Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Taking care with the Press on Pius

On 2 February 2010 the World Jewish Congress ran an article with the headline "Documents suggest Pope Pius XII more concerned about Soviets than Nazis" (http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/en/main/showNews/id/8862). The substance of the article follows:

Two Italian researchers have found previously unknown correspondence about a meeting held in November 1944 between Pope Pius XII and the British ambassador to the Holy See, Francis D'Arcy Osborne. According to the papers, kept in the British National Archives in London, Osborne told the Catholic pontiff that the British government wanted him to issue a public appeal on behalf of the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were being deported to the Nazi death camps at the time. However, Pius said that he was under pressure to condemn alleged abuses perpetrated by the Soviets against Catholic civilians in Poland and in the Baltic countries. Osborne reportedly told the pope that he had seen no evidence that the Russians had committed any such atrocities, and that even if they had, they could not be compared to the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis.

I wrote to the National Archives in Kew, London on the following day and asked for copies of the files.

On 6 February James Cronan, Diplomatic and Colonial Records Specialist, Advice and Records Knowledge replied with this response:

It is unfortunate that the Italian researchers do not cite any document references for this correspondence and none of the newspapers covering this story have seen fit to do so.

Material that has been available for some time is usually to be founded indexed in the printed 'Indexes to the Correspondence of the Foreign Office', the ones for 1944 were published by Kraus Thompson in 1972. The volumes are organised alphabetically by subject and person and I have looked at this on your behalf and searched under various headings including Italy, Rome, Vatican, Osborne Sir Francis d'Arcy and Pope Pius XII. None of the descriptions in the indexes to correspondence match up with what you are looking for.

Equally, there does not appear to be anything in either the New Years openings of documents accessioned by The National Archives or the monthly releases of documents that were formerly closed and have recently been released.

Under these circumstances, your best bet might first be to get into contact with the journalist concerned.

I have sent an email to the World Jewish Congress and am waiting for a response.

The point of this rather long comment lies in news from the UK Telegraph online edition today: Nazis planned to infiltrate Vatican with spies dressed as monks (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/germany/7441937/Nazis-planned-to-infiltrate-Vatican-with-spies-dressed-as-monks.html). This arresting headline led into a rather cloak and dagger story by Nick Pisa, Telegraph journalist in Rome. Unfortunately, after a search through the National Archives website (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/) I could not find any reference remotely close to the news broken by Mr Pisa. I have written to the Archives and await their response.

What does all this have to do with the historic study of Pius XII? In short - a lot. Much of the public record of the Pope before and during the war was to be found in the newspapers of the day. The Times (London), The New York Times, not known for its pro-Catholic sentiments, The Sydney Morning Herald and hundreds of regional and local papers gave column space to what the Pope said. And as the war drew closer, and once it had begun, the gave him more.

However, what we read in the press coverage is what the editors wanted their readers to read. That is not to say that editors changed or falsified what the Pope said - I don't believe they did, with the exception of the Axis media - but emphasis was placed on particular points such as mention of refugees, civilian casualties and persecuted people. And here is the rub. Pius XII never mentioned Jews by name in any public broadcast or news release throughout the war. Even before the war, the word "Jew" rarely appeared. Does this "absence of evidence" point to "evidence of absence"; the answer is "no". What is does point to is the need to put comments into their context. What the editors did not have access to were the discussions within the Vatican over what to say, how to say "it" or even if it was wise to say "it".

In the Acts and Documents of the Holy See in Relation to the Second World War (ADSS, 1965-1981) we have traces of the highly charged atmosphere inside the Vatican during the second half of 1942 when the Brazilian ambassador began an appeal to Pius to make a clear and unambiguous statement condemning the murder of European Jews. It makes for very interesting reading. The Pope received dozens of appeals from the interned diplomats along with reports from outside Occupied Europe of a statement to be made by the United Nations. His Christmas Address of 1942 was the end result of a long, and I suspect, tortured process, that was published across the English speaking world. The Vatican Secret Archives may well reveal more details of the processes involved, but I suspect we, unlike the editors of the day, have most of the details.

I remain rather sceptical of news describing new material, but without details of how this material can be accessed. Newspapers commenting on Pius XII during the war must be read carefully. They are valuable resources, but they are not the only piece of evidence and need corroborative material to ascertain veracity.

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