An excellent article in Crisis Magazine about a new book examining the work Pope Pius XII—one of the greatest popes in Catholic history—was involved with to get rid of Hitler.
Much of what I presented in Principalities and Powers is more than amply corroborated by a new book by an authority on espionage, Mark Riebling, called Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. In compelling detail, Riebling looks not only at the strategies that various anti-Nazi officers and other co-conspirators pursued to kill Hitler, but the kind of government structures that would need to be imposed on shattered Germany if the conspiratorial plots succeeded. Pope Pius XII was a central figure in the planning of these scenarios, as were the Dominicans and Jesuits in his network, precisely because of their ability to act independently of the bishops, some of whom were suspect or timid. In his 1988 book, Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, Owen Chadwick cited testimony from the British representative to the Holy See, D’Arcy Osborne, who confirmed the Pope’s involvement in the June 20 plot, “Operation Valkyrie.”
Riebling’s book fleshes out more evidence showing how Pius XII worked secretly with his close confidant, Father Robert Leiber, SJ, who was in regular communication with Dr. Josef Müller, a German Catholic lawyer whose brazenness intimidated even Himmler. To collude with the pope, Müller took advantage of the cover given him by the Nazis to spy on Italians through Vatican officials. Leiber also conspired with a counter-spy, the chief of Abwehr, German military intelligence, Admiral William Canaris.
The pope, operating under the code name “The Chief,” actually pioneered wiretapping, by having rooms in the Apostolic Palace bugged with a prototype of a tape machine (a wire was used) engineered by Marconi. Here he received Nazi officials and other unsuspecting diplomats. One of the earliest espionage successes was the pope’s warning of the invasion of Belgium. While Britain and the United
States might have kept their distance from any involvement in any explicit assassination plot, Pope Pius was in correspondence with Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax before Churchill came on the scene, and Chamberlain indicated that Britain “would be willing to discuss any conditions asked for if convinced that business is meant.”
Hitler had an uncanny ability to survive assassination attempts: those who saw in him an incarnation of evil might call it a diabolic gift. Müller was another lucky survivor, even after the Nazis discovered some of his assassination plans in a letter with a Vatican letterhead. After the war, he was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. Meanwhile, the pope also conspired against Mussolini, whose arrest so infuriated Hitler that he threatened to kidnap the pope and possibly take him to Lichtenstein: “I’ll go right into the Vatican… For one thing, the entire diplomatic corps are in there… We’ll get that bunch of swine out of there… Later we can make apologies.” According to the SS commander in Germany, Karl Wolff, the plan was thwarted only by the Allied liberation of Italy.
Two issues emerge here. First, Riebling’s compelling new evidence should put to rest the propaganda charging that Pius XII was at best a weak reed and at worst a Nazi sympathizer, or “Hitler’s Pope,” as he was dubbed by the revisionist historian John Cornwell, who made this Soviet propaganda the basis for his best-selling attack on Pius XII. Cornwell and other polemicists might find it hard to surrender ideology to fact in this as in so many other instances, but Riebling, following other historians who have exposed the falsehoods of this propaganda, including David Dalin and Rudolph Morsey, mounts a fairly irrefutable case in defense of Pius XII.
Secondly, there is the ethical question of tyrannicide, since the pope wanted Hitler killed. It cannot be said that Hitler was tyrannus in titular, which means a usurper, since he was elected to office, albeit by questionable means and intimidation. In the light of Thomism, usurpation would justify execution by a legitimate authority (In II Sent. D. XLIV, Q.ii,a.2). However, even in such a case, the right of an individual to take on the role of assassin is controverted, even though it is possible to argue that there could be a moral mandate for an individual to act thus when there is no possibility of public action, provided that he is a belligerent opposing an aggressor.