An audacious Nazi scheme to penetrate the Vatican was almost crazy enough to succeed.
It was probably the question about prostitutes that convinced Father Michael all was not what it should be as he sat with his new students in the lobby of Rome’s Hotel Continental.
To be sure, the recent arrivals from Berlin were woefully ignorant of Catholic theology and exhibited little of the piety that one might expect in young men about to embark on studies for the priesthood, but those deficiencies had not unduly worried the priest. For centuries, students had been coming to Rome for the very purpose of learning theology, so that particular deficit would soon be remedied. And one could hardly expect conventional expressions of piety from raw young men educated by godless Bolsheviks in the spiritual desert of Soviet Georgia.
No, it wasn’t the ignorance or the impiety that bothered Father Michael; it was the scandalous preoccupation with women. The young men seemed to think of little else. Worse, they seemed to assume that their visitor shared their preoccupation. Their inquiries about where they might find female companionship certainly assumed a familiarity with the more exotic aspects of Roman society that one might not expect from the rector of a Catholic seminary. Father Michael began to wonder what he had gotten himself into when he agreed to accept these men as his first students.
What Father Michel had gotten into was one of the strangest intelligence operations of World War II. Conceived in the labyrinthine headquarters of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA), the intelligence and security apparatus of the Nazi state, and bearing the fingerprints of some of the most notorious officers of that organization—Reinhard Heydrich, Herbert Kappler, Ernst Kaltenbrunner—the operation aimed at nothing less than penetration of the Vatican by young Nazis posing as seminarians. Protected from suspicion by their clerical dress and vocation, these moles would insinuate themselves into the ecclesiastical society of Rome and, from the doorstep of the pope, eavesdrop on the precious secrets that German intelligence believed were whispered along every frescoed corridor in the papal palace and in the shadows of every candlelit chapel in the Eternal City.
Although in the end the operation failed, it was unmatched among wartime intelligence ploys in its audacity, imagination, and risk. And it revealed an obsessive Nazi belief that the pope commanded a vast network of spies and conspirators that reached into every world capital and that was even engaged in an insidious intrigue against the National Socialist state itself.
Surprisingly for such a sinister enterprise, it all began with a good deed. In 1941 Sofia Goghieli, a wealthy and pious widow of Georgian extraction, died in Brussels, leaving part of her fortune to the Servants of the Immaculate Conception, a small and obscure Catholic religious order founded in 1881 to minister to the needs of Georgian Catholics. Driven from the Caucasus by Soviet religious persecution, the monks had resettled in Turkey and in a handful of monasteries in Europe. It took some time for news of Madame Goghieli’s death to reach the headquarters of the order in Turkey, and more time for the order to decide how best to proceed. Eventually the father superior sent one of his priests, Father Michael Tarchnisvili, then teaching theology in a Bavarian monastery, to Brussels to settle the estate.
Father Michael’s mission was delayed when German occupation authorities prohibited his entry into Belgium. Seeking the necessary authorizations, Father Michael traveled to Berlin and approached Michael Kedia, a prominent member of the Georgian diaspora. An activist in the movement for Georgian independence, Kedia had gravitated to Germany in the late 1930s, seeing in the anti-Soviet and anti-Slav Nazi regime an instrument for destroying the hated Bolsheviks and establishing in the Caucasus a national homeland for his people.
Long before the German invasion of Russia, the RSHA had developed links with Kedia and other representatives of aggrieved Soviet nationalities in the expectation that these nationalists would prove useful in espionage and subversion against the Soviet Union. By 1941 Kedia had been brought into the Russian section of Amt VI, the foreign intelligence division of the RSHA.
With his contacts in the German security apparatus, Michael Kedia secured the necessary travel permits for his new friend Father Michael. The priest visited Brussels, closed the estate, and promptly returned to Berlin to knock again on Kedia’s door. This time he sought help of a different sort. Before departing for Belgium, Father Michael had convinced his superiors to use the Goghieli bequest to found a seminary in Rome for young Georgians. Many nationalities had Catholic colleges in the Eternal City, and a tour of ecclesiastical Rome might include the Spanish College, the English College, the Scots College, and over a dozen other national centers where seminarians lived while studying theology and church history. What better way to honor the memory of Madame Goghieli than to establish a college where students from the Georgian diaspora could pursue their priestly vocations in a religious community that reflected their cultural and linguistic heritage?
Unfortunately, the money bequeathed by Madame Goghieli to the Servants of the Immaculate Conception fell short of the amount necessary to launch a college, and Father Michael had not the slightest idea how to make up the shortfall. A simple and pious cleric, Father Michael knew nothing of the world of finance; in fact he knew little of any world that existed beyond the portals of his monastery. To such a priest, Michael Kedia was an urbane sophisticate who knew important people in the most important city in Europe. He was also an avid promoter of Georgian culture and history. Surely he would recognize the importance of a national seminary and know how to proceed.
To Father Michael’s delight, his countryman responded with enthusiasm, assuring his visitor that there were many devout Georgians in the émigré community who would contribute to the project. He was so confident that he advised his visitor to proceed immediately to Rome to search out appropriate premises for the new college and leave the matter of fundraising in his hands. Kedia told the priest that he would send word of his progress to the German embassy in the Italian capital, where Father Michael should ask for a certain Major Herbert Kappler.
While Father Michael consulted Roman real estate agents, Michael Kedia consulted his friends in Amt VI. Kedia proposed that Amt VI secretly provide the funds for the construction and maintenance of the Georgian seminary—in return for the opportunity to use the establishment for their own purposes.
Initially the proposal received a cool reception. Amt VI director Walter Schellenberg and the chief of his Italian section both dismissed the idea as unrealistic. Over the summer of 1943, Kedia pushed his plan within the RSHA, eventually appealing directly to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the chief of the organization. Kaltenbrunner’s predecessor, Reinhard Heydrich, had earlier considered a similar plan: convinced that the Catholic Church was the natural enemy of National Socialism and that the Vatican was actively trying to undermine Hitler and his regime, Heydrich wanted to infiltrate young SS officers into Catholic seminaries to form a fifth column that would expose and subvert the anti-Nazi machinations of the pope and his minions. The plan had been abandoned when Heydrich was assassinated in Prague by Czech partisans in 1942.
But Kaltenbrunner now saw a new reason for resurrecting the idea. The Allies had by this time conquered Sicily and invaded the Italian Peninsula. In July 1943, Benito Mussolini had fallen from power, and on September 8, the Italian government had abandoned its Axis ally by accepting an armistice. Although German forces rushed into Italy and occupied Rome, the RSHA had to anticipate the day when the Eternal City would fall to the Allies. Stay-behind networks that would report from the enemy-held city had to be organized.
Kaltenbrunner and his advisers believed that all religious buildings in the Italian capital, including seminaries, were under the protection of the Vatican and as such were immune to searches by police or military authorities. It was one of several fatal bungles that would doom the project: in fact there was no such diplomatic protection. But the RSHA was convinced that a Nazi-controlled seminary, one indistinguishable in administration, staffing, and living arrangements from similar institutions in Rome, would provide an impenetrably secure base for espionage operations. Father Michael would get his money.
Unaware of the machinations in Berlin, Father Michael had found a suitable building in the Monteverde Nuovo district of the Italian capital. Recalling Kedia’s instructions, in October 1943 he called at the office of Major Kappler to inquire about the promised funds.
If the priest wondered why the German police attaché and Gestapo representative in Rome was involved in the philanthropic effort to support a Georgian College, he hid his confusion during his meeting with Karl Hass, Kappler’s assistant. The German officer informed Father Michael that the funds had indeed arrived from Berlin and that the money would be available once a few arrangements had been settled.
After several questions about his visitor’s contacts inside the Vatican, Hass stunned Father Michael by bluntly asking if he was prepared to spy for Germany. When the priest replied that such activity was contrary to his priestly calling and that he could never spy on the Church, the German officer curtly informed his visitor that in that case the money for the Georgian College would not be forthcoming. Without further explanation Hass showed Father Michael to the door.
Dispirited and confused, Father Michael now turned for advice to Basilius Sadathieraschvili, a fellow Georgian who eked out a meager living in Rome selling paintings of uncertain provenance and working as an informant for Major Kappler’s office, and who saw in the priest’s distress an opportunity to improve his economic prospects. Father Michael thankfully accepted his friend’s offer to go immediately to Berlin to intercede with Michael Kedia. Before rushing to the train station, however, Sadathieraschvili visited Kappler and offered, in return for cash payments, to use his influence with Father Michael to advance whatever plans German intelligence had for the Georgian College. The Gestapo officer agreed and dispatched his new recruit to Berlin to discuss with RSHA officials how to proceed with Father Michael.
The discussions produced a new plan. Kappler would release the money to Father Michael, assuring him that the funds came from a pious Georgian who wished to remain anonymous. Father Michael would become the spiritual and educational director of the college, but he would be persuaded to accept Sadathieraschvili as a “lay administrator” who would oversee the business affairs of the institution. While the priest was preoccupied with selecting books for the college library and planning spiritual exercises for the students, Sadathieraschvili, joined by an SS signals officer masquerading as an architect, would rebuild the interior of the building to accommodate two rooms to be reserved for the exclusive use of the lay administrator. One room would house a clandestine radio transmitter whose antenna would be run up a chimney and along the roof, while the second room with private access to the garden would serve agents who would use the college for cover or temporary refuge. The planners in Berlin insisted that Father Michael know nothing about the secret transmitter or the movement of men through the rooms.
Father Michael’s astonishing innocence, which up until now had been mercilessly exploited by his secret Nazi benefactors, now ironically began to unravel the entire project. In February 1944, Sadathieraschvili made a brief visit to Berlin and returned accompanied by six young Georgians whom he installed in the Hotel Continental. These men, selected from the “Georgian Legion,” an SS auxiliary recruited by the Germans from Georgians captured while serving in the Red Army, were intended by Berlin to be the intelligence cell working out of the college. To a surprised Father Michael, Sadathieraschvili triumphantly announced that he had found the first students for the college. The inauspicious conversation about where to find the best prostitutes followed shortly thereafter.
Upon the advice of friends in the Vatican, Father Michael decided to examine the young men individually. The rector of the Georgian College quickly determined that three of the group were complete unsuited. Without consulting Sadathieraschvili, he gave each of them a small amount of money and advised them to go back to Germany.
The remaining three he moved to the Russicum, a Jesuit college for priests destined to work in Russia. A few weeks under Jesuit discipline was enough to convince two of the three that seminary life was not for them, even as an intelligence cover: they readily admitted to Father Michael that they had no interest in the priesthood and claimed they had volunteered to come to Rome only because they thought they would be well-fed and safe. They too were sent away. That left a single “seminarian.”
The operation was dealt a further blow in March when the priest discovered the two secret rooms his administrator had constructed in the college’s basement, including the secret exit to the garden, which had been concealed behind a large wardrobe. At about the same time, Father Michael stumbled upon the plan to bring the radio transmitter into the college. There was an ugly confrontation. The priest categorically refused to allow a radio on the premises, angrily dismissing Sadathieraschvili’s glib assurances that it would be used only to “transmit Georgian cultural programs.”
By the end of March, Operation Georgian College was a shambles. Building renovations, already delayed because the builder had not been paid (the lay administrator had been skimming the accounts), came to a halt. Father Michael withdrew to a room in a hospice for penniless priests. Sadathieraschvili nonchalantly informed Major Kappler that the college had run out of money, then brazenly asked for a job as a translator in the Gestapo offices.
Two months later, on June 4, 1944, American forces entered the Italian capital. Tipped off by British code breakers who had been intercepting and reading encrypted messages passing between RSHA offices in Berlin and Rome, American counterintelligence officers made straight for the Georgian College. Ignoring the sign over the front door which read “Property of the Holy See,” they marched right in and found a caretaker, the secret rooms, and a radio antenna strung across the roof.
The one remaining “seminarian” presented himself to Allied authorities as a Russian soldier who had been captured by the Germans and was duly transferred to a camp for displaced persons. Although Sadathieraschvili was on a priority arrest list, the wily Georgian evaded capture and was never heard from again. Father Michael was arrested but eventually released when counterintelligence officers concluded he was a hapless dupe. He returned to the monastic life and died in the late 1950s.
Today, the one-time Georgian College houses offices of the Rome municipal government. Its neighbors along the nondescript and drab street know nothing about its past. It stands as a footnote to the intelligence history of the war, and a monument to the ambitions and follies of monks and spymasters.
Originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.