Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler
by mark riebling
basic, 375 pages, $29.99

During the Second World War, the Third Reich was opposed by local partisans and ad hoc military and civilian organizations. The Nazi authorities disseminated so-called anti-terrorism propaganda, referring to these small groups of brave individuals as “the army of crime.” Photos of them were displayed on large posters, their names cited as proof that Jews and foreigners were responsible. Among the eighty members of the Franco-Jewish resistance who were caught by the ­Gestapo, one was an Armenian poet, another a Catholic. Seventy-nine were executed in France. The eightieth, a woman, was beheaded in Berlin.

When I was sixteen, I joined the ranks of these anti-Nazi “terrorists.” I did not throw bombs at German military facilities. My activities were directed at sabotaging factories supplying the German army and at informing Jews and non-Jews about the crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators. I would have thrown bombs if called on to do so, seeing no moral basis on which to refuse such a directive. My actions were not a matter of individual choice but the result of collective decisions regarding priorities, the best use of comrades, and the most effective tactics.

My reasons were both clear and indisputable. Since France’s military defeat in June 1940 and the Nazi occupation, the conditions for Jews had gone from bad to worse. At first made to register with the local police, the Jewish population was then threatened with incarceration and, ultimately, deported. My father, a Jewish immigrant who had lived in France since the early 1920s, was arrested in May 1941 and sent to a transit camp outside Paris. In June 1942, he too was deported.

Nazi determination to “cleanse” France of Jews became clear in July 1942. Over three days, Jews—foreign or not, men, women, children of all ages, old people, sick or not—were arrested, detained in camps, and sent east. By 1942 Jews had been numbered and their identity and ration cards marked with a J. They were isolated in a ghetto without walls, compelled to observe a tight curfew, forced to wear a yellow star, forbidden to enter parks or any public place of entertainment, and restricted to shopping between 3 and 4 p.m. Was it any surprise that teenagers of my generation revolted?

The non-Jewish population began to recognize the ramifications of Nazi occupation. As the French police went door-to-door arresting all registered Jews, the archbishop of Paris, ­Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, wrote on behalf of his clergy to France’s head of state, Marèchal Philippe ­Pétain, to call for human rights to be respected. In the Vichy zone, Cardinal Pierre-Marie Gerlier and Archbishop Jules-Géraud Saliège, supported by a few bishops, made the same appeal. It was in this context that some young people, with their families torn apart and their civil rights curtailed, joined the ranks of the Jewish resistance.

Resistance took two parallel forms. The first was that of military struggle, including sabotaging the production of goods destined for the German armies. The second was a counterpropaganda campaign to inform the citizenry about what was taking place across France and Europe. The resistance called on Jews to hide and to send their children to those French people willing to protect them. Thousands opened their doors. Non-Jewish social workers helped the Jewish resistance find refuge for hunted Jews. This National Movement Against Racism, as we called it, spread its message among all ranks of society. Some intellectuals joined the campaign. The Christian churches also played a role, finding homes for more than nine hundred Jewish children in the Paris region alone. The total number of Jewish children saved by Christians in France has never been established.

Yes, 80,000 of the Jews in France were murdered, but 250,000 survived—despite the concerted effort of the Nazi war machine and despite the collaboration of the Vichy administration and its police force. The survival of so many would not have been possible were it not for Christians whose consciences were stirred to action.

In defending the Jews of occupied Europe, young people conducted an utterly unequal struggle. The most heroic of those battles was waged in the Warsaw Ghetto. Of the 400,000 Jews forced into the Warsaw Ghetto in 1940, only 50,000 remained when the Nazis decided in 1943 to complete its liquidation. At that point the Jewish resistance ­decided to engage the Nazi forces directly. The battle began in April 1943 and ended a month later. The end was foreordained, but those young Jews who died did so on their feet rather than in the gas chambers of Treblinka.

The Warsaw Ghetto uprising had its counterpart in the attempts of anti-Nazi forces in Germany. They failed, as we know, but not for want of trying, and not because of a lack of support from the Vatican. Like Jewish resistance fighters across Europe, anti-Nazi German officers paid with their lives, more than one thousand of them.

I

n Church of Spies, Mark Riebling provides readers with a comprehensively documented story of the Germans who worked to remove Hitler from power and return their country to its place in the civilized world. These brave individuals received moral and political support from many sources, not least from the pope himself. Pius XII was an active participant: transmitting information, encouraging resistance, even supporting plots for assassination. In this work he was assisted by such devout Catholic laymen as Joseph Müller and such priests as Ludwig Kaas, Robert Leiber, Alfred Delp, Augustin Rösch, and many, many more. While Müller sought to create an anti-Nazi coalition with former labor leaders, heroic priests worked to unite disparate groups into an effective opposition.

The pope first specifically referred to the plight of European Jewry in December 1942 and reiterated that concern again in June 1943. Given the Nazi dictatorship across Europe, however, nothing would be achieved until Hitler and his forces were removed. The papacy would regain its public voice only after the liberation of Rome in 1945. Meanwhile, the pope’s emissaries in Germany facilitated conspiracy against Hitler.

Pius knew of the cooperation provided by Slovakia’s Catholic president, Jozef Tiso, and Catholic prime minister, Alexander Mach, to the ­Nazis. The pontiff also knew what was happening in Romania and in Croatia. When a similar threat hung over Hungary’s 700,000 Jews, Pius appealed directly and publicly to the regent of Hungary, Miklós Horthy. He received an assurance that the Jews would not be deported from Hungary to the death camps of Poland. Less than a year later, after the overthrow of Horthy, the Jews of Hungary were duly deported to the death camp at Birkenau. Some 400,000 of them met their deaths in gas chambers or on the death marches.

It has been argued that Pius XII was under pressure to oppose Roosevelt’s supply of arms to the Soviets through the American lend-lease scheme for Canada and Great Britain. In fact, Pius overruled the objections of the American isolationists and those who objected that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. Of course, the Catholic Church knew the Soviet policy on religious freedom. Nevertheless, the nuncio to the United States, acting on papal instructions, ensured that the American clergy supported the Allied cause and recognized that the Soviet army was necessary to defeat the Nazi criminal state.

Pius XII’s anti-Nazi commitment was clearly demonstrated before war broke out. He secretly informed the British government of the Nazi plan to occupy Norway and Denmark. He warned Holland and Belgium that the Nazi army would not recognize their claim to ­neutrality. And before hostilities broke out between France, Britain, and Germany, Pius XII warned of Nazi military plans.

How the Vatican received this information has never been disclosed. Until proven otherwise, we should assume that the source was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence organization. Canaris, a Protestant, had no difficulties in working with the Catholic Church. An early opponent of ­Nazism, Canaris, with trusted assistants, remained in regular contact with the Vatican, through Joseph ­Müller, and reported the progress achieved in forming an anti-Nazi coalition willing to challenge Hitler’s rule.

The pope’s insistence on the importance of overturning Nazi control of Germany was a key to a resumption of peace and to the survival of Jews and all other persecuted minorities. Jesuits, Dominicans, and Benedictines also played a vital role, working ceaselessly to stop Hitler. Hundreds if not thousands of devout Christians paid with their lives for that cause and deserve our respect. So, too, does Mark Riebling, for bringing to light their extraordinary struggle.

Jacques Adler is the author of The Jews of Paris and the Final Solution and is a former senior research fellow in the history department at the University of Melbourne.