Church of Spies

Title:                      Church of Spies

Author:                 Mark Riebling

Riebling, Mark (2015). Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler. New York: Basic Books

LCCN:    2015024814

BX1378 .R54 2015


  • Darkness over the earth — The end of Germany — Joey Ox — Extraordinary affairs — The Pope is very interested — Luck of the devil — The Keller affair — Absolute secrecy — The X-report — Warnings to the West — The brown birds — Forging the iron — Conversations in the crypt — Prague fatale — A bottle of cognac — The Siegfried blueprints — Interrogations — Prisoner of the Vatican — D-Day — X-Day — The trove — Hell — The gallows — Shoot them all! — We cherished the hope.


Date Updated:  March 20, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

One of the lingering controversies of World War Two concerns the role of the Roman Catholic Church, and whether its leadership–specifically, Pope Pius XII—provided meaningful opposition to the Nazi regime. Jewish groups have been especially vocal in criticisms of Pius for his supposed “silence” about the Holocaust. And a recent memoir by German theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand[2] offered a scathing indictment of the Church for its failure to speak out more forcefully.

But a different picture emerges in this remarkable book by Mark Riebling, who writes frequently on intelligence, and who gained access to Vatican files apparently not viewed by any previous author. He takes a giant stride in refurbishing the status of Pius [XII].

From his first days in power, Hitler considered the Church to be a mortal enemy. An early Reichstag speech contained a chilling phrase: “The priest as political enemy of the Germans we shall destroy.” Nazi officials said that once Bolshevism and Judaism were destroyed, “the Catholic Church will be the only remaining enemy.”

The Vatican recognized the Nazi danger. One fear, Riebling writes, was that “Hitler might nationalize the Church, as King Henry the Eighth had once done in England.” Concurrently, Rome worried that many German Catholics might choose Hitler over the Church. The Nazis were already creating a faux religion–for instance, decorating Christmas trees with swastikas rather than stars. There was even what one cardinal called “a blasphemous claim that Adolf Hitler is essentially as great as Christ.”

Pius was singularly equipped to deal with the German challenge. He served in Berlin as a papal representative from 1917-1929. Among the contacts he cultivated there was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, who became head of the Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence agency, and who was one of the many officers who opposed Hitler’s rise to power, and who joined a Church-approved plot to kill the dictator.

Pius’s active role began via a Catholic lawyer from Munich named Joseph Müller, who is one of several incredibly brave men highlighted in Riebling’s highly readable narrative. Because he worked his way through school driving an oxcart, friends jokingly called him “Ochsensepp,” or “Joey Ox.” He was a prominent figure in Munich, where he controlled businesses ranging from a brewery to a publishing house.

Müller visited the Pope in 1939 and posed a direct question: if he and fellow members of the German Resistance succeeded in ridding Germany of Hitler, could they count on support from Britain? Pius agreed, telling Müller, “The German Opposition must be heard.”

As has been recognized by numerous historians, the Vatican boasts a superb intelligence organization. Thus “Joey Ox” and colleagues were able to provide Rome on such matters as advance dates of such Nazi strikes as the invasion of France, which the Vatican passed along.

But Pius recognized that the only solution to the “Hitler problem” was disposing of the dictator. And here Church doctrine became involved. Was murder anti-Christian on ethical grounds? Or should the Church follow the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas, who considered tyrannicide justified if there was no other way to protect the innocent?

Pius opted for the latter, and gave his blessing to a number of attempts to kill Hitler. Alas, each of these assassination attempts failed, lastly a bomb in the “Valkyrie Plot” led by Count Claus von Stauffenberg in 1944.

Critics fault Pius and other Church leaders for remaining silent (for the most part) about the Jewish Holocaust. In his Christmas messages, Pius did speak out against Nazi atrocities “of any kind,” but without using the word “Jew.” Riebling by no means exonerates Pius. But he writes that Pius’ silence was directly linked to his support of anti-Nazi conspirators who did not wish to spark reprisals against both Jews and Catholics. Even so, the Nazi media called him a “mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals.” The downside was that “in time his silence strained Catholic-Jewish relations, and reduced the moral credibility of the faith.”

German Military Intelligence considered the Vatican to be a rival spy organization and took active counterintelligence measures against it. For instance, it learned that the archbishop of Freiburg–who was running an intelligence mail drop for the Resistance—had a half-Jewish mistress and blackmailed him into cooperating. So, too, for monks who were caught in gay nightclubs, and a priest who had embezzled money to pay off two women when a ménage-a-trois “went wrong.”

The Gestapo eventually fingered “Joey Ox” as a figure in the assassination plots and subjected him to brutal torture. He did not break, and he survived. And in the post-war years, he worked for the CIA (code-named ROBOT) to help organize the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated German politics during the chilliest period of the Cold War.

The scope of Riebling’s book is demonstrated by 104 pages of chapter notes (which are worth the read on their own). He has written what is one of the more important books on intelligence of the year. His painstaking research and vivid writing make it a five-cloak/five-dagger read.

Review by Joshua Klemen[3]

In Church of Spies, Mark Riebling attempts to provide a defense for Pope Pius XII and the Catholic Church against charges of inaction and complicity with Nazi Germany in WWII. In Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII[4], John Cornwell writes that Pius enabled Hitler and had “drawn the Catholic Church into complicity with the darkest forces of the era.” While this argument is not explicitly stated within the book, the summary included in the dust jacket suggests directly that Pius was “Hitler’s Pope.” It is clear throughout that Riebling aims to respond to Pius’ critics by providing the details of his secret wartime actions. He seeks to provide an explanation for why the Vatican showed “public moderation” and neutrality towards Hitler and Nazi atrocities (p. 28). Church of Spies sheds light on the secret actions and covert war waged by Pius, the Vatican, the German Catholic Church, and various German Catholic citizens against Hitler and the Nazis.

Pope Pius XII’s role in diplomacy with the German resistance as well as his support for the removal of Hitler is a central theme in this book. The pope’s largest contribution to the anti-Hitler elements was to negotiate on their behalf with the Western Allies for a post-assassination peace treaty. Through a variety of examples, the reader is shown the critical role that this diplomacy played in driving German resistance groups’ attempts to overthrow the Nazi regime, as such an agreement was a prerequisite for a successful coup. In addition, Pius provided the moral authorization for the assassination of Hitler by justifying the action under the church doctrine of tyrannicide. Providing this moral justification to the Catholic conspirators was essential to their involvement. Riebling provides evidence that Pius made a con scious decision to directly support the removal of Hitler, who would be replaced by “[a]ny government without Hitler” (p. 63). Although the author attempts to show that Pius took direct action to assist European Jews, only a few examples are given. For instance, the author provides an excerpt of a conversation between Pius and a bishop where Pius claims to have diverted “large amounts of American currency … to help Jews escape Europe” (p. 168). If true, this claim would certainly add to the stated purpose of the book, but no further evidence is provided, to the overall detriment of his argument.

Although the focus of the author is on Pope Pius XII, many prominent German Catholic citizens’ roles in the attempts on Hitler’s life are highlighted in this book. In particular, the story of Josef Müller and his dominant role in the Vatican’s involvement in the various intrigues is crucial to the story. Acting as an intermediary between German anti-Hitler factions and the Vatican, Müller played a central role in the secret diplomacy between these groups and the Western Allies. Based on the evidence provided, Müller is painted as both a devoutly religious man of high morals as well as a German patriot who views Hitler as a threat to Germany’s ultimate existence. The author also provides compelling evidence to highlight the extent of Catholic influence on various assassination plots. Among others, he highlights the role played by Father Augustinus Rosch in a failed December 1941 plot as well as the religious motivations of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, a devout Catholic and central figure in the more well-known July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Hitler inside his East Prussian field headquarters. The detailed and interesting nature of the descriptions of these plots aids in the effectiveness of this work.

Riebling uses a storytelling approach to highlight the various exciting and clandestine aspects of this subject. By weaving together numerous storylines in a chronological fashion from 1939 to 1945, the history of this period reads more like an exciting popular fiction spy novel than an academic work. For example, Riebling’s description of Pope Pius’ first day as pope gives the reader a colorful account of his decision to start a secret archaeological excavation in search of Saint Peter’s crypt. While details such as these parallel recent works of fiction, this exciting style by no means distracts the reader from the factual basis from which the work is derived.

The author uses many sources to demonstrate the extent of the church’s efforts to counter Hitler in Europe. Perhaps the most compelling are transcripts of secretly recorded conversations between Pope Pius and senior German clergymen as well as numerous personal accounts taken from postwar testimony. Using sources from Germany, the Vatican, and Allied intelligence agencies, the author provides an extremely credible evidentiary basis for his overall argument.

Church of Spies is an extremely readable and interesting work on Catholic influence on German resistance efforts. However, the book does not provide a sufficient level of evidence to counter the perceptions of papal silence towards atrocities committed against Europe’s Jews. Although Riebling shows how the highest levels of Vatican leadership stoked the fires of the German resistance through acting as diplomats to the Western Allies and through providing the moral justification to assassinate Hitler, he falls short of convincing the reader that any meaningful action to counter the Holocaust was taken directly by the Vatican. Rather, the Vatican and Pius seem to have placed a higher value on official silence in order to minimize reprisals to Catholics in Europe at the expense of Hitler’s Jewish victims. However, the book does convincingly portray the important roles played by numerous Catholic citizens as well as German Catholic clergy. Ultimately, Riebling presents an important counter argument to Cornwell and other critics of the Vatican and Pius’s lack of action in WWII, making this is a valuable work that sheds light on the role of organized religion in modern warfare, politics, and international relations.

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[5]

Sometime in 1939, Pope Pius XII installed an audio recording system in his private library to capture conversations important to his new papacy. (p. 17) According to the recent revelations of his personal assistant, Father Leiber, opposing Hitler while preserving the independence of the church in Germany were key priorities, and he wanted his views preserved. These and other sources revealed the secure communications links established with Catholic representatives in Germany. At the same time, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr (the German security service), was exploring options for a coup d’etat with colleagues opposed to Hitler. Church of Spies tells how these two forces made contact and worked together toward their goals.

Intelligence historian Mark Riebling writes that the first move was made by Canaris, who “set out to recruit Pius” into the initial coup plan. (p. 35) The idea was to have the Pope broker a contact with the British government that would lead to discussions regarding recognition of Germany after Hitler had been removed from power. The man chosen to meet with the Pope was Josef Müller, a Munich lawyer already known to the Abwehr to be a clandestine Vatican courier.

After lengthy discussions, the Pope, recalling Hitler’s “vow to crush the Church like a toad,” (p. 62) agreed to contact the British through their ambassador to the Vatican. The British initially refused cooperation but later gave some conditions in the event of a successful coup. The Americans were also contacted and received similar “overtures more warmly,” but “President Roosevelt refused to negotiate.” Nevertheless, three plots were undertaken and, as is well-known, all failed. Riebling describes them in complicated and often exciting detail, and they account for much of the narrative. He includes attempts by the Gestapo to penetrate the Vatican ring using a defrocked priest and other agents. In the event, Müller is arrested and, though tortured by the Gestapo, reveals nothing. Amazingly, he survives the war and becomes active in German postwar government.

A sub-theme of the book is the Pope’s intentionally low profile as he works through cut-outs to protect the Church’s reputation and avoid provoking Hitler to even greater atrocities. As consequence, he mentions the treatment of the Jews only once publicly, early in the war, and postwar historians have criticized him for this approach. Riebling deals fairly with the Pope’s theological and political rationale on these matters.

With one exception, Church of Spies is thoroughly documented with primary sources, interviews, and memoirs. While the latter were often written long after the fact, they will have to do until full access to Vatican archives is allowed. The exception, for which no sources are provided, is the reference to Müller’s postwar services “as a US intelligence agent, code-named ROBOT… still on the CIA’s agent list.”

In the end, Church of Spies is the best account of the subject to date. Amen!

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, pp. 110-111). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[2] Von Hildebrand, Dietrich (1994) mit Alice von Hildebrand und Rudolf Ebneth ; herausgegeben von Ernst Wenisch.  Memoiren und Aufsätze gegen den Nationalsozialismus, 1933-1938. Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag [LCCN: 95110085]

[3] Joshua Klemen. Review of Riebling, Mark, Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2015:

[4] Cornwell, John (1999). Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History Of Pius XII. New York, NY: Viking. [LCCN: 99028311]

[5] Peake, Hayden in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 119-120). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence, Other reviews and articles may be found online at


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2 Responses to Church of Spies

  1. Pingback: „Radikale Bibelgruppen bereiten viel größere Probleme als Islamisten“, meint der EKD-Sektenbeauftragte | Christliche Leidkultur

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