July 28, 2021

What can reveal the opening of the Vatican archives on the silences of Pope Pius XII in the face of Nazism

By Jérôme Gautheret

Posted today at 10:36 a.m.

This morning of March 2, 2020, Rome has its head elsewhere. In the heart of the plains of northern Italy, the Covid-19 epidemic, which came to light ten days earlier, has already spiraled out of control, sowing in the country a terror that the whole of Europe observes with astonishment incredulous.

Despite this dramatic context, the surroundings of the Vatican, deserted in the blink of an eye by tourists, are in the throes of an effervescence of a completely different nature. The cause is an event of considerable importance in the small world of researchers in contemporary history: the opening to the public of the archives relating to the pontificate of Pius XII.

Appointed as pope on March 2, 1939, at the end of the shortest conclave in history, Eugenio Pacelli went through in nearly twenty years (he died on October 9, 1958) the Second World War, then the beginnings of the Cold War, the creation of the State of Israel and the global movement of decolonization. His pontificate corresponds to a pivotal period of the XXe century, and the scale of the funds made available to historians is truly staggering: in total, more than 2 million documents, prepared by a long inventory and classification work, begun in 2006.

Solemnity and mystery

But none of this would be enough to explain such a buzz. The curiosity of the general public is concentrated on a single question, so explosive that it eclipses all the others: the very controversial attitude of the Pope towards Nazism.

“That day, inside the archives, there was a bit of excitement but it was still studious. Then at 4:50 p.m. the call for vespers rang this is the signal to start putting things away. When I left, still a little in my thoughts, there was a whole troop of journalists. That’s how I was questioned by a news agency, in the street, in Italian. They asked me : Can you summarize for us in one or two minutes the debates on Pius XII and the Shoah?”. A few hours later, my words were broadcast on an info channel, and my words were dubbed in French ”, remembers with a smile the historian Nina Valbousquet, member of the French School of Rome (a research institute in history, archeology and human and social sciences). Since 2012, she has frequented the Vatican archives and is one of the handful of researchers who can, depending on the confinements and sanitary measures, confront these fantasized archives on a daily basis.

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