The respective role of the Catholic Church and the papacy during early and mid-twentieth century has been much debated ever since the end of the Second World War, but perhaps most acutely since the early 1960s. Special emphasis has been placed on whether or not Pope Pius XII, who reigned during the war, actually collaborated with Nazi Germany during the Holocaust or simply did not do enough to save the millions of Jews, supposed untermenschen, along with other enemies of National Socialism from annihilation.
Documents continue to trickle out from a number of sources, including the Vatican, that may begin to restore the image of the wartime pope who at the time was heralded as a champion of the rights of Europe’s minorities, including the Jewish community. In their forthcoming book, Disinformation, author Ion Pacepa and co-author Ronald Rychlak, offer new evidence of a widespread campaign by the Soviet Union to portray the Catholic Church and the papacy as Hitler’s dupes or collaborators. This began even before the war ended, according to Pacepa – a former Romanian intelligence officer – who was part of the disinformation campaign to besmirch the record of Pope Pius XII.
For example, on June 3, 1945, Radio Moscow proclaimed that Pope Pius XII was effectively “Hitler’s Pope,” thus implicating him in the extermination of the Jews. This was counter to an address made by the pope just the day before, in which the pontiff condemned before the College of Cardinals the “satanic spectre of Nazism.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt expressed appreciation for the pope’s “assisistance to the victims of racial and religious persecutions” in a public letter. Previously, Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke of Pius XII as “the greatest man of our time.” And it was Albert Einstein who would later say, “Only the Church protested against the Hitlerian onslaught on liberty. Up till then, I had not been interested in the Church, but today I felt a great admiration for the Church, which alone has had the courage to struggle for spiritual truth and moral liberty.” Similar sentiments were also expressed by the earliest leaders of the modern state of Israel.
The above accolades run counter to the image of Pius XII that was later developed, as part of the disinformation campaign launched by the Soviets, according to later analysts. In an interview with Spero News, Professor Ronald Rychlak of the University of Mississippi College of Law, author of Hitler, the War, and Pope Pius XII and Righteous Gentiles: How Pius XII and the Catholic Church saved Half a Million Jews From the Nazis, sought to put the image of the so-called ‘Hitler’s Pope’ into historical context in light of new evidence.
Rychlak said “Pope Pius XII’s reputation flipped dramatically,” especially at the beginning of the 1960s, due to a Soviet campaign using fabricated histories, dramatic plays, and other methods of spreading disinformation that came amidst cruel persecution of Catholics living in the Soviet Union. It was in 1962 that Rolf Hochhuth's Der Stellvertreter: Ein christliches Trauerspiel (The Deputy, A Christian Tragedy, was released in English in 1964) portrayed the Pope as a hypocrite who remained silent in the face of the annihilation of European Jews. Thus began a revision of the view of Pius XII held by many during his life. Some analysts even dismiss the accolades the Pope received from Golda Meir, an American who would later become Israel’s prime minister, as mere diplomatic niceties aimed at obtaining Vatican recognition of the Israeli government.
Others came to the defense of the Pope and linked the change in the public perception towards him to Soviet machinations. For example, a March 2009 article in La Civilità Cattolica contended that the accusations lain by Hochhuth’s play against Pius came not from the Jewish people but from the Soviet bloc. It was indeed on June 2, 1945 that Moscow Radio made the first accusation against the Pope for refusing speak out against the exterminations in Nazi concentration camps. It was also the first medium to call him "Hitler's Pope."
A principal cause for the Soviets’ ire cast against Pius XII was his December 1945 encyclical Orientales Omnes Ecclesias that celebrated the 350th anniversary of the reunion of the Ruthenian Church to the See of St Peter in Rome. The Pope gave assurances to the Catholics of the East that “God will do justice” and that “in his loving kindness he will himself calm this terrible storm and finally bring it to an end.” Russian leader Joseph Stalin, now among the victors of the war and an Nobel Prize nominee, took this as a declaration of war. The encyclical gave the Communist Stalin the excuse he needed to destroy the Catholic Church in Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. It was thus that Catholic Archbishop Joseph Slipyi of Lvov, and fellow bishops Gregory Chomysyn, John Laysevskyi, Nicolas Carneckyi and Josaphat Kocylovskyi, were framed as Nazi collaborators and sent to jail or slave-labor camps. At least 500 Ukrainian Catholic priests were sent to the gulags, and many of them were to die at a “destination unknown for political reasons.”
The Communist lash continued to flail the East. In 1947, possibly under orders by Nikita Khrushchev
, Bishop Theodor Romzha
of the Ruthenian
in western Ukraine, was murdered by Stalin’s NKVD
, the predecessor of the KGB. Rev. Christopher Zugger
, a Byzantine Catholic priest of New Mexico, has written in his book, Finding a Hidden Church
, about Bishop Romzha
as well as Bishop Petro Oros
(executed 1953), Bishop Alexander Khira
(died in Kazakhstan), as well as scores of priests, wives and children fought and died to remain faithful to their church.
Rychlak’s collaborator in the forthcoming book, Ion Pacepa, was an officer of the Romanian national security apparatus and has spoken about the “immensity” of the Soviet disinformation or framing campaign that sought to re-write history and thus denigrate Pius XII. It was when Pacepa reached the highest ranks of Romanian intelligence and the Soviet apparatus that he found out how a handful of masterful designers working for the Kremlin were dedicated to misinforming the world about the Catholic Church and the role of Pius XII.
In the Spero News interview, Rychlak said “What Pacepa’s story brings to this whole matter is that suddenly things begin to make sense,” referring to the sudden change in perceptions about the wartime Pope. Having become aware of Pacepa’s work regarding Pius XII while writing his own book on the Second World War, Rychlak began the collaboration with Pacepa that led to the book Disinformation. “There was an active disinformation campaign,” said Rychlak, “designed to ultimately to undecut Western values, but doing it by attacking the Church through the already deceased Pope Pius XII.”
Professor Rychlak refuted claims that Pope Pius XII did nothing to help Jews and other persecuted peoples, pointing out that the Popel gave over his Castelgandolfo summer residence as a refuge for Jews and other fleeing Nazi persecution. Photographs of the period show scores of refugees huddled in the papal residence during the Second World War. Rychlak also pointed out the “fine line” the Pope had to negotiate so as to no exacerbate the conditions imposed by the Nazis and their allies all over Europe. In one instance, Rychlak said, Polish leaders refused to act on recommendations drafted by the Pope for fear of seeing further deathly Nazi actions taken against Poland. Rychlak also refuted the perception among some analysts that Pius XII was more concern about the material wealth and status of the Church, instead of the human beings affected by the Nazi onslaught. He cited writings of the successor of Pius XII, Pope John XXIII, who was a papal diplomat during the war under the name Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who recalled that the wartime Pope called upon him to save as many people that he could. It was as a diplomat assigned to Turkey during the war that the future Pope John XXIII was able to save Jewish refugees from being turned over to the Nazis.
Co-authored by Pacepa and Rychlak, Disinformation is due out in early 2013. It has a foreward written by former CIA chief James Woolsey says that its revelations about the framing of Pius XII “will change the way you look at intelligence, foreign affairs, the press and much else.” Rychlak hopes that his book will add to evidence that will lend understanding of the role played by Pius XII during the Holocaust and the Second World War. In this he will add to the work of Sir Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Winston Churchill and author of The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, as well as the work of Rabbi David G. Dalin, who wrote The Myth of Hitler's Pope: How Pope Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis .
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.