top of page
Check back soon
Once posts are published, you’ll see them here.

June 3 Hitler's Pope?

Today in 1946 Pope Pius XII was declared on Moscow radio to have been ‘Hitlers Pope’. Thirty years later, the head of Romania's spy network defected to the USA on one of the highest rank defections during the cold war. He later revealed the smear on Pius XII was part of a disinformation campaign to plant false news stories in the Western news media.


In July 1978, Ion Mihai Pacepa, the head of Romania’s spy network walked into the United States embassy in Bonn, West Germany, and asked for political asylum. The authorities in Bucharest were stunned, and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu enraged. He would be condemned to death in absentia for treason but was rehabilitated (with full honours restored) in 1999. Later he would explain that among the reasons he fled Romania and defected to the West was that Ceausescu had ordered him to assassinate the heads of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian Service. “In 1978 I got the order to organise the killing of Noël Bernard, the director of Radio Free Europe’s Romanian programme who had infuriated Ceaușescu with his commentaries. It was late July when I got this order, and when I ultimately had to decide between being a good father and being a political criminal. I was convinced that my daughter would prefer no father to one who was an assassin.”

In 2013, Pacepa collaborated on a book called Disinformation: with the subtitle Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism which detailed how the Soviet KGB and allied intelligence agencies worked to sow lies. The book reveals how some of the US’s best-known conspiracy theories – such as that which insists President John F. Kennedy was the victim of a right-wing plot (as depicted in the Oliver Stone film, JFK), was a Soviet invention. However, the Soviet misinformation story defaming Pius XII as being anti-Semitic has proven remarkably resilient, with British journalist and author John Cornwell publishing a book called Hitler's Pope in 1999.

Cornwell argued that Hitler was convinced that his movement could only succeed if political Catholicism and its democratic networks were eliminated. The Nazis planned to eliminate the Church's influence by restricting its organizations to purely religious activities. Cornwell examined the Reichskonkordat, a treaty negotiated between the Vatican and the emergent Nazi Germany. It was signed on 20 July 1933 by Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, who later became Pope Pius XII, and guaranteed the rights of the Catholic Church in Germany. The treaty required all clergy to abstain from working in and for political parties. Nazi breaches of the agreement began almost as soon as it had been signed and intensified afterwards leading to protest from the Church including in the 1937 Mit brennender Sorge encyclical of Pope Pius XI (See Pod of Apr 9).

Cornwell argued that Hitler was obsessed by a fear of German Catholics who, politically united by the Centre Party, had defeated Otto von Bismarck's Kulturkampf, during the "culture struggle" against the Catholic Church in the 1870s. Cornwell embellishes his argument that Pius's entire career was characterized by a desire to increase and centralize the power of the Papacy, and that he subordinated opposition to the Nazis to that goal. He further argues that Pius was antisemitic and that this stance prevented him from caring about the European Jews. His books sold very well and made him a lot of money, but has been criticised in many quarters. Holocaust historian Martin Gilbert credits Pius XII with various actions which saved Jews, and notes that the Nazi security forces referred to him as the "mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals". Pius XII maintained links to the German Resistance and in the assessment of historian Frank J. Coppa writing for the Encyclopædia Britannica, Cornwell's depiction of Pius XII as antisemitic lacked "credible substantiation"

According to a 2004 article in The Economist, Cornwell's historical work has not always been "fair-minded" and Hitler's Pope specifically "lacked balance". The article goes on to state that Cornwell, "chastened", had admitted as much himself, in a later work, The Pontiff in Winter, citing the following quote as evidence: I would now argue, in the light of the debates and evidence following 'Hitler's Pope', that Pius XII had so little scope of action that it is impossible to judge the motives for his silence during the war, while Rome was under the heel of Mussolini and later occupied by the Germans.

Pacepa, in his book Disinformation criticises Cornwell and suggests the basis for many allegations were leaks from the Soviets as an attempt to undermine Catholic influence and thus weaken it as an anti-Communist enemy in which he Pacepa had joined the Securitate intelligence agency in 1951 and rose in its ranks. At the time of his defection in 1978, Pacepa was a top general in Romania's much-feared Securitate secret police. He was also an adviser to dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and he held other top security posts in the government. He became the highest-ranking defector from the Soviet bloc when he fled Romania and sought asylum in the United States. In April, just two months before Pacepa’s defection, President Carter had received Ceaușescu at the White House with full state honours. Six weeks later Ceaușescu was welcomed by the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.