Church of Spies, Mark Riebling, Scribe.
Pope Pius XII has been criticised harshly over the years for his supposed failures to speak out against the Nazis during World War II, as well as being labelled a Nazi sympathiser, an outrageous charge considering the recent evidence amassed in Mark Riebling’s book Church of Spies. Pius’ seeming silence on the holocaust aside, Pius was appalled at Hitler the moment Hitler came to power, and, sensationally, collaborated with German generals and others (including Bonhoeffer) who were plotting to assassinate Hitler, via James Bond-ish plans including a bomb concealed in a Cognac case. They nearly succeeded, and in one particular instance killed Nazis standing next to Hitler, while Hitler was only lightly injured. Other attempts failed because Hitler changed his schedule or unexpectedly left rooms early, leading some to speculate that Hitler was under diabolical protection. Hitler himself crowed that he was invincible.
The book’s revelations counter the notion that Pius was simply frozen in the face of the Nazi evil, though the question remains about how publicly vocal he should have been. His personality and experience certainly influenced his cautious response. Riebling writes that Pius had politics ‘in his blood’. Curiously, the book’s back cover blurb accuses Pius of a failure of moral nerve, suggesting that he was too diplomatic rather than prophetic, but the text of the book doesn’t really bear out this analysis, as it outlines how whenever early in the war Pius spoke out about anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany there would be an upsurge in killings. Pius felt his only option was to work covertly against the Nazis. He also had to tread carefully because he was at one point literally surrounded by the Nazis, when they occupied Rome, and Hitler, who well knew not only Pius’ feelings towards him but also Pius’ involvement in plotting, expressed an intention of invading the Vatican, despite the dissent of some of the top Nazis who felt that would tip world sentiment against them not only for the war but throughout the length of the expected Nazi imperial years. Hitler felt no hesitation as he hated the Church and felt that Christianity had weakened the robust German spirit needed for victory. He also said that there should be no other god but Germany. In the end the turn of the war meant Hitler had to withdraw troops from Rome anyway. Scholar Eamon Duffy (with, no doubt, other commentators) offers an alternate reading – that a stronger public, specific stance against the Nazis may have turned the considerable number of Catholics within Germany and the military in particular against the Reich, although Riebling writes contrarily that the German plotters were worried about German Catholics being alienated and themselves targeted for retribution and so advised Pius not to speak out.
As far as the morality of Pius’ seeming silence on the subject of the holocaust, the book spends less time on this and more on the assassination plots, particularly the actions of Josef Muller, an extraordinary figure who was arrested late in the war for his part in the assassination attempts, and who is credited as being the father of the EU (which he hoped would stifle the nationalism that had, in part, led to the wars). The book is in essence a spy/war thriller, documenting how the covert operations progressed rather than being a philosophical commentary on the most morally pressing of times (as well as being a chronicle of the unimaginable misery of the war years). But at least the book indicates Pius was no Nazi sympathiser.