Within weeks of Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939, Pope Pius XII received a request from a group of senior German military officers to join them in a conspiracy to remove the Führer from power and then swiftly end hostilities after staging a coup. The officers let Pius know, however, that they were only prepared to act after first gaining assurances from the Allies that, were they to do so, they and Germany would receive fair treatment in any ensuing peace treaty, unlike how, in their estimation, Germany had been treated at the end of World War One.
This is where the need for Pius’ involvement came in. His desired role in the conspiracy was to be that of honest broker and intermediary between the German conspirators and the Allies. Only he, the former reckoned, had the necessary credibility and legitimacy to be able to serve as a universally trusted go-between in their dealings with the latter.
The officers had approached Pius out of their belief that he would be at least sympathetic to their cause, even if not willing to participate in the conspiracy itself, involving, as it did, the assassination of a ruling leader. In their surmises about the Pope, the German conspirators were not wrong. So opposed was he to the Nazis that it took the normally hesitant Pius only a day before acceding to their request. In doing so, he became a spy, as did other of his coreligionists who also became implicated in it.
In becoming spies, Pius and his other Catholic associates did nothing new so far as their Church went. As Mark Riebling notes in this immensely readable account of their various machinations to unseat Hitler, Pius and his fellow Church co-conspirators, had been acting in accord with well-established Catholic precedent. Riebling notes that “the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, the papal foreign service… had an unusually rich tradition of covert action.”
Shortly after joining the priesthood, the 24-year old Eugenio Pacelli, as the future Pius XII had been baptized, became initiated into the Way of Secrecy after first being recruited into the Sacred Congregation in 1901. Following a major rift between the Church and France in 1904, now Monsignor Pacelli was led to formulate a new foreign policy strategy for his Church. It involved, as Riebling explains: “exploiting the intelligence potential of Catholic laity… [by] cultivat[ing] influential agents in political parties, and exert[ing] influence through labour, media, and other “front” groups – a practice that Church officials termed “Catholic Action”.”
Pacelli became adept in deploying this strategy during the First World War while still in Rome. After befriending the leader of Germany’s Catholic Center Party, Matthias Erzberger, who had ended up in Rome after becoming disillusioned with the War, the two were to conspire “to halt Prussian militarism by proposing peace talks directly to the German parliament and people.” In 1917, Pacelli reputedly tipped off the Allies about a planned German invasion of Switzerland, and was thereby able to forestall it.
Shortly after the end of that War, as papal nuncio to Bavaria, Pacelli was to meet and gain the trust of the subsequent leader of the German military conspirators who came seeking his assistance in October 1939. This was none other than the head of Germany’s military intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
The German conspirators had turned to Pius precisely because they knew that, by then, he had long been involved with other members of his Church in Germany in covert espionage against the Hitler regime. They sought to compile a full record of the many Nazi infractions of the Concordat which, as former Secretary of State for the Papacy, Pacelli had negotiated with the new Nazi regime in 1933.
The intermediary to whom the conspiring officers turned in making their overture to Pius was someone who had long appeared on Germany’s intelligence radar as the chief conduit to Rome in the Catholic intelligence gathering operation against Hitler. This was the Bavarian lawyer Josef Müller. After agreeing to approach the Pope on behalf of the officers, he was swiftly recruited into German military intelligence so as to be provided with an adequate cover for his numerous trips to Rome. The story was spun he was travelling there to investigate on behalf of Germany efforts by the Italians to end the War early, something he was indeed doing but not for them.
Upon agreeing to act on behalf of the conspiring officers, Pius and other Catholic conspirators participated in a covert almost war-long effort to unseat Hitler. These efforts included several abortive attempts to assassinate Hitler. The last of these in July 1944 led to the arrest and eventual execution of Admiral Canaris, along with several other key conspirators. By enormous good fortune, Müller managed to survive the War, despite arrest and confinement along with the other chief conspirators.
The story of their efforts to bring down Hitler and his regime forms the subject of this immensely well informed and hugely engrossing book, which reads more like a spy thriller than conventional history book, so vividly does it succeed in bringing to life the mind-boggling escapades it relates. Although most of these escapades have long been in the public domain, never before have they been brought together to weave such a complete and coherent account of all the efforts made by the Church’s spies to unseat Hitler.
If Riebling’s book does nothing else, it should finally bury once and for all the injustice done to Pius XII by those who have claimed that, in not having spoken out more forcefully against the Nazis, he was at best narrowly self-serving and at worst complicit in the Holocaust. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this book makes plain.
Not only was Pius prepared to take very great personal risks in the attempt to bring down Hitler and his appalling regime. In not speaking out more vocally against the crimes it was perpetrating against Jews, Poles and his fellow Catholics in Germany, Pius had been acting on the express request of the military conspirators as well as of fellow bishops who all knew that any such provocative talk would be immensely counter-productive, both as regards the conspiracy as well as in stopping the several genocides in which the Nazis were engaged.
As to why the Nazis were led to commit genocide on the industrial and methodical scale they did, perhaps no better explanation has been offered than that proffered by one of the conspirators who was to be arrested, imprisoned, tortured and finally executed in January 1945 for his part in the conspiracy. Riebling relates Jesuit Alfred Delp’s observation shortly before his execution that when the Church “went the way of medieval and ancient civilizations” much more was lost than civilization. “Humanity died with it.”