Vatican’s Refugee Assistance, Ethnic Germans, and Navigating Identities in the aftermath of world war II

3 November 2023

This blog post, based on primary sources from the Vatican archives and other repositories, might be of interest in particular to scholars working on postwar displacement and informed general audience interested in refugee history and archival research. 

Four years after the end of World War II, a letter from a refugee named Massimiliano reached Vatican City. Massimiliano wrote a dramatic appeal to the Pope, seeking assistance for himself and his wife, Anna, as they hoped to emigrate to Australia in search of a better life. This refugee from Venezia Giulia, classified as Volksdeutsche and therefore excluded from the main refugee assistance programmes, saw the Holy See as a last resort.[1] The correspondence related to his case has been preserved in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, alongside thousands of other files concerning refugees who sought the Vatican's assistance during the tumultuous years of the war’s aftermath. 

Massimiliano's application for aid to the International Refugee Organisation. Source: Arolsen Archives.



Those records have been made available for research for the first time in 2020 when the part of the Vatican archives pertaining to the pontificate of Pius XII has been opened to scholars. These collections were scheduled to be opened in 2028, as traditionally a pope’s archive remains sealed for 70 years counting from the death of a pope, but Pope Francis decided to give access to these documents earlier. The will to clear out the controversies around the role of the Vatican during WWII and the Holocaust played a role here. There have been long-standing debates surrounding Pius XII's response to the Holocaust and his actions during this period. Access to documents from this era could shed light on the Vatican's knowledge of and response to the Holocaust. The opening of the part of the Vatican archives covering the years from 1939 to 1958, offers an exceptional opportunity for the scholarly community to examine the Vatican's role during World War II and the origins of the Cold War.

The collections of the Vatican archives on the Pius XII’s pontificate was opened to researchers in 2020. Vatican Apostolic Archive, Vatican City. Source:

The newly available records also shed light on the history of post-war reconstruction and the origins of the Cold War. It makes for a watershed moment for the scholars of refugee movements and refugee aid during and after WWII. The history of post-WWII population displacement is typically written with the use of the records of the international organisations (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, or UNRRA, and International Refugee Organization, or IRO) and state archives. The Vatican archives offer, among other things, a new angle for researching individuals and groups on the margins of the refugee regime.


In this blog post, I draw on the sources from the Vatican Apostolic Archive (VAA, named Vatican Secret Archive until 2019) to point out to new research opportunities in the field of post-war population displacement and, through spotlighting on the example of Massimiliano, focus on the case of the Vatican’s assistance to ethnic Germans.


The newly available sources show how the Vatican aimed to fill a gap in aid left by the international organisations and the states, providing help also to those excluded from the main aid programmes. Especially, it filled the gap left by the IRO policies and supported refugees in securing assistance from this organization. Unlike UNRRA and IRO, the Vatican claimed to wish to help all the needy, no matter their nationality or faith. In practice, the Pope and clergymen gave special attention to selected sections of displaced populations and individuals. The ways in which the Vatican and the Church were involved in assistance to individuals and communities who were unable to find assistance elsewhere requires further research.


Ethnic Germans


One such example is the group of ethnic Germans (the Volksdeutsche), or those classified as such at some point. As this section of the population benefited from the Nazi rule, and some of them acted as collaborators, they were explicitly excluded from the international and state aid programmes until at least the late 1940s. The flight and expulsion of more than 12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe left them impoverished, vulnerable, and desperate.


Research on the Vatican’s assistance to the German population and ethnic Germans has been dominated by the issue of their role in the escape of Nazis from justice.  The International Red Cross, backed up in many of their activities by the Vatican, issued travel documents to refugees, among whom were also ethnic Germans and those posing as such. War criminals benefited from this by obtaining fake documents. Klaus Barbie, nicknamed the “butcher of Lyon”,  who escaped to Bolivia passing as “ethnic German”, being a case in point.


In the wartime and post-war years, the requests for help came from individuals and communities from various countries, and the Vatican’s dignitaries weren’t aloof to those sent from persons of ethnic German origins. In some cases, the clergymen offered small financial subsidies or parcels, decided on an individual basis.[2] In others, they helped with resettlement and intervened at the IRO on behalf of refugees they deemed worth helping.


That was the case with Massimiliano and his family. A son of German-speaking parents, classified as a Volksdeustcher, he could not benefit from food and shelter in a refugee camp and assistance in emigrating overseas. In autumn 1949, the Vatican officials advocated for him, describing him and his life in their correspondence in the following way:


He narrates his very painful odyssey which has lasted for years and which makes him very depressed.


A clerk by profession, a trained typist, with a good knowledge of Italian and German, a refugee from Venezia Giulia, where he had to leave his loved ones, during the war he served in the [Italian] Navy and was important to the command as a valuable and much needed interpreter. Then came imprisonment in Germany.


Having returned to Italy, without work, without unemployment benefits, without any assistance, without a home, without the means to live, he took refuge with his mother-in-law in Breguzzo, a poor woman who is struggling to make a living and who is no longer able to provide for him. He complains that he appealed in vain to the IRO to be admitted to the concentration camp [intending Displaced Persons camp] and then emigrated abroad for work purposes; nothing has been done so far.


He begs to be offered employment in Italy, or with the support of the IRO so that his application can be promptly and favorably accepted.


He proves to be a fervent Catholic.[3]


Massimiliano turned to the IRO, as the documents preserved in the Arolsen Archives show.[4] After the appeal to the Pope, in early 1950, Walter Carroll from the Vatican Migration Bureau had personally written to the IRO authorities to recommend his case and asked for assisting him with emigration to a country where he can find a job.[5] In his answer, the Chief of IRO Mission in Italy wrote that Massimiliano as a person of Volksdeutsche origin was part of “the category of refugees [which] cannot receive any assistance from IRO”. He underlined, however, that his status was “in suspense” as “not to prejudice their position with ‘Ineligibility’, in case IRO, Geneva, would change the basic policy excluding Volksdeutsche.” He added: “It does not appear likely that such change will be made.”[6] The Pontifical Aid Commission, the main papal charity, took interest in Massimiliano’s case and tried to help him.


Massimiliano’s case brings our attention to imposed and overlapping identities which translated into bureaucratic categories of the postwar era. As many others, he eluded simple identity classifications, as well as tried to navigate the system to his benefit. Massimiliano was originally from the territories ceded by Italy to Yugoslavia (Istria, Fiume, and Dalmatia). He was fluent in German and Italian and spoke some Greek and “Yugoslav”. Yet, he wasn’t classified as an Italian refugee and only in 1948 he applied for Italian citizenship in Merano, as he had family connections to South Tyrol, a region with German-speaking population. In late 1950, the IRO review board decided he convinced thm that he was “neither an Italian citizen nor a person of German ethnic origin” to be included in the immigration scheme.


Interest in such cases, and more general sympathy for refugees like Massimiliano, was informed by reports and letters on the plight of German and Austrian populations received by the Vatican. Particularly poignant were those coming from Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, which described the sufferings and deprivation suffered by the expellees from Eastern Europe. A note from December 1945, with the annotation “seen by the Pope”, stated:


From eyewitness testimonies it appears that the Germans were subjected to unprecedentedly brutal treatment by the Poles (expulsions in 20 minutes, depredations, violations, beatings, mistreatment of all kinds, transfers in inhuman conditions, torture, etc. etc.), without even mentioning the tragic famine, following which epidemics develop: mortality increases to a frightening extent...


On the other hand, the German expellees from the regions where the Poles settled, all flow into the German zone occupied by the Russians, which finds itself encumbered by millions of human beings whose maintenance it cannot provide for. So illnesses, epidemics, deaths…. Tragic situation, especially in view of winter. The authors of the documents raise an urgent appeal for the swift provision of accommodations for the refugees, so that substantial supplies of food, clothing, medicines are collected in refugee centers (...) The worst consequences are foreseen if this very serious situation is not resolved as soon as possible.[7]


Another report, referring to those coming from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Yugoslavia, stated that “the evacuees arrive stripped of everything – women in shirts and barefoot, without covers, they will be the prey of autumn rains and winter frosts.”[8]


Cardinal Aloisius Muench, known for his antisemitic views and exculpating Germans from the Nazi crimes, wrote extensively on the needs of the German expellees:


Hardly had the ink dried on the Potsdam Agreement of August 2, 1945, when a flood-tide of expellees, bereft of practically everything except the clothes on their backs, poured into truncated, demolished Germany. The deportation was anything but ‘orderly and humane’ as the Agreement provided. Bombed-out cities could provide no shelter for them, except somewhere in the ruins or possibly in ill-ventilated and ill-lit bunkers.[9]


He highlighted the aid already received from the Vatican: “Aware of the distress among refugees and expellees our Holy Father has sent them during this year tons and tons of foodstuffs, clothing, and medicines.”[10] Various proofs of the moral and material destruction of the war and the need for aid and reconstruction landed on the Pope’s desk, such as for example the photos of the ruins of the cathedral in Cologne.[11]

Pope Pius XII led the Church through the tumultuous years of World War II and the early Cold War. Photograph: AP.

The Pope was sympathetic towards the German population and the plight of Volksdeutsche. Yet, he refrained from public advocacy. Now, the newly available records more fully show that it did not stop him from directing help to them. The Vatican along with the National Catholic Welfare Council (NCWC) and other organizations, directed aid to the German population and German refugees. On various occasions, the Vatican negotiated with the Allied authorities the possibility to send material aid earmarked for ethnic German refugees in Germany. For instance, in 1946, the Pope sent a gift of fourteen trucks loaded with food items to the cardinal of Cologne to be distributed among the German refugees. After requests from the Vatican, the Allies agreed for the Vatican convoy to enter the occupied territory. The decision to send the food came after confidential reports on the difficult alimentary situation in the French zone of Germany.[12] The Vatican also liaised with the American agencies, especially the War Relief Services (as a part of NCWC), to bring material aid to the German and Austrian population, usually through Italian ports and to be distributed through the Catholic networks in Germany and Austria.


With the rising Cold War tensions and growing influence of anti-communism the Vatican was increasingly eager to support ethnic Germans as a part of their agenda to combat communism, while IRO did not change its stance of not including ethnic Germans into its mandate. In such a situation, ethnic Germans and other refugees tried various strategies to play the IRO authorities and at times succeeded in doing so while turning also to confessional groups for aid. They tried to appeal to various bodies for assistance: as archival evidence shows they wrote letters to the IRO, the United Nations, the Vatican, the local authorities, and others. As the screening was imperfect, groups of Volksdeutsche lived in DP camps, what was reflected in UNRRA reports.




The opening of the Pius XII’s section of the Vatican archives will help historians to gain a deeper understanding of the population displacement in the post-war period. The newly available records shed new light on the role of the Vatican in refugee assistance, and in particular on assistance to individuals and groups on the margins of the refugee regime. In the WWII aftermath, people classified as ethnic Germans, such as Massimiliano, were explicitly excluded from the international aid, as well as from most of the state relief funds. The majority of the expellees from Eastern Europe were of Catholic faith. The Vatican consciously tried to fill the gap left by other agencies and targeted those deemed ineligible for aid. The IRO officials, eager to quickly resolve the problem of refugee presence in Europe, at times cooperated with them to stretch and adapt the rules while managing refugees. The Vatican relief network was one of few bodies that explicitly included ethnic Germans into its scope of activities and therefore must be considered in the analysis of how they functioned in the post-war regime. The Vatican’s cooperation with UNRRA and IRO, as well as governments (including the UK government which asked them for help in resettling refugees in South America), underscores the point that religious aid was an integral part of the post-war refugee regime.


Massimiliano, after many appeals and interventions, eventually was deemed by the IRO as within the mandate of the organisation. He emigrated with his wife Anna to Australia in June 1951 on SS Castel Bianco. After landing in Melbourne, in their alien registration documents they were registered as Yugoslavian Displaced Persons.[13] It is worth emphasising that Volksdeutsche was a fluid category and one that could be interpreted in various ways in the process of bureaucratic negotiations. Analysing such cases prompts us to ask: How did ethnic Germans create narratives on their displacement in the system that officially excluded them? How did they play their identities and negotiate to navigate the refugee regime?  While the newest research in the field started to integrate the perspective of the ethnic Germans into the historiography of DPs, further research is needed to see how ethnic Germans functioned in a wider geographical context – in Germany, Austria, Italy, and beyond – in the early years of the Cold War.




This blog post is based on documents from the Vatican Apostolic Archive, the National Archives of Australia, and the Arolsen Archives.


Read more:


Ballinger, Pamela, The World Refugees Made: Decolonization and the Foundation of Postwar Italy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020. 


Brown-Fleming, Suzanne, The Holocaust and Catholic Conscience: Cardinal Aloisius Muench and the Guilt Question in Germany, Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006.


Douglas, R. M., Orderly and Humane: the Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2012. 


Kent, Peter C., The Lonely Cold War of Pope Pius XII : the Roman Catholic Church and the Division of Europe, 1943-1950, Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. 


Panagiotidis, Jannis, “‘Not the Concern of the Organization?’ The IRO and the Overseas Resettlement of Ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after World War II.” Historical Social Research (Köln) 45.4 (174) (2020): 173–202.


Steinacher, Gerald, Nazis on the Run: How Hitler's Henchmen Fled Justice, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

[1] Vatican Apostolic Archive, Vatican City (hereafter VAA), Segr. Stato, MSA 8, Migrazione Sezione Alleati, fasc. 16.

[2] VAA, Segr. Stato, Commissione Soccorsi 240, fasc. 133, 134, 144.

[3] VAA, Segr. Stato, MSA 8, Migrazione Sezione Alleati, fasc. 16.

[4] Arolsen Archives, Personal file of K. MASSIMILIANO, 1948-1951, 3.2.1/ 80407667- 80407679/ ITS Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives.

[5] VAA, W.S. Carroll, Secretariat of State of His Holiness to Admiral G.F. Mentz, Chief Italian Mission IRO, Roma, 7 January 1950.

[6] VAA, G.F. Mentz, Chief of Mission IRO (Italy), 19th January 1950, to Walter S. Carroll, Secretariat of State of His Holiness, Vatican City.

[7] VAA,Commissione Soccorsi 241, fasc. 163, Note, 19 December 1945.

[8] VAA, Commissione Soccorsi 241, fasc. 163, Subject: Refugees, To Mr Philip Bastedo and Lt. Walter Kerr, ​​12 October 1945.

[9] VAA, Segr. Stato, Migrazione Sezione Alleati 8, fasc. 3, Muench S.E., Situazione dei profughi tedeschi, 1949 (Problems of the Church in Germany, submitted by His Excellency Aloisius J. Muench, Bishop of Fargo, Apostolic Visitator in Germany, Fall – 1949).

[10] VAA, Segr. Stato, Migrazione Sezione Alleati 8, fasc. 3, S.E. Muench, Situazione dei profughi tedeschi, 1949 (Problems of the Church in Germany, submitted by His Excellency Aloisius J. Muench, Bishop of Fargo, Apostolic Visitator in Germany, Fall – 1949).

[11] VAA, Segr. Stato, Commissione Soccorsi 241, fasc. 155.

[12] VAA, Segr. Stato, Commissione Soccorsi 245, fasc. 287.

[13] National Archives of Australia, NAA: D4878, K. Massimiliano, Alien registration documents, 1957.