On June 1, 1945, Pope Pius XII met for three hours in private audience with his co-conspirator, the German lawyer Josef Müller.  “I had hardly crossed the threshold into his study when the Holy Father approached me, and embraced me,” Müller later wrote.  “The Pope said,” writes the author of this remarkable tale of spiritual combat, “he felt as if his own son had returned from terrible danger.”  Joey Ox (so named by friends because he had worked his way from peasant upbringings through law school pulling an ox cart) and Pius XII had been collaborating since 1939 on a great mission to, among other things, assassinate Adolf Hitler and bring about a coup that would restore a “Decent Germany.”  “We had to wage war against the powers of evil,” the Holy Father said to Müller.  “We contended with diabolical forces.”

Josef Müller risked his life, avoiding execution by the Nazis several times by the skin of his teeth.  Pius XII “put the largest church in the world at risk.”  They and many others, says Mark Riebling, conducted what “would not be the Church’s covert campaign against the Reich, but the pope’s secret war against Hitler.”  Joey Ox and Fr. Robert Leiber, the Pope’s minister without portfolio, both called the Holy Father “Chief,” a code name of endearment they thought showed Pius’s trust in them, as they gave themselves utterly to his support and the supervision of their plots.  Joey Ox was a colorful man, “part Oskar Schindler, part Vito Corleone.”  He intimidated Himmler, plotted murders, saved Jews, endured torture, married his true love; according to the Pope, he “worked wonders.”  A simple Catholic who preferred the prayers of his boyhood to works of theology, he was dismissed by no less than Conrad Adenauer as an “adventurer”; according to a Bavarian obituary this “colorful, jovial, cunning, convivial and hard-drinking democrat was a good man.”  Father Leiber was a German Jesuit who worked in the Vatican, a severe asthmatic, and “had the air of a melancholy elf.”  He had no title, which “made him ideal for secret work.”  He was a papal historian, “a sort of scientific secretary,” “an agent for German questions,” “a little bit strange.”  It was said of him in the Vatican, Timeo non Petrum sed secretarium eius—“I do not fear Peter, but his secretary scares me.”

There were four realistic plots to kill Hitler, and Pope Pius XII was directly involved in three of them, going so far as to insist that he would announce the news to the West, serve as the liaison with the British, and broker the establishment of a “Decent Germany” based on Christian political principles.  On this level Riebling’s story is exciting, filled with heroes and villains and adventures, documented with archival evidence and the dots of not obviously related events connected by an author who loves spy tales.  The “Christmas Plot,” the “Jesuit Orders Committee,” “Black chapel,” “crypt talks,” “Zossen Papers,” “X-Report,” “White Rose,” “Ratline,” “Kreisau Conference,” “Z Grau” folder—all sound like the stuff of fiction, and all directly involved the “Chief.”  That Riebling found some of his key material in transcripts provided by the Chief’s audio-surveillance system (set up by Marconi himself) makes the book a modern spy tale.  At the same time that other world leaders—Churchill, FDR, Stalin, Hitler—were learning how useful modern technology could be, this political pope, a lover of science, kept the world’s oldest major institution right in step with technological progress.

[Click here to purchase Church of Spies: The Popes War Against Hitler, by Mark Riebling]

Although its primary purpose is not to join the moral and historiographical debate over Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope,” Church of Spies closes the book on that controversy.  It never was, despite the claims of the playwright Hochhuth (The Deputy, 1963) and the historian Cornwell (Hitler’s Pope, 1999), one of the great moral controversies of our time.  Even the Pope’s severest critics admitted that he hated the Nazis, despised Hitler, and had not one racialist bone in his body.  The main charge against him was that he failed sufficiently to condemn the holocaust.  Riebling goes this far (“he should have cried it from the mountaintop”), but points out that we now know that the last day the Pope publicly said “Jew” (October 20, 1939) was also the “first day we can document his complicity in plots against Hitler.”  (These last two quotations are from Riebling’s interview with the intrepid atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris; in the same interview Riebling identifies himself as a “secular liberal, and an atheist,” although he was raised Catholic.)  In other words, within two months after the outbreak of war in Poland, Pius XII was taking action on matters that most other world leaders would not even whisper about.  Furthermore, Pius’s silence, as Riebling notes, was at the behest of FDR, Churchill, Stalin, and his own bishops in Germany, all of whom understood (although having differing motives) that excommunicating the nominally Catholic Hitler or crying about Jews from the mountaintop would probably have injured the cause of both Jews and the Catholic Church, and thus the war itself.

Fr. George Rutler, in his own little gem of a book on Catholics in the war (Principalities and Powers, 2013), sums up the Pope’s various policies by saying that he “marshaled prudence to save lives when impetuousness could have cost more.”  Riebling admits that, “By the end of this story, the pope comes out looking pretty good, [but] ordinary Catholics come out looking terrible.”  He refers here to the tendency of “ordinary Catholics,” worldwide but particularly in Germany, France, and Spain, to lean toward fascism as a bulwark against the greater evil of communism.  The German hierarchy, indeed, was afraid that a strident papacy could cause the nationalization of the German church.  Riebling may have shed light on this larger problem by including a short treatment of the “Two War” theory.  Largely dismissed by the victors of the war, but a potent argument among Catholics and conservatives in the late 30’s and 40’s, the theory held that the great strategic as well as moral conflict of the age was against not only the fascists in Italy and Germany, but also the communists in the Soviet Union.  This was one way to explain the Civil War in Spain, and after June 1941 a way to look at the German two-front war in Europe.  The great historian John Lukacs calls it at best a “half-truth,” but notes that “half-truths can be more dangerous, and enduring, than lies.”  The Pope had to take it into account.

On a third level, Church of Spies is a fascinating study of how the Vatican has worked—in this case mostly for good—in crisis and in secret.  Riebling believes retired spies who have told him that the Vatican runs the world’s oldest, and one of the best, intelligence services.  It was clearly better than German or American intelligence when the stakes were very high in World War II, perhaps because the Pope was not burdened with having to fight a war as well as to manipulate one, and perhaps also because Pius XII, unlike other world leaders, had a clear understanding of the nature of evil.  As Father Rutler points out, quoting Christopher Dawson, “evil too is a progressive force and . . . the modern world provides unlimited prospects for its development.”  In a broader sense, as Father Rutler shows, by

teaching the supernatural and incarnation realities of the Church, Pope Pius XII rejected materialist reductions of the Church to merely a humanitarian and social organization.  Equally, the Pope rejected a falsely pious impression of the Church as nothing more than an association of individuals engaged in a personal experience of God with no social consequences.

Pius was never tempted to give fascists of any kind a pass on national healthcare, protecting the environment, birth control and eugenics, separating Church and state, and other progressive causes, nor did he (Father Rutler again) allow a “systematic moral calculus rooted in natural law” to devolve into the “vagaries of sentiment” that inevitably produce secular liberal antinomianism.

[Click here to purchase Church of Spies: The Popes War Against Hitler, by Mark Riebling]

This meant, among other things, that the Pope could act as a “decentralizer, who followed rather than led his flock.”  He gave the German and French churches their compromises, and at the same time creatively used orders like the Jesuits and Dominicans, who could bypass the bishops and report directly to Rome.  He stayed behind the scenes not only in his plots to kill Hitler, but in marshaling the resources of an authoritarian, conservative Church against revolutionaries who wanted to impose a “far more radical, utopian religion.”  “Judging that he couldn’t lead a Church of saints,” concludes Riebling, “Pius settled for a Church of spies.”

So, we have here an honest secular liberal author who wants to practice “good conceptual hygiene” and learn from the “mistakes of one’s own side and from the successes of conservative believers.”  An honest man—much like two other of my favorite liberals, Theodore White of In Search of History and George Packer of Blood of the Liberals.  That all three were—are—liberally educated journalists says something about who is writing good history today.


[Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitlerby Mark Riebling (New York: Basic Books) 375 pp., $29.99]

[Click here to purchase Church of Spies: The Popes War Against Hitler, by Mark Riebling]