According to Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, archivist and Vatican librarian, the classification of the archives from Pius XII’s pontificate is almost complete. There is now nothing standing in the way of publishing the secret documents of one of contemporary history’s richest pontificates.
The question of opening the archives from Pius XII’s pontificate (1939-1958) has come up regularly. Already in 2014, the weekly La Vie announced that Pope Francis was thinking about “an anticipated opening of the archives on Pius XII,” and mentioned 2015-2016 as the likely date for this publication.
On October 12, 2017, in the columns of La Croix, Nicolas Sénèze reported the remarks of Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, archivist and librarian for the Holy Roman Church. The Archbishop announced that the famous archives could be published “within a year.”
A Reservoir of Important Documents
The prelate spoke at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, directed by Opus Dei, for a formation session for French-speaking journalists. He confided to them that the “secret archives” of the pontificate were “ready to be opened to researchers.” However, these are “only about 60% of the pontificate’s archives, and not all the other dicasteries are ready yet.” “When a pontificate’s archives are opened, all of them have to be available,” he explained. So at least the main dicasteries need to finish classifying their documents first. To give an idea of how much material this represents, the archives on Pius XII’s pontificate include 16 million pages, 15,000 envelopes, and 2,500 files.
If they are opened next year as Archbishop Bruguès believes, it will be a first. The rule currently in effect is that the archives on a pope’s pontificate cannot be opened to the public until 70 years after his death. Pius XII died in 1958, so the archives on his pontificate should theoretically remain unpublished until 2028, unless the pope grants a special dispensation.
Popes Benedict XVI and Francis have more than once voiced their desire to open these archives early in order to clear the memory of a pope who is all too often accused of compromising with the Nazi regime and the victim of a completely fabricated black legend that is upheld against all historical evidence and intellectual honesty.
The first accusations were launched by Rolf Hochhuth in a play, The Deputy, in 1963, that was supposedly based on historical facts. Five years after his death, the Angelic Pastor was blamed for his so-called guilty silence by an accusing play in which he is depicted as heartless, miserly, hypocritical, and an accomplice of the Germans.
Russia’s Role in Discrediting the Pope
For Fr. Peter Grumpel, relator for Pius XII’s cause of beatification, there is no doubt that the Soviets played an important part in the creation of Hochhuth’s play; the playwright’s counselor was Erwin Piscator, a renowned Communist. When questioned by the press agency Zenit in 2007, Fr. Gumpel declared: “at the Vatican, we have long known that Bolshevik Russia was behind this discredit campaign against Pius XII.” Although he did not go so far as to claim that Hochhuth was himself an infiltrated agent, he did say that “it is evident that his work was strongly influenced by the Communist system”. The newspapers and other means of propaganda took it upon themselves to create an international echo for this calumny.
For decades, serious and independent researchers have been working to reestablish the truth. Fr. Pierre Blet, SJ, with the collaboration of Robert Graham, Angelo Martini, and Burkhart Schneider, gave an account of the Holy See’s policy during the war based on the many archives that were placed at the disposition of historians under Paul VI. The Acts and Documents of the Holy See Relative to the Second World War, published in 12 volumes between 1965 and 1982, are an indispensable study.
Many works have since done justice to Pope Pius XII and the role of the Church during the entire war. Many diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives made it possible to relieve the populations and help the most threatened. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners, civilians and mostly Jews, owe him their lives.
The much-awaited opening of the secret archives on Pius XII should make it possible to take a more serene and objective look at a pontificate that is all too often caricatured by authors in search of sensationalism. But Archbishop Bruguès has already warned them not to expect any “discoveries that would revolutionize what we already know”.