Review of Mark Riebling, Church of Spies: The Vatican’s Secret War against Hitler

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 4 (December 2015)

Review of Mark Riebling, Church of Spies: The Vatican’s Secret War against Hitler (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 375 Pp. ISBN 9780465022298.

By Mark Edward Ruff, St. Louis University

That Pope Pius XII was involved in several failed plots to kill Hitler has been publicly known since the 1960s, if not since the close of the Second World War. But there have been few investigations into the actual cloak and dagger. Mark Riebling’s methodically-researched detective story, cast in the genre of a thriller, deserves widespread attention for the light that it sheds on this clandestine world of intrigue and terror in which the pontiff played a central role.

Riebling-ChurchIn the detail given to the spy rings operating out of the Vatican, Riebling’s account goes far beyond earlier accounts like those of the American scholar, Harold Deutsch. It adduces evidence from published documentary collections, state, church and intelligence archives in Britain, Germany, Poland and the United States as well as the extensive interview transcripts found in Harold Deutsch’s papers in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In light of the fragmentary nature of the evidence and the sheer volumes of conspirators, adversaries and agendas, this research is one that only a historian of intelligence could have pulled off so compellingly. Shaping the contours of this book is Riebling’s broad range of experiences as an editor for Random House, security expert and terrorist analysis. This is simply the finest work on the subject in print.

At the heart of Riebling’s sleuthing are three plots in which Pius XII served as an intermediary between German plotters and British diplomats with whom he held midnight meetings. The Vatican, he makes clear, was one of the world’s oldest spy services. He tells how Pius XII had Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio, secretly install a secret audio recording system. Such technical expertise notwithstanding, all three plots were unsuccessful or aborted. In late 1939 and 1940, German generals were supposed to assassinate Hitler, but both they and the British got cold feet. In 1943, two bottles of cognac filled with explosives failed to detonate on board Hitler’s airplane. In 1944, Stauffenberg’s bombs only wounded Hitler. Riebling describes the unraveling of these plots and their aftermath, a gruesome litany of interrogation, torture and execution.

In many ways, however, the star of the show is not the pontiff but a Bavarian lawyer and future co-founder of the CSU, Josef Müller. Pius himself features in less than half of the chapters; it is the world of the plotters, and most notably Müller, that takes center stage. From his home in Munich, Müller was one of the masterminds, a courier bringing reports of Nazi persecution of the churches to Robert Leiber, SJ and Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, an influential German Jesuit and the former Center Party leader residing in the Vatican. At the same time, Müller, though his base in the Abwehr, the military intelligence branch of the Wehrmacht, developed strong ties to well-known plotters like Wilhelm Canaris, Alfred Delp, SJ and Hans Oster, all of whom perished following the failure of the assassination plot of July 20, 1944. True to its genre as a historical thriller, this book closes with a final revelation, how Müller, languishing in concentration camps, was given a last-minute reprieve from the gallows.

Riebling makes it clear that this is largely a Catholic story, the Protestant theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer serving as the lone exception. The Catholic plotters quickly discovered that they could not persuade Lutherans in the highest ranks of the army and church to go against centuries-old traditions of obedience to state authority, those anchored in Romans 13 and Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. Riebling somewhat mistakenly attributes these same understandings to Calvinists, claiming that Calvin too deferred to state authority. In reality, Calvinists had historically proven to be far more inclined to resist unjust political authority under the maxim from Acts 5:29 that “we ought to obey God rather than man.” But even so, the resistance front was gradually become ecumenical, a part of cooperation that would infuse the founding of the interconfessional CDU in 1945.

What is missing from Riebling’s account is a discussion of how credible his sources are. What might the motives of the postwar storytellers have been in recounting their role in these conspiracies and their failures? Almost by definition, writing the history of such conspiracies runs up against two fundamental problems. For obvious reasons, clandestine plotters tend not to leave behind written records such as letters and diaries. They destroy them or better yet, never commit their plans to paper. Interrogation transcripts produced by their captors are typically unreliable, frequently the product of torture and deprivation. Even worse: ex-intelligence agents are often notoriously prone to exaggeration. Some seek to bolster their accomplishments post facto or settle scores with one-time rivals and adversaries. Nearly all are influenced by the political and ideological climate in which they recount their stories.

Josef Müller provides the perfect illustration of these problems. Riebling relies on his postwar memoirs published in 1975 and a series of interviews carried out by Harold Deutsch at points in the 1950s and 1960s. But how reliable this testimony compiled twenty to forty years after the events in question had taken place was remains open to question. Müller’s account has to be read through the lens of his own postwar political career, one punctuated by both triumph and defeat. After co-founding the CSU, Müller found himself under fire from the conservative integralist wing of the party led by Alois Hundhammer. His political opponents, in the grossest of ironies, denounced him as a former Nazi, forcing Müller to undergo a humiliating ordeal of denazification before a tribunal in late 1946. Müller was also forced to step down from his position as Bavarian Minister of Justice in 1952, having been accused of illegally receiving 20,000 DM from a Jewish rabbi, Philipp Auerbach. He also lost a race in 1960 to become the mayor of Munich. The extent to which these subsequent events colored his recollections is unclear. He was obviously driven by the need to exonerate Pope Pius XII from the allegations raised by Rolf Hochhuth, Saul Friedländer and others that the pontiff had refused to actively resist National Socialism. He was also influenced by prevailing currents that as late as the 1970s continued to see the men of the resistance movements as traitors. Most perplexing is that one of his handlers and co-conspirators until his arrest in early 1941, the Bavarian cathedral canon, Johnannes Neuhäusler, maintained a public silence about these plots until his death. To be sure, Riebling’s account, intended in so small measure for a popular audience, cannot delve into these puzzles in all of their complexity. Nonetheless, weaving the story of the ambiguous sources into the larger narrative would have lent the author’s larger conclusions even greater credibility.

For Riebling ultimately shows that under the guise of silence, Pope Pius XII was working to undermine National Socialism. The silence, for which he has been excoriated by many since the premiere of Hochhuth’s play in February, 1963, was in fact necessary for his covert activities. Riebling quotes what Müller told Harold Tittmann, an American diplomat to the Vatican, on June 3, 1945. “His anti-Nazi organization 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” (248). Müller added that “if the Pope had been specific, Germans would have accused him of yielding to the promptings of foreign powers and this would have made the German Catholics even more suspected than they were and would have greatly restricted their freedom of action in their work of resistance to the Nazis.”

Yet Riebling does not let Pius off the hook completely. “Judging Pius by what he did not say,” he writes, “one can only damn him.” (28). He had the duty to speak out – and on the whole did not. “During the world’s greatest moral crisis,” he notes, “its greatest moral leaders seemed at a loss for words” (28). Nor does he exonerate German Catholics. That it was the pontiff who would have to become involved in such plots speaks volumes about the fact that too few Catholics lower in the hierarchy chose a course of opposition.

Riebling’s masterful account will long remain the definitive account of the papal involvement in the conspiracies to topple Hitler. Yet it cannot remain the final work, the Vatican not yet having made fully available the papers from the wartime pontificate of Pius XII.