In a significant finding, the British Broadcasting Corporation has conceded that in their main evening news bulletin, seen by millions, it falsely described the Church as being ‘silent’ in the face of Nazism and that it has not reported correctly on the Church’s opposition to Hitler.
The finding was made by the BBC’s internal watchdog after Father Leo Chamberlain and I jointly lodged a complaint. Chamberlain, a Benedictine, is a historian and former headmaster of Ampleforth College.
The broadcast was made last July during a visit to Auschwitz by Pope Francis. The reporter stated as fact that, “Silence was the response of the Catholic Church when Nazi Germany demonized Jewish people and then attempted to eradicate Jews from Europe.”
After several unsuccessful attempts to seek a correction, we felt that we had no choice but to make a formal complaint to the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU). We presented a dossier of material – all of it publically available to any reporter.
Having studied this, the ECU said that, in their judgment, the news report had not given “due weight to public statements by successive popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.”
Ironically, part of the BBC report came from St. Maximilian Kolbe’s cell at Auschwitz. St. Maximilian, was executed after taking the place of another prisoner. He had been arrested for publishing a denunciation of the Nazis in his magazine, Knight, which had a circulation of around one million people.
Hardly silence, then.
Nor was silence the response of the 6,066 Poles (overwhelmingly Catholic) who have been officially recognized in Israel as “Righteous Among the Nations,” for their role in saving the lives of Polish Jews.
One charitable interpretation of the Auschwitz report was that it was a sloppy, lazy, throw-away remark – indicative of the sort of religious illiteracy that can cause so much offense; and part of a blurring between the straightforward reporting of news and the desire to add some melodrama to spice it up. Don’t let facts or truth spoil a good story.
Less charitably, the BBC report may be seen as simply the latest example of a long-running attempt to rewrite history.
To put this falsification right, the BBC should now commission a documentary examining where the rewriting of history had its genesis.
They should start with The Deputy, published in 1963, by the German writer Rolf Hochhuth, which set out to trash the reputation of Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church.
As Chamberlain points out, Hochhuth was an unknown figure from East Germany who was increasingly seen as an instrument of KGB disinformation. The umbrella tip murder in London of a Soviet dissident; the poisoning of Litvinenko with polonium; the attempted assassination of St. John Paul II by a Bulgarian agent working for the KGB; and the increasingly accepted revelations in 1978 of General Ion Pacepa, Romanian Securitate and defector, are hardly the stuff of paranoid conspiracy theories.
Pacepa stated that reports suggest General Ivan Agayants, Chief of the KGB’s disinformation department, created the outline for the book characterizing the pope as a Nazi sympathizer.
The Soviet leader, Nikita Khruschev, authorized Operation Seat 12 as a Cold War disinformation campaign designed to discredit the moral authority of the Vatican. Of Pius XII, Operation Seat 12 said, “Dead men cannot defend themselves.”
The Cold War may be over, but fortunately, careful and objective research does provide plenty of evidence in the case for the defense.
Dr. John Frain, an academic, and one-time constituent of mine, provided a meticulous account in his book “The Cross And The Third Reich – Catholic Resistance In The Nazi Era,” for which I wrote the introduction.
Here are the stories of Erich Klausner, the General Secretary of Germany’s Catholic Action, who was shot dead; Adelbert Prost, Director of the Catholic Youth Sports Association, also murdered; Fritz Gerlich, a Catholic journalist murdered at Dachau (known as “the Priests’ Camp” because 2,670 priests from around 20 countries were held there: 600 died at Dachau and another 325 died during “transport of invalids.”
We are reminded of the arrest of Catholic politicians, the suppression of Catholic political activity, the confiscation of church property and the suppression of over 200 Catholic publications.
In 1931 there were around 21,000 Catholic priests in Germany and over 8,000 of them, one third, clashed with the Reich and several hundred were eliminated by the Reich.
As Frain once said to me: “how can any of these facts ever be made to sound like complicity?”
Page after page of his book refutes the libel that the Church was silent, docile or indifferent when confronted with Nazism.
Of the cottage industry of detractors which has grown up around Pius XII, recall that it was Rabbi David Dalin who describes such books as “Best sellers made out of bad history.”
Dalin says that, “The truth about Pius XII must be restored.”
Pinchas Lapide, an historian and Israeli consul, said that Pius XII “was instrumental in saving at least 700,000, but probably as many as 860,000 Jews, from certain death at Nazi hands.”
After the War, Pius was thanked by survivors of the Holocaust, and tributes included one from Israel’s first President, Chaim Weizmann, and Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of Israel. Rome’s Chief Rabbi, Israel Zolli, became a Catholic and took the Pope’s name as a tribute to him.
At the time of his death, in 1958, Golda Meir said, “When fearful martyrdom came to our people in the decade of Nazi terror, the voice of the Pope was raised for the victims.”
The Jewish Chronicle recorded: “Confronted by the monstrous cruelties of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, he repeatedly proclaimed the virtues of humanity and compassion…many hundreds of fugitive Jews found sanctuary in the Vatican by the Nazis. Such actions will always be remembered.”
One of the most telling refutations of Vatican indifference to the rise of Nazism and the appalling events of the Holocaust came from Albert Einstein, who had escaped from Nazi Germany. In 1940 he said: “only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing the truth…I am forced thus to confess that what I once despised I now praise unreservedly.”
Some may not be able to bring themselves to Einstein’s conclusion, but they – and especially the BBC and other broadcasters – should at least examine the whole story, rather than endlessly repeat the one they may wish to be true.
The BBC has always seen itself as an upholder of truth. The report that it has now judged to have been false came from the very place where Maximillian Kolbe was executed. He had written that, “No one in the world can change truth, and beyond the hecatombs of the extermination camps, of what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are defeated in our innermost personal selves.”
In this “post-truth” era, perhaps every broadcaster and reporter should have Kolbe’s words placed above their desks.
David Alton – Lord Alton of Liverpool – is an Independent Crossbench Peer, a former member of the House of Commons, and chairman of the UK charity The Christian Heritage Centre. www.davidalton.net