Saturday, October 6, 2018

Church of Spies

Church of Spies: The Vatican's Secret War Against Hitler
© 2015 Mark Riebling
384 pages

The Catholic Church was one of Hitler's earliest enemies, barring its members from participating in the Nazi party and publicly condemning Hitler's early actions once he had been appointed -- not elected -- to  power.  But then, as the war between Hitler and the west began in earnest, the Church fell silent.   This silence was not cowardice, Mark Riebling argues here, but strategy.   With its people and churches already under attack by the Nazi government,  the pope elected during the early days of crisis (March 1939)  chose work more in silence, attempting to connect the German resistance to western governments, and aid them  with intelligence and shelter. A goal ever in mind was the overthrow of Hitler -- by assassination if necessary, as Catholic doctrine sanctioned the death of oppressive dictators provided plans were in place to  preserve order. 

Having previously learned about the role of the Catholic church in the German resistance, I wanted to read a more detailed history of it.  The book was certainly eye-opening in chronicling how early Pius XII wanted to move against Hitler,  working with members of the German army to attempt an early assassination.  The military contacts' interest never quickened into action, however, and after the war actually began, it was far harder both to find German officers willing to plunge their nation into a leadership crisis in wartime, and to find western audiences. After the fall of France and the beginning of the submarine and bombing siege of Britain, Churchill was especially cold toward representatives of a "decent Germany".

After this promising start the book quickly lost steam for me,  recounting various resistance groups ties to the church; we learn that the White Rose movement began by distributing Catholic sermons decrying Hitler, and that the people involved in the Heydrich assassination were given refuge in a church, hidden in the tombs by priests.  The mention of any Jews given shelter by the Church is barely mentioned here, but presumably is covered better by The Pope's Jews.  Of perhaps more interest is the  ideas Vatican authorities supported for a postwar Europe, one which would stymie destructive internal conflicts via a shared economic community, and politics based on subsidiarity, a key piece of the Catholic social doctrine.  Subsidiarity is still endorsed by the European Union in theory, but how well it is practiced is arguable.

Church of Spies is intriguing, but disappointing.

German Resistance to Hitler, Peter Hoffman
An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, Anton Gill
The Scarlet and the Black, a film in which Gregory Peck portrays the true story of a priest in Rome who  hid thousands of Jews and sheltered Allied prisoners.


  1. interesting.... i've never thought of the church as being socially active about anything except power and money, but i guess... assassination, hmmmm.....

  2. Well, the church used to BE society, at least until industrialization and such. Even after that it ran hospitals, schools, that sort of thing. At the end of the 19th century a pope released a letter called "Rerum Novarum", which was a critique of both industrial and capitalist excess as well as the socialist response. Other documents In my hometown, the Good Samaritan hospital for the poor was a Baptist-Catholic collaboration, with the baptists financing it and an order of nuns actually running it.

    Re: assassination...
    After Charlemagne had himself crowned Emperor of the Romans in 800, popes regarded themselves as a sanction-er of political power -- so if a king went errant, they might use the church to destabilized the king's rule. That was one of the reasons absolutist monarchies increased after the reformation: kings with nationalized churches were able to remove a previously formidable check on themselves. In the medieval period there was a balance of power between the king (the state), the aristocracy (landed interests), and the church. The conflicts between them created a lot of what we now consider basic essentials, like parliament.

    1. i guess i was looking more at the present day, the assassination part in particular... impressive, your command of history...

    2. Very interesting...I hadn't realized how the church-state relationship changed, but that makes sense.


Thank you for visiting! Because of some very clever spambots, I've had to start moderating comments more strictly, but they're approved throughout the day.