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The Pope at War by David Kertzer - book review

Updated: Sep 20, 2023


You don’t meet men like Pope Pius XII anymore. Erudite and aristocratic, he was far removed from his proletarian people yet he confessed a quiet ambition to one day be their Pope. Readers of David Kertzer’s book about him are lucky. They have the benefit of knowing that Hitler was evil. For Pius XII, it was as if the truth crept up on him only slowly while he battled the demons that bound him, his fear of communism and his belief that the Roman Catholic Church in Europe must survive. Elected on the eve of World War 2, Pius XII had previously served as Papal nuncio to Germany. Mussolini’s ambassador to the Vatican wrote that he was ‘the Cardinal preferred by the Germans’ and ‘prone to bend to pressure.’ These two observations create the framework for Kertzer’s book. Between the opening of the Vatican Archives in March 2020 and his publication in 2022, Kertzer completed a vast amount of research, but it is the pace and clarity of his writing that has made the work accessible to a broad audience. For Christians, a distinction must be made between the Roman Catholic Church, which was an ornate, Italian institution, and Jesus Christ who brought the kingdom of heaven to ordinary people. Pius XII wanted to preserve the Italian institution, and I’m not convinced that his scruples and sensitivities made him a Christian I could ever relate to. His was an Italian story with all the drama of Hamlet. So many questions about what was nobler in the mind! So many clerical Polonius’s hiding behind curtains! So many Maglioni’s, Tardini’s, Ciano’s, Montini’s and Pirelli’s. All it lacked was Ophelia, unless you count Clara Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress. To begin: Pope Pius XII was an experienced diplomat and had frequent opportunities to demonstrate his skills. ‘In August 1939, as he was finalizing plans for invading Poland, Hitler was also engaged in negotiations with Pius XII so secret that not even the German ambassador to the Holy See knew about them.’(1) The middleman was Prince Philipp von Hessen, son-in-law of the King of Italy, and on 11th March 1940 the Pope also met with Hitler’s foreign minister Von Ribbentrop. Pius complained politely about the Nazi suppression of the Catholic Church in Germany and Poland while his Secretary of State, Maglione, was less accommodating. Ribbentrop was not pleased and labelled Maglione an enemy of the Nazis. The chapters recording the Pope’s failure to react to the German invasion of the Low Countries, the continuing brutality in Poland and the appeals of ordinary Italians to prevent Italy from entering the war, make poignant reading. Kertzer repeats two points, firstly that Pius XII believed the war would be over in a few months following an Axis victory, and secondly that he was intimidated by Mussolini. Indeed, his subservience to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany did not impress the British and the French. ‘The moral prestige of the Papacy began to decline,’ wrote Osborne, Churchill’s envoy to the Vatican. ‘The Holy Father will say nothing for the moment,’ wrote D’Ormesson, his French counterpart, 'and will only…speak publicly to emit some pious and expertly balanced moans. One gets the impression that, for [the Pope], communism is Public Enemy Number One. [He] seems to me above all to be a conservative of a monarchical stamp….[who] seizes every opportunity to show his loyalty to the Fascist government.’ (1) From the beginning of the Holocaust the Pope received reports of German atrocities against Europe’s Jews, initially from members of his clergy who had witnessed them. Though deeply distressed, he did not respond. Why not? ‘[Because] it was best not to alienate either Mussolini or the Fűhrer,’ concludes Kertzer. Osborne added, ‘The Pope’s policy of silence and neutrality at all costs is destroying the moral authority of the Vatican.’ A Swiss newspaper reported that, ‘the moral leadership of the Papacy is conditioned by considerations of opportunism and expediency.’ The French, the Americans, ambassadors from Britain, Brazil, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Norway, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and churchmen from the Ukraine, all sent appeals to the Pope to protest about the horrors committed against Jews unfolding in their own countries. ‘It is widely believed,’ begged Roosevelt’s envoy Myron Taylor of the Pope in September 1942, ‘that Your word of condemnation would hearten all others who are working to save these thousands from suffering and death…I should like to know whether the Holy Father has any suggestions as to any practical manner in which the forces of civilized public opinion could be utilized in order to prevent a continuation of these barbarities.’ (1) A month later the Vatican replied, ‘Up to the present time it has not been possible to verify the accuracy of the…severe measures taken against non-Aryans’.1 It also expressed its fear that ‘any papal criticism risked provoking a backlash against the church in German occupied Europe’. (1) In September 1943, as Italy was capitulating to the Allies, German troops were pouring over its northern borders to occupy the country as far south as Rome. This invasion marked the end for Italy’s Jews. Separated from their Italian compatriots by the Racial Laws of 1938, to which the Pope had made no protest, their deportation to the Nazi death camps was likewise accomplished in silence. The Third Reich made a point of reminding all its churches, Protestant and Catholic, that it supported them financially, and the soldiers responsible for the wartime atrocities considered themselves good Christians. After all, in the 1939 census only 1% of Germans declared themselves unbelievers. What was a Pope to do? What he did do was to continue to liaise with Germany in order to mitigate suppression of the church and, as Allied bombers commenced pounding Italy’s industrial north, he wrote to Britain and America in an endeavour to spare Italy further suffering. Osborne reported to London, ‘Owing to the fact that His Holiness never made any specific condemnation of the deliberate [German] slaughter of thousands of civilians, he is precluded …from condemning our recent raids on Milan, Genoa and Turin.’ (1) Pius received a similar retort from Roosevelt. Care should be taken by the reader to differentiate between propaganda and fact. A notable instance was the German and Italian proclamations that the war was rescuing Christian Europe from Bolshevist Russia, the ally of Britain and France. The Allied bombing of Rome did a lot to promote this. The Pope’s fear of communism runs as a thread throughout the book and was richly exploited by the men who intimidated him. Like The Force of Destiny by Christopher Duggan, another long book about Italy’s depressing modern history, The Pope at War ultimately says to me that Italians should stick to food and culture. To say that they’re good at anything else is to believe their own propaganda. It’s little wonder that so many novels feature Vatican intrigues. Occupying Germans scheming to get the Pope’s approval, Jews hiding in convents, priests who drive them into the arms of the Nazis, a pontiff who says nothing, Allies arguing about who was responsible for bombing Italian heritage while Europe lay in ruins. The Vatican is an opera in itself. ‘Why should we quarrel? [The church] will swallow anything provided they can keep their advantages’ – Adolf Hitler. (2) 1 – The Pope at War, David Kertzer. Random House New York, 2022. 2 – Balkan Essays, Hubert Butler. The Irish Pages Press 2016.

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