A Pontificate Of War

Riebling Church of Spies


The Nazi Reich feared and hated the Catholic Church and its chief pastor, Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII. The Reich had a special unit of ex-priests which worked to undermine the Church and do intelligence analysis. One of this unit, Albert Hartl, was in charge of the dossier on the new Pope Pius. They wanted to know what sort of man he was in the case of full scale war between the Reich and the Church.

Hartl summed up Pius in these terms.

Pacelli would not act rashly. His public statements against Nazism reflected Pius the Eleventh’s stormy style more than Pacelli’s. The new pope was not a ranting mystic but a careful watcher, a shrewd perceiver of things that coarser natures missed. “What he does, he hides within. What he feels, he does not show. The expression in his eyes does not change.” Pacelli measured each word and controlled each move. That could make him seem superficial, pedantic, or fussy. Only rarely, with Americans or children, did his eyes glow and his voice rise.

In  Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling.

This book is fascinating, utterly engrossing.  It deals with the deep espionage during the War, within and without the Church.

There is a riveting section about how listening and recording equipment was installed in the Apostolic Palace…

Most likely on the night of 5– 6 March, Vatican Radio technicians set to work. To avoid staining the anteroom floor, and to collate their gear for quick exit, they unrolled a rubber mat. On it they set their tools: drills and bits, pipe-pushers, collapsible ladders. Because power tools would draw attention, the team used hand-turned drills. They worked in shifts, each man cranking hard, then resting while another spelled him. At the highest turn rates, however, even hand drills made a telltale din. The techs decided that greasing their bits would reduce the noise. A Jesuit reportedly went to fetch some olive oil, perhaps from the papal apartments. The team then wet its drill heads, and the work progressed quietly. But as the bits warmed, so did the coating oil. Soon the site smelled like fried food. To evacuate the odor, the team had to pause and open a door onto the Cortile del Pappagallo, the Courtyard of the Parrot.  Finally, after some tense and tiring hours, they broke through to the library side. Using a small bit, the techs made a pinhole— creating a passage for audio pickup and a wire. Book spines on the library wall presented natural concealment cavities. It remains unclear whether the techs hid a microphone in a hollowed-out book, which Father Leiber possessed, or whether they enlarged their side of the wall to fit the device. In any case, they apparently used a teat-shaped condenser microphone. They plugged it into a portable pre-amplifier that looked like a brown leather briefcase.
From the pre-amp they ran wires to the recording post. A stable link of coaxial cables passed through a tunnel, beneath an oak grove in the Vatican Gardens, and into a ninth-century dragon-toothed tower. There, amid frescoes of shipwrecks with Jesus calming the storm, Jesuits operated the largest audio recorder ever built. Bigger than two refrigerators stacked on their sides, the Marconi-Stille machine registered sound on ribboned razor wire, which could break free and behead the operators. They worked it only by remote control from a separate room. A half-hour recording used 1.8 miles of spooled steel. On the morning of 6 March, the available evidence suggests, an operator flicked a wall switch. A white lamp on the machine lit up. The operator waited a full minute to warm the cathodes, then moved the control handle to the “record” position.

There is a great page in which Pacelli’s coronation is paralleled with Hitler’s state ceremony in Berlin, on the same day that he signed the order to occupy Czechoslovakia.

The stakes were high indeed.

Perhaps no pope in nearly a millennium had taken power amid such general fear. The scene paralleled that in 1073, when Charlemagne’s old empire imploded, and Europe needed only a spark to burn. “Even the election of the pope stood in the shadow of the Swastika,” Nazi labor leader Robert Ley boasted. “I am sure they spoke of nothing else than how to find a candidate for the chair of St. Peter who was more or less up to dealing with Adolf Hitler.”

The Papacy is a horrible burden, but some times are more burdensome than others.  A Pope will suffer the consequences of office, if he takes the office somewhat less cavalierly than Leo X, Medici.

At first Pius carried on normally, papally. He shuffled to his private chapel and bent in prayer. Then, after a cold shower and an electric shave, he celebrated Mass, attended by Bavarian nuns. But at breakfast, Sister Pascalina recalled, he probed his rolls and coffee warily, “as if opening a stack of bills in the mail.” He ate little for the next six years. By war’s end, although he stood six feet tall, he would weigh only 125 pounds. His nerves frayed from moral and political burdens, he would remind Pascalina of a “famished robin or an overdriven horse.” With the sigh of a great sadness, his undersecretary of state, Domenico Tardini, reflected: “This man, who was peace-loving by temperament, education, and conviction, was to have what might be called a pontificate of war.”

Friends, we may be living in more dangerous days than those of the 30’s.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. TomG says:

    Pray for us, Papa Pacelli!

  2. excalibur says:

    More dangerous days


    And a far weaker Church, with self-inflicted wounds. And at its head today?

    Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.

  3. Erik Bootsma says:

    My wife got me this book for Christmas. It’s really great. Great to see a very serious history of this Pope who the left has so mercilessly impugned with their calumnies.

  4. david-oneill3 says:

    Do you think that the possibility of admitting divorced & remarried people to Holy Communion might fracture the Church?

  5. Eugene says:

    After viewing the Jesuit created Vatican video of the Pope’s intention for religious dialogue, I know we are definitely in worst times with heresy coming from the top.
    Maranatha Lord Jesus

  6. Sword40 says:

    Pray and hold fast to tradition.

  7. JARay says:

    I was priveleged in 1950 to actually go to Rome for the Holy Year. I went with about 2,000 Catholic Boy Scouts from the UK and this was our first experience ever of leaving the shores of the UK and to travel right through, what had been, war ravaged Europe.
    We saw Pope Pius XII and he spoke to some of our party. I thought that I was looking at a living saint and I still believe that to be true.

  8. pannw says:

    I got this book for my husband as a Christmas present. I admit that I want to read it, but my real hope is that since he is not Catholic, but a great lover of history, especially WWII, something will help spark a flicker of interest. Pray for him, please.

  9. majuscule says:

    Pope Pius XII was my first pope. His distinctive profile is indelibly engraved in my mind.

    A web article a few years ago presented a photo of “Pope Pius XII” glad handing some Nazis–maybe even Hitler, I don’t remember. The profile in the photo did not match up with the unmistakable profile of Eugenio Pacelli.

    I hope this well researched book can put to rest the lies spread by that stupid fictional play, The Deputy.

  10. dowirz says:

    Like a few others, my dad got this for me for Christmas. I have been engrossed by the story, and am further convinced of the heroic virtue of Pius XII during the Second World War. God gave Britain Churchill to save Britain, and God gave his Church Pius XII to save the world’s soul.

  11. Semper Gumby says:

    Yep Fr. Z, I’ll have to get a copy.

    There is a great book on Pius XII by Rabbi David Dalin that shreds the anti-Pius XII propaganda of the Communists and other malcontents. In a background chapter titled “Popes in Defense of the Jews” Rabbi Dalin begins with Gregory I and continues through to Pius XI.

    And we do appear to be in times equal to or worse than the 1930s. Rounding up the usual suspects: several regimes are today also empire-building; there are serious economic, trade, and fiscal problems; and most governments in the West today practice socialism and appeasement.

    That said, the West is also inflicted now with governments and courts that: decree a disordered view of human nature; corrupt the good order and discipline of the military; add anti-Christianity to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s.

    Today secular “progressives”, who are actually polytheists, have greater control of government, education, and entertainment. They are devotees of Moloch, Gaia, and Pan without togas and pan pipes. St. Augustine’s observation in his “City of God” applies today: “…when Rome was perishing through its moral depravity, the Roman gods took no action to direct or correct morals to prevent that ruin. In fact they assisted the process of depravation and corruption, to ensure that ruin.”

    Paganism and the culture of death may have advanced since the 1930s, “but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:14)

  12. taffymycat says:

    people, please….request this book be purchased by your library! i have fought an ongoing battle with libraries over choice of materials esp. as touching on Catholicism. tons of chickensoup for the soul but nowhere anything to do with bedrock philosophy like aquinas…and a wholly unworthy book like Zealot (https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/9/2/5-falsehoods-in-reza-aslans-zealot-the-life-and-times-of-jesus-of-nazareth/) a supposed portrait of jesus written not by a christian but a muslim is found everywhere – after repeated requests our library did stock Fulton Sheens book on Jesus as well as other works on our lord by benedict xvi….libraries belong to you, you support them and so unwittingly support the smears against western civilization and in particular christianity, that go on every day a library purchases something from the NYT bestseller list, like the vile and hateful book called Hitler’s Pope by a complete scalliwag of a writer,….even socialist journalist Evan Nash of Newsweek gave that stinker a thumbs down. everyone knows the author ignored evidence that didnt fit his agenda—-but my library refused my request at the time, a refutation of the lies found in cornwell’s book, a book by a rabbi which defends pacelli–their excuse? it was over 2 yrs old. as if that matters—-st augustines writings are around 1500 yrs old and older….anyway, since this is current, now is the time to hit your library boards with requests for this book. we need to help undo the damage caused to the church and this pope by propagandists who have been busy chiseling away at our foundations. BTW, the author of Zealot was engaged in a twitter war with robert spencer that included obscenities…http://www.theblaze.com/stories/2013/08/01/st-for-brains-muslim-zealot-author-reza-aslan-has-a-history-of-nasty-profanity-laced-online-behavior-and-theres-a-glenn-beck-twist/. the author is also a writing instructor at UCSB; i doubt full time and he is not a scholar, that much came out in tv interviews at the time of the books release.

  13. DeGaulle says:

    Some time back, I read a book “The Myth of Hitler’s Pope” by Rabbi David G Dalin. I found it to be a very respectful, honest and extremely well-researched retort of John Cornwell’s tissue of lies by a fine Jewish historian.

  14. taffymycat says:

    degaulle–that is the book i had requested for my library but they refused, even if i would pay for it. i made my case with reviews and internet evidence of research into both books but it was for naught. i did succeed in getting them to buy a padre pio book..they put it on their online request and i paid for it.

  15. SKAY says:

    “Friends, we may be living in more dangerous days than those of the 30’s.”

    Yes I agree Father and the reasons are multiplying by the day.

    I will be reading this book.

  16. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    This is an excellent book. A very good companion is Ronald Rychlak’s >Hitler, the War, and the Pope.

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    pannw: prayers for success. I’ve tried the Cold War route with some success. John O’Sullivan’s “The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister” intrigued a conservative Protestant. For a conservative fundamentalist that title is too alarming. So he was given a copy of Paul Kengor’s “The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand.” An interesting bio in its own right, the Catholic Clark was Reagan’s horse-riding friend, National Security Advisor and then Secretary of the Interior. A few months later the fundamentalist remarked: “that Clark guy was alright.” The first step here was just dissolving some anti-Catholicism.

    taffymycat: Yep, libraries can be a bother. Kevin Olin’s “Why Do Catholics Do That?” was successfully gifted to a branch library. I think the snappy title helped. For a new book donation George Weigel just released a new edition of “Letters to a Young Catholic.” Not much about the TLM here, but no Fishwrap fodder. These two books get the curious reader comfortable with the Mass, the saints and the Rosary, much more, and the traditional “Catholic thing.”

  18. pannw says:

    Semper Gumby, thank you for the prayers, and for added reading recommendations. I really appreciate it.

  19. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    I once read that the Vatican Radio technicians may have accidentially recorded Pope Pius XII’s March 1940 audience with the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Five separate primary source accounts of the meeting exist, including Msgr. Domenico Tardini’s notes made right after the audience, which concerned the war, Vatican relations with Germany, conditions in Poland, and the Nazi persecution of the Catholic Church.

    At the time, the NY Times reported that the pope protested the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the audience with Ribbentrop. I have always doubted this because it’s not supported by the aforementioned accounts. However, if a recording of the audience exists, it could reveal whether the persecution of the Jews was brought up.

    Anyone who alleges that the Pope and the Vatican were “silent” should be this newsreel of an early 1940 Vatican Radio broadcast in English. See https://youtu.be/Dc2lOKAliuM

  20. taffymycat says:

    semper gumby—i think we have some opportunity to fight the culture war successfully at least on a small turf, but readily available and that is the library. get on the board, where you can make decisions or at least have influence over what is being bought. i have always put forth the explanation that there must be balance; when i protested hitler’s pope and gave them evidence of its dishonesty and bias, they presented another book which was a lukewarm/semi-objective presentation of the same material, i do not recall the title at this moment. i did go to bat for the book by the rabbi as i felt a jewish defense would carry more weight, but in the end settled for the book they presented. i will be requesting this new book though and again present the facts that we are a heavily Catholic population and that in the interest of balance where a library should be a treasure house of knowledge, that this book be placed on the shelves. i also watch how many islam books outweigh christian books so make my requests based on that as well. we all need to watch for that, it is a sly form of propaganda that we should oppose at every turn.

  21. taffymycat says:

    —and if anyone has the ear of the great Daniel Silva, i wish they would ask him to write a book that would make up for the propaganda he inadvertently repeated by using Cornwell as his source for The Confessor. Silva is a meticulous writer so i would think a copy of Church of Spies as well as Myth of Hitlers Pope might prompt him to make amends for the black portrait he paints of the Church in his novel. i found it unworthy of such a good author.

  22. Dimitri_Cavalli says:

    I remember that Silva’s book came out, in 2003, just when the Vatican archives were opened to 1939.

    One of the first documents that was found was a letter by Eugenio Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State and future Pope Pius XII, to the papal nuncio in Germany, in March or April 1933, telling him to do what he could to oppose Germany’s anti-Semitic policies.

    Talk about poor timing!

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