Spies in the Vatican: Espionage and Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust


Revered by millions, the Papacy is an international power that many nations have viewed with suspicion, some have tried to control, and not a few have spied upon. Ranging across two centuries of world history, David Alvarez's fascinating study throws open the Vatican's doors to reveal the startling but little-known world of espionage in one of the most sacred places on earth.

Reviewing the pontificates of ten popes—from Pius VII, Napoleon's nemesis, to Pius XII, maligned by some...

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Revered by millions, the Papacy is an international power that many nations have viewed with suspicion, some have tried to control, and not a few have spied upon. Ranging across two centuries of world history, David Alvarez's fascinating study throws open the Vatican's doors to reveal the startling but little-known world of espionage in one of the most sacred places on earth.

Reviewing the pontificates of ten popes—from Pius VII, Napoleon's nemesis, to Pius XII, maligned by some as "Hitler's pope"—Alvarez provides the first history of the intelligence operations and covert activities that reached the highest levels of the Vatican. Populated with world leaders, both famous and infamous, and a rogue's gallery of professional spies, fallen priests, and mercenary informants, his work casts a bright light into the darker corners of papal history and international diplomacy, a light that often sparkles with a witty appreciation of the foibles of the espionage trade.

Alvarez reveals that the Vatican itself occasionally entered this clandestine world through such operations as a network of informants to spy on liberal Catholics or a covert mission to establish an underground church in the Soviet Union. More frequently, however, the Vatican was the target for hostile intelligence services seeking to expose the secrets of the Papacy. During World War I, for example,

Pope Benedict XV's personal assistant was a secret German agent. During World War II, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United States sent spies into the Vatican to discover the pope's intentions. The Nazis were especially resourceful, securing the services of apostate priests, such as Herbert Keller, an unscrupulous monk who exposed Pope Pius XII's involvement in a plot against Hitler, and devising a plan to establish a "seminary" in Rome with agents posing as student priests. Alvarez recounts these operations and many more, including the methods by which the Vatican learned about the Holocaust.

Based on diplomatic and intelligence records in Britain, France, Italy, Spain, the United States, and the Vatican—with the latter including documents sealed after the author had access to them—Spies in the Vatican reveals that the Papacy often was hindered by its inability to collect timely and relevant intelligence and that it made little effort to improve its intelligence capabilities after 1870. Challenging the long-held notion that the pope is the world's best-informed leader, Alvarez illuminates not only the inner workings of the Vatican but also the global events in which it was inextricably involved.

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Editorial Reviews

J. Michael Phayer
A must read for anyone interested in the inside workings of the Vatican in modern times.
David Kahn
People have long contended that the Vatican possesses the world's best intelligence network. But is it so? Intelligence historian David Alvarez here probes this myth with impeccable scholarship, exceptional insight, and great literary vigor. An outstanding book.
Warren F. Kimball
In a grand tour of intrigue in and by the Vatican, David Alvarez quickly disabuses the reader of the notion that the Papal leadership and the Catholic hierarchy were focused solely on the spiritual world.
Publishers Weekly
A professor of politics at St. Mary's College of California and author of a study of WWII-era codes, Alvarez emphasizes diplomatic relations throughout much of this carefully considered blend of Vatican and intelligence history, though he does detail the careers of several spies and works in some cryptology. The opening chapter details the Vatican's cooperation with European monarchies against burgeoning revolutionary movements, as well as depicting the Italian police commissioner who spied on the pope for the Italian crown. The creation of an intelligence department in the Vatican by Umberto Benigni takes Alvarez to the beginnings of WWI, which found the nation courting Italy through the Vatican (Italy joined the Allies in mid-1915); the German spy Valente cuts a noteworthy figure here. After WWI, the Vatican covertly supported the Russian Orthodox Church against the newly founded Soviet Union. The Vatican's relations with Fascist Italy under Mussolini included the pope's support of anti-Nazi German resistance activities; Alvarez also recounts the activities of German agent Father Michael in staid tones. The best WWII story concerns Alexander Kurtna, a convert from the Russian Orthodox Church who studied at the Vatican and became a Soviet spy in 1940. As a double agent working for the Germans, Kurtna was arrested by the Italians, who thought he was only a Soviet agent, in 1942. Freed by the Germans in 1943, he worked for the Soviets while posing as a German agent in 1944, was arrested by the Italian government now allied with the Allies, released and ended up in a Soviet labor camp. The book's last section proposes that Allied governments knew of the Holocaust earlier than the Vatican did, a stance counter to most recent scholarship. While the title and subtitle indicate "trade book," most of the discussion builds on a footnoted case; casual readers will have to pick through to the few thrills. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This well-documented study covers two centuries of espionage in the Vatican, including the Catholic Church's supposedly far-reaching intelligence network. Alvarez counters the popular perception of a powerful secret organization by arguing that the Church has little staff, expertise, funds, equipment, or even desire to participate actively in the secret world. The 19th century saw what was perhaps the Church's most active intelligence efforts, as it was beset by deadly political turmoil, threats against the Popes, and the elimination of the Papal States. In fact, most of the espionage activity seems to have involved other governments trying to ferret out what international policies the Popes would follow, but the Church's small, tight, close-mouthed bureaucracy has been its best defense. Naturally, the Vatican's controversial actions during World War II have garnered the most public interest, a period Alvarez covered in Nothing Sacred: Nazi Espionage Against the Vatican, 1939-1945. The author concludes that the Vatican recognizes its limitations and depends on the kindness of others for information and protection. This reviewer hopes for a similar volume on the postwar years. Suitable for the espionage collections of all libraries. (Index not seen.)-Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700612147
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 11/28/2002
  • Series: Modern War Studies Series
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,029,574
  • Product dimensions: 6.86 (w) x 8.78 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Table of Contents



1. The End of the Papal States

2. Prisoner of the Vatican

3. The Great War

4. Facing the Dictators

5. Men in Black

6. Between Moscow and Washington

7. "The Best Information Service in the World"




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