On Friday, Pope Francis is to become the third Roman Catholic pope to visit Auschwitz. John Paul II was the first Polish pope in the church’s 2,000-year history. Auschwitz is less than an hour from where he was born, and his 1979 visit was poignant. Every bit as dramatic was the 2006 visit by the German-born Benedict XVI who had at 14 been a member of the Hitler Youth.
But Francis’ visit could be the most significant ever if he uses the symbolic backdrop to break with the policies of six predecessors over 70 years and order the release of the Vatican’s sealed Holocaust-era archives.
The debate over the church’s secret wartime files is not new. The Vatican is the only country in Europe that refuses to open all of its World War II archives to independent historians and researchers. The issue is more than simply an academic debate over the appropriate rules for public disclosure of historically significant documents. The church’s files are thought to contain important information about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. The Vatican had eyes and ears in the killing fields: tens of thousands of parish priests who sent letters and reports to their bishops, who in turn forwarded them to the secretary of state in Vatican City. One of the monsignors in charge of reviewing those thousands of reports was Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI.
It is little wonder that historians are eager to study the Vatican’s Holocaust-era papers. The accounts by the parish priests may help answer lingering questions of when and what the Vatican knew about the Nazi murder machinery. The files are likely to shed light on whether the wartime pope, Pius XII, could have done more to try to stop the Holocaust. Also buried inside the secret archives are the early records of the scandal-ridden Vatican Bank, created during World War II. Those documents could resolve conclusively how much business the Vatican did with the Third Reich, as well as the extent of insurance company investments that yielded enormous profits from life insurance policies of Jews sent to Auschwitz, which I uncovered in my own reporting.
And finally, the church’s secret files might resolve the debate over whether several postwar refugee-smuggling networks that were run from Rome separately by an Austrian bishop, a German priest and a Croatian priest — and through which Nazi criminals escaped — were freelance operations, or instead parts of a program that had the pope’s blessing.
The church has since the 1960s released some wartime files, while refusing unfettered access by historians. In the 1990s, the administration of President Bill Clinton ordered federal agencies to release relevant Holocaust files, and also spearheaded an effort that persuaded several dozen other nations to do the same. The Vatican was an outlier.
The 2013 election of Pope Francis held out the promise for a change in the church’s longstanding policy of secrecy. While still the archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had been asked about the dispute over the Holocaust-era files. The Vatican, he answered, “should open them and clarify everything.” Many Vaticanologists thought he would use a 2014 visit to Israel to free the files. But Francis did not say anything publicly about the papers on that visit.
Francis last discussed the issue in a November 2014 interview with the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot. The pope asked: “Did Pius XII remain silent in the face of the extermination of the Jews? Did he say all he should have said? We will have to open the archives to know exactly what happened.” According to Francis: “There is an agreement between the Vatican and Italy from 1929 that prevents us from opening the archives to researchers at this point in time. But because of the time that has passed since World War II, I see no problem with opening the archives the moment we sort out the legal and bureaucratic matters.”
The 1929 agreement Francis cited is the Lateran Pacts between the Vatican and Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. It gave the church full sovereignty over Vatican City. The agreement declared that the pope was not only the equivalent of a secular monarch but also endowed with divine rights. Instead of preventing the church from releasing its archives, as Francis suggested, the agreement invests the Vatican with inviolable powers to set its own policies independent of any interference from Italy. All that is required to open the long-sealed archives is a papal decree.
Jewish advocacy groups, human rights organizations and concentration camp survivors hope that Francis’ commitment to reform will trump the desire of Vatican traditionalists to keep the documents buried forever. On the very grounds where the Nazis murdered more than a million victims, most of them Jews, Pope Francis can do much more than have a photo opportunity and offer a generic condemnation of the depths of human depravity. By freeing the Vatican’s Holocaust-era files he will pay a singular and lasting tribute to the dead.
Gerald Posner is the author, most recently, of God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican.