Monday, May 23, 2016

Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling

Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler

Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler 

by Mark Riebling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When the pope arose the next morning, he had made up his mind. He would engage the German military resistance and encourage a conservative counterrevolution. He would serve as secret foreign agent for the resistance—presenting and guaranteeing its plans to the British. He would partner with the generals not just to stop the war, but to eliminate Nazism by removing Hitler.
Right after WWII, the Soviets began a misinformation campaign claiming Pope Pius XII supported the Nazi regime. Jewish praise and testimony squashed that early effort, but it has been popping up ever since, from various anti-Catholic sources. Many historians have defended the pope but somehow what grabs the headlines is always the sensational anti-Catholicism which keeps rearing its head.

Church of Spies ably defends Pope Pius with an action-packed story and over 100 pages of footnotes and sources from recently uncovered documents.  Let's say right up front that author Mark Riebling is not a Catholic, in fact is a fallen-away Catholic, so he's speaking from a purely historical standpoint which I appreciate. He's got no axe to grind other than reporting history properly.

We learn that Pope Pius provided an incomparable network for passing information from deep within the German government to Britain and America. Simultaneously, the information gatherers became conspirators who vowed to take action themselves. With the pope's approval.

As a reader, the best part is that this reads like a spy thriller, from the beginning where the pope has the Papal Library wired with the best surveillance technology of the time to the end where we see conspirators stage a daring prison break in the Alps. In between, there were Jesuits with guns, double agents, incriminating notes swallowed,  escapes across rooftops, notes passed through prison laundries, and much more. This is all intercut with Hitler's real time actions which lends context and immediacy to the story.

I also found it very uplifting. Whether Catholic or not (Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among their number), these men were willing to sacrifice themselves to save others and stop evil. Some of the examples in the personal stories have inspired me since I read them. Church of Spies is a story that resonates in our own time as well as providing us with heroes for WWII.
They had found many compromising documents in the army safe at Zossen. Müller might as well consider himself a dead man.

Müller said evenly that he could accept that. Death meant "just a passage from this life to the next," Sonderegger later quoted him as saying. Sonderegger asked Müller whether he prayed. Müller said he did. Did he pray for the SS, too? Sonderegger asked. Müller said yes, he prayed for his enemies most of all.

Sonderegger fell quiet for a moment. Then, saying he would return "in three minutes," he put a sheet of paper on the table. ...
This book should lay to rest any questions of Pius XXII being "Hitler's Pope." Hitler knew to fear the Church's opposition. Now the story has been thoroughly and thrillingly told. The record is finally set straight.

It would make an exhilarating mini-series! C'mon Amazon ... Netflix ... HBO ... even regular network TV!


  1. Mind-boggling isn't it. The details were amazing down to the gigantic wire recorder installed.

    Chances we will ever see this story on any medium - zero. Well other than tangentially like in Valkyrie.

    I had the audiobook version and it was exactly like a thriller.

    1. How was the narration? The Audible sample I listened to sounded rather lifeless. I have to admit I was thinking about rereading it by listening.