On July 20, 1944, Wehrmacht officer Claus von Stauffenberg, who lost a hand and an eye fighting in North Africa, entered the briefing room in the “Wolf’s Lair” in Rastenburg, East Prussia, shook hands with Adolf Hitler, sat down near him, and placed his bomb-laden briefcase under the conference table. Von Stauffenberg eased away, told General Keitel that he needed to make a phone call, and hurried out of the building. As he was being driven back to his plane, he heard the powerful explosion. He contacted his coconspirators in Berlin and told them that Hitler was dead. But he wasn’t. He was only slightly injured. Within hours, the Nazis had rounded up and executed von Stauffenberg and most of those involved in the Valkyrie assassination plot.
This story is well portrayed in the 2008 American-German film Valkyrie. By coincidence, the failed attempt to kill Hitler occurred on the eleventh anniversary of the completion of a concordat between the Vatican and Germany, the Nazi government’s first international treaty.
Mark Riebling, an authority on intelligence and counterterrorism, traces the assassination plot and the years-long resistance movement to the Hitler dictatorship in his 2015 book, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler (Basic Books, 384 pages, including one hundred pages of notes and sources). With access to previously unpublished or untranslated documents from German, Vatican, and other sources, Riebling traces the resistance to Hitler by Germans and by Pope Pius XII, previously Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, from the early 1930s to the end of the war. Riebling details Pius’s involvement with the plotters in Germany and their use of the Vatican to maintain contacts with the British and later the American governments. The author makes the case that Pius was one of the good guys, along with various German officers and Catholic Church officials who worked in intricate ways, unsuccessfully, to get rid of Hitler and make peace with the Western Allies.
The book is a real page-turner; it reads like a spy thriller. It’s easy to see why reviewers and Amazon commenters gave it five stars. But does the book tell the whole story, the complete story—the accurate story?
Before answering those questions, let’s frankly note that everything is complicated; nothing is simple. Most of the players in this drama are Catholics, and Catholics are astonishingly diverse, spanning the whole spectrum from Left to Right and every shade and color in between. More on that later.
What is troubling about Riebling’s book is not what is in it so much as what is not in it. It does not discuss the centuries of Vatican clericalism, authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, opposition to democracy and church-state separation, and the consequences of all that. It does not discuss the Catholic Center Party’s vote in Germany’s parliament in early 1933 to give Hitler plenary power, a move opposed only by the Social Democrats. It does not discuss Church aid to escaping war criminals at the end of the war.
As most of the actors in this drama are Catholics, let’s see what prominent Catholic authors have written on the matter.
British Catholic journalist John Cornwell’s well-researched 1999 book Hitler’s Pope (Viking), using his unprecedented access to Vatican and Jesuit archives, wrote that Pius
was dedicated to centralizing and strengthening papal power at the expense of internal church democracy (and) is seen as uninterested in the fate of non-Catholics or even non-German Catholics who stood in Hitler’s way. As a Vatican diplomat in Germany, Pacelli (later Pius XII) worked to stifle the independence of Catholics in Germany and then engineered Hitler’s first foreign policy triumph, the 1933 Reich Concordat… (Pius) and church officials in Germany never seriously interfered with the Nazi program of getting rid of Europe’s Jews, unlike may courageous individual Catholics including church officials in France and the Netherlands.
Cornwell’s book is fair, nuanced, and balanced.
Prolific American Catholic writer Garry Wills, in his 2000 book Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday), called out the Vatican for an Orwellian “selective manipulation of history” in Pius’s
never explain(ing) his silence on the Holocaust, since he claimed there was no silence to be accounted for, that he spoke up on the tragedy not once but on several occasions. On August 3, 1946, for instance, he noted that “We condemned on various occasions in the past the persecution that a fanatical anti-Semitism inflicted on the Hebrew people.” That is a deliberate falsehood. He never publicly mentioned the Holocaust. His silence on the subject was a matter of grave concern to many people,
such as British ambassador to the Vatican Francis Osborne.
Catholic historian José M. Sanchez wrote in his 2002 book, Pius XII and the Holocaust (Catholic University of America Press), that the historical record cuts both ways on the matter of the Holocaust. However, he does note that “Of all the criticisms of Pius during World War II, his behavior toward the events in Croatia are the most damning. There were no extenuating circumstances that could have led him to keep silent, for he was dealing with a government that proclaimed itself Catholic, and there was no fear of retribution that might result from a papal protest.” Sanchez, incidentally, is the author of the important 1987 book, The Spanish Civil War As a Religious Tragedy (University of Notre Dame Press), which I strongly recommend.
Then there is Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s comprehensive twenty-four-page article, “What Would Jesus Have Done: Pope Pius XII, the Catholic Church, and the Holocaust,” in the January 21, 2002, issue of The New Republic. Goldhagen reviews ten key books on this issue.
Incidentally, author Riebling is listed as a “contributing scholar and historian” in Gary L. Krupp’s 332-page book, Pope Pius XII and World War II: The Documented Truth (Xlibris, 2012), a product of the Pave the Way Foundation, which Krupp heads. The book may be said to “whitewash” Pius XII. Catholic theologian John T. Pawlikowski, a priest who is a founding board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has said that “We know that Pius did some things that were good, but they tended to come rather late, they were mostly behind the scenes and were relatively minor gestures,” and that the Vatican was “discrediting itself by associating with this kind of questionable scholarship.” Deborah Dwork, professor of Holocaust History and director of the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, said that Krupp’s research was “amateurish, worse than amateurish—risible.” Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg, then-director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, called Krupp’s work “a campaign of misinformation.”
The past is past, but we can and should study it, and we can and should learn from it. Today is 2016, and we have whole sets of serious problems before us. To mention just a few that I have touched on in these columns: the ongoing war on women’s universal access to contraception and safe, legal abortion; the drives to undermine public education and to divert public funds to divisive sectarian private schools through vouchers and tax credits; and the failure to get serious about anthropogenic climate change and its concomitants, fueled by human overpopulation. In all three of these areas, the top echelons of the Catholic Church, joined by conservative leaders of an assortment of other religions, are on the wrong side.
But back to the point I noted earlier: Catholics (and people of other traditions) are all over the map. On the issues just mentioned, most Catholics are not in sync with the Vatican and Church leaders. Most Catholics ignore what their church’s top leaders say about contraception and abortion, about tax dollars for church-run private schools (note that enrollment in Catholic K–12 schools in the United States has declined from 5.5 million fifty years ago to about two million today and for reasons having nothing to do with finances), and about the population problem. Catholic politicians range in their views on church-state separation from where John F. Kennedy was in 1960 to where Rick Santorum is today—from the liberalism of Democrats in Congress to the conservatism of people such as Gingrich and Jeb Bush and Rubio. Catholics on the Supreme Court have ranged from liberal William Brennan (the key justice behind Roe v. Wade) and Sonia Sotomayor through moderate Anthony Kennedy (the swing vote in the great June 2016 win for reproductive choice in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt), to the likes of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Organizations range from Catholics for Choice to Bill Donohue’s Catholic League. Thinkers range from Dan Maguire and Hans Küng to a bevy on the Far Right.
Our social, political, economic, and environmental problems today are so serious that progressive-tending men and women of all sectors of the life- stance/religious spectrum must work together to make this a better, livable world.
Author’s Note: Shortly after I submitted this column, the July 29 New York Times printed an op-ed by Gerald Posner, author of the important 2015 book God’s Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican. Titled “The Vatican’s Holocaust Secrets,” the op-ed called on Pope Francis to “order the release of the Vatican’s sealed Holocaust-era archives.”