In March 1939, throngs descended upon St. Peter’s Square to await the election of the successor to Pope Pius XI. They didn’t have long to wait. In the quickest conclave in four centuries, Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, who had served as Pius XI’s secretary of state, was elected, choosing the name Pius XII to honor his mentor.
Among those who witnessed his inauguration was Joseph Roth, the great Austrian novelist and fierce opponent of Hitler. Roth contrasted Pius XII’s elevation with the rise of the Third Reich: “The pre-apocalyptic beasts who now dominate politics are already alluding to their true motives for persecuting the Church. [Pius XII] is the only one who really hurts them. What’s more, those who were not afraid of the pope before are now afraid of this one.”
It’s a striking observation, given that many historians regard Pacelli’s predecessor, Pius XI, as tougher against the Nazis. Yet in his new book, Mark Riebling reveals that Pacelli was just as steadfast — and even more daring.
Among the book’s many revelations is Pacelli’s prescience about the danger of Nazism and his ability to think creatively in combating it. Often depicted as a quiet and unassuming priest, a by-the-book diplomat, and an aloof pontiff, Pacelli was, Riebling demonstrates, the exact opposite.
Born into a prominent family, Pacelli was a champion of the Church, but not a reactionary who feared modernity. He had a lifelong interest in science and technology, and a fascination with new and secret modes of communication. Had he not been destined to become pontiff, he might well have become an accomplished spymaster — and Riebling’s book argues that he actually became both.
In the Vatican diplomatic service, Pacelli dealt with sensitive political situations in England, France, and especially Germany, where he served for more than a decade (1917–29) as a papal representative. He emerged as the Vatican’s diplomatic point man during its efforts to end World War I; and as cardinal secretary of state (1930–39), he was a world traveler and communications pioneer. He enhanced Vatican Radio and L’Osservatore Romano (the Vatican’s newspaper), turning them into worldwide outlets. With such an innovative, high-profile record, Pacelli was a natural choice to become pope.
His 1939 election was greeted with almost universal acclaim, the rare exception being the Nazis. By then, the Nazis were well aware of Pacelli’s many anti-Nazi statements and actions, and commissioned Albert Hartl, a former Catholic priest, to assess what his pontificate meant for the Reich. Under Pacelli, Hartl warned, the Catholic Church would prove a serious threat, because of three factors in Catholicism’s arsenal: militancy, mutiny, and, above all, espionage. “The Catholic Church fundamentally claims for itself the right to depose heads of state,” Hartl wrote, “and down to the present time it has also achieved this claim several times.”
But what Hartl declared alarming was seen as an opportunity by other Germans, who, at that very moment, were hoping to overthrow Hitler — and looking for assistance.
Before the Czechoslovak crisis in 1938, high-ranking German officers, including General Ludwig Beck, began to turn against Hitler, fearing he would lead the country into a catastrophic war. Beck was soon joined by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (Germany’s intelligence agency), and his deputy, Colonel Hans Oster. They hoped to remove Hitler before his takeover of Czechoslovakia, but they were thwarted by the Munich agreement of late 1938, which appeased Hitler and strengthened his power.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland a year later, however, the military conspirators, having escaped detection by Hitler, began to plot his demise again. This time, they made a concerted effort to reach out to their adversaries, especially the British. They wanted to convince them that there was another Germany, a “decent Germany,” that was prepared to remove Hitler and restore peace, but they needed assurances that a post-Nazi German government would be supported by the West. For that to happen, they needed a person who could serve as an intermediary and vouch for their integrity.
The Resistance found its ideal man in Pius XII, whom Canaris had known since his days as a papal nuncio in Berlin and who was also highly regarded in Britain. The Resistance was also fortunate to have in its service Joseph Mueller, a little-known but astonishingly brave Catholic lawyer from Munich. He also knew Pius XII and was prepared to sacrifice his life to save the world from Hitler’s deepening madness.
Acting on behalf of the Resistance, Mueller traveled to Rome in 1939 and met with the pontiff’s top assistants to ask one critical question: Would Pius XII be willing to contact the British government and receive guarantees that it would back the German Resistance if Hitler was overthrown? Pius XII — knowing it was an incredible risk to involve himself and the Church in such a plot — was willing do so, in hopes of ending the war. He gave his approval, declaring, “The German Opposition must be heard.”
What followed was a series of harrowing events, grippingly recounted by Riebling, which led to repeated efforts to oust Hitler, all foiled by unexpected twists, betrayals, bombs that failed to go off, and ones that did only to miss their target. Anti-Nazi officers and daring civilians led the charge, but they were given critical moral and logistical support by Pius XII, his closest aides, and the Jesuit, Dominican, and Benedictine religious orders.
Numerous other scholars — notably Peter Hoffmann and Owen Chadwick — have written about the Vatican’s connection with the German Resistance, but never with the detail, insight, and proof Riebling marshals here. Relying on an abundance of primary documents and firsthand testimonies, from many different countries and archives, Church of Spies advances our historical knowledge in three significant ways.
First, it has long been thought that Pius XII’s involvement with the anti-Nazi Resistance was only tentative and fleeting, ending early in the war. But Riebling demonstrates that Pius’s participation was far more extensive and intense. The pope not only directed the Church’s bishops, nuncios, and religious orders to oppose Nazism and help its victims, he also ensured that the Vatican maintained contacts with every major Resistance movement inside the Reich, including the valiant group of officers, led by Count von Stauffenberg, who tried to assassinate Hitler in the famous Valkyrie plot of July 1944.
Second, Riebling highlights that the conspiracy against Hitler was a deeply Christian — and ecumenical — initiative. One of the book’s most fascinating sections shows the conspirators discussing the religious and ethical implications of assassination. Some hesitated to sanction it, saying it was un-Christian, no matter how dire the situation or how brutal the tyrant. But others cited Saint Thomas Aquinas, who taught that tyrannicide was justified if no conceivable alternatives for protecting the innocent and saving the common good were possible. The Thomistic arguments won the day.
That all this took place in Germany was remarkable. Four hundred years before, Christendom had been torn asunder by the Reformation, but now, in the very country in which it broke out, Christians of all persuasions were coming together to find common ground. And the institution the Resistance was now rallying around was, ironically, the one that had divided Christians for centuries: the papacy.
Much of this change had to do with Pacelli’s high character and theological vision. Admiral Canaris, writes Riebling, “spoke reverently of Pius,” and Mueller “sensed that Canaris and Oster, though Protestants, considered the Pope the world’s most important Christian. . . . They sought out the Holy Father, not only for clandestine support, but for solace and hope.”
Pope Francis has spoken of an “ecumenism of blood,” referring to the many Christians, of all denominations, who have been martyred in modern times. One senses, reading Church of Spies, that the seeds of that heroic ecumenism may well have been planted in the conspiracy against Hitler, since so many of those Christian resisters eventually wound up suffering martyrdom as well.
Third, addressing the controversy over Pius XII’s alleged silence about Nazi atrocities, Riebling makes a forceful, though still debatable, case that Pius’s decision to restrain his language during the Holocaust was directly linked to his cooperation with the anti-Nazi conspirators, who were advising him not to speak “words of fire” in public, lest he provoke reprisals against the Resistance. The pope followed this counsel, but only as far as his conscience allowed. His first encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, condemned racism and totalitarianism; and his Christmas messages condemned atrocities of every kind, including race-based genocide, for which the Nazis branded him “a mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” Some of Pius XII’s early wartime statements were quite explicit, and did cause severe reprisals — against both Jews and Catholics — and some bishops refused to publish the pope’s words, precisely for that reason.
As the book approaches its conclusion, it moves from being a groundbreaking new history of the Vatican-German Resistance to a deeply moving account of the sufferings and sacrifices of its leaders. The failure of the conspirators to kill Hitler takes nothing away from their courage and heroism.
Writing with the craft of a novelist and the conscience of a meticulous scholar, Riebling has produced a masterly account of these events — one that will surely impress anyone open to fresh evidence and sensitive to the complexities of world history.
– Mr. Doino, an online columnist for First Things, is the author of a book-length annotated bibliography on Pius XII that appeared in The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.