Tuesday, February 09, 2010
by Ronald J. Rychlak
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.
See also from the Daily Record, "Local nun backs sainthood for Pius."