The Catholic Historical Review 89.3 (2003) 563-564
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Spies in the Vatican: Espionage & Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust. By David Alvarez. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas. 2002. Pp. ix, 341. $34.95.)
There are few studies in English, or any other language, of the surveillance operations and intelligence activities of the Powers at the Vatican. Alvarez's clearly written and concise volume fills that gap. Commencing with the Gallic espionage authorized by Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, it concludes with the covert operations of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany during the traumatic events of World War II. In all, it delves into the spying operation against ten pontificates from that of Pius VII (1800-1823) through that of Pius XII (1939-1958). Concomitantly, it explores the Vatican's countervailing efforts at espionage and information gathering, including its political-diplomatic efforts until the collapse of the temporal power in 1870, and its increasingly religious-inspired search for information thereafter. In the process, the author provides an informative and interesting survey of diplomatic events in the last century and a half.
The narrative is not only lively but authoritative, based upon a broad spectrum of archival records and diplomatic documents from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States, among others. Alvarez has also mined the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV) for the pontificates of the first eight popes examined, whose papers are presently open: Pius VII to Benedict XV (1914-1922), and has had access to some of the material from the still-closed papers of the pontificate of Pius XII. His close collaboration with Father Robert Graham, S.J., an authority on the diplomacy of the modern papacy in general and the wartime papacy in particular, proved invaluable in this regard. When the two co-authored Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage Against the Vatican, 1939-1945 (1997), Alvarez discovered that Graham, one of the four Jesuits allowed to examine and edit the wartime papers of Pius XII's pontificate—in this regard see the twelve-volume Actes et Documents du Saint Siège relatives à la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (1965-1981)—had privately gathered written records, memoirs, and oral reports on this period. Alvarez was allowed to peruse these documents he terms the Robert Graham Papers before they were sequestered by the Vatican, and has put them to good use in his study.
Alvarez, a professor of politics at Saint Mary's College in California and the author of a series of scholarly articles on papal diplomacy as well as co-author of Nothing Sacred, makes some important contributions in the present work. Among other things he demonstrates that the much-vaunted intelligence capability of the Vatican was more myth than reality. Noting that most governments endured a decline in their intelligence resources in the nineteenth century, he determines that "in the Papacy's case the decline was especially severe" following the loss of the Papal States (p. 58). He indicates that a resurgence of sorts of espionage techniques emerged during the pontificate of Pius X (1903-1914) under the tutelage of Umberto Benigni, who used spies, mail interception, and personal surveillance against liberal Catholics and others he suspected of being infected with the heresy of modernism. However, Benigni never built an organization [End Page 563] that could survive his personal campaign, and once he was discredited, his "notorious program of secret informants and anonymous denunciations discredited the very idea of an information service" (p. 84). Alvarez reports that the Vatican's efforts at espionage were often ill-equipped, understaffed, and under-funded, its operatives poorly trained, and its accomplishments generally inadequate. In his view the Holocaust provides a good "illustration of the Papacy's limited intelligence capabilities" (p. 285). Although he acknowledges that the Vatican knew of the genocide, he concludes that there is no evidence "that papal intelligence on the Final Solution was consistently superior in quantity, quality, or timeliness to the information available to other governments" (p. 290).
St. John's University, New York