May 2008By James Bemis
James Bemis is an editorial board member and columnist for California Political Review and a frequent contributor to The Latin Mass magazine.
A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII. By Dan Kurzman. Perseus Books. 285 pages. $26.
In September 1943, Adolf Hitler, furious at the ouster of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, suspected Pope Pius XII of encouraging his ally's removal. The Führer sent German troops into Rome and ordered SS General Karl Wolff, Heinrich Himmler's chief aide, to occupy the Vatican, assassinate the curia, and kidnap -- and perhaps kill -- Pope Pius XII.
Concurrently, the Nazi high command was planning to deport Rome's Jews to Auschwitz. Wolff began executing a risky strategy designed to save his own skin: stalling Hitler's plot against the Pope, with the hope that the respected Pontiff would rescue him if Germany lost the war. To keep Pius from enraging Nazi officials by speaking out against the roundup of Jews, Wolff and his fellow conspirators tried to intimidate him into silence, hoping that Hitler would withdraw his order.
This intriguing story is told in A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII, written by former Washington Post foreign correspondent Dan Kurzman. Kurzman's book is important for several reasons. First, the author managed a journalistic coup by getting an interview with General Wolff after his release from prison. In providing the first detailed account of Hitler's mad plan to sack the Vatican and kidnap the Pope, Kurzman underscores the hostility that existed between the Fuhrer and Pius XII. Second, Pope Benedict XVI recently created a special panel to study the possible sainthood of Pius XII. Thus, the information in A Special Mission is timely and will impact the continuing public debate on the role of the Catholic Church in general, and Pius XII in particular, during World War II. As Kurzman observes, thus far little notice has "been given to the importance of Hitler's plot against the Vatican." Finally, with the author's simple, direct narrative style and eye for arresting detail, A Special Mission reads like a fascinating tale right out of a spy novel.
Nevertheless, A Special Mission suffers from several serious faults. First, the book is poorly documented. Containing only generalized footnotes, the text lacks the specific reference sources one would expect from a veteran journalist such as Kurzman. As this is the first detailed account of the plot against the Vatican, having better documentation would have enhanced the book's credibility, which rests heavily on the veracity of Wolff's personal testimony. Second, Kurzman's occasional digressions from the main theme into amateur psychology regarding the motivations of the Nazi high command are distracting. For instance, his detour into Himmler's medical problems and weird inferiority complex only detracts from the book's impact. Finally -- and most seriously -- Kurzman has an incomplete grasp of the Church and the papacy. He states, for example, that the Pope "controlled the minds of millions," and he misunderstands the Church's supernatural mission, judging her by worldly standards. These misapprehensions lead to the author's unjustified criticism of Pius as "intimidated into public silence on the Holocaust."
To understand where Kurzman errs, it is important to recognize the three basic falsehoods commonly used to slander the Catholic Church and Pius XII regarding World War II. First, it is claimed that the Holocaust is the logical result of Christianity, that the Nazis simply carried out on a grand scale what other Christians had been doing to Jews for centuries. Second, critics assert that because of Pius's anti-Semitism and blind hatred of communism, he lent tacit support to the Third Reich. In short, Pius was "Hitler's Pope," a smear popularized in 1999 in an absurd book by John Cornwell. The third fabrication is that, because of fear of bodily harm or damage to the Church, Pius lacked the moral courage to speak out against the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
Kurzman, to his credit, refutes the first two falsehoods. He makes clear that the Nazis meant to crush Christianity and replace it with a new Nazi religion of the state. The book also provides irrefutable evidence that Pius and Hitler felt a mutual distrust for each other. Hitler called the Pope a "Jew-lover" and a "demon in white robes," while Pius considered the Führer a barbarian.
Nevertheless, despite attempts to be balanced, Kurzman falls victim to the third fabrication by criticizing the Church's neutrality in the war, accusing Pius and German priests of remaining "publicly silent about the mass killing of Jews out of fear of men." In a chapter titled "An Agonizing Dilemma," Kurzman discusses the competing pressures on the Pontiff and carefully articulates the pros and cons of a more explicit denunciation of Hitler, including the risks of alienating German Catholics or provoking a vicious retaliation by Hitler, and citing the need to protect the Church's treasures and faithful. But the underlying premise of the book is that the Pope was silent regarding the Jewish genocide.
However, while citing several reasons for the Vatican's neutrality, Kurzman ignores some critical factors about the Church and her unique mission in the world. For example, the Vatican declared its neutrality (or impartiality, as Pius XII preferred) in World War II, as it had done for centuries, including under Benedict XV in World War I. In doing this, the Church believed herself better able to negotiate for peace and help the suffering innocents on both sides. Thus, Pius XII was simply following in the Church's long-standing tradition. Further, Pius did condemn war atrocities committed by both sides, but in restrained, diplomatic language. Such nuanced communication largely goes over the heads of today's vulgarians. Furthermore, Pius XII saw -- rightly -- that communism was as big a threat to the Church and world peace as fascism. Events proved the Pontiff correct, as communism was, if anything, more enduring and thus deadlier than the Nazi threat. Pius's fears that Roosevelt and Churchill's alliance with Stalin would be catastrophic for the Church were confirmed at Yalta in 1943 when the Western powers delivered more than a dozen Catholic countries into the clutches of "Uncle Joe" Stalin, one of the worst mass murderers in history.
Despite its shortcomings, A Special Mission is a valuable addition to the World War II historical record. Had the plan to seize the Vatican and kidnap the Pope succeeded, world history would have been as drastically altered as when the papacy was moved to Avignon for much of the 14th century or when Napoleon abducted Pope Pius VII from 1805 to 1809. But the plot against the Catholic Church failed -- thanks to a group of Hitler's own henchmen.