A Securitate General says that Hochhuth’s play was part of a KGB plot against Pius XII’s reputation. The National Catholic Register attempts to discredit this: but serious historians believe it

Pope Pius XII (CNS)

I had already intended—having written last time about the change that is taking place, little by little, in Jewish opinion about the wartime pontificate of Pius XII — to write a sequel today. It has always seemed to me extraordinary that simply because of Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter there should have been in the sixties such a collapse of the universal feeling among Jews of the gratitude and warmth towards Pope Pius they had expressed in the immediate aftermath of the war. What happened?

Well, more than one comment which appeared beneath my piece suggested that the whole thing was organised by the KGB, and I was referred to a link with an article by a Lt General in the Romanian Securitate, published in National Review online, where the whole thing is 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 is or was a paper which stands up its facts before it publishes.

And the whole thing is so believable. There had to be an explanation: here it was: 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 anti-Communism, 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 entree to Vatican archives from the Church’s head of secret discussions with the Warsaw Pact, Monsignor Agostino Casaroli. Three Communist spies in the guise of priests over two years 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 World War II), and which spells out these revelations at greater length is “dubious at best” – or at least, the bits written by Pacepa are: they admit that “What Rychlak contributes, drawn from his earlier work on Pope Pius, appears solid”. Of the National Review article, they say that “Under scrutiny, Pacepa’s story began to unravel, with doubts expressed by historians and Vatican experts.” They give a link to some of these doubts by ‘Vatican experts’: unfortunately, these experts include John Cornwell, author of Hitler’s Pope, who said he has 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 seems 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 known as ‘Ostpolitik’.”

“The policy”, they explain, “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 Mindzenty, who was ordered by the Vatican to resign so that their Ostpolitik could proceed on its disastrous way unhindered by all the awkwardness with the Communist authorities he was causing. The assumption behind the Ostpolitik was that the Eastern bloc would always be there and so had to be accepted as a permanent 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, which they claim shows that he too is sceptical about Pacepa’s claims. Unfortunately for them however, Fr Gumpel read the NCR 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 they 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, 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, remember 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”, noting 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, persists 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.