|Josef Muller in 1937|
Riebling told the stories of many fascinating people involved in those plots.
The most vivid German character aiding the Pope was Josef Müller:
Josef Müller was a self-made lawyer of sturdy peasant stock, a beer-loving Bavarian with sky-blue eyes, and an Iron Cross hero of the Great War. Because he worked his way through school driving an oxcart, friends ribbed him as Ochsensepp, Joey Ox. The nickname aptly captured Müller’s robust build, his rural roots, and the strong will that brought him such bad and good fortune.
As the Nazis seized power in 1933 he advised Bavaria’s Prime Minister, Heinrich Held, to arrest Heinrich Himmler and put him before a firing squad. Held hesitated and did nothing. In 1934 Müller was arrested for treason. Himmler personally interrogated Müller about what he had told Held. Müller admitted advising Himmler should be shot and asked would Himmler not have given the same advice:
Müller’s courage confounded Himmler. An Allied Intelligence officer later posited that Müller, “a tough and two-fisted political infighter,” was “the type of man-sprung-from-the-people whom the Nazis loved to claim as their own and who, as an opponent, rather daunted them.” Somewhat awed by his prisoner’s will, Himmler invited him to join the SS. Müller refused. “I am philosophically opposed to you. I am a practicing Catholic, and my brother is a Catholic priest. Where could I find the possibility of a compromise here?” Himmler congratulated Müller on his “manly defence” and let him go.
The head of Hitler’s bodyguard, Hans Rattenhuber, became Müller’s friend and an unwitting but valuable source of SS secrets in conversations with Müller.
Müller set up a network assembling information on Nazi violations of the Concordat between the regime and the Catholic Church.
He started acting as a courier carrying information between Germany and Rome as he personally flew a sports plane.
The Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, reached out to Müller and enlisted him to carry messages to and from the Vatican. The leadership of the Abwehr, including Admiral Canaris, was at the heart of German resistance to Hitler.
To provide cover for Müller they portrayed him as an agent of the Abwehr spying on the Vatican!
In early 1943 he directly briefed Pope Pius XII on coup plans by high ranking German military leaders. Pius subsequently gave moral sanction to the assassination of Hitler, arranged that the Vatican would take immediate diplomatic action after a coup to recognize Müller as a special emissary to the new German government with the status of ambassador and would seek a separate peace with the Western Allies. The coup was never attempted when a bomb failed to explode in a plane carrying Hitler back from the Eastern Front.
Eventually Müller was arrested. He was in prison in Berlin when Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to kill Hitler in July of 1944 and mount a coup. Müller was to play an important role. If the coup succeeded Müller would be released and flown immediately to Rome where he would meet with the Pope and pursue peace talks with the Allies.
When Hitler survived and the coup failed retribution was swift and fierce.
The SS finally determined the Abwehr was plotting against Hitler and found evidence of Catholic participation in the plots.
On April 8, 1945 Müller was advised he would be hanged that day:
Müller prepared for death. He sank to his knees in his striped orange and gray pajamas, whispering the Our Father. Then he motioned to one of his fellow prisoners, Russian General Pyotr Privalov, and asked him to memorize a message. Knowing that the last words of the condemned sometimes reached the outside world, he told Privalov he would shout to the hangman: “I die for peace!”
Müller then walked to the gallows. What happened there is as dramatic as any work of fiction I have read. You will need to read the book to find out the fate of Joey Ox.
What writer of spy fiction could not wish he or she had a hero to rival Müller. Ian Fleming’s personal WW II exploits are pale in comparison to Müller.
Recounting Muller’s story demonstrates Riebling’s skill at bringing to life the scheming and people that enveloped the Vatican and German Resistance to Hitler. It is a rare work of non-fiction that has me anxiously turning the pages. One night I stayed up late reading as I had to know what happened to Müller before I could sleep.
****Church of Spies by Mark Riebling