SS general Karl Wolff, left, with Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.
General Wolff was incensed, he told me, when the telephone rang in his lodging at Hitler’s headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair (Wolfsschanze) as it was called, near Rastenburg in East Prussia. It was early in the morning of September 13, 1943. Who would wake him up at this hour? A familiar voice let him know. His boss, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, bellowed into the phone that the Führer wanted to see him urgently.
Wolff suspected why; Himmler had secretly given him advance notice. On September 10 German troops marched into Rome, climaxing the comic opera effort by the king and Badoglio to break away from the Axis and join the Allies. Everything had been in flux since July 25, when Mussolini was toppled from power and hidden in a ski resort in the Apennine Mountains, about a hundred miles from Rome.
German intelligence had discovered the location, and on September 12 German paratroopers snatched him away; two days later he was flown to the Führer’s headquarters. After a warm greeting, Hitler promised to restore him to power—in a new rump republic comprising most of northern Italy.
Wolff knew that the Führer was enraged by the Duce’s overthrow weeks earlier and that he still hungered for revenge on those he believed mainly responsible, including Pope Pius XII, even though there was no evidence of his involvement. He knew, too, that Hitler intended to send him, Karl Wolff, to Italy to make sure the liberated dictator remained a loyal puppet and that the leftist “rabble” didn’t take over the streets of Rome and other occupied Italian cities.
Himmler had hinted that Hitler also had a secret special mission in mind for him, and that, Wolff surmised, was what the Führer wanted to talk to him about. It was understandable that his idol wanted to see him, but why so early? After all, he was just recovering from a serious illness.
Now, on the day Mussolini was to arrive, Wolff hurriedly dressed and then threaded his way through a nest of fir trees partly concealing Hitler’s bunker from view. He was greeted in the Führer’s office by a figure who, though cordial, was trembling with impatience. According to notes that Wolff took during and following the meeting, Hitler, after fulminating against the “treacherous” king and the pope and discussing the general’s new job in Italy, gave Wolff an order:
“I have a special mission for you, Wolff. It will be your duty not to discuss it with anyone before I give you permission to do so. Only the Reichsführer [Himmler] knows about it. Do you understand?” “Of course, my Führer.”
“I want you and your troops,” Hitler went on, “to occupy Vatican City as soon as possible, secure its files and art treasures, and take the pope and the curia to the north. I do not want him to fall into the hands of the Allies or to be under their political pressure and influence. The Vatican is already a nest of spies and a center of anti-National Socialist propaganda.
“I shall arrange for the pope to be brought either to Germany or to neutral Liechtenstein, depending on political and military developments. When is the soonest you think you’ll be able to fulfill this mission?”
Stunned, Wolff replied that he was unable to offer a firm schedule because the operation would take time. He must transfer additional SS and police units to Italy, including some from southern Tyrol. And to secure the files and precious art treasures, he would have to find translators well-versed in Latin and Greek as well as Italian and other modern languages. The earliest he could start the operation, Wolff concluded, would be in four to six weeks.
Hitler’s eyes bore more deeply into Wolff’s. The kidnapping had to take place while the Germans still occupied Rome, and they might be forced to leave shortly.
“That’s too long for me,” Hitler growled. “Rush the most important preparations and report developments to me approximately every two weeks.”
Wolff agreed and departed in a state of turmoil. Until now, he would have willingly, and proudly, committed almost any act for the Führer—but abduct the pope? Madness! That could turn all of Italy and the whole Catholic world against Germany.
The general apprehensively prepared to leave for the northern Italian town of Fasano in the shadow of the Alps, sprawled along the banks of Lake Garda southeast of neighboring Salò. That’s where the Duce would set up a rump government. Being his political nanny did not exactly fit into Wolff’s career plan. Yet he was confident he could turn what seemed like a setback into a triumph. And if he had to, he would betray the Führer.
Wolff knew that Hitler trusted him completely, in part because Himmler had so highly recommended him for the task. Besides, the general’s anti-Semitic credentials seemed gilt-edged. He had been, after all, Himmler’s chief aide and had not shirked his responsibility for helping his boss do his emotionally draining but necessary chore of dealing with the Jews.
So valued was Wolff that he was given the unique title of “Highest SS and Police Leader” (Hochster SS und Polizeiführer), placing him just under Himmler in the SS hierarchy and on an equal level with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Reich’s security office. The general seemed just the man to rein in Mussolini, who would surely seek greater independence than Nazi policy permitted.
The Führer was especially irritated by what had been the Duce’s growing reluctance to crack down on the Jews. When Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop visited him in Rome several months before his ouster from power, Mussolini daringly refused to discuss the “Jewish problem” with him. Nor would he support SS actions taken against the Jews either in Italy or in the Italian-occupied zone of France.
Wolff’s initial reaction to Hitler’s blunt kidnap order was to think of a way to avoid carrying it out. He was worried not only about the violent reaction of the Italians to such an operation but also about his reputation.
Though Wolff hardly seemed disturbed that his name would be linked with the deportation and death of millions of Jews, he dreaded the prospect of being associated for posterity with the abduction of the pope, and possibly his murder.
Wolff had abandoned his Protestant religion after joining the SS, feeling that the Nazi Party was a good enough substitute, at least if he wished to advance to the top. And he knew little more about Catholicism than what he had learned from the anti-Church ravings of Himmler. But he worshipped power, and Pope Pius XII, like Adolf Hitler, was one of the world’s most powerful leaders, having the ability to capture people’s souls and to mold their minds. The two men were to the calculating general like earthly gods. And now he was ordered by one of them to destroy the other.
Still, his mission might be useful to him—if he could sabotage it and win the pope’s gratitude. Useful indeed should the worst happen and Germany lose the war. A blessing from His Holiness for saving his life could perhaps save his own. Having reached a high position in a criminal world with no regard for human life, Wolff had begun to feel that only the supremely opportunistic could in the end escape accountability in the hands of a vengeful enemy. And how many were in greater need of an opportunity to cheat the noose than the chief aide to history’s most notorious practitioner of genocide? Now, in his special mission to kidnap the pope, he perceived a unique opportunity.
Wolff would try to delay, or even sabotage, the kidnap plan. But he would have to walk a possibly fatal tightrope. If Hitler suspected him of disobedience, he would exact a vengeance that would make an enemy noose almost seem a pleasant way to die. Yet this fear of the Führer melded with a sense of guilt for disobeying him and the awe he felt in the man’s presence, reflected in a letter the general wrote to his mother in 1939 saying it was “so wonderful [to work] in such close contact with the Führer.”
Though only Wolff, Himmler, and probably Martin Bormann, Hitler’s powerful secretary and confidant, apparently knew of the Führer’s order, other top Nazis knew what Hitler had in mind, especially after the meeting with his military chiefs on July 26.
The day after the meeting, Joseph Goebbels, who, as propaganda minister, personally believed that kidnapping the pope would be bad publicity both at home and abroad, wrote in his diary that he and Ribbentrop had helped to convince the Führer that he should give up the plan. But Wolff now knew that Hitler hadn’t, in fact, done so.
The general’s main problem was that Hitler had given him little time to stall the plot. Why was Hitler in such a hurry to carry it out? Was it, at least in part, because he wanted to rid Rome of the pope before Pius could see from his window the Jews of Rome being fatally piled into trucks and finally feel compelled to speak out against the mass killings? And even if the pope remained silent during the roundup, did Hitler fear he might protest if the Allies reached Rome and exerted sufficient “pressure and influence” on him to do so?
When I asked these questions, Wolff was clearly perturbed. Hitler, of course, hated the Jews, he replied. And he sent them to concentration camps, always fearing the pope would protest.
But the general quickly added: “You must understand that I just did administrative work for Himmler and did not know the Jews were being killed. I only learned about that after the war.”
In 1947, on appearing as a witness at the Nuremberg trials, Wolff made a similar statement to a prosecutor: “I regret to have to confirm to you that today I am of the opinion that exterminations were actually carried out without our knowledge.”
He was referring to the “great majority” of SS men, who, he said, were really the “elite” of the German army. And he clung to this claim even after the prosecutor read letters exchanged by Wolff and the state secretary of the Reich ministry of transportation. In replying to the secretary’s report about the transport of Jews to the death camp of Treblinka, Wolff wrote:
“Thank you very much, also in the name of the Reichsführer SS, for your letter of 28 July 1942. I was especially pleased to learn from you that already for a fortnight a daily train, taking five thousand members of the Chosen People every time, had gone to Treblinka . . . I have contacted the departments concerned myself, so that the smooth carrying out of all these measures seems to be guaranteed.”
Wolff admitted, after his “memory had been refreshed in this way” that he was “connected with these things.” But he added that “it is completely impossible after many years have passed to precisely remember every letter which ever passed through my office, and may I also point out that this was the usual procedure . . . [The letter] only referred to the actual transportation movement, the actual movement of the people. . . . I really can’t find anything which might be considered criminal.” As for his reference to “the Chosen People,” “the Jews themselves proudly call themselves” that.
Why were five thousand Jews a day being sent to Treblinka? the prosecutor persisted.
“I don’t know,” Wolff responded, “but it was done by order of the Reichsführer [Himmler].”
“Well, you don’t claim today,” the prosecutor asked, “that Himmler was among those elite people who represented the best of Germankind, do you?”
The question seemed to startle Wolff, perhaps because he had never asked it himself for fear the answer might shatter the depraved illusion of glory and greatness that shielded his conscience from recognizing evil.
“No,” Wolff nervously responded, “I cannot maintain that today, much as I would like to.”