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  • Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling
  • Kevin P. Spicer
Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler, Mark Riebling, (New York: Basic Books, 2015), 375 pp., hardcover $29.99, paperback $17.00, electronic version available.

In Church of Spies Mark Riebling writes that “the Church’s essential role … was to save souls. But in practice, the spiritual purpose entailed a temporal one: the achievement of political conditions under which souls could be saved” (p. 25). According to Riebling, Pope Pius XII and churchmen close to him conspired to implement that task by collaborating with the German resistance on three occasions in attempts to assassinate Hitler and overturn the National Socialists. Riebling vividly recounts the detailed planning, painstaking implementation, and violent aftermath of each plot, interjecting the role of Vatican encouragement. Events featured well-known players: the 1939–1940 efforts of Abwehr chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and his deputy Hans Oster to mobilize a coup; Colonel Henning von Tresckow and Lieutenant-Colonel Heinz Brandt’s March 1943 effort to blow up a plane carrying Hitler; and Claus von Stauffenberg’s ill-fated July 20, 1944 bomb explosion at the Wolf’s Lair. Among the “conspirators” were Josef Müller, a devout Catholic and lawyer, whom Riebling describes as “a fixer, a guardian, and advocate—part Oskar Schindler, part Vito Corleone” (p. 37), who served as intermediary between the Germans and the Pope; Monsignor Ludwig Kaas, the former Center Party chairman who left Germany to excavate the apostle Peter’s tomb; Father Robert Leiber, a Jesuit from Bavaria who served as unofficial advisor to the Pope; and others. According to Riebling, during these plots Müller or a close confidant negotiated with the Holy See, supported by an ecumenical though primarily Catholic group of like-minded German churchmen, including Father Alfred Delp, a young Jesuit priest; Father Augustinus Rösch, Provincial of the Jesuits’ South German province; Father Odilo Braun, a Dominican priest; and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a gifted Lutheran theologian and pastor.

Riebling develops an argument explaining why Pius remained silent in the face of the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews—a fact that the author readily acknowledges. He asserts that the Pontiff suppressed his personal feelings of disgust over the Jews’ fate in response to a direct request from leaders of the German resistance. According to Riebling, the latter believed that any public outcry [End Page 558] from the Holy See would hinder their efforts. For him, the “Vatican did not work by words alone” (p. 28).

As a former editor at Random House, Riebling can tell a story. A writer on intelligence and counterterrorism, he negotiates the multilayered narrative of European wartime espionage through a plethora of accounts. Basic Books advertises its author’s “scores of sources unaccessed by earlier researchers, … especially from Germany’s Institute für Zeitgeschichte and from the Vatican’s own Secret Archives.” In point of fact, Riebling retells a familiar story, one laid out earlier by Harold Deutsch (The Conspiracy Against Hitler in the Twilight War [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1968]), Antonia Leugers (Gegen ein Mauer bischöflichen Schweigens: Der Ausschuß für Ordensangelegenheiten und seine Widerstandskonzeptions 1941 bis 1945 [Freiburg im Breisgau: J. Knecht, 1996]), and others, often retracing their archival footsteps to sources long available. Deutsch’s work itself drew heavily on postwar interviews. Indeed, among Deutsch’s papers one will find correspondence with several contemporary historians questioning the validity of various recollections. Of course, Riebling has had access to new sources, especially following the opening of the Vatican archives through Pius XI’s pontificate, and of formerly declassified government documents. Still, Riebling overstates his research, as when he acknowledges a curator at the Hoover Institution for unsealing the papers of Father Robert Leiber when, in fact, Leiber had his personal papers destroyed before his death in 1967: the Hoover Institution owns only the transcript of a postwar interview with Leiber, in its Juliusz Stroynowski Collection.

The primary problem lies in Riebling’s sometimes other than critical use of evidence. Many citations point to “LK,” Josef Müller’s fustian memoir, Biz zur letzten Konsequenz: Ein Leben f...


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