Rethinking "Hitler’s Pope"

A Q&A With Mark Riebling
September 28, 2015

Mark Riebling has been an architect of post-9/11 “intelligence-driven policing,” co-founding and serving as research director for the Center for Policing Terrorism. He received his degree in philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley and is the author of Wedge: The Secret War Between the FBI and CIA. His latest book is Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler.


Harris: Previously, you’ve written about problems of intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism. What inspired you to write about the papacy in the Second World War?

Riebling: Well, I was raised Catholic, and one of the things I learned before I left the faith was that nuns could nail me if I said something heterodox, because they had an awesome system of informants! So I didn’t find it implausible, or uninteresting, when I later heard from one retired spy that the Vatican ran the world’s oldest and perhaps best intelligence service. Or when another retired spy told me that the Church was so skilled in clandestine operations that the NSA couldn’t crack the pope’s codes. And I like the challenge of writing secret histories of powerful institutions—maybe because my academic training is in philosophy, and I’m interested in how our background theories come to bear when the data are severely limited but the stakes are high. I’d like to think I write about these things as exercises in mindfulness, not unlike what philosophers from Epictetus to Foucault have recommended—a self-check of my own intellectual hygiene. Less abstractly, I just thought that much of what had been written about the wartime Church was crap!

Harris: There’s a large literature implicating the Catholic Church generally, and Pope Pius XII specifically, in Nazi atrocities. You argue that this literature needs adjustment, because the wartime pope actually conspired, you say, to remove Hitler and the Nazis. On what evidence do you rest your case, and how did you uncover it?

Riebling: The evidence case came first from critics of the Nazi-era Church—Daniel Goldhagen, James Carroll, and even John Cornwell, the author of Hitler’s Pope. They all conceded that Pius XII hated Hitler and worked secretly to overthrow him. Yet they said this in their books in just a clause, a sentence, or a paragraph. To me, this episode merited more curiosity. If “Hitler’s pope” tried to kill Hitler, what’s the story, and what does it say about how the world’s leading moral institution met the worst moral crisis in history? The big break in answering these questions came when I obtained the verbatim transcripts of secret papal audiences—transcripts that exist only because Vatican Jesuits secretly bugged those meetings.

Harris: The pope made secret tapes, like Richard Nixon?

Riebling: Yes. The Vatican had an advanced audio-surveillance system—Pius had it hardwired by the inventor of the radio, Guglielmo Marconi. These surveillance transcripts falsify a premise shared by most critics of Pius. Critics paint him as a great centralizer, who imposed Rome’s will on reluctant bishops. The primary evidence shows the reverse: Pius was a decentralizer, who followed rather than led his flock. Critically, in two March 1939 transcripts, four German cardinals ask Pius to appease Hitler so that German Catholics won’t break away and form a state church, as happened in Tudor England. Pius heeds the German episcopate’s advice. Instead of protesting openly, he will resist Hitler behind the scenes. Judging that he couldn’t lead a Church of saints, Pius settled for a Church of spies.

Harris: How did the Vatican spy against Hitler?

Riebling: Well, the March 9th discussion becomes really granular in terms of papal spycraft. The Holy Father explains how to skim Catholic charitable contributions to fund a clandestine courier network. He directs his operatives to use a certain hostel near a Munich train station. A cardinal cites a New Testament passage to justify deceiving the SS. One of the operatives in this papal underground is a Jewish lesbian who has converted to Catholicism; she later dies in a concentration camp. Another Vatican agent is a Bavarian book publisher, who flies reports on Nazi atrocities over the Alps in a single-seat sports plane; he later goes to the gallows. Along the way, this clandestine network—the SS code-named it “the Black Chapel”—becomes pivotal in plots to overthrow the Nazis.

Harris: What was the pope’s role in those plots?

Riebling: Well, without giving too many spoilers, Pius XII participated in three plots to kill Hitler. In all three, Pius held midnight meetings in the papal apartments with British diplomats, trying to bring off a coup in Berlin. But the first plot fizzled when German generals lost their nerve. The second failed when a bomb on Hitler’s plane froze at high altitude. The third wounded Hitler with plastic explosives, but unraveled because the plotters failed to cut communications between top Nazis. In the second and third plots, German Jesuits, reporting to the pope’s advisors, acted as political organizers and couriers. But through it all, Pius XII was almost the lone constant among the plotters—as their secret foreign agent for nearly six years.

Harris: I’m getting the uncomfortable feeling that I’ve been too hard on the Vatican for its conduct during the war. But you argue that this doesn’t get it off the hook, morally speaking.

Riebling: I don’t think it absolves either the Church as an institution or Catholics as a group. Perhaps counterintuitively, I think the pope’s secret war against Hitler shows just how much the Church and Catholics have to atone for. Because there’s a profound question raised by the heroism of covert resistance, and it’s one you discuss in a note in The End of Faith. One can always make the argument that covert resistance in particularly dangerous situations is the best possible course. You mention those who secretly helped Jews, and you say that they probably did more good by living and helping others in secret than by openly protesting the Nazis and dying on principle. But that was their situation only because so few people were willing to offer open opposition in the first place. That’s exactly my view, and my book, although written as a spy story, can be seen as a sermon on that bitter, deeper truth.

That so few were willing to offer overt resistance is an indictment of European culture; and one of the shaping influences of this culture was a Christian anti-Judaism going all the way back to the first century. It’s too narrow to say this is just Catholic; it’s Christian, it’s partly in the Gospels’ saying that the Old Covenant was broken, and, if anything, it intensified under Luther. That the Holocaust was initiated by a mostly Protestant nation is sometimes forgotten; that the Catholic Church, by virtue of its stronger institutional identity, did much more than the Protestants did to resist Hitler was revealed to the White House in many secret reports to Roosevelt.

Harris: But Hitler and other leading members of the SS were at least nominal Catholics. Why didn’t Pius XII excommunicate them?

Riebling: He could have, and should have. But he didn’t, for reasons that you can understand only if you think like a pope who feels responsible for guiding a billion souls to eternal life. That’s a heavy burden, and if you take it on, you have to weigh every pronouncement according to whether it serves or thwarts that aim. The last time the pope excommunicated a secular bully—Napoleon—Europeans laughed it out of court, and Napoleon turned it into a badge of honor, rather like Donald Trump getting attacked by the media. Napoleon’s prestige rose, the papacy’s fell, and millions of Catholic souls were diverted into damnation, in the Vatican’s view, because they lost access to the sacraments. Likewise, when Pope Paul VI condemned birth control, and First World Catholics ignored it, the papacy again lost prestige, and Catholics fled the Church in droves—many millions were that much closer to Hell. I think Pius XII felt he was in an impossible situation where he had to save Catholic souls at the expense of Jewish—and even Catholic—lives. And the only way out of that no-win situation was to cut the Gordian knot by killing Hitler.

Harris: But shouldn’t Pius have spoken out against the Holocaust? What do you think would have happened if he had protested publicly?

Riebling: Well, of course—he should have cried it from the mountaintop. But Hitler’s would-be killers asked him not to, fearing it would cause a crackdown on resistance elements. In fact, the last day during the war on which Pius publicly said “Jew”—October 20, 1939—is also the first day we can document his complicity in plots against Hitler. And later, you find British and US diplomats begging Pius not to denounce the genocide of the Jews, fearing this would also expose Soviet atrocities against the Poles. But perhaps most important, it’s wrong to say that gentiles were waiting to jump forward to save the Jews, and only papal silence held them back. As Pius himself put it, most Germans “believed in” Hitler.

Harris: Is it fair, then, to say that your research is both a defense of the pope and an indictment of the Church?

Riebling: I wouldn’t contest that, but I might rephrase it. Wrapped in a reconsideration of this one particular pope, there’s a critique of Catholics more generally. At its core, this critique questions what the secular-liberal narrative often presumes. Many educated people say: Personal mysticism is cool, but organized religion is just terrible! It’s a very Rousseauean kind of thing. In a democracy, the authorized discourse states that the people are good: Authority structures are the problem, and the people are the solution. Congressmen are wicked; voters are good. Bishops are corrupt; the people are pure. There’s a clever phrase by Leo Strauss that applies to this whole ethos: He called it “liberal persecution of authoritarianism.” This rhetorical persecution may even be merited in most cases. But it misleads us when we look at Europeans’ response to Nazism. Personal mysticism was less effective against tyranny than organized religion was. The masses were not the solution to Hitler; they were the problem. By the end of this story, the pope comes out looking pretty good, and ordinary Catholics come out looking terrible.

Harris: What are the implications for the world today?

Riebling: I think there are two. First, conservative, even authoritarian, religious structures can prove extremely helpful against revolutionaries who want to impose a far more radical, utopian political religion. If Sunni Islam had a hierarchy, we would see many of its leaders resist ISIS more effectively. By comparison, you are seeing the Shia capable of counteraction, not just because they are anti-Sunni, but because they have a clerical hierarchy. The Sunni conservatives will at some point have to either fight the revolutionaries or obey them. It was similar in Cambodia under Pol Pot—finally the old-line communists in that part of the world couldn’t take it anymore. Likewise, who is now sending troops to prop up an authoritarian Assad to stop ISIS? The former KGB agent Vladimir Putin. Which should remind us that in the former Soviet Union, glasnost and perestroika did not come from “the Russian people.” They began within the most elite ranks of the Party—the KGB. I think the pope’s secret war against Hitler should be grouped with this family of phenomena—authoritarian resistance to totalitarianism.

The second implication relates to the importance of myth. I don’t mean to go all Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell here, but there’s a reason that the first books the Nazis banned were not nonfiction but novels. They wanted to destroy any possible counter-myths. The word “myth” comes from the Greek mythos, which just means “story.”  For 500 years we’ve seen, in the progress of science, the demythification of the world—or the disenchantment of the world, to use Max Weber’s phrase. The magic’s all gone, but the monsters remain. But myths, or stories, and structures built on them, can help fight those monsters. That’s a lesson I draw from the story of the Church and the Reich. SS documents record the Nazis’ frustration with their failure to replace Christian myths—a failure that ran deeper, for instance, than their inability to remake Ascension Day into the Feast of Thor’s Hammer. As one SS report noted, “In exactly those areas where political Catholicism holds sway, the peasants are so infected by the doctrines of Catholicism that they are deaf to any discussion of the racial problem.” So if you wanted to fight Nazism, there was something helpful in the Christian myth—as also in the communist myth. For half a century, the Marxist myth of the New Man was fairly successful in supplanting the old stories—but the magic’s gone out of that, too. So you have, unless you are mindful, a banalization of human experience. This banality is going to tempt some people to join ISIS for excitement, for re-enchantment, for remythification. If you join ISIS, you have a story! Your life is numinous—it’s as if you’re living in the Iliad instead of, say, just playing soccer in the dust in a Bauhaus housing project in Basra. Or you’re channeling the Teutonic Knights while you’re horsewhipping Jews in 1930s Nuremburg—I think the personal hunger is the same. As C.G. Jung said, you can chase out the devil, but he shows up somewhere else. Which is one reason why, when Jung was an agent for US intelligence in 1944, he urged propping up political Catholicism—in fact, through the Christian-socialist parties that came to dominate Cold War Europe, whose exiled leaders Pius sheltered in the Vatican. Jung was an atheist, but he preferred Christian socialism to the atheist communism he saw coming. He predicted that the freethinking atheist would fare better under the frowning brow of the Christian myth than under the trampling boot of the communist one.

Harris: That’s all extremely interesting. Do you have any final thoughts?

Riebling: There’s a related point here, on which I don’t think secular liberals today are as honest as George Orwell dared to be. On April 6, 1940—coincidentally, the same day the first papal plot against Hitler failed—Orwell published an essay containing an insight that could stand as an epitaph for the whole modern age. He recalled a cruel trick he once played on a wasp that was sucking jam on his plate. Orwell cut him in half. The wasp paid no mind, merely went on with his meal, while jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him. “It is the same with modern man,” Orwell wrote. “The thing that has been cut away is his soul.” We’ve sawed off the moral branch on which we sat—divine sanction for absolute ethics—and then we’ve fallen into a cesspool, and we’re surprised. In that mode we say (when we’re not under the “Pope Francis effect”): The pope is not the moral father figure of mankind; he’s a medieval mummy, his magic doesn’t work, and we don’t want it to work—on abortion, on gay marriage, on other things. But during the Shoah, we say: Hey, mummy, get out there and work your magic! We don’t believe in it; but an awful lot of plain folk do.

That’s hypocritical and condescending. Especially because the record of secular liberals during the Nazi era was hardly admirable on the whole. Few parts of German society put up less resistance to Nazism than progressives in the universities, who liked Hitler’s ideas on national health care, and protecting the environment, and separating church and state, and even claimed to ground racism in “evolutionary science.”

There’s a critical discourse on these failings of secular liberalism. But compared with the critical discourse on the pope and the Reich, you have to dig hard to find it. As someone who considers himself a secular liberal, and an atheist, I try to stay curious about whatever doesn’t fit my paradigm, and I think it’s good conceptual hygiene to revisit these failures—to learn from the mistakes of one’s own side and from the successes of conservative believers. You can’t worry so much about giving the other side “ammunition.” You have to be large enough, and empathic enough, and secure enough, to give credit. In the process—and I hope this happens with those who read my book—you might learn or unlearn something about the past that helps you live in the present more mindfully.

Riebling, an expert on secret intelligence, compellingly explores the papacy’s involvement in espionage during World War II…. This book has much to surprise, especially the many German officers, separately and together, involved in attempts on Hitler’s life…. Pius, vilified by critics who believed he ignored Germany’s atrocities, comes off as a politically savvy man who realized his interference would precipitate Hitler’s mortal overreaction against German Catholics. Not only a dramatic disclosure of the Vatican’s covert actions, but also an absorbing, polished story for all readers of World War II history.


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