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A Book Review… A Needed In-Depth Look At Rome Under Nazi Occupation

May 3, 2021 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES BARESEL

Rome, City in Terror: The Nazi Occupation, 1943-44 by Victor Failmezger, Osprey Publishing, 2020.

Pius XII and the Second World War by Fr. Pierre Blet, SJ. Hitler, the War and the Pope by Ronald Rychlak. The Myth of Hitler’s Pope by David Dalin. Most readers will be familiar with these titles. Many have probably read at least one of them. But all of them — from the most introductory to the most exhaustive — omit by necessity quite a bit of information about just what was going on in Rome during the year between the fall of Benito Mussolini and the Allied liberation of the city, the year of the Nazi occupation.
Why? Because they look at the occupation of Rome in the context of the broader history of the relationship of Pope Pius XII, Vatican City, and the Catholic Church to Hitler’s regime.
Those relationships, however, are only one part of a story of Rome’s occupation that also includes the politics behind Mussolini’s overthrow, negotiations between Italy’s political and military leaders and their Allied counterparts, intelligence and counterintelligence operations and military actions. And this is the story told in Rome, City in Terror. Its author, Victor Failmezger, is well-qualified to tell it, as a retired officer of the United States Navy whose career included service as an aide to the director of Naval Intelligence and as assistant naval attaché to the Italian Navy, based at America’s embassy in Rome.
Its publisher, Osprey, is one of the world’s most reputable specialist presses, devoted exclusively to works of military history that combine a high level of scholarship with accessibility to the average intelligent reader.
It might seem as though life in a city behind enemy lines couldn’t have all that much to do with military operations, at least aside from its capture being a long-term strategic objective and its status as a headquarters making it an inevitable center for the work of spies. That assumption, however, overlooks both the logistical side of military operations and the specific circumstances in which Rome found itself in 1943.
Before liberation of Rome could become an Allied objective, the city had to be conquered by the Germans. Thug and crony of Hitler though Mussolini was, the level of oppression in Fascist Italy didn’t rival that of Germany, let alone the quasi-prison conditions of German-occupied territories. Axis military forces in Italy were overwhelmingly composed of Italian units, with the German ones concentrated in front-line armies. A mere two German divisions were in the country when, in July of 1943, the Grand Council of Fascism voted to eliminate the dictatorial powers of the prime minister (Mussolini), who was then removed from office and arrested by King Victor Emmanuel.
The landing of Allied forces on the southern Italian mainland in September sparked a race between the new government and Hitler’s regime for control of the country’s central region. Lack of initiative and of coordination with the Allies reduced the new government to an impotency that allowed German armies moving in from the north to fill the vacuum.
Rome itself, of course, never became the scene of a major WWII battle. But being a key center of supplies and reinforcements, as well as a national capital, it was a hub around which bombings and guerrilla operations centered. The latter were unique by the standards of the conflict, the forces taking part in them being composed not just of the resistance partisans found throughout Europe but also elements of the Italian army trapped behind enemy lines and large numbers of former American and British prisoners of war who had escaped from their unguarded camps as Italy was in the process of changing sides.
Of course such familiar features of a Nazi occupation as deportations to concentration camps, Gestapo surveillance, and murder of prisoners all receive considerable attention. And of course the role of the Vatican could not be ignored — the one chapter devoted to the topic in fact providing quite a good overview. Pius XII’s opposition to Nazism recognized, Failmezger showing that the weight of the evidence is in the Pope’s favor while seeming open to the idea that he was too passive (an openness Pius XII shared during his years of postwar hindsight).
That, however, is only part of the Vatican’s story. The future Pope Paul VI, for example, was an unofficial Allied intelligence operative. As a member of the Secretariat of State he arranged for members of the diplomatic service to serve as a communications link with spies in Japanese controlled areas, sending him whatever information they obtained so he could pass it on to the Allies.
The role played in the complex web of life in occupied Rome played by Irish Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty (well-known from his screen portrayal by Gregory Peck) is another matter that is clarified and explicated.

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