The book, A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII by Dan Kurzman, is on a topic few people know about. I had read snippets of such a plot in general histories of World War II before reading this book, but did not think much about it. Kurzman does an excellent job of describing what really occurred when the Germans took control of Rome in 1943.
Here is a brief summary of the book from Publishers Weekly:
Veteran popular historian Kurzman (The Bravest Battle) relates how a Hitler-Himmler order in 1943 to kidnap the pope and seize Vatican files and treasures was twice delayed and finally undermined by a group of high German officers and officials in Rome. The foilers were headed by the SS leader in Italy, Gen. Karl Wolff, whom Kurzman interviewed before his death in 1984.
Kurzman demonstrates that Hitler wanted the Vatican neutralized because he thought the pope had aided the overthrow of Mussolini in 1943 and feared that the Church’s leader would denounce the Final Solution in general and the imminent deportation of Rome’s Jews in particular. Wolff and others in Rome, meanwhile, hoped to use the pope as an intermediary for a negotiated peace and an Anglo-American-German campaign against the Soviets. Kurzman also touches upon such related topics as the 1933 Nazi-Vatican Concordat, how Pius’s silence on the murder of the Jews was partly rooted in excessive fears of a Soviet takeover of the Vatican, and the curious role of Rome’s chief rabbi, Israel Zolli, who ultimately converted to Catholicism. Kurzman does a good job of telling a suspenseful and little-known story of WWII intrigue.
As Publishers Weekly mentions, there is a huge debate on the Catholic Church’s silence about the Jewish genocide during World War II. Kurzman thoroughly explores this debate through the actions of Pope Pius XII during the German seizure of Rome. One side says that he should have spoken out directly against the Nazis’ actions and another says that he saved more lives by not speaking out. I think Kurzman does an excellent job of presenting both sides of the argument.
Pope Pius XII was in an awkward position – he wanted to speak out against the Nazi atrocities, but he also did not want to jeopardize the Church and its followers in Germany (throughout occupied Europe in fact). Kurzman is quite harsh, rightfully so in my opinion, that Pius was also more worried about losing the Vatican and its treasures (being seized by the Nazis) than saving Jewish lives. Kurzman argues that Pius’ argument that more Catholic lives could be in danger if he spoke out was fairly weak because it was highly unlikely that the Nazis would crack down on the Catholics without risking a revolt (40% of Germany was Catholic).
Although the book focuses on the specific plot to kidnap the pope and the wider struggle between the Catholic Church and the Nazis, Kurzman could have spent more time on the Allies’ lack of effort in stopping the genocide. He briefly touches on some of the things they could have done (bombing the crematoriums or bombing the rail lines to the concentration camps), but does not condemn them as strongly as the pope (I think they can equally be blamed for this lack of effort to stop the killing of Jews) – this was not the point of the book.
Kurzman also highlights the attempts of General Wolff to portray himself more of an humanitarian than he actually was – the only reason he wanted to help save the pope was to save his own skin. Wolff had death on his hands by being Heinrich Himmler’s assistant in the Final Solution. Wolff openly lied to Kurzman (Kurzman interviewed Wolff before Wolff’s death in 1984) about his role in the genocide to put himself in a better light for posterity’s sake.
This is a fascinating and highly controversial book that I recommend to anyone interested in this fascinating side note of World War II.