Behind a Nazi Plot to Seize the Pope In September 1943, Hitler hatched a secret plan. Author Dan Kurzman relates the foiled plot in A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius the XII.

Behind a Nazi Plot to Seize the Pope

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

And now we revisit the history of World War II; a new book chronicles a plot by Adolf Hitler against Pope Pius XII. In 1943, after the overthrow of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, Hitler feared the pope might try to rally Italians against the German occupation. The book argues that Hitler devised a plan to deal with the pope were he to speak out against the roundup of Rome's Jews; the Fuhrer ordered a trusted SS general to seize the Vatican and kidnap or kill the pontiff. In the end, the plot was spoiled by the very confidante Hitler had entrusted to carry it out. The new book is called �A Secret Mission.� Its author, Dan Kurzman, joins us now from NPR's New York bureau. Welcome.

Mr. DAN KURZMAN (Author, �A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII�): I'm delighted to be here.

ELLIOTT: What had been Hitler's relationship with Pope Pius XII up until that point?

Mr. KURZMAN: Well, the pope's relationship with Hitler has always been very bad, even though some writers are trying to make it appear that they were in cahoots so to speak. Hitler hated and feared the pope in large measure because he's afraid the pope would speak out against him, and especially about the Holocaust. And the pope was afraid of Hitler, not only because Hitler was so terrible and his actions toward the Jews and other people, but because the pope feared that Hitler was out to destroy him, the Vatican and even the church.

ELLIOTT: Now, it's not as if Pope Pius XII had been an outspoken critic of Hitler, why was Hitler so concerned that he might speak out at this point?

Mr. KURZMAN: Well, before Pius became pope, he on several occasions, he did speak out against Hitler, and he was afraid that, you know, when he became the pope and took over the throne, he was afraid that Pius would really speak out and he was particularly concerned that since about 40 percent of the German army was Catholic that this could have an important effect on the morale of the German army.

ELLIOTT: At the time, there were rumors of Nazi plot to kidnap the pope. But there is very little written evidence confirming it existed. Mr. Kurzman, how did you uncover these details and what documentation did you see?

Mr. KURZMAN: Well, I first learned about this when I went to visit the SS General Karl Wolf, who was - had been the assistant to Himmler himself - Heinrich Himmler, who was the orchestrator of the Holocaust. He'd been in jail and he's just been let out. I called him on the phone and I said I like to come over and speak to you. He didn't want to speak to journalists, he said. But finally I talked him into it, and he said come on over�

ELLIOTT: This was in 1971. Am I correct?

Mr. KURZMAN: Seventy-one, yeah. So I went over there. He suddenly let loose with all this material that I never heard off before. And he showed me papers, including his notes, which he had taken during and after his meetings with Hitler. And he told me that Hitler had called him in and has told him, Wolf, you have an order here. I want you to go into the Vatican, take over the place and I want you to see that the pope is kidnapped. And so Karl Wolf was rather shocked by this. For one thing, he was a realist, and he realized that with the Americans making all kinds of waves there in the area, that Hitler might lose the war.

ELLIOTT: So this was an opportunist character. This was somebody who appears to be concerned about what might happen to him should Germany lose the war. And this is why he starts to think, well, maybe I'm not going to carry out Hitler's secret plot to capture the pope.

Mr. KURZMAN: Absolutely. He was more of an opportunist than anything else. He wasn't so much an ideologue, like a lot of these Nazi leaders were. When he saw that the war might be lost, he decided that he was going to win the possible gratitude of the pope for saving his life. And so that if the Allies won the war, the pope would come to his defense. Now I didn't necessarily believed him entirely because, you know, he would certainly lie to me about whether he knew about the Jews being killed or not. But�

ELLIOTT: So how did you go about confirming that a plot really existed?

Mr. KURZMAN: Well, I spent years in interviewing people who were involved in the plot and knew about it who were against Wolf and who were for him. And I interviewed the - some of the top German officials who had been in Rome like the deputy German ambassador to the Vatican and I use the information, you know, one against the other. And it all turn out to be correct.

ELLIOTT: Even today, many people find it unthinkable that the pope remains silent about the Holocaust. And other historians have accused him of anti-Semitism. Your book appears to refute that claim.

Mr. KURZMAN: Yes. When I started out writing this, I'd really know what the truth was. But after speaking with hundreds of people involved on all sides from the Jews who were in Rome and the Nazis themselves and the American representatives and others, I became convinced that the pope was not anti-Semitic.

He did not act because he hated the Jews. He acted because in his eyes, his main aim in life was to save and protect the church. Hitler made clear to him that if he did speak out he would be gone and so was the church. And so he was caught in a very agonizing dilemma. If he spoke out, would it do any good, even he did. Because Hitler would not have reacted by letting all these Jews go or stop the Holocaust.

But on the contrary, he would send in his troops into all the various Vatican establishments and institutions in which Jews were being protected. And there were anywhere - there's no way to get a clear figure, but anywhere from 100,000 to 800,000 Jews around Europe were protected in these various institutions. So that's one argument. Of course, the other argument is that no matter what the circumstances would have been, was it not his moral duty to speak out regardless of what might happen. So it isn't clear, you know, but clearly -good or bad situation. And you know, it depends on which one's viewpoint is.

ELLIOTT: Dan Kurzma. His new book is �A Special Mission: Hitler's Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII.� Thank you for talking with us.

Mr. KURZMAN: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: To read an excerpt from Mr. Kurzman's book visit our Web site, npr.org.

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