VATICAN CITY—In an insightful interview with ZENIT journalist Deborah Castellano Lubov, German historian Michael Hesemann explained the connection between Pope Pius XII’s actions during WWII regarding the Jewish Holocaust and how his decisions were affected by the Armenian Genocide.
Though historians contest it, Pius XII is still accused of failing to do enough to help the Jews during World War II. In particular, he is criticized for too much silence.
But well-known German historian Michael Hesemann says the Pope’s decision to be guarded in protest was a result of what he’d learned some years before, when while working in the Vatican Secretariat of State and as nuncio, he was privy to the Vatican’s information on the Armenian Genocide and its attempts to stop it.
Protests from Pope Benedict XV and his diplomats only made the situation worse for the Armenians, Hesemann says, and that was history Pius XII didn’t want to repeat.
For the last 10 years, Hesemann has worked on Pope Pius XII and tried to understand the motives for his alleged “silence” during the Holocaust and his numerous actions to save as many Jews as possible at the same time, which, Hesemann says, may initially sound contradictory.
As a matter of fact, before he became Pope, Eugenio Pacelli had a long history serving in Vatican diplomacy, beginning with his career in the Secretariat of State.
“When I, as a historian, received permission to study [Pius XII’s] files in the Vatican Secret Archives, I came across several documents dealing with the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, which piqued my interest,” Hesemann says. “To learn more, I started to dig deeper into this subject and eventually located about 2,000 pages of hitherto unpublished documents on the biggest crime of World War I.”
In June of 1915, Hesemann says citing Pacelli’s documents, the apostolic delegate in Constantinople, Msgr. Angelo Dolci, learned about “rumors of massacres,” as he wrote in a telegraph to the Holy See. About a week later, he received confirmation that indeed a “persecution” with the purpose “to remove the element of the Christian Armenians from the entire province” was taking place.
Among the victims were many Catholic Armenians, too. Even the Catholic bishop of Mardin, Msgr. Ignatius Maloyan (who was canonized by John Paul II), and several of his dignitaries were slaughtered after their deportation by mid-June, Hesemann says. After learning the details of this massacre, Dolci sent a written protest to the Grand Vizier, the “Prime Minister” of the Sultan, requesting the immediate stop of those deadly deportations at least for the Armenian Catholics. He did not even receive a reply. When the massacres continued, the Armenian-Catholic Archbishop of Chalcedon, Msgr. Peter Kojunian, sent an emotional letter to Pope Benedict XV, stating that “a systematic extermination of the Armenians in Turkey” was taking place
Immediately, Benedict XV wrote a handwritten letter to Sultan Mehmet V, appealing to his “high-hearted generosity” and requesting his compassion for the innocent Armenians, Hesemann explains.
The papal initiative was made public and reported by newspapers all over the world. At the same time, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Gasparri contacted the nuncios in Vienna and Munich, ordering them to promote the Holy See’s initiative to Turkey’s allies and urging them to interfere so that “these barbaric acts should immediately be stopped.”
At the same time in Constantinople, Msgr. Dolci desperately tried to get the papal autograph to the Sultan but was refused several times by the Sublime Porte (Ottoman Porte). Only when the German ambassador interfered, Msgr. Dolci was received by Mehmet V on Oct. 23, 1915, after nearly six weeks. One month later, Hesemann says, he was invited to pick up the sultan’s reply, justifying the deportations by the claim of an Armenian conspiracy.
Hesemann says the massacres did not slow down despite the Vatican’s actions.
“The Turks promised all sorts of things, they promised to spare the Armenian Catholics … They promised that all deported Armenians would be home for Christmas, but these were all lies and false promises,” Hesemann explains.
The deportations and massacres continued. Far away from being spared, at the end, 87% of the Armenian Catholics were murdered, an even higher percentage than that of the Orthodox Armenians, of which 75% were killed.
The papal protest not only had no success, it turned out to be counterproductive, Hesemann says.
The Vatican nevertheless continued its efforts to try to stop the massacres, by continuing to appeal to the international community and to the Ottoman leaders themselves.
Eventually, Msgr. Dolci, the apostolic delegate, wrote to none other than the future Pope, Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli: “By defending the Armenians, I lost the grace of Caesar, the Nero of this unlucky nation. I mean the Secretary of the Interior, Talaat Pasha, Grandmaster of the Masonic Orient. He must have learned of the great pressure which followed after the intervention of the Holy Father in form of his autograph, by the other embassies. Since then, I receive only malevolent looks from him.”
All historians agree that his experience during World War I and especially the papal policy of neutrality and peacemaking, followed by Benedict XV, highly influenced the performance of Pius XII during World War II, Hesemann says.
“He knew that an open protest, which didn’t work in 1915, would never work in 1942, when he dealt with an even more evil, uncompromising and unscrupulous leader,” Hesemann says about Pope Pius XII. “He knew a protest would not help the Jews at all but only cause Hitler to turn against the Church and destroy the only infrastructure able to help and save many Jews.”
“Indeed, it is a shame that the Turkish government still denies the Armenian genocide, using the very same lies and excuses as they did in 1915 in their reply to the papal initiative,” Hesemann said when asked about Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to Turkey.
“Pope Francis experienced this on his own, when in June 2013 he called the events of 1915 absolutely, correctly ‘the first genocide of the 20th century.’
“Ankara immediately protested, called back its ambassador from the Holy See and called the Pope’s remark “absolutely unacceptable.
“But Pope Francis was right … Every neutral historian would support his view. I am very proud that this great Pope did not give up, but remembered the martyrdom of the Armenian nation again on May 8, 2014, when he received the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch Karekin II in the Vatican. And I am sure he will not ignore this subject during his visit to Turkey, since the Turkish attitude is just unacceptable.
“Next year, on April 24, the world will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of that genocide. Don’t you think it is eventually time to admit that it happened? I mean, look, I am German. My nation has committed the biggest crime in human history, the Shoah. We can’t bring 6 million Jews back to life, unfortunately. But we can regret, we can try our best to reconcile, we can learn from our history and prevent it from repeating. Isn’t it an originally Catholic concept that God will forgive you any sin when you only sincerely regret it, confess it and do penance?
“Nobody would blame modern-day Turks for what their ancestors did. But we blame them for denying it today, since any denial of a crime makes you an accomplice, a partner in that crime, a protector of murderers,” Hesemann explained.