by Martin Morse Wooster
From Crisis Magazine
In July 1943, Italian partisans toppled Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and threatened the German-Italian alliance. Hitler, on learning of Mussolini’s ouster, concluded that “Jew-loving” Pope Pius XII was involved.
A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII
Dan Kurzman, Perseus Books, 285 pages, $26
In July 1943, Italian partisans toppled Fascist leader Benito Mussolini and threatened the German-Italian alliance. Hitler, on learning of Mussolini’s ouster, concluded that “Jew-loving” Pope Pius XII was involved. The Führer wasted no time in sending his troops into northern Italy and occupying an allied nation, including its capital, Rome.
Israel Zolli, the chief Rabbi of Rome (later a convert to Catholicism) wrote about the terror felt by his community as the Nazis took control of the city. Zolli personally snuck past German patrols to enter neutral Vatican City and request a loan to pay a ransom so that the Nazis would not deport his people. The pope agreed to provide as much gold as was needed for as long as was necessary. The Jews gave their gold to the Nazis, but it did not prevent the deportations. Roman Jews went into hiding or they were deported.
As the persecution of the Jews intensified, Pius was widely recognized as a “lonely voice” out of the silence enveloping the continent. Victims thanked him, rescuers cited him as their inspiration, and the Nazis despised him. In retrospect, however, many modern critics blame Pius for being too quiet during the occupation.
Dan Kurzman’s A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII focuses on an aspect of this story that has never before received a book-length treatment. It centers on General Karl Wolff, who in 1943 was named German chief of police and SS commander in Italy.
According to sworn testimony that Wolff gave in 1972, Hitler summoned him shortly after the troops moved into Rome. Hitler said:
Now, Wolff, I have a special mission for you, with significance for the whole world. . . . I want you and your troops . . . to occupy as soon as possible the Vatican and Vatican City, secure the archives and the art treasures, which have a unique value, and transfer the pope, together with the Curia, for their protection, so that they cannot fall into the hands of the Allies and exert a political influence.
Hitler wanted to “destroy the Vatican’s power, capture the pope, and say that we are protecting him.”
The kidnapping never took place, but Wolff drew up the plan. It called for German soldiers disguised in Italian uniforms to invade the Vatican, kill all members of the curia, and take the pope prisoner. Other soldiers would then storm the Vatican to “rescue” the pontiff. They would kill the disguised troops, and if the pope tried to escape he would also be shot. Hitler felt it could be explained because tragic things happen during wars. Besides, the world would consider the Italians culpable.
This kidnapping plot has been known for a long time, but skeptics have been reluctant to take General Wolff at his word. Kurzman, however, not only interviewed Wolff; he also reviewed relevant documents and interviewed dozens of witnesses.
One of the most interesting revelations in the book is the number of German officials that tried to prevent Hitler from invading the Vatican. Ernst von Weizsäcker, the German ambassador to the Vatican, regularly cautioned Church officials not to provoke Berlin. Albrecht von Kessel, Weizsäcker’s closest aide, explained, “All we could do . . . was to warn the Vatican, the church, and the pope himself against rash utterances and actions.” The German ambassador to Italy, Rudolf Rahn, was also in on the plan. They told the pope that Hitler would not only attack the Vatican but would seize the hundreds of thousands of Jews from Church buildings in which they were hiding throughout Europe. Righteous Catholics would also be persecuted. After Kurzman’s book, it’s hard to deny that Pius loathed Hitler, that Hitler loathed the pope, or that Hitler wanted to invade the Vatican.
For all of the book’s good points, it has some rather serious errors. For instance, Kurzman’s repeated references to Allied pressure for a papal statement condemning the Nazis are not supported by the evidence. Nor is his speculation that Rabbi Zolli went to the pope in the hopes of gaining an advantage for his family. Discussing criticism of the 1933 agreement between Germany and the Holy See, Kurzman references a newspaper article written four years earlier. Kurzman also says that a diplomat reported that “the people” were preoccupied about the potential for violence. Actually, the report said that this was the pope’s preoccupation. Kurzman says that Pius expressed a moral equivalence between the killing of a group of Nazis and Nazi retaliation against innocent Romans. Actually, this was an article written prior to the retaliation, and it was a plea for the Nazis not to retaliate.
The biggest problems emerge, however, when Kurzman tries to explain motivations.
Over and over Kurzman talks about Hitler’s fear of a statement from the pope and of Pius XII’s fear of a Nazi retaliation. This is the prism through which papal critics view Pius. Like the critics, Kurzman suggests that if only the pope had spoken more forcefully he could have ended the Holocaust. Kurzman has accepted this thesis so completely that in discussing the stated purpose of the kidnapping plot (“to avenge the papal protest in favor of the Jews”) he assumes it must have been “an expected papal outcry” that never took place. Kurzman says this even though he elsewhere (on page 60) points out correctly that Hitler particularly despised Pius because “this demon in white robes” had dared to oppose him.
Certainly Hitler did not want another open papal condemnation and Pius did not want an invasion, but neither man was motivated by fear over these matters. Hitler kept condemnations away from the public and released edited versions that supported his purposes. Pius realized this and focused on actions that would produce positive results.
A Special Mission serves an important purpose by emphasizing the true hostility between Hitler and Pius XII. It falters, however, when Kurzman guesses about motivations. That’s too bad, since it detracts from what should be a significant book in the Pius war.
Ronald J. Rychlak is Associate Dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (2000) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).