Opening of Pius XII archives could shed light on seminal period in Czechoslovak history

Pope Pius XII, photo: Public Domain

The opening up of the archives of Pope Pius XII by the Vatican is seen worldwide as an opportunity to find answers to long-term questions about the secretive pontiff who was in charge of the Holy See between 1939 and the early stages of the Cold War. There are also hopes that the documents could shed light on the Vatican’s position towards Czechoslovakia in many of the key moments of the country’s history.

Pope Pius XII,  photo: Public Domain
Czechs today may rank among the most atheist nations in the world, but that does not mean that the Vatican did not have major influence in the country in the past.

In the key years between the end of the Second World War and Communist Coup d’état in 1948, the Catholic Church was the largest religious organisation in Czechoslovakia, with a particularly strong following in rural areas.

Furthermore, the Church also had a strong reputation of moral virtue in the eyes of many Czechoslovaks after the war, says Dr Jaroslav Šebek from the Czech Academy of Sciences, who is one of the historians planning to look into the archives as part of his research.

“It is necessary to say that the Catholic Church had massive moral credit after the end of the Second World War, because many men of the cloth, as well as those from the common ranks of the faithful, took part in anti-Nazi resistance. Many died in concentration camps or were executed, so there was this moral credit factor.”

Conflict arose between the Catholic Church and the Communists soon after 1945 and gradually escalated until 1948 as the Communists were trying to take control of Czechoslovak society.

The Vatican was thus seen as a major threat by the Czechoslovak Communist Party, says Dr Šebek.

“We know from documents here in Czechoslovakia that the Communist regime saw the Vatican, despite the latter being a small state, as one of the worst imperialist powers.

“Along with the United States, Great Britain and West Germany, the Vatican was seen as a centre of the ‘imperialist struggle against communism’ in the eyes of the regime.”

One of the perceived instruments of the Holy See’s influence that kept the State Security service on its toes was the Czechoslovak section of Radio Vatican, set up during Pius XII’s reign in 1947.

Jaroslav Šebek | Photo: Jakub Wojtovič,  Czech Radio
The historian hopes that the archives could now shed more light on how the Vatican reacted to the establishment of the Communist regime in 1948 and what sort of powers it awarded to bishops in secret ordinations.

Aside from the clash with Communists, historians also believe that Pius XII’s archives could reveal his stance on the expulsion of Germans from large parts of Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, including the Sudeten Germans who lived in the Czech borderlands.

Other questions include Pius XII’s stance towards the Czechoslovak Government-in-Exile led by President Edvard Beneš during the Second World War.

While these are important questions for Czech history, the eyes of the world are likely to be most interested in what details the documents will reveal about Pius XII’s stance towards the Holocaust.