CHURCH OF SPIES: THE POPE’S WAR AGAINST HITLER
By Mark Riebling
Basic Books, $28.99, 375 pages
One of the lingering controversies of World War II concerns the role of the Roman Catholic Church, and whether its leadership — specifically, Pope Pius XII — provided meaningful opposition to the Nazi regime. Jewish groups have been especially vocal in criticisms of Pius for his supposed “silence” about the Holocaust. And a recent memoir by German theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand offered a scathing indictment of the church for its failure to speak out more forcefully.
But a different picture emerges in this remarkable book by Mark Riebling, who writes frequently on intelligence, and who gained access to Vatican files apparently not viewed by any previous author. He takes a giant stride in refurbishing the status of Pius.
From his first days in power, Hitler considered the church to be a mortal enemy. An early Reichstag speech contained a chilling phrase: “The priest as political enemy of the Germans we shall destroy.” Nazi officials said that once Bolshevism and Judaism were destroyed, “the Catholic Church will be the only remaining enemy.”
The Vatican recognized the Nazi danger. One fear, Mr. Riebling writes, was that “Hitler might nationalize the Church, as King Henry the Eighth had once done in England.” Concurrently, Rome worried that many German Catholics might choose Hitler over the church. The Nazis were already creating a faux religion — for instance, decorating Christmas trees with swastikas rather than stars. There was even what one cardinal called “a blasphemous claim that Adolf Hitler is essentially as great as Christ.”
Pius was singularly equipped to deal with the German challenge. He served in Berlin as a papal representative from 1917 to 1929. Among the contacts he cultivated there was Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, who became head of the Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence agency, and who was one on the many officers who opposed Hitler’s rise to power, and who joined a church-approved plot to kill the dictator.
Pius’ active role began via a Catholic lawyer from Munich named Joseph Mueller, who is one of several incredibly brave men highlighted in Mr. Riebling’s highly readable narrative. Because he worked his way through school driving an oxcart, friends jokingly called him “Ochsensepp,” or “Joey Ox.” He was a prominent figure in Munich, where he controlled businesses ranging from a brewery to a publishing house.
Mueller visited the pope in 1939 and posed a direct question: If he and fellow members of the German Resistance succeeded in ridding Germany of Hitler, could they count on support from Britain? Pius agreed, telling Mueller, “The German Opposition must be heard.”
As has been recognized by numerous historians, the Vatican boasts a superb intelligence organization. Thus, “Joey Ox” and colleagues were able to provide Rome with such matters as advance dates of Nazi strikes in the invasion of France, which the Vatican passed along.
But Pius recognized that the only solution to the “Hitler problem” was disposing of the dictator. And here church doctrine became involved. Was murder anti-Christian on ethical grounds? Or should the church follow the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who considered tyrannicide justified if there was no other way to protect the innocent?
Pius opted for the latter, and gave his blessing to a number of attempts to kill Hitler. Alas, each of these assassination attempts failed, lastly a bomb in the “Valkyrie Plot” led by Count Claus von Stauffenberg in 1944.
Critics fault Pius and other church leaders for remaining silent (for the most part) about the Jewish Holocaust. In his Christmas messages, Pius did speak out against Nazi atrocities “of any kind,” but without using the word “Jew.” Mr. Riebling by no means exonerates Pius. But he writes that Pius’ silence was directly linked to his support of anti-Nazi conspirators who did not wish to spark reprisals against both Jews and Catholics. Even so, the Nazi media called him a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” The downside was that “in time his silence strained Catholic-Jewish relations, and reduced the moral credibility of the faith.”
German Military Intelligence (the Abwehr) considered the Vatican to be a rival spy organization and took active counter-intelligence measures against it. For instance, it learned that the archbishop of Freiburg had a half-Jewess mistress and blackmailed him into cooperating. So, too, for monks who were caught in gay nightclubs, and a priest who had embezzled money to pay off two women when a menage-a-trois “went wrong.”
The Gestapo eventually fingered “Joey Ox” as a figure in the assassination plots and subjected him to brutal torture. He did not break, and he survived. And in the postwar years, he worked for the CIA (code-named “Robot”) to help organize the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated German politics during the chilliest period of the Cold War.
The scope of Mr. Riebling’s book is demonstrated by 104 pages of chapter notes (which are worth the read on their own). He has written what is one of the more important books on intelligence of the year. His painstaking research and vivid writing make it a five-cloak/five-dagger read.
• Joseph C. Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.