Claims that Pius XII Was Framed Gaining Support
Former Romanian spy chief discusses how the myth of 'Hitler's Pope' started with Stalin.
Last month, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem revised a controversial text on Pope Pius XII used in its exhibition, changing it from an unfairly negative assessment of the wartime Pope and his record in saving the Jews, to one that includes a few arguments in his defense.
But the new text omitted sensational claims, originating from a former Romanian intelligence chief, that efforts to muddy Pius’s reputation began in Moscow very soon after World War II, and that the Soviets later led a campaign of disinformation — called “Operation Seat 12” — against the wartime Pope.
The claims were made in 2007 by General Ion Mihai Pacepa who once headed the Romanian intelligence service before defecting to the United States in 1978. He also claimed that Rolf’s Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy was used by Soviet intelligence as part of this wider plot to frame Pius. Some voiced skepticism of such KGB involvement, including a few sympathetic to Pius’s wartime record. One of those was University of Mississippi professor Ronald J. Rychlak. But rather than let it go, Rychlak spent two years investigating Pacepa’s story. He has since become so convinced of the veracity of it that he is writing a new book with him on the Soviet plot, called Disinformation.
In this July 20 interview with the Register, Pacepa discusses in detail his story of how the Soviets framed Pius and how, even today, the Russians continue to wage a war of intelligence against religion.
The head of the International Institute for Holocaust Research at Yad Vashem’s Holocaust museum, professor Dan Michman, told the Register in a recent interview that he rejected any notion of a Soviet plot to smear Pius XII and has refused to investigate it. What is your reaction to this?
I have never met professor Michman, but I did read his 67-page curriculum vitae. Fascinating. I have also glanced through some of his writings. All were based on solid, primary sources, primary evidence and primary recordings, not on stories told by others — all, except for his rejection of a Soviet plot to smear Pius XII. There is no hard, primary evidence to support his rejection. I am not accusing him, but there is simply no such evidence to confirm his position. There are plenty of books, shows, movies and news stories alleging that Pius was “Hitler’s Pope,” but there is not a single piece of hard, primary evidence proving that this new image of Pius was not born in Moscow.
There is, however, plenty of hard evidence proving that the portrayal of Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope was born in Moscow. In order to find and recognize this evidence, however, one should be familiar with the Kremlin’s very secret “science” of changing the past in order to suit current priorities.
In KGB jargon, changing the past was called “framing,” and it was a highly classified disinformation specialty. Because of those KGB framings, there are today few things more difficult for Russian and Western historians — including professor Michman — than to predict Russia’s past.
Let me give you a glimpse into this “science.”
In January 1934, the XVII Soviet Communist Party Congress was hailed as the “Congress of the Victorious.” A few years later, however, Stalin decided to change that past because it no longer fit his plans for the future. Accordingly, 98 out of the 139 members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party elected at that Congress were portrayed as “enemies of the people” and executed.
In fact, 1,108 out of the 1,966 delegates to this Congress were declared “counterrevolutionaries,” and 848 of them were shot. All were charged with secretly plotting to assassinate the leadership of the party, an insinuation that gave Stalin (a) free hand to execute other party activists in order to eliminate all competition to himself. A few years later, the Congress of the Victorious was renamed “The Congress of the Condemned.”
I picked this example in order to give you and professor Michman a peek into the immensity of Kremlin framing operations designed to change the historical past. Those operations are like mosaics made up of hundreds or even thousands of tiny pieces fitted together — such as the party activists at the Congress of the Victorious. Only a handful of master designers know how the final image will turn out. I was peripherally involved in changing the past of Pius XII, but at that time, even I did not know what the final image would look like.
Michman said that smear campaigns usually involve hot topics, but at that time, the Holocaust was not a hot topic, and so it’s improbable that the Soviets would have organized such a campaign. What do you say to this view?
Seat 12 was not a smear campaign. It was a framing operation that is minutely described in an upcoming book, Disinformation, which I co-wrote with Professor Ronald Rychlak, a leading authority on the history of religion and a signatory of the Nashville Declaration on the Church and the Holocaust, for which he was honored by the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 2007.
In an introduction to this book, former CIA director James Woolsey states that its revelations about framing “will change the way you look at intelligence, foreign affairs, the press and much else.” There is no way for professor Michman to know exactly what any given framing operation really entails. I myself did not know about framing operations until I rose to the top of the Soviet bloc intelligence community.
On March 6, 1953, 4 million people wept in Red Square at Stalin’s funeral. Sirens wailed, bells tolled, cars blew their horns, and work stopped all around the country. The whole Soviet Empire felt that an era of history had passed into oblivion with this man, whose name had been synonymous with communism for most of their lives.
At that time, I was already an officer of the far-flung Soviet bloc intelligence machinery, but I was not yet aware that a Soviet leader’s image was so important to him that he would go to any lengths — even to the point of killing and imprisoning millions, rewriting history, destroying institutions, manipulating religion and changing traditions — all in an effort to beatify himself or to demonize his competitors and enemies.
Some 20 years later, however, I was successfully running a large disinformation machine, the main purpose of which was to hoodwink Western heads of state, intelligence analysts, university experts and the general public on five continents into believing that communist tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu was an admirable, pro-Western leader, when, in fact, he was a two-bit Dracula who had made life for his own people so unbearable that Romania would come to lead the world in the rate of suicides,.
In April 1978, President Jimmy Carter publicly hailed Ceausescu as a “great national and international leader” who “has not only brought tremendous progress to Romania, but also has taken on a role of leadership in the entire international community.” At the time, I was standing next to the two of them at the White House, and I just smiled to myself.
A couple of weeks later, the British queen honored Ceausescu with a historic drive through London. I had prepared that visit as well and was at Ceausescu’s right hand during it. During those days, almost everybody who was anybody in Washington and London was singing hosannas to the Romanian dictator. Day after day, the American and British media and members of both governments were describing him as a man who had done more for Romania than any of his predecessors. He was seen as a new kind of communist leader, one who had dared to defy Moscow.
Three months later, the United States granted me political asylum, and I informed President Carter and the queen of England how Ceausescu’s disinformation machinery had been feeding them a pack of lies for many years.
On Christmas Day 1989, Ceausescu was executed by his own people at the end of a trial whose main accusations came almost word for word out of my book Red Horizons. From one day to the next, the formerly feted Ceausescu became the symbol of communist tyranny. Few in the West, however, looked back to speculate about how they had been so misled.
By that time, Washington and the rest of the West had shifted their affections to the new man in the Kremlin, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Western governments now viewed Gorbachev as a political visionary and truly believed that his theory about combining “communist values” with “Western democracy introduced from the top” and with a “centralized free-market economy” would modernize the Soviet Union and make its economy self-sufficient. Gorbachev’s Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World, which replaced Ceausescu’s books in the windows of Western bookstores, was now seen as the key to détente and stability in the world.
I hope professor Michman will read our upcoming book. It contains solid, primary evidence documenting how the immense KGB disinformation machinery was able to flip the image of Pius XII from lily white to coal black — just as it flipped the image of Ceausescu in reverse.
The changing of Pius XII’s past was a long, drawn-out framing operation that began in 1945 and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. Stalin — who came from Georgia, where the Jews had been serfs until 1871, and who had framed millions of Russians as Zionist spies — cared nothing about the Holocaust. All he cared about was his own image. And, in 1945, Stalin was on the top of the world.
On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany capitulated to the Allies, who now included the Soviet Union. Once denied diplomatic relations with most of the free world, Stalin could now join the exclusive victors’ club. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he was ready to take on the world.
There was one more enemy Stalin wanted to defeat: the Ukrainian Catholic Church — the last Vatican enclave in the Soviet Union. Those Churches were beholden to another father, Pope Pius XII, and Stalin refused to even consider allowing any rival to interfere with his absolute reign. Therefore, he resorted to his tried and tested weapon of framing. The very prominent [Ukrainian Greek] Catholic archbishop of Lvov, Joseph Slipyj, and most of Ukraine’s bishops, including Gregory Chomysyn, John Laysevskyi, Nicolas Carneckyi and Josaphat Kocylovskyi, were framed by Stalin’s political police as “Nazi collaborators.” All were sent to jail or slave-labor camps. Some 500 Ukrainian Catholic priests were sent, without trial, to gulags — officially phrased as “destination unknown for political reasons.”
Pius XII answered by issuing an encyclical (Orientales Omnes Ecclesias) to the faithful in Ukraine, assuring them 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.”
Stalin took Pius XII’s encyclical as a declaration of war, and he answered as was his wont: framing Pius XII as a Nazi collaborator.
On June 3, 1945, Radio Moscow proclaimed that the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Pius XII, had been “Hitler’s Pope,” mendaciously insinuating that he had been an ally of the Nazis during World War II.
Radio Moscow’s insinuation fell flat as a pancake. Just the day before, on June 2, 1945, in an address to the sacred College of Cardinals that was broadcast on Vatican Radio, Pius XII condemned the “satanic specter of Nazism.”
Not long before that, President Roosevelt had published a letter to Pius XII, in which he expressed “my deeply felt appreciation of the frequent actions which the Holy See has taken … to render assistance to the victims of racial and religious persecutions.”
On Sept. 6, 1944, Winston Churchill had announced: “I have spoken today to the greatest man of our time.” Albert Einstein wrote: “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.”
The secular magazine Wisdom editorialized: “Of all the great figures of our time, none is more universally respected by men of all faiths than Pope Pius XII.
The Kremlin’s attempt to frame Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope was rejected by that contemporary generation that had lived through the real history and knew who Pope Pius XII really was. The Kremlin tried again in the 1960s, with the next generation, which had not lived through that history and did not know better. This time it worked.
Tomorrow: How The Deputy’s communist collaborators helped tarnish a Pope’s reputation.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome Correspondent.