Overview (Spoilers Abound):
Despite having read so many books centered around WWII, this is the first time I’ve read one that focuses on Italy’s role, specifically the internal politics and religion that were constantly in turmoil during each stage of the war. Kertzer highlights the actions of the Catholic Church, in particular Pope Pius XII. The records of the Catholic Church during WWII were sealed following the Pope’s death and were only recently declassified by the Vatican Archives in March of 2020.
This book is written in a way that Kertzer manages to relay events in an unbiased fashion, however the lack of action by the church tells its own story. Kertzer details how the Pope struggled to balance being the moral leader of a global religion, with also preserving the church for future generations during dangerous times. Silent complacency ensured the church would survive, but at the cost of failing to denounce the atrocities of Hitler. The Pope also had a personal predilection that proved conflicting and complicating regarding his fondness for Germany due to the many, many years he’d spent in that country. In addition, the Pope had an overwhelming fear about the dangers of communism to Catholicism. Many of his actions and speeches reflect this fear, which regarded communism as the greatest danger, despite evidence of the Nazi’s own horrifying actions against his own religion.
Kertzer also highlights the complicated relationship between the church and the Fascists, especially with the Vatican being based in Rome. Prior to the war, the church supported the dictatorship due to the benefits reaped as a result of Fascist policies. Once Italy joined the war, this close relationship became strained, with much pressure being placed on the church to not voice opinions or risk loosing the preferential treatment they’d thus far enjoyed.
When the war came to Italy the Pope’s actions truly felt self serving as he condemned the bombing of Rome but never spoke out about the relentless attacks on London. Additionally, he made the choice to not speak out against the actions of the Nazis in Poland, where the Catholics were specifically targeted, in order to ‘protect’ the Catholics in Germany. It is hard in hindsight to justify these actions, but at the time everyone thought Germany and Italy would win the war so he was playing the long game of trying to protect the institutional church. That said, he never excommunicated the leading Catholic figures of the Axis powers.
As the war was winding down and it became apparent that the Allied would win the war, the Pope made several calculated moves to reframe his actions for posterity. One such move was filming a movie that was pure propaganda. Additionally, throughout the war, the Pope tried many times to broker peace between the Allied and Axis powers, even holding many secret meetings with an emissary from Hitler. Regardless, his silence regarding the horrors inflicted upon the Jews and people across all theatres of war is damning.
The Pope at War highlighted so many political figures that it was easy to sometimes get confused or bogged down in the minute political positioning, however I was fascinated by the Italian perspective. Overall, The Pope at War is an eye opening look at the choices the Vatican made during WWII and explores the newly revealed reasons why.