During World War II, Adolf Hitler became furious with Pope Pius XII and the Vatican when they protested or acted against his desires to rule the world and to exterminate all Jews and various other peoples. Hitler ordered SS General Karl Wolff, who commanded the SS in Italy, to come up with a plan to kidnap the pope and others from the Vatican, a plan to be executed quickly upon Hitler’s order. Hitler and other Nazis called Pius a “Jew-lover” and “the mouth piece of the Jewish war criminals.”
Dan Kurzman conducted years of extensive research into this secret plot to kidnap or kill Pope Pius XII, including interviewing General Wolff and others about the plot. He also examined historical documents on the plot and other events of that time.
Kurzman begins with a short biography of General Wolff and then of Heinrich Himmler, his immediate superior and “friend.” Wolff worked as Himmler’s assistant but had a falling out with Himmler and others and was sent to Italy to take charge of the SS there. This was 1943, and Germany was beginning to lose the war. Wolff decided to save himself and Germany by plotting to overthrow Hitler; it turns out Himmler was plotting, too. Wolff and others thought that Pope Pius XII would be a good choice to mediate unconditional surrender and save their own necks. When Wolff and those he informed of the plot heard about it, they began working on thwarting Hitler’s plans. Had Hitler found out about the betrayal, they would all have been shot - maybe even their families. Hitler may have even attacked the Vatican.
Hitler and Piux XII had been at odds for many years before the war started - when Pope Pius XII was the nuncio (ambassador) to Germany, then secretary of state (number two after the pope) for the Vatican, and finally as Pope himself; the two had confrontations but never met each other in person. Pope Pius protested Hitler and the Nazis’ actions by sending protest notes, writing encyclicals aimed at Hitler and the Nazis, having articles written in the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, delivering speeches on Vatican Radio, and through other means. Many times these were subtle protests, though the Nazis understood his intent. The Pope also used diplomatic language to lodge protests, which often only made Hitler and other Nazis angrier and led them to kill even more Jews and other “enemies” or make life worse for them. Hitler wanted the pope out of the way because he and the Church were the only ones really standing up for the victims of Naziism.
Chapter thirteen comprises a discussion of the two opposing views as to why Pope Pius acted as he did during World War II in not speaking out more than he did. Some condemn him for his supposed silence and for trying to help only himself. Others see from the historical record that he did more than most could - or would - do to save lives; his supporters seek to see him canonized as a saint and also to be declared a Righteous Gentile. Pope Pius walked a tightrope, trying to keep the Vatican neutral and also doing what he could to save lives.
In September 1943, the Nazis blackmailed the Jews of Rome by demanding gold for their lives. The Jews started gathering gold to give over to the Nazis. They feared, though, that they would not have enough so Chief Rabbi Israel Zolli went to the Vatican to ask for a loan of gold. The Vatican agreed to it, but it was not needed – this blackmail turned out not to have helped the Jews because on October 16, 1943, the Nazis began to round up the Rome’s Jews and deport them to Auschwitz. There were around 8,000 Jews living in Rome, and the roundup came as a shock to the Pope who said to the informant of this event, “But they promised me not to touch the Jews in Rome!” He had his Secretary of State call the German ambassador in to protest the roundup, and the ambassador was able to convince the Germans to halt the deportation. Many Jews went into hiding in the churches, monasteries, convents and other institutions of the Church in Rome and the Vatican. The Nazis caught only just over a thousand of the 8,000 Jews in Rome. The rest were saved mainly by the Church and its protest.
In March 1943, some Italian communists bombed a German unit in Rome. The enraged Germans began rounding up Italians in revenge, executing 335 for this act. Pope Pius spoke out against this massacre through L’Osservatore Romano.
On May 10, 1944, General Wolff met with the Pope in secret to inform him that he would not allow the pope to be kidnapped and to ask him to help negotiate a peace deal for Germany with the Allies. On June 4, 1944, General Mark Clark entered Rome - the Vatican was safe from German invasion.
In 1945, Hitler wanted General Wolff to contact the Anglo-American allies about an unconditional surrender and to join together against the Soviet Union. This did not work out, and Hitler eventually killed himself. General Wolff surrendered with the German forces in Italy on May 2, 1945. Wolff was eventually arrested and imprisoned. He was eventually released and died in 1984.
This history book reads like a mystery novel at times. Will Wolff get caught? Will the pope speak out and then be kidnapped or killed? Kurzman provides a centerfold of pictures of various people who played a part in this story. There are endnotes, a bibliography and an index. This book is highly recommended to those interested in Pope Pius XII during World War II, Rome during the war, and the Nazis.
Dan Kurzman is a former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He is the author of sixteen books, including Fatal Voyage: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis (1990), Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (1972), and others.