The Pope almost became head of state in Liechtenstein in 1916.
The Pope almost became head of state in Liechtenstein in 1916. Photos: Wikimedia, Swiss National Museum / Montage: National Museum

The plot to kidnap the Pope and take him to Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein featured in two 20th century conflicts involving the Vatican. The first was when there was a plan to give the Pope dominion over the Principality. The second was when there was a plot to kidnap the Pope and take him to Liechtenstein.

Günther Meier

Günther Meier

Günther Meier was editor-in-chief of the Liechtensteiner Volksblatt. He writes for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung from Liechtenstein.

In the middle of the First World War, diplomats in Switzerland, Austria and the Vatican were trying to resolve the Roman question in relation to the conflict between Italy and the Papal States. The issue, as the representative of the Holy See in Bern wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Austria in 1916, was “one of the most complicated seen in world politics for a considerable time”. After Italy conquered the Papal States in 1870 and incorporated the Vatican into the nation state of Italy, efforts were made to resolve the situation. The Pope asserted a need for sovereign territory, as territorial independence was the only way to ensure the pontiff the freedom required to carry out his duties. The Pope had to be a real head of state, argued the Catholic church, and not just head of the church granted sovereign civic rights by the nation states.
The conquest of Rome of 1870. Painting by Carlo Ademollo, 1880.
The conquest of Rome of 1870. Painting by Carlo Ademollo, 1880. Wikimedia
The Principality of Liechtenstein came up among the proposals put forward in the Vatican, Austria and Germany. Rome and Vienna developed a particular interest in a secret plan, whereby the Principality would be offered to the pontiff, thus providing him with a sovereign Papal State over which he could preside. The rationale behind the idea was that the Pope would acquire ‘global sovereignty’ through the handover of Liechtenstein, thus facilitating negotiations with the Italian government. The main advocate of the secret plan was German politician Matthias Erzberger, member of the Reichstag in Berlin and minister of finance. Erzberger considered a number of locations for the Pope – and opted for Liechtenstein, which was practically an exclusively catholic country at the time. If a small state was to be created for the pontiff, Erzberger reasoned it made sense to select an existing small state for the role.
Matthias Erzberger wanted to give Liechtenstein to the Pope.
Matthias Erzberger wanted to give Liechtenstein to the Pope. Wikimedia
Erzberger’s focus on Liechtenstein may have had something to do with earlier plans reported in the media following the annexation of the Vatican by Italy. One such story reported in 1884 was that Prince Johann II of Liechtenstein had offered his Principality to the Pope or had at least offered the pontiff Vaduz Castle as an official residence in the event of his departure from Rome. The prince was head of state in Liechtenstein, but he was living in Vienna at that time and only occasionally visited his own country. In the spring of 1916, the Vatican pushed Erzberger to enter into negotiations with the House of Liechtenstein. Erzberger was a realist and did not expect a rapid outcome. Instead he came up with a number of options: the Emperor of Austria could offer the Prince of Liechtenstein something in his empire in return for the Principality, Liechtenstein could be divided into a state for the Pope and one for the prince, or the Principality could be enlarged – either through incorporating more territory or even through an island.
Vaduz Castle on a Swiss postcard from the 1930s.
Vaduz Castle on a Swiss postcard from the 1930s. Swiss National Museum
As Erzberger had expected, his initiatives met with resistance. The elderly, deeply religious Prince Johann II would have been prepared to cede the Principality to the pontiff, Pope Benedict XV, but he was not prepared to take the decision alone. The next-in-line to the throne, Prince Franz, opposed Erzberger’s proposal. The future Regent of Liechtenstein rejected outright any ceding of state or sovereignty. He was also convinced that the people of Liechtenstein would never agree to converting the country into a Papal State. Erzberger, who was incidentally assassinated by nationalist extremists on 26 August 1921, had to abandon his plan. A solution to the Roman question was finally achieved with the Lateran pacts concluded between the Holy See and Italy in 1929, which recognised Vatican City as a state presided over by the Pope.
Prince Johann II of Liechtenstein, 1928.
Prince Johann II of Liechtenstein would have... Wikimedia / liechtensteincollections
Pope Benedict XV on a picture of 1915.
... ceded the Principality to Pope Benedict XV. Wikimedia

Hitler wanted to kidnap the Pope

Following the conclusion of the Lateran pacts, all was calm for a few years until Liechtenstein and the Pope returned to the headlines. The newspaper Liechtensteiner Volksblatt reported on 13 November 1943, citing a foreign radio station, that the pontiff had been advised to move his residence from Vatican City to the Principality of Liechtenstein. As it later transpired, however, the Principality had not been informed. The German Karl Wolff, SS Obergruppenführer and General of the Waffen SS, was appointed highest-ranking SS and police leader in Italy by Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler on 8 September 1943. As Wolff related in subsequent interviews, Hitler wanted German troops to occupy the Vatican and take the Pope “to the north”, kidnap him in other words. The plan was to bring him to Germany or preferably Liechtenstein. Hitler wanted to avoid Pope Pius XII falling into the hands of the Allies or coming under their influence. The Germans also had a plan as to how to justify their abduction of the Pope in the court of world opinion, as Karl Wolff later explained in an interview: they would claim they had discovered a document, a ploy the Nazis had used before, stating that the Pope had contributed to the fall of Mussolini, following which Reich propaganda minister Goebbels would have delivered a fiery address and the Germans would have concluded the ‘operation’ in Rome.
According to the Volksblatt article, furniture for the Pope was already being transported to Liechtenstein.
According to the Volksblatt article, furniture for the Pope was already being transported to Liechtenstein. National Library of Liechtenstein
Karl Wolff, the senior SS leader in Italy, in a 1937 photograph.
Playing a double game: Karl Wolff, General of the Waffen SS. Wikimedia
The ‘operation’ Wolff referred to was to be an extremely brutal exercise. Wolff wanted to deploy 2,000 men to block all exits from the Vatican: “That would have helped us drive the anti-fascists, German deserters and Jews hiding in the Vatican out of the woodwork. The SS would only have given food to those who surrendered. Everyone else would have had to surrender sooner or later from hunger.” However, the operational priority would have been to abduct Pope Pius XII, as well as taking over the Vatican radio station and plundering the Vatican’s artistic treasures – containing no fewer than 500,000 books and 60,000 paintings. Wolff claimed that he was actually being duplicitous: although he was planning to storm the Vatican, he had actually issued a warning to the Pope’s entourage about the plan to kidnap the pontiff.
The Vatican Library: replete with treasures coveted by the Nazis.
The Vatican Library: replete with treasures coveted by the Nazis. Wikimedia
Whether Wolff’s account is true has never been fully established. It’s possible that he was trying to make himself look good and go down in history as the man who protected the Pope. In any case, as was revealed when a section of the Vatican archives was opened in 2016, there was actually an emergency plan to protect the Pope from kidnap by the Germans. The British and Americans were evidently aware of the plot, and they recommended that the Pope retreat to a secure hiding place to wait until Allied paratroopers came to set him free. One archived document released in 2016 reveals that the chosen hiding place was the relatively inaccessible Gregorian Tower, once used for stargazing and measuring wind strength. Hitler’s harebrained plot to abduct the Pope and take him to neutral Liechtenstein ultimately came to nothing. Hitler’s inner circle evidently believed that the people would overwhelmingly oppose storming the Vatican to kidnap the Pope. Moreover, Ambassador to the Holy See Ernst Freiherr von Weizsäcker went against Adolf Hitler’s plans when he gave a firm commitment that the German Reich would respect the sovereignty of the Vatican.

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