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Pope Pius XII

Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler

By Mark Riebling

Publisher: Basic Books

Pages: 375 pages

Price: $29.99

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

Mary McWay Seaman is a book critic and writer for Denver's Celtic Connection newspaper and for the Missouri Historical Society's Gateway Magazine. She lives in Colorado.

The decades-long controversy over whether Pope Pius XII failed to do and say enough to thwart Nazi atrocities has been dubbed the “Pius Wars.” Mark Riebling has struck a firm blow for Pius’s defenders by using recently unsealed transcripts and files to turn the oft-repeated narrative on its head. Riebling builds his case around Bavarian lawyer Josef Müller, whom the Nazis called “the best agent of the Vatican Intelligence in Germany.” The Nazis eventually arrested Müller for protecting Jews and conspiring to kill Hitler and accused him of “using the spy service of the Catholic clergy.” A war hero and “a godfather figure in Catholic Munich,” Müller “had led troops, smuggled documents, played politics, plotted murder, wrote sermons, rescued Jews, ransomed bishops, eluded capture, suffered betrayal, endured torture, confounded his captors,” and acted as a go-between for the German anti-Nazi movement and Fr. Robert Leiber, advisor to the Pope.

Riebling refreshes readers on the rise of Hitler during the Great Depression, as economic hardship drove multitudes of Germans to embrace the barking Führer and his National Socialist Party. Widespread allegiance to the self-assured, charismatic Nazi leader created a herd mentality that led many to brush off his purges of political rivals, numerous clergy, and Catholic lay leaders. Weary citizens were simply relieved to have a man with a plan, any plan. But not all Germans were so lulled into conformity.

The fearless Müller, on an SS list of Catholic opponents of the regime, joined Msgr. Johannes Neuhäusler in a “counter-Nazi secret service,” and Michael Cardinal von Faulhaber asked them to coordinate their work with the Vatican. Faulhaber helped with the first draft of Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), the papal encyclical that urged “overt acquiescence” and “backstairs intercession” against the Nazis. Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican secretary of state, “changed the theme to combat,” which drew a vicious backlash against the Catholic clergy and Church properties. The Nazis “thwarted the Church’s teachings, banned its organizations, censored its press, shuttered its seminaries, seized its properties, fired its teachers, and closed its schools.” Priests were labeled “political enemies of the Germans,” and churches were desecrated.

Pacelli, as Pope Pius XII, was a political realist and supporter of “militancy, mutiny, and espionage.” Regarding Pius’s public relations, Riebling says that “Allied and Jewish press agencies still hailed him as anti-Nazi during the war. But in time, his silence strained Catholic-Jewish relations, and reduced the moral credibility of the faith.” It appeared that “during the world’s greatest moral crisis, its greatest moral leader seemed at a loss for words.” But here the spies are key: Müller later admitted that “during the war his anti-Nazi organization in Germany had always been very insistent that the Pope should refrain from making any public statement singling out the Nazis and specifically condemning them and had recommended that the Pope’s remarks should be confined to generalities only.”

Pius relied on German clergymen for updates, and German Jesuit and Dominican leaders formed the Orders Committee, which acted as a front for a Church intelligence service. When the Nazis marched into Prague in 1939, they arrested opponents of the Third Reich and imprisoned Jesuits. Poland was the next target, and an SS spy chief declared that Catholic priests “must all be killed.” Later that year, Müller became part of a secret plot against Hitler engineered by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence, and he passed a plea from the German resistance to the Pope’s advisors.

Riebling reveals the clergy’s growing involvement in political matters as Pius partnered with the resistance. In time, the “plotters asked the pope not to protest” the Nazis in order to protect German Catholics. Polish clergymen also cautioned Pius against denouncing Nazi atrocities so as to avoid escalating the horror. Hence the Pope’s double bind: He was forced to refrain from condemning evil in order to prevent an upsurge in unspeakable torture and death. Therefore, “Pius recommitted to public silence and secret action.” Riebling states, “The intrigues that followed would not be the Church’s covert campaign against the Reich, but the pope’s secret war against Hitler.” Furthermore, “Just as Hitler, not the German state, was the target of the plot, so Pius, not the Roman faith, would be its abettor.” So he’s not so much “Hitler’s Pope” (à la John Cornwell) after all!

Once, when the Führer learned of an intelligence leak, Admiral Canaris assured him that Josef Müller (the leaker) was on the case. According to Müller, “The admiral had turned me into the leader of the investigation against me.” Other resistance members included the courageous Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was then situated “beyond the Gestapo’s reach, in the Benedictine monastery at Ettal.” Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi worked with the German military intelligence organization to record Hitler’s crimes and plot his overthrow. (In April 1943 the Gestapo arrested many members of the organization, as well as Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi.)

In the spring of 1940 the Germans invaded Norway, Holland, Belgium, and France, and “Hitler’s popularity soared” as his twisted campaign rolled on. Italy joined the Germans in June, isolating the Vatican “in an Axis sea.” The Vatican offered sanctuary to Allied diplomats, and Vatican police engaged in counter-espionage.

In June 1941 Axis troops attacked Stalin’s domain, and the Russian campaign began. The priest Augustinus Rösch “furnished a turnkey ecclesiastical espionage service, readily adaptable to the cause of Hitler’s death,” and he transferred Nazi plans to Müller as “the locus of Catholic resistance moved from Rome to Germany.” In October Officer Helmuth von Moltke (who had turned against Hitler) and Fr. Rösch planned for a post-Nazi Germany, and their partnership “marked the formal beginning of Catholic involvement in the second round of wartime plots against Hitler.” The Gestapo arrested Moltke in 1944 and executed him in 1945.

Riebling continues to roll out rough-and-ready resistance efforts marked by the incomparable physical and mental bravery of its fighters. The aforementioned Orders Committee “became the plotters’ postwar planning board.” Fr. Rösch was its “driving force.” In July 1942 Müller and Bonhoeffer talked with the Pope’s deputies to help coordinate the Christian fight against Hitler, and Müller briefed Pius on coup plans, gaining the Holy Father’s blessing. Müller also reported “to the European chief of the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Allen Dulles, in Berne.” By late 1942 “interfaith unity became an operational axiom as the pope’s secret policy crept forward.”

At year’s end, Russian tanks were bearing down on the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, and many Germans “sensed that a retreat had begun which would not stop at Germany’s borders.” Violent blowback was on the way. The plotters saw a chance for a coup, and “while the Jesuits forged consensus, their military confederates built bombs.” Riebling describes the tension as assassination attempts against Hitler failed and March 1943 found the Jesuit plotters frustrated; moreover, enemies had learned of their papal contacts. But Hitler’s story was nearing its final pages.

During the German occupation of Rome in 1943, thousands of Jews were hidden in Vatican City and in Roman religious houses. By midsummer, the tide was beginning to turn. In June 1944 the Allies took Rome and launched the Normandy invasion. Gestapo savages arrested Müller, and he ended up at Buchenwald, which “overflowed with the dead and the living dead.” Fr. Rösch was thrown into Dachau, along with the family that had sheltered him. Bonhoeffer, Canaris, and General Hans Oster, another anti-Nazi hero, were hanged at Flossenbürg in Bavaria on April 9, 1945.

The end, of course, was near. The Red Army attacked Berlin, and American forces closed in from the west, witnessing the unspeakable horrors of Flossenbürg. On April 15 Müller and other prisoners boarded a truck at Dachau bound for Austria. On April 30 Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide. Fr. Rösch set out from Berlin in May “with a suitcase in a wheelbarrow.” On June 1 Müller met with U.S. intelligence officers and the Pope at the Vatican, and the next day Pius convened the cardinals and “alluded to the coup plots, obliquely referencing his own role.”

Müller escaped death, helped rebuild his country, and “working as a US intelligence agent…he cofounded the Bavarian wing of the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated West German politics.” As Bavarian minister of justice, Müller led the prosecution of Nazi war criminals not sentenced at Nuremburg and, in the end, “was a quiet maker of the postwar Church and world. His wartime interfaith efforts…helped spark the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which hailed the spiritual authenticity of Judaism.” Müller died in 1979 “with his dream of a United Europe unrealized but within reach.”

Riebling inserts a compelling side story into the war drama: All the while, Pius had wanted to find St. Peter’s grave. In 1935 engineers discovered that the “Vatican crypt lay above a lost necropolis, a city of the dead, untouched since imperial times.” Riebling’s second narrative escorts readers back to the Church’s beginnings: The “faith at first survived only as a clandestine movement in Rome; and since the Gospel writers thought Jesus’s return imminent, the early Christians perhaps expected to remain underground operatives until the end of times.” The parallel accounts of the Roman and Nazi persecutions highlight their similarities. For Josef Müller and his associates, as for the early Christians, secrecy was paramount.

This eloquent account of World War II heroes and martyrs reveals their unwavering integrity. No moral relativism taints the heroes in this book, including and especially Pope Pius XII. Riebling’s use of archival material — referenced in seventy-two pages of notes and twenty-six pages of sources — to write “heart-pounding” history makes for an outstanding vindication of Pope Pius XII.


Pius XII: More Vindication

A BBC reporter, during Pope Francis’s visit to Auschwitz in July, told viewers: “Silence was the response of the Catholic Church when Nazi Germany demonized Jewish people and then attempted to eradicate Jews from Europe.”

But now…after strong protests from concerned Catholics, led by Lord Alton and Fr. Leo Chamberlain, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has found that the report “did not give due weight to public statements by successive Popes or the efforts made on the instructions of Pius XII to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution, and perpetuated a view which is at odds with the balance of evidence.”

While this correction might seem like brief and passing news, for those of us who’ve fought to clear the good name of Pius XII, it constitutes a major victory.

After years of protesting outrageously slanted reports and documentaries on Pius XII’s alleged complicity in the Holocaust — and having our heavily-documented rebuttals ignored — here, at last, was progress…. The battle to rescue his reputation…is finally being won. — William Doino Jr. The Catholic Herald (Dec. 14, 2016)


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