May 2008

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

nonfiction

A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII by Dan Kurzman

In order to preemptively silence papal opposition to Nazi atrocities, in 1943, Hitler entrusted SS General Karl Wolff to overtake the Vatican and topple the pope’s authority. Dan Kurzman’s A Special Mission delves into the details of the plot, honing in on a blip in history often overlooked. Relying on Kurzman’s first-rate research (including an interview with Wolff) and his narrative style, the author manages to transform all of World War II into a microcosmic battle between three men: Hitler, Pope Pius XII, and Karl Wolff -- all of whom have radically different views on how to seek and maintain power.

Conflicted by Hitler’s orders, Wolff became entangled in a balancing act between his allegiance to the Nazi party and his respect for the pope. He attempted a kind of containment policy, begging the pope to keep quiet in the hopes that Pius’s silence might convince Hitler to retract his order. While genocide took place all around him, the pope held his tongue for his own protection: a decision many interpreted as cowardly.

The majority of the second half of the book raises questions related to the morality of the pope’s do-nothing attitude. Did he fall into the same trap as many European nations -- preferring to appease Hitler rather than fight him directly? Kurzman argues both sides, though he admits that the pope’s silence was in no way a sign of approval towards Nazi behavior, but rather, a calculated decision to prevent “Nazi retaliation against the church.”

During World War II, Pius XII had a special mission of his own: to protect the church and its treasures. But as Kurzman notes, “shouldn’t… deliberate destruction of a whole people have aroused at least as much passion in [Pope Pius XII] as the inadvertent destruction of soulless monuments, however sacred?”

The climactic meeting between Pope Pius XII and General Wolff occurred in May of 1944 -- more than a year after Hitler’s initial order. During a secret meeting, they discussed a shared vision for the best possible outcome of the war. Though grateful for Wolff’s newfound allegiance to the Vatican, Pius XII couldn’t help but ask Wolff the same question the reader wonders: “How many injustices, how many crimes, how many offenses against the Christian spirit of love could have been avoided if you had come to me first of all?”

While impossible to know the human heart completely, Kurzman does much to explain the thought processes of two disparate, yet connected, men in history. He paints both Pope Pius XII and General Karl Wolff as complicated, conflicted men who held their tongues when they felt they had to; men who knew when shared whispers in secret meetings were enough.

A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII by Dan Kurzman
Da Capo Press
ISBN: 0306816172
320 Pages