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He Wasn’t Hitler’s Pope

Review: Mark Riebling, ‘Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler’

Pope Pius XII / AP
• December 5, 2015 5:00 am

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There’s a statue of Pius XII in the Vatican—a dark bronze presence, brooding on a rose-marble plinth inside St Peter’s Basilica. It’s an odd statue, all in all. Sculpted by Francesco Messina, it shows the pope as austere and ascetic, lit with a spiritual light but anxious and uneasy. And a Roman guide told me that, as she shepherds groups of tourists past the statue, almost always one will say to the others, "Oh, that’s Hitler’s pope."

Through the Second World War and for more than a decade after, the pope and the Catholic Church were understood to have been opponents of the Nazis, working against them as much as secrecy and non-violence would allow. You can see that older attitude in, for instance, the way the von Trapp family turn to the Church to help them escape from Austria in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1959 Broadway musical, The Sound of Music. But the publication of Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, The Deputy, and more than a little anti-Catholic agit-prop from the Soviets, led to a reversal in public opinion—Pius XII and the Church were now commonly thought to have been silent about the Holocaust and unhelpful to the Allies.

In the years since, the scholarly battles of the Pius War have swung back and forth, with the supporters of the pope generally winning the individual skirmishes about the details, but losing the over-all war for Pius’s reputation among ordinary readers. Into the fray now steps Mark Riebling, a historian, security analyst, former editorial director of the Manhattan Institute—and author of Wedge, a 1994 volume (later updated to carry the story through 2011) about the long-running feud between the FBI and CIA.

In his new book, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, Riebling again emerges from the archives of secret documents to remove one of the props of the complaint against Pius XII. It appears that one of the things Pius was protecting in his careful public statements was a ring of spies and a set of anti-Nazi conspirators determined to assassinate Hitler.

The Nazi government reacted negatively to the election of Eugenio Pacelli as the new pope in 1939. He took the name Pius XII, in honor of his predecessor, whom he had served as the Vatican’s secretary of state. The child of a prominent Italian family that had been nobility in the vanished Papal States, Pacelli was a life-long churchman who rose rapidly in Vatican service. He was the key figure for the Vatican in diplomatic affairs during the First World War, and he served as the pope’s representative in Germany for more than a decade. But the Germans knew of his anti-Nazi sentiments, openly announced in speeches around the world, and they feared that he would prove a threat as pope.

As Riebling notes, the ex-priest Albert Hartl was hired to provide a report on the papal election, and he warned the Nazis that Pius might well revive the Church’s doctrine of superiority to national government: "The Catholic Church fundamentally claims for itself the right to depose heads of state," he wrote—and Riebling shows in Church of Spies that this is exactly what the Vatican aimed to do in protecting and encouraging the German underground.

The story picks up with the Nazis’ push to take over Czechoslovakia. In 1938, the army’s distaste for Hitler was beginning to move toward opposition, with General Ludwig Beck and a handful of other German officers quietly and cautiously looking for ways to prevent a European war. They were soon joined by Wilhelm Canaris, the admiral who led Germany’s intelligence agency, and his deputy, Colonel Hans Oster.

Any plans to reform the German government, however, were undone by the popular acclaim that followed Hitler’s successful bamboozling of the British with the 1938 Munich Agreement. Only after the German invasion of Poland in 1939 did the conspirators begin a new plot. Trying to reach out to the British, they found Joseph Mueller, a Catholic lawyer, who traveled to Rome to ask the Vatican if the pope would act as their liaison with the British. Despite the fear that Catholics in Germany would suffer—and Catholics in occupied Poland would suffer even more—the pope agreed to the plan, announcing, "The German Opposition must be heard." 

Church of Spies follows the conspiracies from Canaris’s planning for a coup in 1940, to the 1944 plot to kill Hitler with a bomb (the subject of the 2008 film Valkyrie). Riebling recounts in a fast, readable style the fumblings, betrayals, and bad luck that plagued attempts to remove Hitler. Through it all, he shows the Vatican looming in the background—the only support on which the conspirators could count, the only consistent contact they had with the Allies, and one of the few moral centers to which they could look. If Pius was silent during the war—a much disputed charge, but the central accusation of those who deem him Hitler’s pope—he had reasons beyond the worries about Catholics under Nazi rule. He had as well the task of protecting the German opposition and his own set of spies across Europe.

Riebling begins his story at 6:00 a.m., Sunday, March 12, 1939, with the long line of Swiss Guards and barefoot friars, followed by the newly elected pope, marching toward St. Peter’s. Silver trumpets blared, crowds cheered, and a cardinal lowered the crown onto his head with the words, "know that you are the father of kings, the ruler of the world." Diego von Bergen, the German ambassador, wrote home, "Very moving and beautiful, but it will be the last."

By the end of the war, the six-foot tall pope would weigh only 125 pounds. His nerves were frayed, and he looked to his secretary like a "famished robin or an overdriven horse." The moral weight on the Church during war is always great, and Pius was perhaps unsuccessful in bearing that weight. A diplomat by training, he chose the traditional weapons of diplomacy—including spying and conspiracy—rather than the weapons of martyrdom and prophetic denunciation. But these quiet weapons he nonetheless deployed, and in Church of Spies, Mark Riebling has uncovered just how far he was from being Hitler’s pope.

Published under: Book reviews