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Vatican Archives: A History Already Known

The Vatican opened its archives on March 2 to preapproved scholars regarding the papacy of Pope Pius XII during World War II. The records have been “kept secret for decades amid accusations that he turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.”

However, we already have an accurate history of Pius XII’s wartime record thanks to decades of research and painstaking work by some scholars. These include Michael Phayer, author of The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 and Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War. Phayer thanked other historians for their contributions upon which he depended, including John F. Pollard, author of Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950.

In 1929, Pope Pius XI asked the financial genius, Bernadino Nogara, to manage the equivalent of $1.3 billion in today’s money that he had received from his treaty with Mussolini. Pollard was able to obtain a copy of Nogara’s diary and also archival records from the Italian, British and U.S. governments. His book is the most comprehensive exposure of Vatican finances available to date.

Thayer was able to access newly released documents made available from several national archives including the British Public Record Office and copies of Vatican documents from the Argentine archives. Of great importance, Pres. Bill Clinton had issued an executive order in 1997 for all branches of the federal government to release their wartime records and documents. These included in excess of “45 million pages” from all branches of the military and the Office of Strategic Services – predecessor of the CIA.

What did Pius XII know and when did he know it?

“By drawing disparate accounts together from its diplomats stationed throughout Europe and by soliciting information from them, the Holy See could have played a vital role in accelerating the process of Holocaust knowledge. It chose instead to decelerate the dissemination of this knowledge. The Vatican had ‘no wish to give publicity to the issue.’”[i]

Vatican diplomat, Rev. Angelo Roncalli who later became Pope John XXIII, wrote to Slovakian president and Catholic priest Josef Tiso in 1944 asking him to stop the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz according to research by Tel Aviv University Professor Dina Porat. Roncalli also wrote Pius XII about the horror befalling Hungarian Jews, but received no reply. Roncalli said he was filled with resentment towards his superiors, “whose power and influence are great, but who refrain from action and resourcefulness in extending concrete help.”

One reason why Pius XII did not speak out about the Holocaust “is that he wanted to play the peacemaker during the war,” Phayer wrote.  To that end, “the Vatican played a central role in the Iberio-Vatican-Argentine scheme for a negotiated settlement between the Allies and Germany … Spain, Portugal, Argentina and the Vatican together with Germany would be the nucleus of a bloc resulting in a worldwide political realignment.”[ii]

Vatican war profits

“Vatican/Catholic finances were extraordinarily successful under fascism.”[iii] Nogara became a director of a Swiss bank “which carried out various banking operations for the Vatican.”[iv] And so “Switzerland became the center of financial operations for the Vatican” after the German occupation of much of Europe.[v]

The Vatican used its diplomatic immunity “to ensure absolute secrecy in moving foreign currency and ownership documents out of Switzerland.”

Under Pius XII, Nogara invested in firms that profited from, and enabled, the war effort of the Axis powers. These investments were hidden from the Allies (with whom Nogara also did business), through the use of holding companies and offshore banking centers. “Like water finding a downhill path, Vatican money found its way to the grisly side of the Holocaust.”[vi]

“When Germany blocked funds to Allied countries, the Vatican – a neutral state – used its account in the Reichsbank to continue doing business as usual.”[vii]

In 1941, when Nogara bought controlling interest in the South American Banco Sudameris, “the British and Americans had already blacklisted the company.” Sudameris “was simply an Axis bank…acting in collusion with German banks.”[viii]

Pius XII “put a high priority on freeing Sudameris” from the Allied blacklist. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Maglione directed his efforts towards the American ambassador to the Vatican and his chargé d’affaires.  Maglione “pressed them again and again” to request that the U.S. lift its ban.[ix] In 1944, the papal ambassador in Montevideo telegrammed the U.S. Secretary of State to say that his efforts directed at the American ambassador on behalf of the bank had failed.[x]

Nogara was a director of  the Banca della Svizzera Italiana, also blacklisted,[xi] but both banks remained blacklisted until the war ended.

Nogara was specifically “accused of ‘shady activities’ and being ‘up to some dirty work’ to evade Allied controls by the British Ministry of Economic Warfare.”[xii]

“World War II also played a huge role in the creation of the Vatican Bank, as well as the unique power it held. As the Allies imposed restrictions on bank accounts, it became harder to move money around. Nogara created the bank, called the Institute for Religious Works (or IOR), in 1942 to avoid having financial transactions tracked through western banks.”

“[T]he ultimate purpose was to give the IOR as much independence in financial dealings as possible, while at the same time protecting the Holy See from any unpleasant publicity that might be generated by such transaction, especially in the delicate and difficult wartime conditions.”[xiii]

Exempt from these wartime restrictions, the IOR became “the world’s best offshore bank.’”


Jasenovac was the third largest World War II concentration camp in Europe by number of victims. It was operated by the Catholic and Nazi-allied Ustasha government. Wartime Croatia was “one great slaughterhouse.” The prisoners were mostly Serbs, Jews and Roma. Estimates of the total numbers of men, women and children killed there range from 300,000 to 700,000. “700,000 in a total population of a few million, proportionally, would be as if one-third of the U.S. population had been exterminated by a Catholic militia.”

“Pope Pius XII could not plead ignorance to these atrocities. Both the Vatican ambassador and the head of the [Croatian] Church, Bishop Alojzje Stepinac, were in continuous contact with the Holy See while the genocide was being committed.”[xiv]

For the Ustasha dictator, Ante Pavelic, “relations with the Vatican were as important as relations with Germany because Vatican recognition was the key to widespread Croat support.”[xv]


As an Allied victory became more certain, two distinct ratlines developed, both operated by Catholic priests with Vatican support.

Austrian Bishop Alois Hudal’s ratline assisted highly-placed German and Austrian war criminals. “The American Office of Strategic Services was able to trace financial and tactical support of Hudal’s operation to the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission of Assistance and expatriated Germans and Austrians in Argentina.”[xvi]

Hudal enabled monsters – just a few named here – to escape to South America: Adolf Eichmann, Josef Mengele, Franz Stangl, Eduard Roschmann, Alois Brunner, Walter Rauff.

Pius XII “made no effort to remove Bishop Hudal from the Austrian refugee program under the Pontifical Commission of Assistance until 1952, at which time all, or almost all, of the perpetrators of World War II atrocities who had not been apprehended had made good their escape.”[xvii]

Numerically, the largest ratline was operated by Vatican agent Fr. Krunoslav Draganovic to help Croatian war criminals escape and “reveals the direct involvement of Pius XII himself.”[xviii]

Draganovic had served as an army chaplain with the rank of lieutenant colonel at Jasenovac. After the collapse of the Ustasha regime, Draganovic returned to his base in Rome to establish his ratline.[xix]  (Phayer, Pius XII, pp 231-232)

The Vatican wanted Draganovic to care for the Ustasha war criminals and the priest served the Vatican as front man in this venture. As one U.S. Army intelligence report put it, “in many instances it was hard to distinguish the activity of the Church from the activity of Draganovic.”[xx] “All intelligence agents involved in the case, regardless of nationality, believed by 1947 that Croation dictator, Ante Pavelic, had found refuge in a Vatican property or properties.”[xxi]

In June 1947, “an American diplomat working in the Buenos Aires embassy wrote to the State Department deploring the fact that ‘the Vatican and Argentina [are conniving] to get guilty people to haven in latter country.’”[xxii]

The ratlines enabled 9,000 to escape to South America. About 5,000 went to Argentina.

“The Vatican had the means for giving financial and other material help to those passing down the ‘ratlines.’ It would have been perfectly possible to channel funds to escaped war criminals in South America from the Vatican’s Swiss bank accounts through the branches of Sudameris.”[xxiii]

In the end

Hitler and Pope Pius XII would become bitter enemies. However, “after Hitler’s death, Nazi-style fascism would give way to the ‘garden variety’ of fascism that supported the Catholic Church, as had the fascism of Mussolini, Franco and Salazar.”[xxiv]

“At the end of the Second World War, the Vatican found a world changed not to its liking. The outcome was exactly the opposite of what Pius XII had hoped for. With the exception of Spain, European fascism was defeated [and] the United States of America was the new world power.”[xxv]

At war’s end, American diplomat George Kennan telegrammed: “Pope never censure[d] Hitler or Mussolini. Pope asks for lenient treatments of Nazi prisoner[s] and war criminals. During the war Vatican hatched plan for a peace at Russia’s expense. Vatican is closely connected with monopoly capital through banks and concerns of many countries.”[xxvi]

Why the above will not be disclosed by the Vatican

Pope Francis has declared three of his most recent, deceased predecessors to be saints: John XXIII (pontificate 1958-1963), Paul VI (pontificate 1963-1978) and John Paul II (pontificate 1978-2005). After it became known that he was considering Pius XII (pontificate 1939-1958) for the same honor, “Jewish groups asked that the case be shelved pending the opening of the archives of his pontificate or at least until the generation of Holocaust survivors has passed.”

Pope Francis announced in March 2019 that, “after more than fourteen years of preparation,” the Vatican archives on Pius XII’s war record would be opened.

This past January, the Vatican announced the archives would be ready for outside scholars on March 2. Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican archives, said that “based on what he has seen … many prejudices [against Pius XII] will fade away, without a doubt.”

The archives “will show the great works of Pope Pius XII …. Pope Pius XII emerges as a great champion of humanity, a man deeply concerned about the fate of humankind during those terrible years, somebody who was very sensitive and concerned about those who were being persecuted,” Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, the Vatican’s Secretary for Relations with States, declared.

“Pope Pius XII met with many people including war criminals, farmers, miners, sportsmen, journalists, and sports psychologists, doctors, artists, and astronomers. Archive material will tell about those encounters,” the Vatican stated.

When reporters were invited to view the archive, Bishop Pagano “took out some tattered leaflets. They were drawings and letters from German children thanking the pope for sending them first communion gifts in 1948.”

So it seems that Pope Francis is still steering Pius XII toward sainthood.

Betty Clermont is author of The Neo-Catholics: Implementing Christian Nationalism in America.

[i] Phayer  Pius XII, the Holocaust, and the Cold War p 120

[ii] Ibid  pp 178-180

[iii] Pollard, Money and the Rise of the Modern Papacy: Financing the Vatican, 1850-1950 p 175

[iv] Ibid p 169

[v] Ibid p 190

[vi] Phayer Pius XII pp 96-133

[vii] Ibid p 106

[viii] Ibid pp108, 109

[ix] Ibid pp110, 111

[x] Pollard p 192

[xi] Ibid p 193

[xii] Ibid p 190

[xiii] Ibid  p. 200

[xiv] Phayer The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965 p 130

[xv] Ibid p 32

[xvi] Phayer Pius XII pp 196-199

[xvii] Ibid p 200

[xviii] Ibid p 233

[xix] Ibid pp 231, 232)

[xx] Ibid p 233

[xxi] Ibid pp 222, 223

[xxii] Ibid p 194

[xxiii] Pollard p 202

[xxiv] Phayer Pius XI p 41

[xxv] Ibid p 135

[xxvi] Ibid  pp 231, 232

4 Responses

  1. Pius XII and his close association with Nogara is a key issue in the modern papacy that warrants extensive scrutiny. It is Exhibit A in the institution’s embrace of mammon. The open wound of the current papacy’s lack of transparency in financial matters are linked to Pius XII and Nogara. Highlighting this association in the opening of the papal archives should help researchers prioritize what to look for. Certainly, Pius’ role in the Holocaust is a top item for many researchers. But it lost its moral voice in pursuing mammon under Pius XII and Nogara. No surprise, then, that it muted intervention. While there may be evidence of Pius’ assisting Jews behind the scenes only underscores the failure to be a public moral leader of an institution which touted itself as one.

    If there was abundant evidence of Pius’ active role in political intervention, we would have heard it long ago. The only pope I met was Pius XII. As naïve seminarians, I and a friend, made it to Rome in 1957 and somehow managed to get tickets to an audience within the confines of Castel Gandolfo. We had assembled a book which we presented him, This Is Your Life, after the popular TV show by Ralph Edwards. (I’d like for the researchers to retrieve it while they dig through the archives. I suspect many important documents their have disappeared; our innocuous piece may well be preserved!).
    Strangely, the papacy is rushing to canonize recent popes as if to the leaders were a quality cut above the rest of humanity. I perceive it as an institutional ploy. Paul VI who upended the lay members counsel on contraception should lose his perch. Paul reinforced patriarchy and suppressed women’s decision over their bodies. JPII and his foot dragging on the clerical sexual abuse scandal should be reason to be de-sainted.

    BC has compressed multiple issues in this most recent blog.
    She has turned on a searchlight.

    • Thank you for taking the time to contribute additional information and many astute observations. Yes, the Vatican’s lust for mammon deserves further scrutiny. I only hope this blog whets others appetite to read the books I’ve quoted in their entirely.

  2. You never cease to amaze me Betty with your straightforward confrontation on the subject of the Jews and the church and proud to refer it on.
    David I Kertzer has a special place in my library, as does Mark Aarons and John Loftus.
    Both have written intensely on many and varied subjects.
    David Kertzer has been a thorn in the side of many due to his book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortarta, now a film on the back burner:
    I also appreciate the mention of John 23,whose good works and love of the poor has been deflected by being attributed to at least two others, one being Francis.
    His Nostra Aetate originally meant for the Jews, after his death, for political reasons was expanded to others by the other.

    This is worthy of mention too…….https://www.amazon.com.au/Greatest-Lie-Ever-Told-Antisemitism-ebook/dp/B00871J7SK

    • Thank you for taking the time to comment, Lynne. I appreciate your encouragement very much. I’m glad you mentioned Kertzer and Aarons/Loftus,. Both have written excellent accounts regarding the Vatican.

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