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William Oddie FAITH MAGAZINE March-April 2014

Pius XII and Soviet Propaganda

In February, The Vatican insider Sandro Magister wrote a piece headlined “The Thousands of Jews Saved in Churches and Convents”. He drew attention to an article by the Jewish historian Anna Foa which had been picked up by Osservatore Romano, and also to the fact that Pope Francis will as soon as possible make available the complete documentation of the pontificate of Pius XII, from 1939 to 1958, which runs to 16 million pages. The work of organising this vast mound of papers has been going on for six years and, says the prefect of the Vatican secret archive, Bishop Sergio Pagano, “will take another year or year and a half”.

The point that emerges from Anna Foa’s researches, however, is that the question of access to this huge archive has quite wrongly dominated the whole controversy of what the pope did or didn’t do for the Jews for many years, with frequent insinuations that the archive’s inaccessibility was motivated by attempts to suppress the shameful secrets it supposedly contains. Now, Anna Foa suggests that this was quite unnecessary, since there was always plenty of evidence of what was happening during the German occupation, outside the archives, in the witness of those Jews directly involved. This is now being properly researched by historians like Dr Foa, who insists that, as a result, we can be sure that the “more recent image of the aid given to Jews by the Church arises not from pro-Catholicideological positions, but above all from thorough research into the lives of Jews during the occupation, from the reconstruction of the stories of families or individuals. From field work, in short”.

The research in this regard, noted Sandro Magister, is highly advanced. And from this it is becoming ever more clear that the saving of many Jews was not only permitted but also co-ordinated by the highest leadership of the Church. And as Anna Foa unambiguously makes clear, this research “ erases [my emphasis] the image proposed in the 1960s of a Pope Pius XII indifferent to the fate of Jews or even an accomplice of the Nazis”.

The eminent English historian Michael Burleigh agrees with Feldkamp, and adds that “Soviet attempts to smear Pius had actually commenced as soon as the Red Army crossed into Catholic Poland”.

When, in February, I wrote a piece about Anna Foa’s research in my Catholic Herald blog, I added that I was still mystified by the hardening of Jewish opinion against Pius XII in the aftermath of Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter, which had depicted him virtually as a Nazi collaborator, given that the universal feeling expressed by Jews immediately after the war was one of gratitude and warmth towards Pope Pius. When Pius died in 1958, it was still quite natural that Golda Meir, then the Israeli Foreign Minister, should send a cable to the Holy See paying tribute to him. “During the decade of Nazi terror,” she recalled, “when fearful martyrdom came to our people, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims. The life of our times was enriched by a voice speaking out on the greatmoral truths, above the tumult of daily conflict. We mourn a great servant of peace.” All that collapsed virtually overnight. What happened?

My attention was drawn to a link to an article by a lieutenant general in the Romanian Securitate, published in National Review online, where the whole thing is credibly explained. The National Review is a paper I have written for myself back in the days when it was still edited by Bill Buckley: this is no fly-by-night old rag, but a paper that stands up its facts before it publishes. There had to be an explanation, and here it was: the revolution in Jewish –and even in much Catholic – opinion had been achieved by a classic and brilliantly executed example of Soviet disinformation. Here’s the story.

In February 1960, Nikita Khrushchev authorised a covert plan to discredit, because of its fervent anticommunism, the Vatican’s moral authority in Western Europe with a campaign of disinformation, Pope Pius XII being the prime target. According to General Pacepa, who had KGB links:

In 1963, General Ivan Agayants, the famous chief of the KGB’s disinformation department, told us that ‘Seat-12’ [the code name for the campaign] had materialised into a powerful play attacking Pope Pius XII, entitled The Deputy, an oblique reference to the pope as Christ’s representative on earth.

Agayants took credit for the outline of the play, and he told us that it had voluminous appendices of background documents put together by his experts with help from documents purloined from the Vatican. Agayants also told us that The Deputy’s producer, Erwin Piscator, was a devoted communist who had a longstanding relationship with Moscow. In 1929 he had founded the Proletarian Theater in Berlin, then sought political asylum in the Soviet Union when Hitler came to power, and a few years later had ‘emigrated’ to the United States. In 1962 Piscator had returned to West Berlin to produce The Deputy.

The motto of Seat-12 was “Dead men cannot defend themselves”: Pius had died in 1958. Pacepa says that the KGB employed Romanian spies to feign that Romania was preparing to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Holy See. Under this ruse, Pacepa claims that he obtained entrée to Vatican archives from the Church’s head of secret discussions with the Warsaw Pact, Monsignor Agostino Casaroli. Over two years, three communist spies in the guise of priests secreted materials out of the archives for copying and transfer to the KGB. “In fact,” Pacepa reported, “no incriminating material against the pontiff ever turned up.” But the documents purloined were used in the preparation of the forged documentation which accompanied Hochhuth’s play.

How credible is all this? Well, according to the National Catholic Register ( it’s not credible at all. A book called Disinformation, co-written by General Pacepa and the American professor of law Ronald Rychlak (best known for his book Hitler, the War and the Pope, a well-researched defence of Pius XII’s record during the Second World War), which spells out these revelations at greater length, is “dubious at best” – or at least, the bits written by Pacepa are: the reviewer NCR admits that “what Rychlak contributes, drawn from his earlier work on Pope Pius, appears solid”.

Of the National Review article, NCR says: “Under scrutiny, Pacepa’s story began to unravel, with doubts expressed by historians and Vatican experts.” NCR gives a link to some of these doubts by “Vatican experts”: unfortunately, these “experts” include John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope, who said he had never heard the claims described by Pacepa and considers them “most unlikely”, though “as a supporter of Nato and the Western Alliance, it’s not inconceivable the pope could have been targeted [by the KGB]. But I haven’t seen any credible documents indicating anyone doctored material”. NCR seemed particularly affronted that “by casting suspicion on Cardinal Casaroli’s judgment and character, Pacepa undermines the integrity of the entire Vatican strategy between 1963 and 1989, knownas ‘Ostpolitik’.”

“The policy”, they explained, “involved maintaining dialogue with communist regimes in order to assist the oppressed Church and believers behind the Iron Curtain without legitimising dictatorships. In his memoirs, Cardinal Casaroli described this effort as ‘exceptionally difficult’.” But the Ostpolitik wasn’t just difficult, it was disastrous: it didn’t help believers behind the Iron Curtain; on the contrary, it undermined them. The Ostpolitik’s greatest victim was Cardinal Mindszenty, who was ordered by the Vatican to resign so that its Ostpolitik could proceed on its disastrous way unhindered by all the awkwardness with the communist authorities which he was causing. The assumption behind the Ostpolitik was that the Eastern bloc would always be there and so had to be accepted as apermanent fact of life: the future Pope John Paul II already knew that it must not be accepted as a fact of life, and that it was itself vulnerable, especially to the Catholic Church. The communists knew that too: hence the disinformation campaign against the anti-communist Pius XII.

Back to General Pacepa. NCR’s ultimate debunking of his claims is provided by a quotation from Fr Peter Gumpel, the relator of Pius XII’s cause. NCR claims this shows that he too is sceptical about Pacepa’s claims. Unfortunately for the newspaper, however, Fr Gumpel read its article and absolutely denied any scepticism about Pacepa’s claims: not only that, he insisted that NCR publish a letter from him, to appear immediately after the “uncouth review” in which it had misquoted him, to express his “outrage”:

My 2007 comment was simply meant to encourage a proper scholarly evaluation of Gen Pacepa’s statements at that time – not to dismiss all of them outright, much less declare none of them could ever be established. In fact, the Zenit story referenced misleadingly in your review actually notes that I “agreed” with Pacepa in large part; and what I also told Zenit, but which your review of Disinformation left unmentioned, was the following: “One needs to be extremely prudent and try to verify the facts.” I did not – l repeat – say every aspect of Gen Pacepa’s account could never be verified, only that it needed to be carefully considered – which it has been, by numerous scholars, since 2007, during which a considerable amount of new information has appeared supporting it.

Moreover, the way in which my 2001 quotation was used, in the Register’s review of Disinformation, leaves the impression that I doubt Pacepa’s statements dealing with the communist disinformation campaign against Pius XII, and consider them nothing more than a spy-induced fabrication. In fact, as anyone who reads the 2007 Zenit news article can see, I made it abundantly clear at the time that there was in fact a concerted communist campaign to infiltrate and compromise the Vatican, and to defame Venerable Pius XII.

Therefore, both Professor Rychlak and Gen Pacepa deserve to be praised, not attacked, for recounting and documenting this indisputable historical reality in Disinformation.

So, where does that leave us? Certainly not with any convincing debunking of General Pacepa’s claims. NCR gives a link to an article quoting some of those sceptical about them (including John Cornwell, who would be, wouldn’t he?). But it doesn’t quote any of those who take them seriously. These include, for instance, the German historian Michael F Feldkamp, who writes that “Pacepa’s report is wholly credible. It fits like a missing piece in the puzzle of communist propaganda and disinformation aimed at discrediting the Catholic Church and its Pontiff.”

The eminent English historian Michael Burleigh agrees with Feldkamp, and adds that “Soviet attempts to smear Pius had actually commenced as soon as the Red Army crossed into Catholic Poland”. He notes that the Soviets “hired a militantly anti-religious propagandist, Mikhail Markovich Sheinmann” – and that “Hochhuth’s play…drew heavily upon Sheinmann’s lies and falsehoods…” Victor Gaetan, the author of the NCR story, persisted in saying, even after Fr Gumpel’s rebuttal of his “uncouth” piece, that “there’s no evidence for [Pacepa’s] particular story”. But that’s rubbish: Pacepa is a witness, so what he says is itself evidence. And for me, the fact that both Fr Gumpel and the impressive Michael Burleigh take Pacepa seriously has to mean that so must I. And so should the NCR.

Faith Magazine