by Matthew Nies
Like a great spy story, Church of Spies: the Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler unwinds an intricate web of shrouded characters and chance events that both set and derail secret, audacious plots—organized by Germans and the Vatican—to kill the leader of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler. But unlike an Ian Fleming or John le Carrê novel drawing on history, Church of Spies is history.
Author Mark Riebling expertly curates copious research into profound revelations and a story that recasts narratives, especially the inaction often attributed to Pope Pius XII, who did not specifically condemn the Nazis during WWII for committing atrocities. The German resistance and Catholic officials in occupied Europe told Pius that criticism would spark Nazi reprisals as what happened in Poland and the Low Countries. But Pius thought Hitler was evil, and he worked covertly with conspirators.
Yet, while Pius is a primary focus, Riebling is more concerned with the “good Germany” and larger resistance movement that plotted against the Nazis and tried to kill the Füher. Church of Spies moves through pivotal connections and individuals’ past motivations to highlight why “black chapel” conspirators—like Abwehr Chief Wilhelm Canaris, his deputy Hans Oster, Josef Müller or “Joey Ox,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Claus von Stauffenberg, Alfred Delp, and many others, including the Kreisau Circle—risked and gave their lives to subvert the Nazis.
The plotters, especially those in the German military, desired to prevent anarchy by establishing a post-Hitler Germany and securing peace accords with the Allies. In addition to encouraging them to commit Tyrannicide, Pius provided the resistance with a platform to offer intelligence and broker deals. The varied results stemming from this dense network of hidden relationships included: warning of Nazi actions; dissuading a Nazi invasion with false intelligence; brokering a deal that helped oust Benito Mussolini in Italy; and executing several failed but brilliant assassination attempts of Hitler, including “Operation Valkyrie.”
Reibling’s first book, cataloging war between the FBI and CIA, informed post-9/11 reforms of America’s intelligence organizations. Church of Spies posits no less of a consequential argument for historical re-examination. In light of its abundance of source material including interviews and documentation, it is surprising Church of Spies’ narrative has not hitherto been more accepted or disseminated. An argument against its events could only stem from misunderstanding or intention.
Church of Spies provides important and necessary input to any discussion of WWII, a must-read for any history buff. It is a retelling of unabashed strength from unlikely sources and holding out courage against daunting odds and hopelessness. It may be natural to wonder what people dedicated to Christ and Christian ideals would do, what you would do, in the face of nihilism and a love for hating anything besides prescription. While rarely do good and evil so clearly diverge on a national scale as in Nazi Germany, brave individuals stood tall with their answers: they were spies.
Matthew Nies is a prose editor for Agape Review. He is the author of the poetry book Sunset Dreams (Wipf & Stock, 2019). Nies grew up on a farm in rural North Dakota, and currently lives with his wife and three children in the Washington, D.C. area.