World War I and Vatican Espionage

Posted on July 28, 2011
By Eric Frattini
The Vatican I, Rome, Italy, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900. Credit: Library of Congress

The Vatican I, Rome, Italy, between ca. 1890 and ca. 1900. Credit: Library of Congress

Gavrilo Princip was a product of the years in which the winds of anarcho-syndicalism whipped through Europe. He was an overly idealistic Bosnian Serb student who dreamed of fighting great liberation battles. One day, in the streets of Belgrade, the young student read a headline announcing a visit by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie von Hohenberg, to the city of Sarajevo. June 28, 1914, was the feast of St. Vitus, patron saint of Serbia.

For Serbs, in general, and Princip in particular, Franz Ferdinand, nephew of the emperor Franz Joseph and heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, represented Hapsburg power over the Bosnians and southern Slavs who, following the example of Serbia, sought to win independence from the Central Empire. To a nationalist like Princip, this visit meant that the highest representative of the occupying empire was only a gunshot away. The student contacted the “Black Hand,” a Serbian organization that up until then had merely fired leaflets at the entourage of General Potiorek, governor of Bosnia. Although the organization refused to help him, Princip decided to persevere. He recruited five other youths to carry out his plans.

That fatal June 28 began early, when the imperial couple reached Sarajevo. From the station they headed toward the city hall in a procession of open motor cars that traveled by way of the Miljacka docks and the old quarter of Sarajevoso as to get to the city museum. When the procession reached the first terrorist, Mohammed Mehmedbasic, he couldn’t act, because of the press of the crowd cheering the archduke. The second, Vasco Cubrilovic, was surrounded by police agents and could not act either. The third, Nedjelko Cabrinovic, threw a bomb that exploded under the carriage behind Franz Ferdinand. The three other terrorists—Princip, Cvijetko Popovic, and Danilo Ilic—saw Cabrinovic being arrested and decided to hold back.

Nonetheless, shortly afterwards fate brought Gavrilo Princip and the archduke together again. The Austro-Hungarian heir told General Potiorek that he wanted to visit those wounded in the assassination attempt—Count Boos-Waldeck, Colonel Erik von Merizzi, and the Countess Lanjus—in the Sarajevo hospital. A problem arose when the vehicles ahead of the imperial couple’s car suddenly veered from the expected route. General Potiorek ordered the archduke’s driver to back up in a narrow street.

Gavrilo Princip couldn’t believe that the car maneuvering with such difficulty in the narrow street was truly occupied by the imperial couple. The student grabbed his weapon, rushed into the street, braced himself against the royal car, and fired off two shots. The first killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The second gravely wounded his wife, Sophie, who died minutes later. The assassination, apparently an isolated episode in a war of liberation, in fact opened Pandora’s box. The die of war was cast across Europe.

Well before the First World War actually broke out, Pope Pius X feared an ominous sequel to the assassination. Holy Alliance reports already spoke of a “war” that could shake humanity. The pope, in his hatred of the Orthodox church, continually incited Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary to eliminate the Serbs. After the events of Sarajevo, Baron Ritter, the Bavarian representative in the Vatican, wrote to his government: “The pope approves of Austria’s harsh treatment of Serbia. He has no great opinion of the armies of Russia and France in the event of a war against Germany. The cardinal secretary of state [Rafael Merry del Val] did not see when Austria could make war if she does not decide to do so now.”

On August 15, the pope began to feel unwell, and by the 19th, his status was critical. On the 20th, at 1:15 a.m., almost two months after Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, he died holding the hand of his loyal collaborator Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val.

In spite of the difficulties imposed by the war, the cardinals were able to assemble in Rome to choose Pope Pius X’s successor. On the afternoon of August 31, fifty-seven of the sixty-five members of the College of Cardinals began to meet. On September 3, 1914, they elected Giacomo della Chiesa pope. He chose the name Benedict XV. Curiously, della Chiesa had been raised to cardinal—and thus made eligible to vote in the conclave that elected him—only four months before Pius X’s death.

When the first shots of World War I rang out, the two great Central Powers (Austria-Hungary and Germany) confronted the so-called Entente, or Allied, Powers (France, Russia, and Great Britain), which had met in secret on September 5, 1914, to agree that none of them would sign a separate treaty of peace to end the conflict. Thus the division of European nations and empires was already clear, and the two sides began a war that continued in unprecedented fashion over the next four and half years.

While reports of casualties and destruction poured into the secretariat of state from its embassies in Brussels, Berlin, and Vienna, Pope Benedict XV adopted his first measures intended to break with the past. The changes signaled a new course for papal politics.

Cardinal Mariano Rampolla was sent off to direct the insignificant Congregation of the Fabrica of St. Peter’s Cathedral. The new pope’s favorites gave Rampolla only forty-eight hours to vacate his quarters in the Appartamento Borgia and move to a smaller space in the Palazzina dell’Arciprete. Benedict XV’s next move was to dismiss of the powerful Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val from his post as secretary of state, relegating him to running the Abbey of Subiaco. Once Merry del Val was gone, his friends fell into disgrace as well. For example, Cardinal Nicola Canali was dismissed from his post of “substitute” and sent to the less important secretariat of the Congregation of Ceremonies.

But the biggest blow to the anti-modernist fanatics was the supreme pontiff’s order to dismiss Monsignor Umberto Benigni as head of the Vatican counterespionage unit Sodalitium Pianum, the S.P., and make him a professor of diplomatic protocol at the Academy of Ecclesiastical Nobles. The change in policy grew clear when Benedict XV issued the encyclical Ad Beatissimi, which signaled the defeat of the so-called integralists, a word that, of course, did not appear in the document. The S.P. continued to flourish in a world engulfed by war until the publication in 1919 of some documents from its archives that had been found by the German secret service. To the post of secretary of state, the pope named Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Benigni’s old patron who had lately been in charge of the publication of the new Code of Canon Law.

Meanwhile, the First World War unfolded in accordance with the strategy laid out in 1906 in the Schlieffen Plan, a strategic roadmap for German troop movements that appeared to guarantee a quick victory for the German empire. This prediction did not come true. After the battle of the Marne, September 9–12, 1914, the Germans had to pull back their forward troops, which changed the nature of the military conflict. What had been a war of rapid movement and strategic strikes turned into trench warfare—a cruel, long, seemingly endless struggle with attendant loss of human lives. The Holy See and the pope felt a duty to seek a solution. The Vatican thus became an objective, not a military one this time but a strategic location for spies and conspiracies.

Germany and Austria had diplomatic representation in the papal court.Germanyhad been very well positioned since the nineteenth century, when it could count on two ambassadors, one representing Prussia and the other representing Bavaria. Count Otto von Mühlberg, the Prussian diplomat, was energetic in his work. His Bavarian counterpart, Otto von Ritter, was especially admired by the Vatican administration for his moderate nature. Austria was represented by Prince Schönberg, scion of a noble family who had served state and church for centuries. All three diplomats were experts in relations with the Roman curia, especially with bishops and cardinals, and with the Italian press.

In contrast, the Allies’ diplomatic corps were relegated to rubbing shoulders with lower-ranking levels of the papal administration. The only Allied ambassador with any ties in the upper realms of the Vatican was the Belgian envoy, but he preferred the good life to bad diplomacy, which much annoyed his Russian equivalent. Tsar Nicholas II’s representative was not so well regarded in Rome, because of his country’s religious politics, which made Orthodox Russia one of the great defenders of Protestantism within Catholic Europe.

The main counterweights to the Central Powers’ diplomacy were the English Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet and his secretary Dom Philip Langdon. The latter actually worked for the Holy Alliance in the capacity of an Allied propagandist.

Langdon was better known as an expert on English monasteries than as a Holy Alliance spy. Though Dom Philip Langdon carried out missions for the papal espionage services, it was said that Cardinal Gasquet was behind these operations and his secretary was merely following his orders. Patriotic and loyal to Benedict XV, Gasquet never doubted the need to support the Allied cause over the warlike Central Powers. With the aid of the loyal Langdon, he gathered information for the Holy Alliance and sent it on to London.

In one such report, Cardinal Gasquet dispatched a letter to the British Foreign Office, by way of Langdon, describing the Central Powers espionage services’ efforts to win the Vatican’s sympathy to the German-Austrian cause. The letter urged the Foreign Service to immediately name an ambassador to the Holy See. In November 1914, London sent Sir Henry Howard, a retired Catholic diplomat. In his first report back from the Vatican, he described a quite pro-German atmosphere. Cardinal Gasquet, who was in truth a Holy Alliance agent, kept funneling information on everything inside the Vatican that related to the war unfolding outside.

Gasquet lived in the Palazzo San Calisto, a building in the Trastevere district belonging to the Holy See. The Palazzo soon became the center of Allied sympathizers. Pope Benedict XV summoned Gasquet and requested that he keep his meetings more under cover, because if an ambassador of the Central Powers were to learn of the cardinal’s doings, papal neutrality in the war would be jeopardized.

The pope also ordered the cardinal to pass on any information on Central Powers spies in the Vatican to the Holy Alliance before sending it to the British. Benedict XV reminded Cardinal Gasquet that his first loyalty was to the papacy, not the English. Gasquet, however, feared that German or Austrian spies might have managed to infiltrate the Holy Alliance or the counter-espionage agency Sodalitium Pianum.

Both Cardinal Gasquet and Sir Henry Howard were well aware of the Central Powers’ efforts to attract the pope’s sympathies to their cause and knew they needed to fight against it.

In the first months of the war, Berlin and Vienna had sent not only ambassadors to the Holy See but also large contingents of diplomats and secret agents. The diplomats frequently requested audiences with Benedict XV, held weekly meetings with the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, organized additional meetings with his aides, and hosted dinners for high-ranking members of the Roman curia and the Italian press.

The German and Austrian spies, just like their diplomats, worked openly to win the pope and his aides to their cause in order to gain justification for their war policy and undermine the Allied Powers opposing them. The spies’ furtive encounters in dark Roman alleys soon gave way to social gatherings in palaces and mansions in sympathy with one side or the other.

Early in 1915, the lightning war turned into trench war. Both sides needed new allies to reinforce their defensive lines or simply to provide replacements for troop units that had now spent months fighting under awful conditions. Thus both sides tried to lure Italy into the war. Although Italy was a member of the Triple Alliance, with Germany and Austria, its leaders were determined not to expose their citizens to the hazards of war. In the first months of 1915, the embassies of both sides mounted full-press efforts to win Italy’s support for the Entente or the Central Powers.

The Holy Alliance had already reported to the pope and to Cardinal Gasparri about the intentions of Italy’s leaders. Papal spies knew of meetings between representatives of the Roman government and the Austro-Hungarian empire to negotiate Italy’s entrance on that side. The price of Italian support for Austria and Germany would be the so-called terre irredente, the Italian-speaking lands in the Trentine districts that belonged to the Austrian empire. Rome’s opportunist position put Vienna in a tight spot.

On the other hand, the Holy Alliance had also reported to the pope about Italian government contacts with the Allies. The papal espionage service had learned that the government in Rome was simultaneously negotiating its neutrality with the Entente. If Italy stayed neutral and the Entente won the war, the kingdom would likewise be rewarded with lands previously belonging to Austria.

Quickly, Pope Benedict XV ordered his spy service and secretariat of state to devote themselves body and soul to preventing Italian entrance into the war in support of Austria and Germany. The pope doubted the Italian state’s ability to survive the storm of war either politically or economically, especially if Italy—and thereforeRome—became a target for bombing attacks.

A problem emerged when the Holy Alliance discovered that many high Church officials in Rome favored Italian intervention on the side of the Central Powers, which were the leading Catholic powers in central Europeand a barrier against the advance of the Russian Orthodox religion and pan-Slavism. Those leanings encouraged German espionage to undertake still more intrigues in theVatican, often with the support of the Sodalitium Pianum, the papal counterespionage.

On February 21, 1915, Holy Alliance agents detected the arrival in Rome of Matthias Erzberger, leader ofGermany’s Catholic Center Party. Erzberger was well respected in the upper spheres of theVatican, and a familiar figure to Benedict XV as well. Historians do not accept his close connection with the Vatican as a clear explanation for the curia’s and the pope’s support for the Central Powers during the war, but they do not entirely dismiss it either.

During the spring of that year, Matthias Erzberger visited the Italian capital on several more occasions, maintaining relations in the Austrian and German embassies and keeping up continual visits to Vatican palaces. The German politician did not know he was under strict surveillance not only by the Italian secret services but also by the Holy Alliance (more sympathetic to the Allied cause and the arguments of Cardinal Gasquet) and the Sodalitium Pianum (close to the Central Powers). Clearly, Erzberger was inItalydoing covert work for the Central Powers, but only the Holy Alliance knew the true intentions of the leader of the Catholic Center Party and the po liti cal organization Zentrum, which had been persecuted by Otto von Bismarck for many years.

Matthias Erzberger had come toRomeon Kaiser Wilhelm’s orders, to offer Benedict XV the terre irredente in return for his convincingItalyto remain neutral in the conflict. Germany and its ruler preferred forItalynot to intervene in favor ofAustria, because that would makeItalya theater of war, requiring both the Central Powers and the Entente to divert troops from other fronts. But Kaiser Wilhelm likewise did not want Italy to intervene in favor of the Entente, which would bring an open Austrian-Italian conflict over the Trentine lands.

The formal proposal that the politician and spy Matthias Erzberger brought from Kaiser Wilhelm to Benedict XV was the automatic transfer of Trentino fromAustriato the pope himself. This would allow the creation of an independent papal enclave near theVatican, including a corridor to the sea. The proposal had the support of the S.P., while the Holy Alliance recommended that Cardinal Gasparri reject the proposal.

Both Benedict XV and his secretary of state, Gasparri, knew that saying yes to Erzberger would in fact end papal neutrality in the war. Both the supreme pontiff and Gasparri doubted that, at the end of the war, either Austria or Italy would permit papal representatives to set up Church administration in Trentino. Still, it was now becoming clear that, for the first time since the outbreak of the First World War, Germany and the Vatican had parallel interests.

Matthias Erzberger provided a secure channel for the flow of messages between theVaticanandBerlin. Suddenly, by way of papal diplomacy, the Kaiser’s spy had become an ally of the Holy Alliance. Under the protection of the papal spy service by order of Gasparri and perhaps Benedict XV himself, Erzberger carried diplomatic proposals from one side ofRometo another. He also became a source of Vatican financing, because on Kaiser Wilhelm’s orders he was contributing sizable sums to the papal treasury as “donations.”

This fact has given rise to serious controversy among historians. Since 1914, the Vatican’s coffers had been in a sorry state, nearly empty, because of the war’s effect on the economies of Europe in general and Italy in particular. The Vatican had categorically rejected the annual indemnity stipulated in the Law of Guarantees of 1871, which the Italian government was supposed to pay the pope in compensation for loss of the papal states. The pope thought that pilgrims’ donations and the Obolo di San Pietro (“Peter’s Pence,” contributions by parishioners abroad) could support not only the Holy See’s expenses but also the broad structure of the Church around the world. But the war killed off tourism and interrupted the flow of donations and pilgrims to the Vatican. The few funds still coming in went to war victims and refugees. The Vatican may not have been bankrupt, but it was in delicate financial shape that could endanger the operation of the papal bureaucracy in a not-so-distant future.

Recognizing this opportunity to ingratiate himself with the pope, Kaiser Wilhelm began sending sizable amounts of money by way of Erzberger to give the Vatican treasury some breathing room. What began as small sums turned into millions in “secret funds” coming from several Swiss banks. Cardinal Pietro Gasparri ordered the Holy Alliance to see to it that these funds would show up inVatican accounts as part of the so-called Peter’s Pence to avoid upsetting the nations of the Entente.

As liaison for undercover German finance operations, the Holy Alliance chose Father Antonio Lapoma, a pro-German priest who worked in the city of Potenza. Father Lapoma and the spy Matthias Erzberger joined hands in  “Operation Eisbär” (polar bear, the code name by which German espionage agents in Rome referred to Pope Benedict XV).

Operation Eisbär’s first step was to raise money for the Vatican from private citizens of the Central Powers. Thus Erzberger went to Berlin to organize a wide network for fundraising not only among Catholics but also among Lutherans and other Protestants. German citizens were told the money would go to those wounded in the war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s government required businessmen, bankers, and even house wives to actively participate in the fundraising, without their ever knowing that the eventual recipient would be the Vatican, after the funds passed through Swiss banks.

Italian intelligence believed that in 1914, Benedict XV had inherited empty coffers from the papacy of Pius X, yet now, in 1915, they discovered that the new pope had mysteriously rescued the Vatican’s finances. They did not know his main source of income was Kaiser Wilhelm and Germany. The Entente’s secret service set out to prove their suspicions that the pope had fallen under the sway of the Central Powers, at least economically. The Kaiser, meanwhile, gave Erzberger complete freedom to turn over as much money as he could. The Kaiser’s agent had close ties to a diplomat in Germany’s Roman embassy, Franz von Stockhammern, who had taken over direction of his country’s intelligence services in Italy when the war broke out. Erzberger and Stockhammern worked closely together, along with the Holy Alliance’s Father Antonio Lapoma, on covert operations to keep Italy out of the war. Lapoma was in charge of countering any attempts by politicians, parties, and grass-roots movements or organizations to bring Italy into the conflict on either side.

Pope Benedict XV and his secretary of state, Gasparri, knew thatItaly’s neutrality brought them millions of German marks. Given the Holy See’s neutral position, it was no surprise that Catholic newspapers—proclaiming themselves mouthpieces for the citizenry—should be firm defenders of Italian neutrality. In the beginning of 1915, Austria’s Roman embassy reported to Vienna that several Italian Catholic papers—in fact it was close to fifty—were expressing the opinion that Italy, the Central Powers’ only friend, opposed entry into the war.

The Austrian spies knew from various informants that Italy’s mass media were getting subsidies from mysterious sources and that perhaps the German embassy was involved. In fact, this money came from the same funds sent by Kaiser Wilhelm to the Vatican through Swiss banks. The Holy Alliance’s agent Antonio Lapoma channeled the money from the banks to the newspaper publishers.

Britain’s ambassador Sir Henry Howard had received reports (possibly from Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet) about sinister meetings in Franz von Stockhammern’s private rooms inRome’s elegant Hotel Russie. There the German diplomat wined and dined his guests with French champagne and Russian caviar. These guests included cardinals, abbots of Roman monasteries, and some bishops from important Vatican departments. They undertook to write newspaper articles, and sometimes they advised the German diplomat about the propaganda campaign that formed part of Operation Eisbär. This campaign, directed by Franz von Stockhammern of the German espionage service and the priest Antonio Lapoma of the Holy Alliance, brought about a shift in public opinion in favor of the Central Powers and Italian neutrality and opposed to the Entente. Sir Henry Howard presented a formal complaint to the secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, but without much success.

Gasparri promised to ask the publishers for a more measured tone in articles and editorials. Pope Benedict XV had instructed Cardinal Gasparri that, if the press kept attacking the Entente, he should write an article in L’Osservatore Romano, chastising the editors and publishers of those media. In fact, the media criticism grew sharper, if anything, although Gasparri occasionally paid small “subsidies” to one paper or another to keep it from publishing particular articles or drawings critical of the Entente. Those funds came from money sent from Germany to the Vatican.

While Franz von Stockhammern worked closely with the press, Matthias Erzberger did the same with Father Lapoma, spreading neutralist propaganda in still more communications media and changing the minds of those who wanted to see Italy enter the war.

In late spring of 1915, papal spies informed the Germans that the Italian prime minister, Antonio Salandra, and his minister of foreign affairs, Sidney Sonnino, were getting ready to pressure the cabinet and parliament to ratify an accord they had secretly signed in London in April. They had agreed to bring Italy into the war on the French and British side. Father Lapoma put Erzberger in contact with Pasquale Grippo, minister of education in Salandra’s cabinet.

Father Lapoma had told Matthias Erzberger of his secret meetings with Grippo in Roman churches, where the education minister revealed that, after Salandra and Sonnino presented their war proposal, several ministers had come out against intervention. These included Vincenzo Riccio, head of the postal service, and Gianetto Cavasola, minister of agriculture. Riccio and Cavasola were both firm defenders of neutrality at any price.

Pasquale Grippo’s information suggested toViennaandBerlinthatItaly’s government was divided. The German secret service and the Austrian government pinned their hopes on Giovanni Gioliti, an important politician with great influence in other social circles and in parliament. Erzberger maintained that Stockhammern and Father Lapoma had to stall for time or, if necessary, buy it. Berlin sent him five million lire to distribute among Italian parliamentary deputies. The Austrians also had bought several deputies, and the Germans, through Stockhammern, paid various journalists to ratchet up their attacks on the Entente. Father Lapoma was supposed to gather signatures of bishops and cardinals against the war. In this task he had the aid of Father Fonck, director of the Jesuit Biblical Institute and former member of the Vatican counterespionage service, as well as Monsignor Boncompagni, a high Vatican official with important ties in the Roman curia and aristocracy.

Finally, by order of Kaiser Wilhelm, the German embassy reacted as might have been expected. Benedict XV’s support was essential, and on the night of May 6, Franz von Stockhammern, with the aid of the Holy Alliance and of the pope’s secretary Monsignor Giuseppe Migone, won entry to the Vatican.

Although the Swiss Guard had closed the gates at 9 p.m. and the Italian police and secret service had all entrances under surveillance, Monsignor Migone managed to bring the spy Stockhammern to the pope’s residence. Benedict XV was waiting in a small room.

The supreme pontiff thought that Sidney Sonnino, the Italian foreign minister, was playing too dangerous a game withItaly’s future in the balance. In this secret meeting, Stockhammern openly offered himAustria’s Trentine lands if he could keep Italy out of the war. Pope Benedict XV offered the German spy what ever support the Vatican could muster in the next cabinet meeting. There was no need to mention Pasquale Grippo’s name aloud. However, none of the secret maneuvers, clandestine meetings, propaganda operations, or any other efforts by Franz von Stockhammern, Matthias Erzberger, Father Antonio Lapoma, the German spy service, or the Holy Alliance could avoid the inevitable. On May 23, 1915,Italy declared war on Austria.

Soon afterwards, the Italian espionage services discovered the contacts established between the German secret service, the papal one, and Pope Benedict XV himself toward the goal of influencing Italy’s political decisions. They took this as evidence of theVatican’s connivance with the Central Powers. When Italy entered the war, Germany and Austria closed their embassies in Rome, recalling their emissaries to Berlin and Vienna. Germany’s and Austria’s new ambassadors to the Holy See would operate out of the Swiss city ofLugano. Franz von Stockhammern likewise moved his spy operations to neutral Switzerland. From the safety of Lugano, Germany and the Holy Alliance would organize covert operations against Italy and other members of the Entente. One of these took place in Ireland. It was financed with some of the funds Kaiser Wilhelm had sent the Vatican, still in the secret Swiss bank accounts.

The British secret service knew that Roger Casement, a retired consul, had made contact with Count von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington. Born in Ireland in 1864, Casement had served as British consul in various African nations and in Brazil, where he denounced the slavery in which rubber workers lived. In 1911, he was named a knight of the British Empire by King Edward VII. In that same year, he began trying to organize a revolt against Great Britain, the nation he had served for so many years. The former diplomat proposed to the German ambassador in Washington that Kaiser Wilhelm II should support the Irish cause. Casement’s idea was an Irish uprising against British troops. For the Germans, this could constitute an excellent diversionary operation. If the Irish rose in rebellion, London would have no choice but to send combat units to the island, pulling them from the European front.

On November 2, 1915, Roger Casement reached Berlin, where he had a number of meetings. “Operation Eire” was entrusted to Franz von Stockhammern. The German spy heard out Casement’s patriotic speeches about the need to expel the British from Ireland, but all that interested him was pulling British troops from the front. If he had to pay the devil himself to accomplish that, he would.

Specifically, Casement proposed to Stockhammern that Germany finance and arm an Irish military unit. This force would be recruited from Irish prisoners who had been serving in the British army and were now in German POW camps. Casement would be in charge of recruitment. Stockhammern would manage the financing and the arms supply.

The weapons for this small Irish army were supposed to come from those captured from the Russians on the eastern front, but the financing was a different question. The German spy remembered the funds Kaiser Wilhelm had sent Pope Benedict XV in return for his support of Italian neutrality. Much of this money remained in numbered Swiss bank accounts belonging to the Vatican. The German espionage chief knew that if the operation were exposed, Germany could simply deny allegations of involvement and point toward the Vatican instead. Franz von Stockhammern thought it would be simple enough to explain Vatican connivance with a rebellion of “Catholic” Irish patriots against the “Protestant” British army, but he did not realize that Pope Benedict XV’s perspective in the twentieth century would differ from that of Pope Pius V in the sixteenth.

While Roger Casement, himself a Protestant, scoured German prison camps in search of Irishmen, money that had up to then belonged to the Vatican began to flow into a new secret Swiss bank account in Casement’s name. When news of this development reached Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri and Pope Benedict XV, they summoned Franz von Stockhammern to an urgent meeting in the Swiss city of Lucerne. There the pope’s emissaries demanded explanations from the German espionage official. Stockhammern replied that he was recruiting Irishmen who hated the English and wanted to fight on the German side.

Casement’s group was sent to Zossen, a site to the south of Berlin away from prying eyes. The Irish ex-diplomat formerly in British service also won the freedom of three more Irishmen who had been confined in the Ruthleben camp after being taken prisoner in France. He decided to send them to Ireland by underground routes to sound out Irish revolutionary leaders about his plan, but the British arrested one of his envoys in the city of Cork and sent him toLondonfor interrogation.

In return for being saved from execution and also paid for his service, this man told the British all he knew about Operation Eire, including Roger Casement’s ties to the Germans and perhaps the Vatican, although he could not confirm the last point. When Casement heard that one of his messengers had been arrested, he wanted to abort the operation. But Franz von Stockhammern compelled him to go ahead, reminding him of the immense quantity of money spent on the plan.

Fearful of the possible repercussions, Roger Casement kept himself on the sidelines, turning control of the operation over to John Decoy, an Irish revolutionary leader in the United States. Both Devoy and Judge Cohalan, another Irish leader in Washington, wanted German support for creation of a Republic of Ireland, but the Kaiser needed immediate results, not chimeras in which few could believe.

Telegrams between the German embassy in Washington and the spy service in Berlin allowed the British to gather the most important information about the plan—the landing spot on the beaches of Tralee Bay. Casement, informed at the last minute, protested that these beaches were constantly assailed by fierce winds, which would hinder landing men and arms. But it was too late. Roger Casement boarded a submarine that took him to the Irish coast.

In early April, the conspirators and Stockhammern arranged that a ship called the Aud, disguised as a neutral Norwegian fishing vessel, would land twenty thousand Russian rifles in Tralee Bay between Friday the 21st and Monday the 24th. The 23rd, Easter Sunday, was the day selected for the rebellion. It appears that the rebels expected much more outside aid than the Germans were in fact willing to provide. Casement, knowing that the Irish leaders were mistaken, wanted to reach Ireland in a German submarine to warn Republican leader Tom Clarke and call off the rising that he was now convinced would fail.

The role of the papal espionage service in the Easter Rising of 1916 has been much discussed ever since. One version, widely repeated, insisted that the Holy Alliance cryptographic department succeeded in breaking German naval codes just two weeks before the war broke out and offered the codes to Winston Churchill, first lord of the admiralty. Other sources say that the Russians broke the codes and gave them to Churchill in Murmansk. In either case, with those codes in their possession, the British navy’s secret service discovered that the Germans were planning to send thousands of arms to Irish rebels on board a Norwegian fishing ship called the Aud. When British naval units tried to intercept the Aud off the coast of Tralee Bay, the German ship hoisted the flag of the imperial navy, and it exploded soon afterward.

Roger Casement landed at dawn on April 21, 1916, Good Friday. Two leaders of the rebellion, Monteith and Casey, rowed the small boat toward shore, but the boat turned over in the high waves. Casement and Monteith managed to swim to shore, reaching the coast half-drowned. Casey, however, perished. While the surviving pair tried to regain their strength, British soldiers who had been lying in ambush surrounded them. The rebellion of which they dreamed would soon have a tragic finale.

All the plans for the rising went wrong. On Holy Saturday, the news spread that the British navy had intercepted the Aud and that Roger Casement had been arrested near Tralee in County Kerry. The revolt’s leaders knew that the rising was condemned to failure, so at last they sent out an order to cancel it. English authorities in Dublin were pushing for the arrest of sixty to a hundred important members of the Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers, but the necessary authorization from London did not arrive until Easter Monday, too late.

At noon on Easter Monday, April 24, Connolly and Parse led a group to Sackville Street(O’Connell Street since 1924) and took possession of the post office. James Connolly addressed his men and told them they were not members of the Irish Citizen Army or the Irish Volunteers but the “Irish Republican Army.” This was the IRA’s first appearance on the scene.

British troops in Dublin were taken by surprise, but they soon mobilized, defeated the Irish forces, and jailed their ringleaders. On May 3, three days after the Rising was defeated, three rebel leaders were executed by firing squad. On May 4 and 5, several more were executed, and on the 8th, another four. Seventy-seven death sentences were issued in all. Although the majority were not carried out, the rebellion’s leaders soon passed into history as “true national heroes” rather than “undesirables.” On August 3, 1916, Roger Casement was executed as well, in Pentonville prison, at the age of fifty-two.

Some sources in the British espionage service accused their Vatican counterparts of having supported the Easter Rising and the plans of Stockhammern and Casement, at least at first. Other historians, primarily Irish ones, accused Pope Benedict XV, his secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, and the Holy Alliance agent Father Antonio Lapoma of having abandoned Catholic Ireland in its struggle against Protestant Great Britain. Several Roger Casement biographers assert that a Vatican agent (supposedly Father Antonio Lapoma) could have turned Casement over to the English in Tralee Bay on orders of the pope or theVaticansecretary of state. Apparently Benedict XV was not very pleased by the German secret service’s use of Vatican funds to finance the Irish revolt—funds that had been intended to subsidize the Vatican and its battered finances.

In sum, the involvement of the Vatican, Pope Benedict XV, and the Holy Alliance in the Easter Rising of 1916 remains one more mystery among the many that surround the Holy See.

Meanwhile, the First World War continued apace, as did the operations of Franz von Stockhammern and the Holy Alliance. One morning in April of 1916, Italian counterintelligence received a visit from a lawyer named Antonio Celletti, who claimed to be a friend of one Archita Valente. Celletti said that Valente showed great interest in the classified ads of the newspaper Giornale d’Italia and in strange packets he received from unknown men.

In May, Valente asked Giuseppe Grassi, whom Celletti also knew, to carry some letters to a Baron Stockhammern in the Swiss city of Lucerne. Ignorant of what Valente might be up to, Grassi mentioned this upcoming errand to Celletti, who volunteered to deliver the letters in his place. With the letters in hand and the sign and countersign he had gotten from Grassi, Celletti traveled toLucerneto meet with Baron Stockhammern. In Switzerland, he was met by Mario Pomarici, an openly pro-German Italian journalist who had been paid to write several articles opposing Italian intervention in the war.

Pomarici had become one of Stockhammern’s most trusted men. He told Celletti that Valente was a German agent inItalyand that his main task was to gather information about relations between Italy and the Entente as well as those between Italy and theVatican. On his return to Rome, Antonio Celletti told the Italian espionage service about the conspiracy he had unearthed. By June 1916, Italian counterintelligence had sufficient evidence against Archita Valente and Mario Pomarici, but only in November were the courts able to charge both with high treason.


WhenRome’s intelligence service began to study Valente’s coded messages in the Giornale d’Italia, they discovered Franz von Stockhammern’s communications with a wide network of agents insideItalyand theVatican. They passed the information on to officials of the Holy Alliance, who in turn passed it on to the counterespionage service, the Sodalitium Pianum. In one message, Valente had spoken of a “Mr. A” and a “Mr. G.” Interrogated by Italian intelligence, Archita Valente confessed that both “A” and “G” were Giuseppe Ambrogetti, a Roman attorney who had often served as a special messenger for Pope Benedict XV and for certain cardinals and bishops. Ambrogetti was in fact an experienced agent of the Holy Alliance who had been decorated by the pope himself for “services to the Church.”

The Italians arrested the papal spy. Perhaps to save his own skin, he confessed that he was in fact “A,” but not “G.” Ambrogetti said he had infiltrated the German secret service on Holy Alliance orders and that the money he’d received had been deposited in the Vatican. Pressured further, he said that “G” was Monsignor Rudolph Gerlach, a Bavarian priest who had been chamberlain and confidant to Pope Benedict XV.

Archita Valente, meanwhile, said that during the period of Italian neutrality Monsignor Gerlach had acted as a go-between, distributing large sums of money from Franz von Stockhammern to various newspapers and journalists. He said Gerlach had also disbursed funds to Ambrogetti, the Holy Alliance agent. The money received by Gerlach was deposited in numbered Swiss bank accounts. Giuseppe Ambrogetti said the Holy Alliance had put Gerlach under surveillance. The papal espionage service characterized Monsignor Gerlach as an ambitious and very intelligent man, about whom rumors had been circulating since his time in the prestigious Pontifical Ecclesiastic Academy, when his character and the sincerity of his vocation had been doubted. At that point, the S.P. had alerted the Holy Alliance to keep an eye on him. The first suspicious signs emerged when Rudolph Gerlach was nominated for a post in the nuncio’s office in Bavaria. Cardinal Andrea Frühwirth, head of the papal embassy, refused to accept Gerlach, so he stayed on inRome. In the EternalCity, he developed ties to Giacomo della Chiesa when the then Archbishop of Bologna came to Rome for his investiture as cardinal. As Benedict XV, della Chiesa brought Monsignor Rudolph Gerlach into his service, but that did not satisfy this unscrupulous adventurer.

For the Holy Alliance, the news that Gerlach was a traitor came as no surprise. The Sodalitium Pianum had informed them of the Bavarian priest’s continual visits to the Austrian and German embassies in Rome during the period of Italian neutrality. The Italians believed Rudolph Gerlach was the key member of the Kaiser’s spy corps in the Vatican. The Italian government would have liked to put him and all his associates in front of a firing squad for espionage and high treason, but then the press would have been all over the scandal. The Vatican, and especially the Roman curia surrounding Pope Benedict XV, wanted to quickly turn the page on the Gerlach affair.

The Italian secret service kept the Vatican and the Holy Alliance informed about the progress of their investigation of the former papal chamberlain. Finally, on January 5, 1917, Monsignor Gerlach was conducted to the Swiss border by Italian agents. Archita Valente and Giuseppe Ambrogetti, implicated in conspiracies against the Italian state, went on trial for high treason and espionage that spring. Rudolph Gerlach was not present at the trial, so he could not testify or defend himself. Valente received a death sentence; Gerlach, life imprisonment in absentia; and Ambrogetti, three years in prison. However, thanks to some secret benefactor, possibly the Holy Alliance, Giuseppe Ambrogetti did not serve a day in jail.

The Gerlach affair was one of the biggest scandals in papal history. Proof that Rudolph Gerlach had betrayed the pope and the Vatican sent Benedict XV into a deep depression. The secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, wrote to Gerlach summoning him to the Vatican to answer the accusations, but Gerlach showed no signs of life. He preferred to stay in hiding inSwitzerland, safe from the long arm of the Italian secret service.

A military tribunal exonerated the Vatican, Pope Benedict XV, Cardinal and Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri, the Vatican counterespionage Sodalitium Pianum, and the Vatican espionage service Holy Alliance of any responsibility for the Gerlach affair. Yet there is no doubt that Holy Alliance spy Giuseppe Ambrogetti’s involvement damaged the image of neutrality theVaticanwanted to project.

From London, Paris, Rome, and Washington came insinuations that the Vatican sympathized with the Central Powers, using its secret services to work for a German- Austrian victory. For the governments of the Entente, the Rudolph Gerlach case was proof. The former papal chamberlain had used Vatican channels to pass information to an enemy power in time of war. Years later, it would be revealed that the Vatican had paid the lawyer who defended Monsignor Gerlach before the military tribunal that tried him for high treason.

One member of the Holy Alliance even tried, hoping against hope, to persuade General Luigi Cardona, commander in chief of the Italian army, to mediate with the tribunal to retract the accusation against Gerlach. It was also known that Monsignor Federico Tedeschini, who belonged to the secretariat of state, had testified to the Italian espionage service and the military tribunal that, after a review of the Vatican’s diplomatic activities and in line with the censorship imposed by the Italian government, the secretariat’s correspondence with the nations of the Central Powers had been restricted. Tedeschini admitted that, beginning in late 1915 and early 1916, Monsignor Gerlach had carried on an extensive correspondence with Matthias Erzberger and Franz von Stockhammern, both recognized as German spies, and that this correspondence had been expressly authorized by Pope Benedict XV. The supreme pontiff’s explanation was that this authorization had been intended to convince Germany to stop bombarding civilian areas and to allow the transfer of wounded French and German soldiers to Switzerland. Gerlach always denied having carried on any type of correspondence with German agents in neutral countries by order of the pope. He did admit to having passed large sums of money from Berlin to newspapers like La Vittoria so they would come out clearly for Italian neutrality. A report by Matthias Erzberger to Berlin said that Monsignor Gerlach was the espionage service’s main source of information in the circles close to the pope.

During the last days of Italian neutrality, Erzberger authorized Monsignor Gerlach to distribute about five million lire to members of the curia, journalists, and politicians in an effort to keep Italy out of the war. After the government in Rome had joined the Entente, Gerlach continued to receive enormous sums of money from Stockhammern. In November 1915, German secret services reported having paid around 200,000 lire to Father Lapoma, the Holy Alliance agent, and to Monsignor Francesco Marchietti-Selvaggiani, the papal nuncio in Switzerland. From May of that year on, Monsignor Gerlach was the main German agent inside the Holy See. When the scandal blew up and Italy demanded the Vatican turn over those responsible, Benedict XV’s only response was that theVaticanhad been the main victim.

Gerlach moved to Switzerland permanently and was decorated by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germanyand Emperor Charles I ofAustria, who had succeeded his grandfather Franz Joseph I on November 1, 1916. Gerlach soon left religious life. After the war’s end, several nations repaid his services with medals.

The Gerlach affair displayed Pope Benedict XV’s sympathies for Italy’s enemies. The Italian secret services’ surveillance of the pope and his closest advisors increased, to make sure that the Central Powers could not use the Vatican as an intelligence source. The Holy Alliance discovered a few months later that the Treaty of London signed by the foreign minister, Sonnino, which formalized Italy’s entrance into the war, had included a secret clause, the so-called Article 15, supported by London, Paris, and St. Petersburg, which prohibited intervention by the Vatican, the pope, or any other high official of the Holy See in a future peace conference.

Both the Entente and the Central Powers began to discover, at the beginning of 1917, that only a negotiated solution could end the butchery the First World War had become. The following years would be ones of maneuvers to achieve peace or at least to reduce the number of enemies. From then on, the main function of the secret services, including the Holy Alliance and the Sodalitium Pianum, would be to serve as intermediaries in that pursuit.


Excerpted from The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage by Eric Franttini.

Copyright © 2004 by the author.

English translation copyright © 2008 by Dick Cluster and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

ERIC FRATTINI has written books on the FBI, the UN, and the CIA, and is the author of Mafia Inc.: 100 Years of Cosa Nostra and The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage. He is a TV correspondent and lives in Spain.

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