Historical Investigation to understand a troubling photograph

October 7, 2010

Investigation of Question 1: Fabrication?

Filed under: — admin @ 1:32 pm

Research to date has found no basis for questioning the authenticity of the Copello photograph. The face of the archbishop resembles other photographs of Copello that are readily available online, for instance here and here.  Thanks to blogger Steve Lawson for pointing out this photo, in which Copello’s profile, in a meeting some years later with Argentine ruler Juan Peron, matches the profile view of Copello in the swastika-blessing photo.

The factual statements in the photograph’s subcaption are plausible in light of verifiable facts. Listed as attending the ceremony is the Argentine Foreign Minister, a position held by Carlos Saavedra Lamas from 1932 to 1938. While Saavedra Lamas was frequently occupied with commitments outside the country, including mediation efforts that won him the Nobel Peace Prize of 1936 for ending the Chacos War between Paraguay and Bolivia, there is evidence that he was present in Buenos Aires at this time. In the proceedings of the Congress, a photograph shows Saavedra Lamas riding together with Cardinal Pacelli in an open carriage. The caption reads: “Tuesday, October 9 – the Cardinal Legate leaves the Cathedral in the company of the Foreign Minister.” Source: XXXII Congreso Eucaristico Internacional, vol. 1 (Buenos Aires, Executive Committee, 1935), 165.

October 9, 1934 was the day before the official opening of the Congress. The events of the Congress from October 10th through 14th took place mostly in outdoor venues able to accommodate large crowds., not in the cathedral. The caption’s statement that the swastika-blessing took place before the cathedral is plausible if the event took place on October 9th.

The caption identifies the flag as belonging to the German pilgrim group at the Congress. A sizable pilgrim group traveled from Germany to Buenos Aires, identified in the proceedings of the Congress and pictured en route aboard the transatlantic liner Madrid.  The streamers seen hanging from the flag in the photograph are typically not found on swastika flags unless they are military or party unit flags (a good example is found in illustration no. 30 following page 418 of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris), but the pilgrim group may have adorned the flag with some type of streamers for reasons difficult to ascertain.

As for the German ambassador mentioned in the subcaption, there is reason to believe he was in Buenos Aires and made his time available to prominent persons associated with the Congress.  Historian Ronald Newton, in The “Nazi Menace” in Argentina (p.111),  recounts that Cardinal Pacelli was the guest of the German ambassador and his wife during the Congress, and that Copello, Pacelli, and German Ambassador Thermann went on a sightseeing ride in a JU-52 aircraft furnished by the German embassy.

Research into archival copies of Buenos Aires newspapers and magazines of the time suggests that the ceremony was probably closed to the press. One finds extensive Argentine press coverage of the Congress, with countless photographs, including many of Cardinal Pacelli and other cardinals inside the cathedral on October 9th, yet no swastika-blessing photograph. An extensive review of the photographs appearing in the Argentine press in connection with the Congress found no photographs whatever of Copello with a swastika flag, nor of Copello blessing flags of any type.

The photographing of the ceremony was apparently intended for a German, not Argentine audience, by persons who were able to control photographic access to that end.  In this regard, one can see in the photograph of Copello’s swastika-blessing that a large drape to the left of the swastika banner, and objects to the right of the swastika banner, shield it from view and thus block photographic access from the rear or either side.

The photograph does not bear any discernible marks of a cut-and-paste fabrication. Had the photograph been a fraud, one would expect some form of protest, especially in light of the high-level diplomatic character that the caption claimed for the ceremony. A review of the protests filed by the Vatican with the German government from July through the end of 1935, however, shows that none of them mention this incident. The protests do show that the Vatican paid attention to Nazi newspapers, including Der Stürmer.  One week before the Copello photograph appeared, Cardinal Pacelli protested a statement in the Nazi party’s leading newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, saying the statement was one the Vatican “cannot leave uncontradicted.”  Source:  “Note from Cardinal Secretary of State Pacelli to Ambassador von Bergen,” July 10, 1935, in Dieter Albrecht, Ed., Der Notenwehsel zwischen dem Heiligen Stuhl und der deutschen Reichsregierung, vol. 1 (Munich: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 1965-1980), 254-255.  Meaning of title: The [Diplomatic] Note-Exchange Between the Holy See and the [German] Reich Government.

A week or so after Der Stürmer published the photograph, the Vatican’s nuncio in Berlin protested to the German Foreign Office concerning anti-papal graffiti on a Stürmer display case in Berlin.  Source: “Note from Menshausen: Disparagement of the Pope,” Aug. 1, 1935, Notenwechsel, op. cit. vol. 3, 112.

A review of the Vatican archives available for the mid-1930s, copies of which are on microfilm at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, including the files of the Vatican’s nuncios in Berlin and Munich, as well as the Vatican Secretariat of State’s files concerning Germany, found no mention of this photograph or ceremony.


One historian who reviewed the photograph expressed doubt that Archbishop Copello was blessing the swastika flag. While this is the only reviewer thus far who doesn’t perceive Copello to be blessing the flag, it is worth considering the question. The caption and subcaption say the archbishop is blessing the swastika flag, so once again let us look at the evidence to see if a factual assertion in the caption can be confirmed or denied.

First, the instrument in the archbishop’s hand is familiar today to Catholics who attend the Easter Vigil Mass. It is used at that service to bless the congregation, as the priest processes through the church, dipping the instrument into a container of holy water and sprinkling it on the congregants. The people recognize this action as a blessing and make the sign of the cross accordingly. I have similarly seen a priest use this instrument to bless a home, and to bless an office. The name of the instrument is seldom heard. It is an aspergillum. The root of the name is the Latin “asperge,” as in Psalm 51, “Asperges me Domine” – “Cleanse me with hyssop, Lord, and I will be clean.” Thus the name evokes the central character of blessing, cleansing from sin and making fit for godly use.

The miter on the head of Archbishop Copello is consistent with a solemn blessing in the Roman Catholic tradition. Catholic liturgical practice calls for a bishop to don the miter when giving an ecclesiastical blessing, a solemn blessing in the name of the Church. By contrast, bishops do not wear miters or carry aspergillums when mingling casually with pilgrims at a Church gathering. To wear a miter while pointing an aspergillum toward a swastika flag certainly has all the appearance of a swastika-blessing. No one, including the dubious historian, has yet suggested what else Archbishop Copello might have been doing in this photograph.

Further, the large size of the swastika flag in the Copello photograph, draped from a long vertical pole, indicates that this ceremony was set up in advance, rather than spontaneous. The presence of diplomatic officials would also indicate advance planning to coordinate schedules. It is not known whether the Argentine Foreign Minister and the German Ambassador were invited to a ceremony explicitly identified in advance as a swastika-blessing.

It may also be helpful to look at the understanding of “blessing” in the Catholic Church as of the early 20th century. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 defines “blessing” as follows:

a rite, consisting of a ceremony and prayers performed in the name and with the authority of the Church by a duly qualified minister, by which persons or things are sanctified as dedicated to Divine service, or by which certain marks of Divine favour are invoked upon them.

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