Religion, Rome and The Reich: The Vatican’s other dirty secret

Sunday, May 21st, 2006

Forget ‘The Da Vinci Code’, ‘God’s HQ on earth’ has a real ghost in the cupboard - collusion with the Nazis. No wonder then, says Peter Stanford, that the church is hiding papers on the dealings of ‘Hitler’s Pope’, Pius XII.

As The Da Vinci Code arrives in our cinemas with its lurid accusations of a church cover-up of Jesus’s life as a family man, Roman Catholic leaders have been vocal in dismissing the film of Dan Brown’s bestseller as unsuitable viewing for believers. Cardinal amongst its sins according to them is its suggestion that a church organisation, Opus Dei, would attempt to manipulate history to fit its beliefs. But that, it was charged last week, is precisely what the Vatican is doing in regard of a much more recent event, the Holocaust.

An unflattering spotlight fell on God’s business address on Earth when the German Justice Minister, Brigitte Zypries, announced on Tuesday that her country is finally to open its huge archive of Nazi records on 17 million concentration camp inmates and slave labourers. Germany’s belated move to answer the pleas for access to its archives by Holocaust survivors and their families now leaves only the Vatican standing all alone in denying them the chance to read what is in its wartime documents.

You might expect an organisation that - as the bishops have been busy pointing out last week to counter the picture of their church presented in The Da Vinci Code - is dedicated to truth, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation to have been among the first to offer access to its files. And its refusal to open its secret files has only increased suspicion that it has something it wants to cover up - principally evidence of the alleged pro-Nazi sympathies of wartime pope, Pius XII.

In the church’s official annals, Pius, who died in 1958, is painted as a saintly shepherd who led his flock with great moral courage in difficult times. For many scholars, though, he is at worst the Devil incarnate, “Hitler’s Pope”, and at best a coward who refused to speak out against the extermination of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals in gas chambers, even when he had compelling evidence that it was happening, lest his words attract Nazi aggression.

Month by month, year by year, more evidence emerges from other sources about where the Vatican’s sympathies lay in the Second World War. Earlier this year, for example, a 1946 instruction from Pope Pius to the French bishops was unearthed that ordered them not to hand over Jewish children they had been sheltering to Jewish charities now the conflict was over. According to the outspoken Harvard historian Professor Daniel Goldhagen, Pius was guilty in this instance of “having given the order to take [Jewish] children away from their parents and should be regarded as little better than a War criminal.”

The Vatican’s response to all such accusations is to issue a blanket denial, insisting that it was neutral throughout the conflict. Yet in the absence of any compelling documentary evidence to buttress its position, few are now willing to take its word as gospel on its War record.

And the pressure has only built since the election 13 months ago of Pope Benedict XVI. Where his predecessor John Paul II had worked during the Second World War with the Polish underground to defeat the Nazis and save Jews, the former Cardinal Ratzinger had been a member of the Hitler Youth, albeit a reluctant one. The Vatican’s archives - known curiously as the Secret Archives, though their existence has been well known since 1610 - is under the personal control of the Pope. One word from Benedict and the doors could be thrown open.

While we wait for the church to catch up with the rest of the world, what is known for certain from other sources is that in 1933 as Vatican representative in Germany, the future Pius XII had agreed a treaty with Hitler, whose authoritarian tendencies he admired, to close down the Catholic -dominated Centre Party, one of National Socialism’s staunchest opponents. This treaty was based on the Vatican’s 1929 agreement with Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader. On being elected Pope in 1939, Pius’s first act was to suppress a document denouncing Hitler, entitled Mit Brennender Sorge (”With deep anxiety …”) that his predecessor had been writing on his deathbed. And throughout the War, Pius XII made no public condemnation of the Holocaust, save for a single ambiguous sentence in a 26-page Christmas message of 1942.


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