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Pius XII’s Secret War Against Hitler

The world has had to endure the false charge – ever since Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play The Deputy – that Pope Pius XII was “Hitler’s pope.” Informed people have suspected for decades that this was a deliberate distortion, but we now know beyond all doubt that such charges were not only wrong, they are the exact opposite of the truth.

When Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli became Pius XII in 1939, Nazi SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered Albert Hartl, a defrocked Catholic priest, to prepare a dossier on the new pope. Hartl documented how Pacelli had used the Concordat he had negotiated with Hitler’s new government in 1933 to the Church’s advantage, complaining formally to Hitler at least fifty-five times about violations.

Pacelli had also accused the Nazi state of plotting to exterminate the Church, and “summoned the whole world to fight against the Reich.” Worse yet, Pacelli preached racial equality, condemned “the superstition of race and blood,” and rejected anti- Semitism. Quoting a fellow SS officer, Hartl concluded, “at issue was not whether the new pope would fight Hitler, but how.”

Meanwhile, Pius was holding meetings with German cardinals discussing the Hitler problem. Transcripts reveal that Pius complained that: “The Nazis had thwarted Church teachings, banned its organizations, censored its press, shuttered its seminaries, seized its properties, fired its teachers and closed its schools.” He quoted a Nazi official who boasted that “After the defeat of Bolshevism and Judaism, the Catholic Church will be the only remaining enemy.”

Munich’s Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber charged that the troubles began after the 1937 encyclical With Burning Anxiety (Mit Brennender Sorge, published in German, not Latin). The text, partly written by Pacelli before he became pope, infuriated Hitler. The pope commented to Faulhaber, “The German question is the most important for me. I am reserving its handling to myself. . . .We cannot give up on principle. . . .When we have tried everything and still they absolutely want war, we will fight back. . . .If they refuse, then we must fight.”

Faulhaber recommended “backstairs intercession.” He proposed German bishops “find a way to send Your Holiness timely and exact intelligence.” Breslau’s Cardinal Adolf Bertram added, “We have to do it clandestinely. When St. Paul had himself lowered over the city wall at Damascus in a basket, he didn’t have permission from the police either.” The pope agreed.

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Thus was hatched a plan to construct an espionage network that would support, among other things, plots to assassinate Hitler.

In his riveting book Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, Mark Riebling uses newly released Vatican files and secret transcripts, vividly describing the cloak-and-dagger tactics Pius XII employed to help bring down the Nazi regime.

After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the pope reacted to reports of atrocities against Jews and Catholics. His encyclical, Darkness Over the Earth, rejected racism on the grounds that the human race is unified in God. And it denounced attacks on Judaism.

The pope received universal acclaim for this – a New York Times headline read “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violations, Racism” – but did not believe it was enough.

Convinced that the Nazi regime met the necessary conditions for tyrannicide spelt out in Church teaching, Pius allowed Jesuits and Dominicans, who reported directly to him, to assist in covert actions. His key operative – the Gestapo called him “the best agent of Vatican intelligence” – was Josef Muller, an attorney and World War I hero.

Muller organized a network of like-minded “army, college and law school friends with access to Nazi officials who worked in newspapers, banks and even [in] the SS itself.” They supplied the Vatican with vital information, including battle plans that were passed on to the Allies. In 1942, Muller managed to slip Dietrich Bonhoeffer into the Vatican in order to plan a strategy “aimed at bridging interfaith gaps, so that Christians could coordinate their fight against Hitler.”

Assassination attempts on Hitler failed due to what Muller called “luck of the devil.” But Riebling remarks of those efforts: “All roads truly led to Rome, to the desk with a simple crucifix overlooking the fountains on St. Peter’s Square.”

After the 1944 Valkyrie plot failed, the Gestapo arrested Muller. They discovered a note on papal stationery by the pope’s top aide (Father Leiber) that stated, “Pius guaranteed a just peace in return for the ‘elimination of Hitler.’”

Pius XII at his desk.
Pius XII at his desk.

Muller was shipped off to Buchenwald. On April 4, 1945, Muller, along with Bonhoeffer, was transferred to Flossenburg. After a mock trial, they were condemned to death.

Bonhoeffer was executed immediately. But fearful of approaching American troops, the SS transferred Muller and other prisoners, to Dachau, then Austria, and finally northern Italy. They were liberated by the U.S. 15th Army.

American intelligence officers took Muller to the Vatican. The overwhelmed pontiff embraced him and said he felt “as if his own son had returned from terrible danger.”

Riebling reveals that during Muller’s Vatican visit, U.S. diplomat Harold Tillman asked why Pius had not spoken out more during the war:

Muller said that during the war his anti-Nazi organization in Germany 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. . . .if the Pope had been specific, Germans would have accused him of yielding to the prompting 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. Dr. Muller said the policy of the Catholic resistance inside Germany was that the Pope should stand aside while the German hierarchy carried out the struggle against the Nazis inside Germany. Dr. Muller said the pope had followed this advice throughout the war.

Thanks to Riebling’s exhaustive research, we’re now able to put to rest forever the absurd claims about Pius XII. He wasn’t “Hitler’s pope;” he was Hitler’s nemesis.

You can buy Church of Spies from The Catholic Thing store at Amazon by clicking here.

  • RainingAgain

    “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” by Rabbi and historian David Dalin is also a very well-researched refutation of these calumnies.

    • Tarzan

      I also have read this book. It is excellent.

    • John

      Yes!

  • Dominic

    Now the waiting begins. I’m sure we’ll shortly hear the sound of a heartfelt retraction and apology from “distinguished” “scholar” in-residence at Suffolk University, darling of the Boston Glob, and noted Catholic Church-hating sophist. Let’s all start listening. Now.

  • grump

    Stalin once stopped the normally garrulous Churchill in his tracks with the following question: “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?” Superior military force wins wars, not papal bulls.

    • Mark Chance

      Superior military forces do not always win wars, and no one said a papal bull was a substitute for an army. That aside, check a modern atlas. You know what you don’t see? The U.S.S.R. or Nazi Germany.

    • ThirstforTruth

      That statement is often repeated, but in the end, it was not Churchill who was “stopped in his tracks”. Read below Mark Chance’s retort …bullseye!!!!

    • Romulus

      Churchill was not particularly religious, and certainly reflected the unthinking, institutional anti-Catholic bigotry of his class and culture. He had no real appreciation of the institutional Church as a spiritual force that can achieve results entirely outside the realm of arms. Stalin, channeling the devil in his challenge, knew his man.

    • Quo Vadis

      “How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”

      I believe St John Paul II answered that question very well. Just ask the leaders of Poland and the former USSR…

      • Tom Brennan

        I’ve thought that too: God answered Stalin’s challenge, in His own time: “More than you, buddy boy, more than you!”

  • It is a stretch to call Pius XII Hitler’s pope. But the extermination of Jews by the Third Reich is a blight on all of Christianity. It shows the cowardice of many “Christians” when they have to stand up for their faith. Everybody could have done more to help the Jews. Including Pius XII.

    • ThirstforTruth

      Explain how Pius XII could have “done more” ? As the above portrays, he did what he could to save both Jew and Catholic, without bringing down further wrath on the innocent, as happened in Holland when the Dutch Bishops spoke out plainly and forcefully.
      Remember, we are not of this world; this world belongs, in this time, ( and all time)
      to the Prince of Darkness. What seems apparent at the time is often simply not the truth. Witness the crucifix. The quintessential paradox! There is no real evidence
      for the hypothesis that Pius was ” Hitler’s pope”…only the purport of those who wish to denigrate this man as well as his church. The book of Riebling’s is well
      documented and it would be difficult for anyone to doubt Pius brave efforts to
      thwart the evil of Hitler’s diabolical reich !

    • Mark Chance

      There is a world of difference between “could have done more” and “did nothing” or “helped the Nazis”. Pretty much everyone in the world could always have done more.

    • Edith Wohldmann

      It would be valuable if people would understand that there was no TV, Germans were so poor that several families crowded around a radio and all available media was controlled by the Nazis. Jews kept disappearing, fled, migrated, sent into exile. 1936 the whole world supported Hitler because they wanted a strong central Europe against the Soviets. The first concentration camp in Dachau near Munich was filling up with Hitler’s opponents and critics, and 100s of priests who spoke against Hitler. Witnesses testified that priests were tortured the worst. Meanwhile, all men had been drafted and even 15 and 16 year olds boys. People can not grasp the horror and oppression inside the Third Reich and yet there were several assassination attempts that all failed and ended deadly for the heroic men and students. What the world should learn is the danger of letting a demagogue and fanatic grab political power.

    • Francis Miller

      Cowardice is a strong word. The Holocaust is a blight on Christianity because it came about in a ‘Christian’ country. I think it is good not to be so quick to judge. Each person must call on their conscience and act. There are no bystanders. Yet, it is still hard to judge someone when I am not threatened in the same way. Would I have been a good Nazi? Or willing to be sent to a concentration camp? Or my children with me? What could my conscience tolerate?

    • ThirstforTruth

      That ” everybody could have done more to help the Jews” is a pretty general
      and meaningless accusation. This is especially vacuous when it comes to Pope Pius XII….where you there? what do you know that the author here is not privileged
      in knowing? He actually presents solid evidence that Pius XII was deeply involved in helping the Jews in a necessarily clandestine manner. To say otherwise, is ignoring the facts. In most instances, the ill-founded accusation is done by those who wish to do harm to the institution of the Church.
      Everyone could be doing more to help the Christians suffering in the Middle East too but that does not mean that people are not helping them. The pity is that the work they ( the rescuers) are doing is not inspiring more help from powerful others who only satisfy their own lack of charity and aide by saying ” more should be done to help them”. Those who can do, do and those who cannot, simply satisfy their deficiency by complaining.

  • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

    George Marlin’s quote of German Cardinal Bertram’s advice “We have to do it clandestinely” has merit considering the 1942 Dutch Bishops protest for the persecution of Dutch Jews. Hitler responded with ferocity ordering the arrest and eventual death of all Jews including converts to Christianity and religious that resulted in the death at Auschwitz of Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross [Edith Stein]. Something should be said in support of the German Catholic Church. The Catholic Centre Party opposed Hitler and was outlawed 1933. The only other political party opposing Hitler was the Catholic Bavarian Peoples Party [when I arrived as a young soldier at Aschaffenburg the German band at the station played the rousing Bavarian Peoples March]. Many were murdered including the Provost of Berlin Cathedral. The Nazis feared Muenster’s Blessed August Cardinal von Galen who was their most outspoken critic because of possible revolt by Catholic military. In 1941 the German Hierarchy issued a letter to be read July 6 from the pulpit of all Catholic churches that “never under any circumstances, except in war and justified self-defense, is it permissible to kill an innocent human being” (Friedlander, Origins of Nazi Genocide). Unfortunately the Kasperites adapted the illustrious Cardinal’s name as the Galen Group.

    • Fr.Dr.Walter Volz, Rome/Italy

      If I may correct: The famous (or infamous,
      as one prefers) St. Gallen Group or St. Gallen “Mafia” that met in St. Gallen, Switzerland, has nothing to do with Blessed Clemens August Cardinal von Galen, also called the ‘Lion of Münster’ for his defiant stance against the Nazi
      tyranny.

      • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

        Okay Fr Volz I feel better knowing that Blessed Clemens August Cardinal von Galen’s name was not hijacked by them.

    • Fr. Peter Morello, Ph.D.

      I should add to my comment regarding the 1941 July 6 German Hierarchical letter that it was actually prompted by Pius XII. The Fulda Conference of German bishops had earlier 1940 sought compromise with Nazis on their euthanasia policy of killing handicapped by requesting permission for priests to administer sacraments to victims. “But these attempts at Catholic accommodation failed when the Vatican rejected the compromise” (Friedlander, Origins of Nazi Genocide).

  • Dave Fladlien

    I hate to speculate about things where I can’t truly defend my position, but this time I’ll make an exception. If we follow the activities of the Vatican’s very exceptional Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty all the way from his struggle against Herbert Kapler’s Gestapo group in Rome to the very controversial documents that got released by or leaked from the CIA a few years ago, it seems very possible that Pius XII was actually working with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the forerunner of the CIA.

    From the book the author cites, the Pope was definitely working with British Intelligence, so the idea that he was working with the OSS isn’t far-fetched. O’Flaherty may have been the conduit for that effort, which may have involved deceiving the Germans about the location of the invasion of Italy that everyone knew was coming, but didn’t know where. It worked: the Germans were badly out of position to defend that invasion, which they recovered from only because the invasion commander was so startled by the lack of opposition that, suspecting a trap, he understandably stopped to “dig in”, inadvertently letting the German’s regroup in the process.

    I’m not sure of any of this. But I think it is becoming clear that the Pope was heavily involved in defeating the Third Reich, and had to be careful not to betray these activities with boisterous clammering like that of a well-intentioned Bishop which, as Fr. Morello points out just below, had already resulted in a slaughter of Catholics of Jewish descent in The Netherlands.

    Pius XII was a hero, not a villain. He was heavily and cleverly involved in the war effort, despite Kapler’s Gestapo and Panzers literally right outside his door, and apparently aware of Hitler’s plot to kidnap him and create a puppet Papacy. It’s about time this courageous Pope got some credit.

  • veritasetgratia

    The facts about the Pope’s attempts to fight Hitler and protect Jews need to be loudly disseminated amongst Catholics. On a related issue, the Pope’s understanding and explanation of how Catholics and other Christians should respond to an overriding violent threat, also has relevance today regarding ISIS’ methods on European soil:
    “The German question is the most important for me. I am reserving its handling to myself. . . .We cannot give up on principle. . . .When we have tried everything and still they absolutely want war, we will fight back. . .If they refuse, then we must fight.” Catholics and Christians risk falling into a new passivism claiming that this is what Jesus means when He says “love your enemies”.

    • lwhite

      It isn’t merely passivism but a reliance on the atheistic, anti-human United Nations to bring about peace in the world that all of the Conciliar popes have specifically alluded to. Their speeches to the UN are posted on the Internet.

  • Anton Medak

    I just read an autobiography of a Croatian Jesuit who, not only joined the Red Army to fight the Nazis, but was instrumental in organising the underground Church in Russia and later in China. He witnessed mass rapes of German women and, himself, was tortured by the Communists. As a Young Catholic Worker chaplain, he certainly has reawakened in me a pride in my own Catholic Action past. These were orthodox and brave priests

    • John

      Anton Medak, care to share the name of the Jesuit (title of the book?).

      • Anton Medak

        Tomislav Poglajen God’s Underground wrirren as Fr George.What is pertinent is that one can be orthodox and yet involved in struggles against injustice

  • Remember Hitler was still collecting the Kirchensteuer for the church which was 100 million in 1943, Pius XII was very solicitous in getting that money.

  • DLink

    One thing that needs to be understood about the lies and calumnies against Pius XII is that they originated after the war and were coincident with his condemnation of communism and, by implication, coercive socialism. The left views lying as simply a necessary process of achieving what they view as a “workers paradise” on earth. For Biagio: Kindly cite the source for the pope’s solicitiousness about receiving Kirchensteuer and its use.