Occupied in Terror

Book cover
The Battle for Romeby By Robert KatzSimon and Schuster. 418p $28

In September 1943, after the downfall of Mussolini and the occupation of Italy by the Germans, the Allies landed forces at Salerno, 160 miles south of Rome, opening the attack on Hitler’s Fortress Europe. In Rome, everyone, the Germans included, expected the Allied forces to be in the city within a month. Instead, because of poor military planning and the continued demand for troops for the invasion of France, Rome was not in Allied hands until June 1944, nine months later.

During those nine months under German control, Romans lived in fear and terror. The Germans deported over 1,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz and massacred 335 hostages in the Ardeatine Caves in reprisal for a partisan attack that killed 32 German soldiers. They subjected hundreds of Romans to the misery of torture and death for conspiring against the German occupation forces. And the German occupation led to the most important charge against Pope Pius XII, that he failed to protect the Roman Jews, a charge that became the basis for Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Deputy, which started the controversy over Pius and the Holocaust.


Robert Katz has written extensively on these topics before, and The Battle for Rome is a reprise of his earlier books, Black Sabbath and Death in Rome, both written in the 1960’s and now fleshed out with recently declassified O.S.S. documents, but not changed in basic interpretation. It is a well-written and extensively documented narrative. Katz interviewed many of the participants after the war, including Germans in prison. The book deals with the occupation of Rome by the Germans, the partisan activity against them, the plans and problems of the Allied armies advancing on Rome, the daily lives of Romans and the response of the pope and the Vatican to these events.

The key questions Katz poses deal with the responsibility of the various German officials (diplomats, military and S.S.) and Italian Fascists for the terror, the responsibility of the partisans for contributing to the terror by their attacks and the responsibility of the pope for not condemning the German terror. He discusses only briefly the problems of the Allied armies and their commanders and leaders and their disputes over which resistance group to support and which military plan would be the most successful.

The German diplomats come off the best, the S.S. commanders the worst, along with Field Marshal Kesselring, as responsible for the terror. Few were given the punishment they deserved after the war. As for the partisans, they are clearly Katz’s heroes and heroines, although it was their attack on German troops in the Via Rassela that led the Germans to exact the reprisal of 10 hostages killed for each German in that attack.

But it is the pope who comes in for the greatest criticism (after the sadistic German and Fascist torturers). Katz argues that the pope did not vociferously protest the roundup of the Roman Jews in October 1943, which is true; but the pope did instruct his secretary of state to protest to the German ambassador, believing that the threat of a protest would be more effective than a protest itself. Katz further argues that Pius knew about the German plan to execute the hostages in the Via Rassela reprisal, which came to be known as the Ardeatine Caves massacre, and that he failed to warn the Romans or to criticize the Germans strongly after the massacre occurred. In fact, the hostages had already been selected by the time the pope learned of the threatened reprisals, which was only five hours before they began; he had no way of knowing that they would take place so soon.

As an explanation for Pius’s behavior, Katz brings out the old canard that Pius was convinced that Stalin’s Russia was a greater evil than Hitler’s Germany, an argument that is a misleading interpretation of Pius’s desire for an anti-Nazi government in Germany to prevent the expansion of Soviet Communism into western Europe. Katz further argues that Pius supported the German occupying forces because he feared that the Communist-dominated Italian resistance would take over Italy when the Germans departed, and that partisan activity simply hurt the Romans (witness the reprisals). Above all, he feared for the destruction of Rome and all its monuments. These are sound arguments, but they belie the situation in which Pius found himself.

The pope was in an unenviable position. He did not want the civil chaos that would damage Rome and the church, and the German occupation was guaranteeing order; at the same time, he did not want to give the appearance of approving German actions that would keep order in the city. Further, he feared that if the Communist-dominated resistance took over control of Rome, it would attack the church. As for his foreknowledge of the roundup of the Roman Jews and the Ardeatine Caves massacre, these are contentious issues in the controversy that depend upon a careful contextual reading of the documents and ultimately on the historian’s point of view.

Katz’s anti-Pius stance (in which everything good that Pius did, such as his ordering of food relief, is seen as Vatican-directed, while everything bad that happened is seen as Pius-directedand in no controversial event is the pope given the benefit of the doubt) is probably intensified by the fact that in 1974 Katz was prosecuted in Rome on libel charges brought by the pope’s niece. She alleged that his book Death in Rome (1967), charging Pius’s complicity in the Ardeatine Caves massacre, was defaming the memory of the pope. Found guilty and sentenced to prison, he worked through appeals that finally dismissed the case entirely on the grounds of an amnesty dating back to 1970, he says.

The controversy over Pius and the Holocaust continues to shed more heat than light. The Italian historian Andrea Riccardi said it best: the root of the controversy is not so much the facts as the criteria by which Pius is to be judged, which are not the same for the critics and the defenders of the pope. The former often demand of him a heroically prophetic stance that takes little account of the consequences or of the historical reality of his situation, whereas the latter sometimes seem in principle unwilling to admit any serious missteps.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

In her new memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Senator Kamala D. Harris, Democrat of California, positions herself as an underdog, a savvy “top cop” and, most of all, Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 18, 2019

The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing.

Ron HansenJanuary 18, 2019
Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019