The Professor’s latest work, titled “The third Reich against Pius XII” looks into the relationship between Nazism and the Catholic Church, a long text which involved digging for material in half of Europe’s archives.
Where does your interest in Church-regime relations stem from?
There were some members of my family who opposed oppressive forms of Nazism. Especially my grandfather. He
was a State Police marshal and was arrested for re leasing some young
Jews who had been placed in his custody after a roundup. Another thing
that triggered my interest in gaining a deeper under standing of the
relationship between Nazism and the Catholic Church, was my curiosity in
the figure of Pius XII, whose image remains heavily tainted in people’s
Which fields does your research cover and what information did you find on Pope Pacelli in the Nazi documents?
The aim of the research was to identify all the
most confidential Nazi documents that mention Pius XII. The purpose of
this was to find out exactly what the Nazis thought of Pope Pacelli. The
conclusion reached – after seven years of work and after consulting
Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia, Israel and Moscow’s
archives – is that the leaders of the Third Reich had always had a very
negative impression of Pius XII. They saw the Pope as an enemy of the
Why was the Third Reich hostile towards the Pope?
Because, in the totalizing logic of the Third
Reich, whose aim it was to abolish Churches and found one single German
National Church, Pacelli was seen as a resistant figure who was
difficult to understand and to deal with.
How did Pope Pacelli contribute to helping the victims of Nazism? What concrete actions did he take?
From the Nazi documents I had translated and then
studied and published (approx. 400 pages of them), it appears that the
spies of the Third Reich were aware of the humanitarian operations that
had been planned and carried out and later continued by the Holy See.
Interestingly, the Pope pushed for a solidarity network which involved
countries affected by the war in different ways. What the Pope did in
concrete terms, was to act together with the International Red Cross and
DELASEM (an association created for the defence of Jews), to prevent a
war from breaking out and Italy from entering the war, to advocate the
holding of a peace conference throughout the conflict, to hide the
persecuted, receive news about the oppressed, have prisoners released,
prevent Italian cities from being bombed, stop the rounding up of Jews
on 16 October 1943, distribute food and medicine in concentration camps,
bring in economic aid, support those taking part in risky operations
(production of fake passports, fake baptism certificates etc.), getting
some prisoners out of the prison on Via Tasso, in Rome and much more.
Why have so many historical works portrayed the Church as not having a very hostile attitude towards Nazism?
Because of misinformation which had two aims: one,
to weaken the figure of Pope Pius XII, a figure who showed great
hostility to totalitarianism and atheist communism and two, to focus
people’s attention on Pope Pacelli, in order to distract them from the
terrible crimes being committed, which only came to light later and not
easily either: the lack of solidarity many countries showed to Jews, the
agreement American companies had with the Nazi government (the
calculators used in Auschwitz were made by IBM), Switzerland’s ambiguous
role, Stalin’s decision to kill the Jews, the protection the Allies
gave Nazi representatives after the war, the eugenics experiments
conducted in non Nazi countries etc.
Pope Pacelli: a prudent diplomat? As an
historian, how influential do you think the diplomatic skills of his
successors were in resolving international conflicts in the 20th century?
The Nazis despised Pope Pacelli (more so than they
did Pius XI), precisely because he dealt with them “as a diplomat”: on
the one hand he did not break formal communication in order to safeguard
the little aid that could have been brought to countries affected by
the war and on the other, he operated in secret to counter national
socialism (and even met with figures who intended to neutralise Hitler
and his staff). As such, any considerations regarding the Popes and
international conflicts need to be seen in context and we cannot
generalise about all of them. Some serious tensions were overcome in the
cases of John XXIII (Cuban missile crisis) and John Paul II (dispute
with Argentina and Chile over the sovereignty of the Beagle Channel
islands), for example. However, the diplomatic efforts of other Popes
were not so successful.