true Jesuit fashion, called on “all men and women of goodwill to reflect deeply on the significance of the Shoah”. To do this, one surely would need to be in possession of all the facts, but Rome clearly had no intention of revealing the information which would clarify her position in relation to the very event which she so piously called upon others to reflect on deeply. That same year and because of continuing controversy over the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, proposed that a team of Roman Catholic and Jewish historians should review the already-published, Jesuit-edited, 11 volumes of wartime documents. This panel was also invited to “pose questions about unresolved matters”.
Honest, impartial historians have consistently called in question the role played by Pius XII both immediately before and throughout the course of the Second World War. His failure to take action to prevent Nazi atrocities, and his complicity in the slaughter of three quarters of a million Serbs, have been highlighted by many writers, but such is the efficiency of the Vatican propaganda machine that their revelations failed to make any real impact on the minds of those who were in a position to take action and there was, of course, no action taken. It was the initiation of the movement to canonise Pacelli that brought the matter into prominence again in recent times and it became so contentious an issue that the Jesuits found it necessary to take action to salvage what was left of their hero’s tarnished reputation.
Before the 1998 statement was issued, the Vatican authorities had already given John Cornwell – a Roman Catholic and an “award-winning journalist and author”, one who was known to be then of the view that Pacelli had been treated unfairly – access to secret archives, confident that he would produce a book which would restore the “angelic shepherd” image of Pope Pius XII. Cornwell’s book entitled, Hitler’s Pope – The Secret History of Pius XII was duly published (1). But, to the consternation of the Vatican, far from exonerating Pacelli, the author’s researches proved him to be guilty on all counts. We quote from a review published in The Herald newspaper: “Pope John Paul II has often made plain his contempt for the modern world and his arrogant assumption that he is infallible, not just in faith and morals, but in politics, ethics, and even cosmology. Nothing illustrates this better than his campaign to have Pius XII canonised. As John Cornwell’s outstanding work of scholarship shows, Pius XII was not even a good man in the ordinary sense, let alone a saint. Sadly, his refusal to condemn the Nazis for the Final Solution or to raise his voice in support of the Jews is not the only blot on his escutcheon. Rather, it was of a piece with a general world-view which was consistently patrician, fascistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-socialist.
“Cornwell establishes by painstaking research in the Vatican secret archives and other previously unmined sources that there are myriad counts in the indictment against Eugenio Pacelli, aka Pope Pius XII. As Pius XI’s Secretary of State he suppressed the powerful Catholic opposition to Hitler in Germany, which might well have led to Hitler’s defeat. . . . As Pope from 1939 onwards, he supported Germany’s annexation of Poland and overrunning of France and Belgium in 1940. He backed the vile fascist regime of Ante Pavelic and the Ustashe in Croatia and connived at the anti-Serbian pogroms there. He did not protest when the Nazis in 1943 transported thousands of Italian Jews from Rome, under the very walls of the Vatican, to death camps in Poland. He did not protest when German bombers razed London and Coventry, but did so when Allied bombers appeared over the Eternal City. . . . His apologists, defenders of the indefensible, have tried to palliate, extenuate, or explain away his guilt over the Holocaust. Their arguments vary from the (documentarily falsifiable) claim that he did not know what was going on in Germany to the barefaced Cold War argument that to help in discomfiting Hitler was to aid the Soviet Union. Cornwell’s meticulous research blows away all this nonsense. . . . No praise is too high for this book. It is a superb piece of historical research, fluently written, which should ideally be compulsory reading for every [Roman] Catholic and every student of the corruption of power.” (2)
It now became a matter of damage limitation. The panel of historians was duly established in 1999 and for many months they examined all the available material, but the examination of these weighty tomes – which Cardinal Cassidy thought would surely be sufficient to put the matter to rest – only whetted their appetite to have more material made available, and that material was what lay beyond their reach in the Vatican secret archives. The panel’s preliminary report, which has been described as “moderate and respectful in tone”, pointed to the need for additional documentation and posed 47 questions which had a bearing on unresolved matters. Nine months later the Vatican responded. A letter from Cardinal Walter Kasper, Cassidy’s successor, was blunt and to the point: “The Vatican archives are accessible only until 1923”. They would remain closed, he told the historians, “for technical reasons”.
Michael R Marrus, Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Toronto is a member of the panel and, in a newspaper article dated 24 July 2001, gave expression to his view of the Vatican’s attitude: “No serious historian could accept that the published, edited volumes could put us at the end of the story. Rather than abandoning our request for new material, the five historians still on the team (one of the [Roman] Catholic members resigned in January for personal reasons) have decided to suspend our work together. In doing so, the scholars remain faithful to our originally-stated commitment to openness and full disclosure. ‘Without some positive response to our respectful case for material in the archives that has not been published,’ we say in our reply to Cardinal Kasper, ‘we could not maintain our credibility with the many voices, [Roman] Catholic, Jewish and others, who have called for greater availability of archival material.’ Aware that this call lies beyond our original mandate, we nevertheless felt that we had to associate ourselves with this appeal, one that is near universal within the community of Holocaust historians of every background. Where does this leave us, as we contemplate the eloquent call of We Remember?”
The latest communication from the Vatican on the subject is to the effect that the World-War-II-era archives will be open to Jewish historians “as soon as it is technically possible”. On the Vatican web-site, the Pontifical Commission declares that it will “endeavour in the next few months ‘to find adequate means to reactivate the research on a new basis’ with the conviction ‘that the [Roman] Catholic Church does not fear the historical truth.'” The fact is that Rome does fear, more than anything else, the truth coming to light, and we may be sure that whatever documents are released will first be carefully vetted. Meantime her spin-doctoring Jesuits will be working overtime in order to extricate her from the difficulty in which she is placed as a result of her own action in setting up the panel of historians in the first place. “The Lord is known by the judgment which He executeth: the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands.”
1. Penguin paperback, £7.99, available from the Free Presbyterian Bookroom.
2. Frank McLynn, “A far from pious world view” – The Herald, 23 September 1999.