Sunday, November 7, 2010

Some thoughts from reading "Rome's Most Faithful Daughter"

I have finished reading Rome’s Most Faithful Daughter by Neal Pease. Having had some time to think about the entire work and what it adds to our understanding of the role of the Catholic Church and, in particular, the popes, during the inter-war period and the immediate outbreak of war in 1939, I have some reflections based on Pease’s study.

1. Pease underscores the horrible dilemma that confronted the Vatican and its diplomatic strategies in Poland and the rest of Europe. Confronted with Hitler whom both Pius XI and Pius XII hoped could be contained and, perhaps, even reasoned with and Stalin who was beyond the pale by any standard, the Vatican engaged in an increasingly frantic series of attempts to prevent war. It would appear that throughout the last months of peace, Pius XII believed that peace at any price was better than war.

2. By mid-1938 Rome was certain there would be another war and that Germany would be responsible for it. Vatican policy was therefore shaped to do all it could to prevent this. Rome also knew with reasonably certainty after he had reclaimed all “legitimate” German territories Hitler's next demand would focus on Danzig and the “corridor”. Vatican opinion seems to have been divided on whether Poland should surrender the Corridor or not. Certainly by August 1939, opinion had moved towards putting pressure on Poland to let Danzig and the Corridor “return” to the Reich.

3. The Vatican was probably Europe’s best “listening post” as far as diplomats were concerned. Ambassadors and envoys sent messages, often veiled and obtuse, knowing they would be passed along and circulated among the corridors of Europe’s foreign ministries. This proved a useful means of testing the waters and probing different states to gauge reactions to possible directions in policy. The Holy See, desperate to prevent another war, passed along all information no matter how trite it may have appeared.

4. Pius called an international peace conference in May 1939, but apart form Italy, no one else was particularly interested. Germany made statements to the effect that German-Polish differences could be settled amicably and without conflict. Britain and France had pledged to support Poland if Germany attacked and saw little relevance in a Vatican sponsored set of talks. Various Vatican officials made statements on and off the record to the effect that the Holy See supported Poland and believed her cause (to defend her borders) to be just. Polish government officials were slow to use these statements to their advantage. Foreign Minister Beck had still not replaced the Polish ambassador to the Holy See since 1937, and so lost a valuable opportunity to broadcast Polish concerns to a wide audience via the Pope. A Polish ambassador, Casmir Papeé, was appointed in the early summer of 1939.

5. With the prospect of a German initiated war growing more likely, Pius XII started sending messages to the Polish government through the Nuncio, Filippo Cortesi, urging Warsaw to consider acceding to Hitler’s demands to prevent war. Rome believed a German accommodation of the Soviet Union was also likely and Poland had to face reality if it was to save itself. Not surprisingly, Poland was not sympathetic to Pius’ suggestions. When the Russian-German non-aggression pact was signed on 21 August 1939, Pius’ efforts to persuade Poland to surrender the Corridor became frantic. (ADSS Volume 1 demonstrates this quite clearly.)

6. 24 August 1939. Pius broadcast his famous appeal “In this grave hour” and pronounced what may have been the most famous words of his pontificate: "Nothing is lost with peace; all may be lost with war”. At the same time British and French diplomats were urging Pius to make a clear statement on the situation and defend Poland against Germany. The pope refused, saying he had to be father to all Catholics in all countries.

7. The last days of peace brought renewed calls from the Vatican via the nuncio in Warsaw to surrender the corridor. Rome’s greater fear was the potential of a Soviet move westwards. “Better to suffer pain today, than lose your life tomorrow” seems an apt way to summarise the Vatican’s position on Poland on the eve of the war. Foreign minister Beck’s final rejection of the papal proposal was made just after Germany launched the invasion on 1 September 1939.

8. Pius refused to name either the victim or the aggressor in any public statement at any point throughout the war. This caused enormous pain to Poles and eroded much respect towards the papacy that was not restored until the advent of communist rule later in the 1940s.

9. The Soviet invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939 was the fulfillment of the Vatican’s worst nightmare scenarios for Christian Europe. But, Pius still clung to the hope, however faint, that he could act the part of a mediator in some peace conference that would end the war before more harm could be done. I find it difficult to understand how such a well-educated man, who knew his enemies so well, could have thought that Hitler or Stalin would stop at Poland.

10. Pius issued his first encyclical, Summi pontificatus, in October 1939. By this time it was all but too late to speak plainly. Poland no longer existed. A reign of terror covered the German-occupied part of the Polish lands, and a near-complete blackout of all news covered the Soviet-occupied territory. The future for the people of the now-dismembered Poland was bleak and fraught with fear. The voice of the Vicar of Christ was not heard to speak in their defence.

Pease’s closing chapter is tough reading. He pulls no punches in his assessment of Pius XII. He judges Pius to have failed to respond as Christ’s Vicar for the Polish people, even though he acted with all honest and honourable intention. “One may question whether Pius XII made the correct policies during the war, but he chose them with honourable intentions, and it appears that he was mainly ‘guilty’ of having been Pope at the wrong historical moment, and one ill matched to his talents and personality”. (Pease, 212) I find it hard to disagree with this assessment.

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