Feldkamp: Pope Pius XII knew early about Holocaust and saved many Jews
By Mario Galgano
The chief archivist of the Bundestag (German parliament), Michael Feldkamp, has been involved in historical research on Pope Pius XII for several years.
Feldkamp has published on topics such as the Cologne nunciature and papal diplomacy, as well as articles on the relationship between the Catholic Church and National Socialism.
His book "Pius XII and Germany", published in the year 2000, aimed to bring his complex research to a wider audience, and was also intended as a response to John Cornwell's book “Pius XII - The Pope Who Remained Silent". Feldkamp collaborates with Vatican Archivist Johannes Icks.
Q: Dr. Feldkamp, you have been in the Vatican archives in the last few days and have seen some hitherto unknown documents on Pius XII and Eugenio Pacelli. What do you think is new in the research on Pius XII that the general public does not know yet?
Feldkamp: First of all, we in Germany are not the only ones doing research on Pius XII. There are not only historians in this field, but also journalists - whom we also need as propagators. What is new now, and what we have always known so far, is that Eugenio Pacelli, i.e. Pius XII, knew about the Holocaust very early on.
Regarding the systematic extermination of European Jews, Pius XII sent a message to US President Roosevelt in March 1942 - two months after the Wannsee Conference. In it, he warned him that something was happening in Europe in the war zones. These messages were not considered credible by the Americans. Today we know (...) that Pius XII was confronted with the persecution of the Jews almost on a daily basis. He had been presented with all the reports, and had created his own office within the Second Section of the Secretariat of State, where the staff had to deal exclusively with such matters. There was Cardinal Domenico Tardini - who later became an important cardinal at the Second Vatican Council - and there was Dell'Acqua, also later a cardinal. He is also considered one of the principal authors of the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Reconciliation with the Jews (Nostra aetate).
During World War II, these leaders were in very close contact with Pius XII, reporting to him daily on persecution and mass deportations, as well as on the individual fates of the people who came to them. And the exciting thing now is that we can estimate that Pius XII personally saved about 15,000 Jews through his own personal efforts: opening monasteries, raising cloisters so that people could be hidden there, and so on. All of this is a huge sensation! The archival findings I have found now in the Vatican show me how accurately Pacelli was informed.
Q: You said that what Pius XII told them about the fate of the Jews but was not considered credible by the American side, so to speak. How did the Holy See and Pope Pius XII react?
Feldkamp: This is diplomatic correspondence, only letters that they had received were confirmed. It is interesting, however, that the president of the United States, or his associates in the State Department, repeatedly contacted Pius XII for information on individual cases...
Pope Pacelli's support for the Jews went so far that the Papal Palatine Guard, a kind of bodyguard for the Pope - like today's Swiss Guard - was involved in fights with the Waffen-SS, with Wehrmacht soldiers, to hide Jews in the Roman Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Now we can see and prove all of this. I am grateful that we have opened these archives in the Vatican. In this way, we can now correct many of these vague assumptions or even accusations.
Above all, there is the accusation that Pius XII did nothing and remained silent. The problem of silence is still there, of course. But now it can be considered reasonable, considering that here he led people into hiding in covert operations. He could not then draw further public attention to himself by organizing protests or writing protest letters, but to divert attention, he conducted negotiations with the German embassy and the Italian police force, even with Mussolini and the Italian foreign minister and so on. He always tried to get as much as possible through negotiations.
Q: How do you see today's historiography and its re-evaluation of the Pius XII files? Are the results presented correctly and honestly, or do you fear that there are some reservations?
Feldkamp: Today's reappraisal can help clarify that. But I am also afraid that certain circles will still try to portray him negatively. I think that will happen. But it is certainly difficult to accuse or want to accuse anyone of this in detail. I also see in my research and in publications here in Germany how difficult it is to convey these new findings as credible. So, there are still people who say that they cannot imagine that, for 70 years we have believed what was wrong, and now it is supposed to be different. I encounter this skepticism often, both inside and outside the Church.
What we must and should pay attention to, and what I have always done, is to keep in mind that the results and the dossiers are all written in French and especially in Italian.
And that most of my colleagues, who are historians and who also know a lot about World War II, often do not understand Italian. This means that they now depend on their colleagues to translate it, or they depend on what I then present and translate. Of course, I try to translate very precisely, and then I bring in the Italian quotes so that people can understand it again, if necessary. I think there is a lot that can be done in this area.... We've already had stories where people have simply mistranslated or gone from one translation to another incorrectly.