Scenes from wartime: “This constant strain.”

churchofspies_bookcoverAmongst the books in the stack next to my bed garnering attention is Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling. Published in November 2016, the book was gifted to me last spring from a grateful friend who had borrowed several books from me while she researched a college paper. While it has its slower moments, the book really is a fascinating and, at times, exciting read set during a time of madness. The only reason I have not finished it by now is my own inability to focus my attention on one book at a time. While I have the attention span of a gnat these days I do highly recommend this book.

I pulled the excerpt below from the end of Chapter 15: Shootout at the Cathedral. In my haste I neglected to write down the time period of this meeting between a German politician, Josef Müller and Wilhelm Canaris, a German admiral. They had met at a German hotel to exchange information when they discovered that the SS, led by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, had already staked out a table in the hotel restaurant. I thought it did a great job of capturing the intrigue and strain these men were under in such a dangerous time.


Müller went upstairs to Canaris’s room. Canaris did not seem quite himself, and the report of Kaltenbrunner’s presence seemed to unhinge him. (SS spy chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner is described as “taller than the rest, with a long scar down his cheek.) He started knocking on the walls, looking for microphones. He took the pictures down and scrutinized the areas behind them, then ran his hands under the edges of the tables and the chairs. Apparently satisfied, Canaris put his coat over the telephone and asked about the interrogation. Müller said that they had asked about his Vatican missions, but he had purged all his files before Sauermann arrived. They found nothing. But Canaris worried about the money Dohnanyi had given Schmidhuber for U-7. They seemed trapped. The admiral sank into a chair and muttered, half to himself, “This constant strain.” His nerves seemed shot.


L to R: Müller, Canaris, Kaltenbrunner

Müller saw only one way out. Canaris should reconsider Keitel’s offer to let military intelligence set up its own internal policing unit, so that Canaris could investigate crimes within his own service. In their current straits, that certainly would help them control the probe.

Canaris would not consider that. The Rosa Luxemburg case haunted him. After Luxemburg’s assassination by a paramilitary Freikorps in 1919, Canaris had served as a junior officer at the court-martial, which imposed a strangely lenient judgment on the perpetrators. Some suspected him of complicity in Luxemburg’s death. He wanted nothing to do with “manhunts,” he told Müller. He already had enough emotional burdens from “the old days.” Rising abruptly, he suggested that they go downstairs to eat.

Müller suggested they eat elsewhere, given the SS stakeout. Canaris disagreed. They should always do the unexpected. When a sniper had someone in his sights, he said, the target must break cover to confuse him. As they descended the stairs, however, Canaris grabbed Müller to steady himself. “That criminal,” he said in a loud voice, “is still sacrificing millions of people just to prolong his miserable life.” Startled, Müller pulled him back into the room to recompose. When they stepped out into the hall again, Canaris slung an arm around him and said, “My nerves, my nerves! I can’t stand it anymore.” No one know what he had endured since 1933. He murmured about a tightening noose and then forced his face into a mask of normality. Together they descended to the restaurant to meet the enemy over a four-course meal.

Canaris sat down and nodded to Kaltenbrunner. Müller sat by Canaris. They all talked like old friends. The surreal dinner had the feel of a parlay between the Greeks and the Trojans. When it ended, the war resumed. Over the next months, Müller would return to the Vatican, and the pope would again become an active conspirator—as the plotters accelerated their plans to destroy Hitler before he could destroy them.

– from Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling. Chapter 15: Shootout at the Cathedral, pp.140-141.



Josef Müller (27 March 1898 – 12 September 1979), also known as “Ochsensepp”, was a German politician. He was a member of the resistance during World War II and afterwards one of the founders of the Christian Social Union (CSU). He was a devout Catholic and a leading figure in the Catholic resistance to Hitler.

Wilhelm Franz Canaris (1 January 1887 – 9 April 1945) was a German admiral and chief of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, from 1935 to 1944. Initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler, he later turned against the Nazis as he felt Germany would lose another major war. During the Second World War he was among the military officers involved in the clandestine opposition to the Nazi regime. He was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp for high treason as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

Ernst Kaltenbrunner (4 October 1903 – 16 October 1946) was an Austrian-born senior official of Nazi Germany during World War II. An Obergruppenführer (general) in the Schutzstaffel (SS), between January 1943 and May 1945 he held the offices of Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA). He was the highest-ranking member of the SS to face trial at the first Nuremberg trials. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed.


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