While a new translation of Eli Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, “Night,” is being touted by Oprah Winfrey to millions of Americans, a much less publicized piece of Holocaust history is being played out in a federal court in San Francisco, where a former U.S. Army intelligence officer has testified that the man who became Pope Paul VI “helped hide and launder property that had been stolen” from Nazi victims in Yugoslavia during World War II.
The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has “obtained testimony given last month by William Gowen,” who is now in his 80s, which reveals that after the war Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini (elected pope in 1963), right, was personally linked not just to those criminal acts but also “was involved in the sheltering and smuggling of Croatian war criminals, such as the leader of the Ustashe movement, Ante Pavelic.”
Reporter Yossi Melman outlined the intricate, historical background of the case in a story, “Tied up in the Rat Lines,” which appeared earlier this week in Ha’aretz, much of it familiar to experts who have followed the issue for many years. But the case is unusual for, among other things, directly accusing the pope by name.
Although reams of original documents have already been published about the Vatican’s involvement with the so-called Rat Lines, a network that helped hide Nazi war criminals after World War II to keep them from being arrested and put on trial, the term “papal favorite” is the closest that a collection of documents as extensive as The Pavelic Papers has come to actually naming Montini.
Montini served as the Vatican‘s deputy secretary of state during the war, before ascending to the papacy. (Have a look at a declassified 1947 memorandum by Gowen, commenting about Pavelic’s contacts in the Vatican.)
Hundreds of war criminals were provided with church and Red Cross papers that enabled them to hide in safe houses and then flee from Europe, mainly to the Middle East and South America. Among them were Klaus Barbie (“the butcher of Lyon”), Adolf Eichmann, Dr. Josef Mengele and Franz Stengel, the commander of the Treblinka death camp.
The Vatican network was also used by leaders of the Ustashe — the nationalist Croatian Catholic movement that was active in Croatia and collaborated with the Nazi occupation.
Melman cites an American document, based on a report from the Italian police and placed in evidence at the trial in San Francisco, along with Gowen’s testimony. Gowen told the court: “The Reverend Dr. Prof. Krunoslav Draganovic seemed to be in cooperation with the Ustasha network. And he was given a Vatican assignment as the apostolic visitor for Croatians, which meant he reported directly to Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini.”
Melman writes further:
The leaders of the Ustashe headed by Pavelic are the ones who stole the victims’ property: art and jewelry — silver and mostly gold. After the war they fled with the treasure and laundered it with the help of Vatican institutions. According to Gowen’s testimony, Montini, who in 1964 became the first pope to visit the State of Israel, was also involved in the Vatican’s help in laundering the wealth.
Montini headed the Catholic Church until his death in 1978. The lawsuit, with an amended complaint added last week, demands restitution for the Jewish, Russian, Serb, Ukrainian and Roma victims. It is “based on earlier investigations and reports from American government agencies, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and committees of historians who researched the matter of the Jewish property in Swiss banks,” Melman reports.
“Led by the Vatican Bank and the Franciscan order and others,” the defendants “deny the charges against them and made every effort to have the charges dismissed,” he adds. “So far, the court has rejected these efforts outright and determined that the deliberations would continue. But the defendants are tenacious and now they are demanding that publication of Gowen’s testimony be prohibited.” (Here’s a Web site posted by the plaintiffs’ attorneys.)
Gowen served as a special agent in an American counter-intelligence unit in Rome after the war ended. The unit was assigned to track down Italian Fascists, Nazi war criminals and their collaborators, including the Ustashe leaders. “To try and find Pavelic you had to discover how the Ustashe network in Italy was constituted, how it operated, what were its bases,” Gowen testified, according to Melman.
A key person in the Pontifical Croatian college was Rev. Draganovic, the Croatian ambassador to the Vatican. Draganovic and the college issued false papers to Croatian war criminals, among them Pavelic and Artukovic. “I personally investigated Draganovic — who told me he was reporting to Montini,” emphasized Gowen.
Gowen related that at a certain stage Montini learned, apparently from the head of the OSS unit in Rome, James Angleton, who nurtured relations with Montini and the Vatican, of the investigation Gowen’s unit was conducting. [The OSS refers to the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency.] Montini complained about Gowen to his superiors and accused him of having violated the Vatican’s immunity by having entered church buildings, such as the Croatian college, and conducting searches there. The aim of the complaint was to interfere with the investigation.
Melman writes that “in his testimony, Gowen also stated that Draganovic helped the Ustashe launder the stolen treasure with the help of the Vatican Bank: This money was used to fund its religious activities, but also to fund the escape of Ustashe leaders on the Rat Line.”
The issue of Vatican complicity in Nazi crimes has echoed for decades long after the war’s end, complicated by the Catholic Church’s “continuing secrecy,” as U.S. News and World Report noted in 1998. This has forced accusers to equivocate, despite mounting evidence. (“We make no charges against the Vatican, but we keep building a very damning picture,” Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, told the magazine at the time.)
But many of the historical connections, down to current times, have been out in the open in Europe even if less known in the United States. For example, “the Vatican made a huge push to break up Yugoslavia in the early ’90s,” William Osborne, a longtime observer of Holocaust history, says. “They thus helped provoke the civil war that happened. The Vatican wanted an independent Croatia, which is Catholic.” It was “almost an obsession with the Munich newspaper Suddeutscher Zeitung and the ruling political and Catholic elite in Bavaria,” where Pope Benedict XVI, above left, comes from.
Yugoslavia, which maintained considerable independence from the Soviet Union, did not collapse with the rest of the East Block. But when it did fall as the last communist country of Europe, he says, “the same old dark Catholic forces were a central player in all of it. Croatia supported the Nazis, and those links evolved into the relations Croatia has with Bavaria and the Catholic Church to this day. What goes unmentioned, and which is so ironic, is that the Vatican stands accused of harboring war criminals from the 1990s as well.”
— Tireless Staff of Thousands