The Framing of Pius XII - From Skepticism to Belief

Portrait of Venerable Pope Pius XII
Portrait of Venerable Pope Pius XII (photo: Wikipedia)

Professor Ronald J. Rychlak is an expert on the “Hitler’s Pope” controversy surrounding Venerable Pope Pius XII.

But despite being a defender of Pius XII’s wartime record in saving Jewish lives from the Holocaust, the American law professor at the University of Mississippi was initially skeptical of claims, first disclosed by former Romanian intelligence chief General Ion Mihai Pacepa in 2007, that efforts to blacken Pius’s name were driven by a Soviet plot.

Yet after two years of research and regular contact with Pacepa, his perception changed, and he is now convinced that the KGB played a key role in framing Pius XII by promoting The Deputy – Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play that gave birth to the “Black Legend” of Pius as a Nazi sympathizer. He has now co-written a new book with Pacepa on the plot, called Disinformation, due to be published soon.

Below is Professor Rychlak’s own account of how he changed his mind.  My recent two-part interview with Pacepa can be read here and here:     

Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa and the Plot Against the Pope

Ronald J. Rychlak

The 2007 revelations from Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa about the theatrical play, The Deputy, were new to all of us who had studied Pius XII and the Holocaust.  According to Pacepa, that play, which was the source of the false charges of papal indifference to Jewish suffering, was a Kremlin-directed plot.  When I first heard this claim, I did not simply trust Pacepa; I decided to investigate.

At first I engaged in some long email exchanges with friends and colleagues.  Most of us did not know where or how to look into these claims.  Bill Donohue of the Catholic League offered to fund travel to Russia or elsewhere if that would help, but I could not figure out where to look. It would have been a waste of money.  Some of my colleagues said just to forget it – it would be a “footnote” in the Pius XII debate.  Pacepa’s account, however, deserved at least some attention.

I went back to the place I began my original work on Pius XII some 15 years earlier:  the local public library. Within 15 minutes I found an interesting book written by a former KGB officer that told of how he had obtained control over a small but influential periodical.  I was also able to confirm that the periodical in question had promoted the play The Deputy, which Pacepa had just said was a Soviet plot.  That made things interesting.

I spent the next two years researching Pacepa’s claim, and bit by bit all the pieces fell in place.  The new picture answered many questions and made sense out of things that had previously been inexplicable.  Consider:

1. The German and American producers of the play, the American publisher, and the French translator, were all Communists. 
a. Throughout his life, the German producer produced plays under orders from the Communist Party.
b. The German theater at which The Deputy opened was overtly dedicated to pro-Communist propaganda.  In fact, this was its first play.
c. The American Producer had been fined and given a suspended criminal sentence by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
d. The American publisher considered Communism to be his “religion.”
e. The French translator was a member of the Spanish Communist Party’s politburo and had for several years organized clandestine activities for that organization.

2. The play was promoted with Soviet-style propaganda.
a. Many of the early positive reviewers had Communist ties.
i. At least one was paid by the KGB.
ii. Another was a former KGB spy
iii. Others were at the time or had previously been members of the Communist Party
b. The play would not have opened on Broadway but for support from a “Catholic” magazine that was falling under Communist influence at the time.
i. The magazine also set forth the Soviet line on the Vietnam War, the Kennedy Assassinations, the CIA’s funding of student groups, and other issues.
ii. The CIA came to believe that Soviet money funded the magazine.

3. Rolf Hochhuth, known to the world as the author of The Deputy,  was a likely target for a KGB-style operation.
a. He was an unknown writer.
b. His research methods were sloppy at best (resulting in a significant legal verdict against him for his work on a different play).
c. He has been caught in outright lies.
d. After The Deputy was written, he worked closely with his life-long friend David Irving, a noted Holocaust denier whom Hochhuth has frequently defended.
e. In 1969, British Intelligence prepared a report noting its suspicion of his efforts to advance ideas designed to undermine the West.
f. Hochhuth lived in fear of being assassinated by British spies of “the Old Firm.”  It made no sense to those around him, but it makes sense when it is realized that he was engaged in Soviet actions against the West.

Eventually I wrote a chapter on these and other findings, and I included it in the new edition of my book: Hitler, the War, and the Pope: Revised and Expanded (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010). 

Before that book got into print, I was able to make contact with Pacepa.  (More accurately, I suppose, is that he got in touch with me after I sent the chapter to an editor he knew). Pacepa brought even more clarity to these issues, including correcting a mistake in my book.  I had attributed the inexplicable anti-Semitism found in The Deputy to Hochhuth.  As we explain in our new book, Disinformation, the anti-Semitism was a clear fingerprint of the KGB authors.

There were several things that Pacepa told me about Soviet bloc intelligence that surprised me.  Each time, however, I did independent research and verified his account.  Moreover, he was intellectually honest. One time, for instance, I found a book that verified a claim that had seemed far-fetched when I heard it (it related to admissions made in KGB publications). As we worked on our manuscript, I thought that the citation I had found would be important to prove a controversial point.  Pacepa stopped me, however, saying that the source could not be trusted.  I told him that we needed support on this point.  He still refused to use it.  Instead he found another source that also verified what he had told me. 

After corresponding with Pacepa for three years now, and after having read his books and many of his articles (and articles about him), I know that he has never steered me wrong.  My 2007 reaction was the natural, cautious comment of someone exposed to a new and unfamiliar proposal.  After two years of careful research, I changed my mind.  In 2010, I published my reasons, and I am now working with him on our upcoming book, Disinformation.  I am proud to be associated with him.


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