New Sources on the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust: Summer Research Workshop for Scholars

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 19, Number 1 (March 2013)

New Sources on the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust: Summer Research Workshop for Scholars, August 13-24, 2012, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC

By Mark Edward Ruff, Saint Louis University

This seminar held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from August 13-24, 2012 brought together ten scholars and archivists from Italy, Canada, France, Israel, Poland, the United States, and the Vatican.  It was convened by Charlie Gallagher, SJ, Assistant Professor of History at Boston College, and Mara Dissegna, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Modena.

Its keynote address, “The Tribunalization of History,” was delivered by Alberto Melloni, Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Modena. Melloni examined how it came to be that history on this subject has so often been written in the style of “tribunalization,” or that of a judge on a tribunal.  Scholarship on the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the first half of the 20th century, he argued, has often consisted of presenting indictments,  mustering up evidence for and against the accused, delivering verdicts of guilt or innocence, imposing sentences and, even on occasion, informing the public of what form restitution should take. For Melloni, this outcome was hardly surprising.  The legwork for later scholarly analysis was often done by war crimes tribunals convened by the victorious Allies, the Israeli government and the West German government.

Since many of these, including the Nuremberg trials, the Eichmann trial of 1961, the Frankfurt war crimes trials and the trial of Klaus Barbie in 1987, occupy a permanent place in the popular imagination, those writing about the Roman Catholic past invariably fell back on courtroom semantics.  The German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, who denounced the silence of Pius XII in his play, The Deputy, had his major character voice an indictment with the emotions of a state prosecutor: “A Deputy of Christ who sees these things and nonetheless permits reasons of state to seal his lips — who wastes even one day in thought, hesitates even for an hour to lift his anguished voice in one anathema to chill the blood of every last man on earth — that Pope is … a criminal.”

For Melloni and the participants in the seminar, it became an imperative to overcome the distinct limitations to this mode of tribunalization, and most notably, its reliance on simple dichotomies of guilt and innocence. Transcending these limitations ultimately necessitates historicizing the process of tribunalization itself.  It is the historian`s duty, they concluded, to become aware of present-minded agendas that have shaped scholarship, including those of the current day. The battles over the past have shaped not just interpretative frameworks but the actual evidence itself which has been handed down to our generation of historians. In the postwar era, for instance, the actors from the years of Fascism and National Socialism compiled their documents and wrote their personal memoirs in response to allegations about the Roman Catholic Church’s complicity with extreme right-wing movements.

Seminar participants were able to demonstrate just how pervasive criticisms of the church’s conduct were already in 1945 and, in some cases, between 1933 and 1945. Archival documents and first-hand historical accounts were thus put together with this criticism in mind at the close of the war and again in the 1960s and 2000s.  The eleven volume set of papal documents commissioned by Pope Paul VI, Actes et documents du Saint-Siège relatifs à la  période de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale,  were a response to the criticisms of Rolf Hochhuth. The 2005 opening of the papers from the pontificate of Pius XI, and in the not-too-distant future papers from the pontificate of Pius XII, was the result of growing public criticisms in the late 1990s and early 2000s that took the shape of books like John Cornwall’s, Hitler’s Pope.

Participants in this seminar were also given the opportunity to draw upon photocopies and microfilm reels from the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. These documents originally came from the Vatican Nunciatures, or Vatican embassies in Munich and Berlin, the Vatican Secretariat of State, the Affairs of the Ecclesiastical Extraordinary in Bavaria, the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Office regarding Palestine, the Archive for the Fascist Office for Demography and Race, the Central Italian State Archives, the Swiss Police Jewish Refugee Records and the Second Vatican Council.

Though the research interests of the participants were chronologically and geographically eclectic, several recurring themes — Vatican diplomacy, clerico-Fascism and Zionism — gave the seminar a larger unity. What was the relationship of the Vatican to the Fascist regime in Italy and the National Socialist regime in Germany? To what extent did individual Roman Catholics evince attitudes and policies that diverged from positions of the official church? How did Roman Catholic attitudes towards Jews and the Zionist movement change between the 1910s and the 1960s in Italy, the United States and Germany?

The individual presentations in the seminar, in turn, addressed aspects of these questions. James Mace Ward presented an account of Reverend Josef Tiso, the enigmatic Slovak nationalist fluent in Hungarian who moved from being a nationalist priest to become a fascist leader of a European state.  Between 1923-1930, Tiso became increasingly anti-Semitic, a stance which he, however, could turn on or off depending on the needs of the moment. At the same time, Tiso was consumed with the “defense of the Church,” and his ideas were strongly rooted in Catholic social teachings.

Robert Maryks presented an account of Pietro Tacchi-Venturi, a Jesuit priest and architect of the 1929 Lateran Accords which created the Vatican. He met with Mussolini more than one hundred times.  Like Tiso, Tacchi-Venturi was a complex figure. He supported the 1938 Italian racial laws and the building of walls between Jews and Catholics. But at the same time, he tirelessly dedicated much of his energy and time to helping the victims of Mussolini’s racial laws.  He provided aid to every Jew who applied to him for assistance. He furnished passports, secured the release of Jews from concentration camps and facilitated the “Aryanization” of baptized Jews.

Charles Gallagher focused on Charles E. Coughlin, the well-known “radio priest” from Detroit who aligned himself with Fascist theories and fascist propaganda.  Gallagher aimed to modify the existing picture of the Canadian-born radio-priest which relied primarily on documents from official church archives. New documents from Jesuit and Protestant archives, Gallagher pointed out, paint a different picture. They make clear that various leaders of the Catholic church in America had concluded that he could be considered a Fascist – but they repeatedly refused to identify him as such publicly.

Mark Edward Ruff focused on the role of Johannes Neuhäusler,  the cathedral canon of the archdiocese of Munich who led an illegal courier service to the Vatican between 1933 and 1941. He supplied Eugenio Pacelli and others with documentary evidence of the Nazi state`s persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. One of Neuhäusler`s couriers, the Munich lawyer Josef Müller, also was involved in the circles in the German army plotting to overthrow Hitler. Through Müller and others, Pope Pius XII became involved in a plot to launch a coup in 1939 and early 1940.

Mara Dissegna, Adrian Ciani and Paolo Zanini focused on the question of the Vatican’s relationship to Zionism. All noted the Vatican’s strong opposition to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. A mass held in Boston to protest the creation of the Jewish state in the late 1940s, for instance, drew tens of thousands of participants. Piero Doria and Claire Maligot, finally, both examined the Second Vatican Council’s reappraisal of traditional positions towards Judaism and other world religions.