Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler, by Mark Riebling
A priest works from the shadows to stop a tyrant. It’s not the premise of the latest spy novel. It’s the true story told in Church of Spies, and in this case, the priest is the pope and the tyrant is Adolf Hitler. Mark Riebling penetrates the cloak-and-dagger world of European espionage, drawing readers into an intense era of clandestine rebellion and covert war.
This thrilling historical account follows the actions of a German spy ring backed by Pope Pius XII as they attempt to topple the German dictator. Focusing mostly on Joseph Müller, a German lawyer with direct connections to the pope, Church of Spies chronicles the Church’s secret actions against the Third Reich. The plotters’ activities escalate from spying and stealing documents to secretly negotiating with Allied powers and repeatedly attempting to kill Hitler. Meanwhile, Pius XII attempts to appear as though he is a diplomatic neutral without revealing that he is secretly assisting the plot.
The most appealing quality of this book is that it reads more like a novel than a piece of historical research. While other authors try to make their works fluid and simple (what this blog usually calls “keeping the narrative moving”), Riebling outdoes them by creating a historical narrative that borders on a spy novel. After the first few pages, this book becomes increasingly difficult to put down, telling the true story of people acting in a high-stakes situation during a tense era of human history.
In addition to being exciting, Church of Spies is easy for casual readers. Riebling delivers a fast-paced historical account, yet he doesn’t sacrifice comprehensibility. Lesser-known topics receive brief explanations that inform without bogging down the book’s pace. Similarly, the “characters” are seamlessly introduced into the account, and their activities are explained in a way that both educates and entertains the reader. Espionage is a complex topic and Riebling describes a complex era, but he allows the reader to feel its scope without being intimidated by its difficulty.
Riebling deserves further credit for creating such a revealing account. The use of personal letters, memoirs, and official papers shows the plotters’ and Nazis’ thoughts at the time. His exploration brings these individuals to life on the page, displaying their emotions in a deeply human way. Rather than seeming dull and impersonal, they feel lively and meaningful, crucial qualities in a historical work.
From a more critical perspective, the book’s argument feels weaker in its dealings with Pope Pius XII. Riebling’s goal is to show that the pope was not simply a passive witness to the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, but rather that he was an active participant in trying to end them. While it’s clear that Pius XII did take action against the Reich and its crimes, there are times in the text where it’s easy to forget. The pope occasionally appears to be a secondary player when in reality he was a key instigator for part of the plot. Although Riebling proves his point, it could be stronger if the pope received more attention.
Though it’s not exactly a weakness, it would have been nice to see the book cover more of the events surrounding the plotters’ actions. They’re likely glossed over due to the rapid pacing, which seems more important to the book’s success than a complete historical analysis. Consequently, less explanation is excusable. Still, while there’s no question that the plotters had a significant impact on political events through their efforts, more explanation of their effects might create a stronger framework for the account.
Potential improvements aside, Church of Spies is a tremendous success for popular history. Gripping and captivating, it’s guaranteed to keep the reader’s attention until the final page. As a well-researched example of a lesser-heard historical argument, it also provides a refreshing new perspective for readers with a more academic interest. However, it is Riebling’s ability to combine both historical and entertaining qualities that makes this book succeed. He shows the past can be just as exciting as any work of fiction, and it deserves modern readers’ attention.
Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War against Hitler
By Mark Riebling
384 pp. Basic Books, September 2015. $29.99