When Mark Riebling’s Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler appeared last year, it earned widespread acclaim. Well written and meticulously researched, Riebling’s book highlights a series of long-forgotten episodes from World War II: Pius XII’s daring efforts to kill Adolf Hitler and end his genocidal regime. Now, thanks to filmmaker Christopher Cassel, Riebling’s book has been turned into an equally gripping docudrama, Pope vs. Hitler. Propelled by a taut script, Cassel’s film recreates these events with powerful acting and scenery, interspersed with commentary from historical experts.
Pope vs. Hitler recently premiered in New York, and aired subsequently on the National Geographic Channel. It has since become available online. If the sustained ovation Cassel’s film received at its premiere is any indication, its impact is going to be large.
Pope vs. Hitler opens by asking whether Pius XII really was “Hitler’s Pope,” as John Cornwell notoriously alleged, or rather, as Riebling’s book maintains, Hitler’s implacable enemy. Cassel includes critics, and not just supporters, of Pius XII. But his film makes clear where the hard evidence lies.
Adolf Hitler and Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII) were both born into Catholic families, but only Pacelli embraced his faith with sincerity and commitment. “As Hitler and Pacelli come of age,” says the narrator, “their paths will diverge dramatically, along the courses of good and evil.” Pacelli entered the priesthood to serve Christ, while Hitler became an unhinged apostate. As events unfolded, bringing Pacelli and Hitler to power—one at the Vatican, the other in Germany—a showdown emerged, “between the Vicar of Christ and the anti-Christ.”
After attaining power in 1933, Hitler unleashed his fury, first against the Jewish community, then against anyone opposed to his maniacal regime. He loathed faithful Catholics, and campaigned against them in an undeclared war on the German Church. Pope Pius XI and Cardinal Pacelli, then Vatican Secretary of State, protested these crimes from Rome. Their protests culminated in the searing anti-Nazi encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge (1937), written in German and read from Catholic pulpits throughout Nazi Germany. But Hitler remained deaf to these appeals.
By 1939, Pius XI’s health seriously declined, and he died in February of that year, denouncing the Nazis to the end. He was succeeded by Cardinal Pacelli, his trusted advisor. As Pacelli became Pope Pius XII on March 12, 1939, Europe was “coming apart at the seams.” Hitler had already annexed Austria, would invade Czechoslovakia in three days, and was threatening to conquer Poland.
In August 1939, Hitler summoned his supreme military commanders to his private mountain in the Bavarian Alps and described how he planned to lay waste to Poland. His plan appalled the generals, men of Christian background. But, sadly, as the historian Nigel Jones comments, their military obedience overwhelmed their sense of decency, and most of them “went along with the orders.” Far more courage would be needed to challenge Hitler.
After the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, tens of thousands of Poles were rounded up for elimination, provoking Vatican Radio to condemn the atrocities: “Jews and Poles are being herded into separate ghettos, hermetically sealed. … It adds up to a fearful total and tremendous responsibility, one more grievous affront to the moral conscience of mankind, one more contemptuous insult to the law of nations, one more open thrust at the heart of the father of the Christian family [Pius XII], who grieves with his dear Poland and begs for peace with decency and justice.”
One of the few flaws in Cassel’s otherwise admirable docudrama is that it omits any mention of this early, and striking, Vatican condemnation of Nazi war crimes. Instead, a critic of Pius XII appears on screen, and asks rhetorically, “Can you imagine if the Pope had said, ‘This is a dark evil that we have to resist’?” But one doesn’t have to imagine it at all. It is precisely what Pius XII did.
As Riebling recounts in Church of Spies, on October 20, 1939, Pius issued an encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, known in English as Darkness over the Earth. The encyclical begins by denouncing anti-Semitic violence:
Who among the “Soldiers of Christ” does not feel himself incited to a more determined resistance, as he perceives Christ’s enemies wantonly break the tables of God’s Commandments to substitute other tables and other standards stripped of the ethical content of the Revelation on Sinai? … [One] must confront such wickedness by saying: “Non licet; it is not allowed!”
The encyclical denounced Nazi-style racism and totalitarianism, and was hailed throughout the world. “Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism,” declared the front page of the New York Times. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency added: “Although it has been expected that the Pope would attack ideologies … few observers had expected so outspoken a document.” The Allies were so pleased with it, they air-dropped tens of thousands of copies inside Germany.
Not long afterwards, in March of 1940, Pius XII had a confrontational meeting with German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, about which the New York Times reported: “It was also learned today … that the Pontiff, in the burning words he spoke to Herr von Ribbentrop about religious persecution, also came to the defense of the Jews in Germany and Poland.”
Ronald Rychlak and David Alvarez do point out, in the docudrama, that the Church tried “speaking out” against Nazi evils—indeed, the Third Reich branded Pius XII “a mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals”—but the result was invariably mass reprisals, against both Catholics and Jews. Hitler was no more influenced by denunciations of his regime than ISIS is influenced by condemnations of their heinous crimes.
As Pius XII confronted the evils of the Third Reich, a high-risk plot developed inside Germany. For years, numerous German officers, especially inside the Abwehr (the German military intelligence), had grown increasingly shocked by Hitler’s actions and the invasion of Poland, with all its horrors. The Abwehr’s two leaders, Admiral William Canaris, and his deputy, Hans Oster, hatched an elaborate plan to kill Hitler, punish his henchmen, form a new German government, and establish peace with the rest of Europe. But in order to prove their good will, they needed a figure of impeccable moral stature, trusted by both sides, who could vouch for their credibility. The German conspirators could find no better man than Pius XII, and they reached out to him, through Joseph Mueller, an anti-Nazi German Catholic lawyer who had been providing secret intelligence to the Vatican for years.
Here the documentary moves from being a good documentary to being an exceptional one, as all the major plots against Hitler’s life are described and acted out, in harrowing and gripping detail, including the three that Pius XII was deeply involved in. The heroism and sacrifices of the anti-Nazi resisters—many of whom lost their lives after they were discovered—are also movingly depicted.
Despite an effort by several commentators to question Pius XII’s character and conduct, the facts and evidence overwhelm such skepticism, and Pius XII emerges as a genuine hero. Even one critic acknowledges that Pius XII saved many Jews, and another calls him “great.” The only debate left is whether he was a saint, and those who have studied the matter closely believe that his beatification and canonization are not far away.
Whatever the future holds for Pius XII’s cause, Mr. Cassel’s documentary deserves credit for highlighting many essential facts about Pius XII’s wartime record, in a fair-minded and conscientious way, and thereby performing a true act of historical justice.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.
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