Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Vatican and World War II

Do you ever wish you could interview a well-known author or performer and get to know him or her? Often I think of this after reading an obituary of a distinguished life. I am not thinking of popular celebrities but notable people I might have liked who made a difference in the world.

One such person is Sir D'Arcy Osborne, British diplomat in Rome, where he lived and died. He wasn't famous but he lived a fascinating life and seems to have had the best of both worlds: a life in Italy, which he loved, and an aristocratic English background, which meant he had money to hire servants and help refugees during the Second World War.

Most interesting fact: he lived in Vatican City for more than four years during the war, along with his butler, a female typist, his dog, and several Italian servants. How they all fit into the small suite provided at the Santa Marta residence (precursor to where Pope Francis now lives) is a minor mystery.

What he thought of Pope Pius XII, often a subject of controversy, is, of course, among the main things I would ask Osborne. According to a fascinating book I have just read, "Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War," by Owen Chadwick, Osborne generally admired Pius and defended him as humane and generous when the attacks were launched in the Sixties claiming that the pope was guilty of unpardonable silence during the Holocaust.

Even though he helped rescue as many as 800,000 Jews (according to an Israeli historian), Pius XII is often blamed for being too reserved in his language and failing to prevent the massacre of Jews. What's interesting is the British role in supporting Pius, hoping he would initially keep Italy out of the war, then relying on his neutrality and great diplomatic discretion to be a broker for peace. 

Chadwick's book, drawing on Osborne's diary and some of his dispatches to London, reveal much about this fair-minded Protestant diplomat and polished gentleman at the heart of the Catholic world at an impossibly tense time, when Rome was surrounded by Fascists and Nazis and the very existence of the Vatican was threatened.

I can't and won't go into defending or criticizing Pius XII. I will only say that Chadwick's account of Osborne's dealing with the leaders of Britain and the Vatican reads like a thriller. Consider the Vatican's role, with Osborne involved, in a top-secret plot to assassinate Hitler.   Although a recent book (by Mark Riebling) claims that Pius XII was himself involved in this plot and authorized it, thus helping to explain his silence after the war, it seems more likely that the Pope was not involved; but Osborne, the Brits, and some German Catholic resistance activists were.

I found this 1988 book in researching an upcoming talk on the papacy during these tragic war years, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Osborne, his diary, and his eyewitness view of one of the great dramas of the past century. Osborne was not a hero but he was a man of quiet courage who did his best in the midst of the horrors of war.

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