In response to:

Did Hitler Plan to Kidnap the Pope? from the June 12, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I appreciate István Deák’s comment in his review of my book A Special Mission: Hitler’s Secret Plot to Seize the Vatican and Kidnap Pope Pius XII [NYR, June 12] that it is “interesting” and that I am “the first to build the story into a systematic Nazi plot.” But I am far less appreciative of his slur on my professional integrity by questioning my “credulity.”

Professor Deák writes that I uncritically accept “the validity of controversial documents and unquestioningly [believe] in the statements made to [me] by [my] principal German interlocutor, the former SS General Karl Wolff.” One can only wonder if Mr. Deák has read my book. If he read only the preface he would know that I checked Wolff’s statements with almost every top surviving German official who was involved in, or knew about, the kidnap plot.

And they included such key people as Rudolph Rahn, the German ambassador to Mussolini’s rump state established in northern Italy after the Duce’s ouster from Rome; Eitel Möllhausen, Rahn’s deputy in Rome; Albrecht von Kessel, deputy to Ernst von Weizsäcker, German ambassador to the Vatican; and SS Colonel Eugen Dollmann, Wolff’s liaison with Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the supreme military commander in Italy. Moreover, Father Peter Gumpel, who as the Vatican’s chief investigator of Pius’s qualifications for sainthood had unlimited access to documents and oral testimony, told me that the evidence supported Wolff’s claims.

Having written seventeen books and served as a Washington Post correspondent, I’m proud to have won the George Polk Memorial Award, the Overseas Press Club Award for the year’s “Best Book on Foreign Affairs” (twice), the National Jewish Book Award, and the Newspaper Guild’s Front Page Award for “Best Foreign Reporting.”

Condescendingly, Professor Deák seeks to diminish the validity of my reporting when he writes: “According to Wolff, and thus also according to Kurzman, the Führer held the Pope in part responsible for the Italian ‘betrayal.'” Can Professor Deák be unaware that Hitler’s feeling about this has been reported in many histories? I did not have to depend on Wolff for this information.

The reviewer also writes that “Kurzman takes seriously” what he calls a “flight of Italian fantasy,” a letter written by one high- ranking Italian Fascist dignitary with ties to the SS with another outlining some of the gruesome details of Hitler’s kidnap plot. This might have been a flight of Hitler’s fantasy, but much of World War II was, too. In any case, I do not try to judge the letter’s seriousness, but simply report its existence.

Finally, Professor Deák writes: “One must ask himself why Hitler would have wanted to kidnap and even kill the Pope, who was more of an enemy of the Soviet Union than of Nazi Germany.” If he read my book, Mr. Deák should know the answer: Pius, after learning of Hitler’s plot, realized the Nazis posed the greater immediate danger. He became so fearful of Hitler that he stopped making anti-Soviet pronouncements and even ordered American bishops not to oppose US military aid to the Soviet Union. Hitler, on the other hand, wanted to replace the Vatican, indeed all Christian institutions, with a Nazi religion that he would propagate in all conquered areas. His hatred of Pius was thus fed by the belief that the Pope blocked his way to success.

Dan Kurzman

North Bergen, New Jersey

István Deák replies:

Let me assure Mr. Kurzman that I had no wish to “question his credulity”; on the contrary, I tried to illustrate it with examples taken from his book. What concerned me was the unreliability of many of his sources, which should have caused him to be more cautious in his judgments. Certainly, it would be wrong always to ask for written evidence, especially because forged documents are as frequent today as forged statements. We know from recent historical disputes how provocative the British “semi-fascist” historian David Irving was when he offered to pay a hefty reward to anyone able to produce written evidence of Hitler ordering the extermination of the Jews. So far, there seems to be no such document; but the Führer’s writings, speeches, pronouncements and letters, as well as orders by his officials, clearly indicate that he did indeed initiate the Final Solution of the Jewish Question, and that his underlings acted on his initiative.

Historical statements based on oral evidence often provoke a debate. The question here is how much credence to give to the statements of SS General Karl Wolff, who after the war paraded as the savior of Italians, the Vatican, and even of many Jews, yet during the war had been deeply involved in the Holocaust. On August 12, 1943, for instance, he wrote to the deputy director general of the Reichsbahn, the German state railroad system: “Dear Party Member Ganzenmüller: …With particular joy, I noted your assurance that for two weeks now a train has been carrying, every day, 5,000 members of the chosen people to Treblinka,” which was a major death camp.1

After the war, Wolff enjoyed the protection of Allen Dulles and the CIA for having negotiated with Dulles the surrender of the German forces in Italy a few days before the general German surrender. Obviously, Wolff would try to portray himself favorably when interviewed by an important American journalist, as would the other German generals and diplomats, all former Nazi party members, whom Mr. Kurzman interviewed at one time or another. They all claimed to have despised Hitler and to have done their best to thwart his evil plans. Yet regarding Hitler’s orders to have the Pope kidnapped and even murdered, I find in the memoirs of such German diplomats in Italy as Ernst von Weizsäcker and Rudolf Rahn no more than a brief mention of some rumors about plans to occupy the Vatican or perhaps even to kidnap the Pope.

True, there is the undated letter of the Fascist leader Paolo Porta in Como to the Fascist leader Vincenzo Costa in Milan, which seems to be the only document outlining a concrete assassination plan.2 But Paolo Porta’s source is an unnamed “higher SS official,” and he is wrong in referring to the 8th Waffen SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer as the unit whose soldiers would attack the Vatican disguised as Italian partisans. They would, it was alleged, massacre the entire clergy there and kidnap the Pope, only to be massacred in turn by members of the Hermann Göring Panzer Parachute Division so as to “leave no witnesses to survive.” The trouble is that the Florian Geyer Division fought not in Italy but at the eastern front throughout the war: the saga of these famous horsemen ended when they were nearly all killed during the Red Army’s siege of Budapest in the winter of 1944–1945.

As for my assertion that the Soviets were a greater enemy for Pius XII than were the Nazis, all I can say is that more experts on the period would support this proposition than would deny it; but Mr. Kurzman is, of course, entitled to his opinion.

Finally, had Mr. Kurzman taken the trouble to indicate the places and dates of his many interviews, and whether transcripts of them exist, and can be consulted, his statements would have gained in persuasiveness and would have made his most interesting book an even greater success.

This Issue

September 25, 2008