Pope Pius XII
(Pope Pius XII)

For many, one of the most polarizing figures of the Second World War was Pope Pius XII.  Up until 2019 the Vatican archives did not allow access to most of the documents related to Pius XII’s actions before and during the war.  Under the current leadership of Pope Francis, the archive has been made available to historians and has brought about a reassessment of Pius XII’s relationship with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in addition to his attitude toward the Holocaust. 

Until the opening of the archive, historians were of two minds; either Pius XII was too close to Mussolini and Hitler and did not confront them publicly concerning their murderous atrocities and said and did little in relation to the genocide of European Jewry or he did as much as he could in balancing the protection of the Catholic clergy in Germany and working behind the scenes to assist Europe’s Jews.  It is understood that Pius XII was in a very difficult position and Pulitzer Prize winning historian, David I. Kertzer, the author of THE POPE AND MUSSOLINI: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XI AND THE RISE OF FASCISM IN EUROPE has availed himself of the opportunity to consult newly released documentation and has written what should be considered the definitive source  in dealing with Pius XII in his latest work, THE POPE AT WAR: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XII, MUSSOLINI, AND HITLER.  Kertzer’s book documents the private decision-making that led Pope Pius XII to stay essentially silent about Hitler’s genocide and argues that the Pope’s impact on the war is underestimated – and not in a positive fashion.  As David M. Shribman writes in the Boston Globe, for Pius XII “silence was easier, safer, more prudent.  Silence was deadly.”*

Kertzer’s presentation is excellent as it is grounded in his previous research and his recent access to the newly opened Vatican archive.  The book is clearly written and tells a story that many have heard before, however it is cogently argued, and he has unearthed new material which may change or reinforce deeply held opinions by many when it comes to Pius XII.  Kertzer makes the case that Pius XII’s obsessive fear of Communism, his belief  that the Germans would win the war, and his goal of protecting church interests motivated him to avoid angering Mussolini and Hitler.  The Pope was also concerned as the book highlights, that opposing Hitler would alienate millions of German Catholics.

Kertzer does an excellent job tracing Pius XII’s relationship with Mussolini; the evolution of Italy’s military failures which negatively impacted Hitler’s plans, i.e.; Italy’s failed invasion of Greece; and Hitler’s growing dissatisfaction with Mussolini.  Kertzer relies heavily on the comments and diaries associated with foreign ambassadors to the Vatican, particularly those of England and France and their negative commentary related to the Papacy.  The descriptions of these ambassadors focused on Pius XII’s lack of action, periodic support for the war effort in Italy, and obsession with German power.  Further, Kertzer focuses on Pius XI’s opposition to Mussolini’s adoption of racial laws targeting Italian Jews.  Despite this opposition, Pius XII would not comment on the increase in Italy’s oppression of Jews and racial laws in general.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler watch a Nazi parade staged for the Italian dictators's visit to Germany.

(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)

Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI had been somewhat of a thorn in the side of fascist dictators.  He saw Mussolini as a “buffoon,” and believed that Hitler was a danger to all of Europe.  Both dictators feared he was preparing an encyclical denouncing Nazi racism and anti-Semitism and feared that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli who would succeed him as Pontiff would try and talk him out of it, as well as any other anti-fascist comments.  When he died a few days before he could release his encyclical, Mussolini and Hitler experienced a great deal of relief.

Kertzer correctly points out that Mussolini never felt comfortable around priests and complained bitterly about Pius XI barbs.  He was worried as he was aware that Hitler viewed him as a role model and did not want the Pope’s commentary to ruin their relationship.  Once Pius XI died and was replaced by Cardinal Pacelli criticism was reduced and if any were made it was done in private.  Hitler’s main complaint concerned articles in the Vatican’s daily newspaper, Osservatore Romano that focused on Nazi anti-Catholic policies from arresting and beating Catholic priests to closing Catholic schools in Germany.  Pius XII immediately made overtures to Hitler to relax the pressure on German Catholicism and refused to comment publicly on Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, in addition to remaining quiet as Hitler’s pressure on Catholic Poland over Danzig escalated.

Mussolini resented Pius XII’s diplomacy as his ego would not allow anyone to detract from his role as the dominant figure in Italian politics.  Kertzer’s comments concerning Mussolini, his son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, and countless other figures is insightful and at times entertaining, but it does not detract from the danger and derangement of these individuals.

In a very important chapter, Kertzer provides details of secret meetings between the Papacy and Germany before and after the war began.  The conduit for Germany was Prince Philip von Hessen whose goal was to bring about an accommodation with the Papacy and keep the Pope out of politics.  Hitler resented the clergy’s meddling in German domestic politics and wanted the Pope to refrain from comments on Nazi racial policy.  Pius XII’s, his main goal was to protect the German clergy and Catholicism in general, but he expressed the belief that an honorable religious peace was achievable, and in all instances talks should be held in secret.

Mussolini Speaking in Public
(Benito Mussolini)

Once the war began Pius XII refused to break his silence concerning Nazi aggression arguing he would not endanger the church’s situation in Germany.  This argument was repeated throughout the war, but he promised he would pray for the Polish people or whatever nationality was endangered by a Nazi onslaught.  Morality, rights, honor, justice were always met with methods, practicality, tradition, and statistics on the part of the Vatican.  When priests were sent to concentration camps Pius XII did nothing, no statements, no audiences with the Pope in Rome etc.  The only diplomacy Pius II seemed to engage in was to try and talk Mussolini out of following in Hitler’s footsteps as it was clear, even to Il Duce, that Italy was totally unprepared for war.

One could argue that Pope Pius XII evolved in his approach toward fascism and the war.  At first, at least up to 1943 he waffled between neutrality and making general statements structured “as not to be offensive by either side.”  At first the Papacy believed the Germans would win the war and once it was concluded Pius XII was convinced that in a few years the anti-Catholic policies would dissipate and fade away. As the war progressed and when it was clear that the Russians had broken out of Stalingrad and made their way westward, and that the United States and England would invade Italy, Pius XII’s attitude shifted.  Pius XII priority was to prevent allied bombing of Rome and Vatican City (particularly as England was bombing Turin, Milan, and Genoa) which led to messages to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who responded with a demand that Mussolini be replaced, and Italy should drop out of the war.  Pius XII’s other priority was to warn allied leaders (apart from Stalin) that Communism was as large a threat to Europe as Nazism, and he worked to manufacture a peace agreement with the US and England and organize in response to the Soviet threat to all European Catholics.

Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, (1903 – 11 January 1944), Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy
(Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano)

As to the Holocaust, Pius XII received increasing numbers of reports of Nazi atrocities and extermination camps.  This information came from reliable sources and churchmen like Father Scavini, an Italian military chaplain that the Pope had great faith in.  However, Pius XII refused to publish details contained in these reports to stay on the good side of Hitler and Mussolini.  The only area that the Pope did complain about to the German and Italian governments was the application of racial laws to those he considered Catholics – baptized Jews and the children of mixed marriages.  Pius XII accepted advice that there was no confirmation of Nazi atrocities and was told not to even use the word, “Jew.”  In relation to the Vatican’s attitude toward the roundup of Italian Jews right under their noses provoked little response as Kertzer quotes Lutz Klinkhammer, the foremost historian of Germany’s military occupation of Italy, “it is more than clear that all their efforts were aimed above all at saving the baptized or the ‘half-born’ from mixed marriages,” the Jews who did not fit this category would wind up dying at Auschwitz.

Pius XII’s actions are clear even when he was approached to try and mitigate the actions of Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, the head of the Slovakian government who was about to send 20,000 Jews to Polish concentration camps.  When a move was made to try and send 1000 Jewish children to Palestine, Pius XII did little to facilitate this plan as he was anti-Zionist and he argued that he held little sway with the Nazis and their minions and any Papal criticism risked provoking a backlash against the church in German occupied Europe.  No matter the circumstances Kertzer’s conclusions that Pius XII’s messaging was always weak and vague to protect the church’s interests.

Pius XII’s silence and overall inaction emerges as the dominant theme of Kertzer’s work.  It is clear that any other conclusion is a result of Church propaganda, obfuscation, and analysis that conveniently avoids the facts.  Kertzer’s work is to be commended as it should put to bed once and for all the truth concerning Pius XII’s role during World War II.

*David M. Shribman, “A Deadly Silence: Assessing the Moral Failings of Pope Pius XII during World War II,” Boston Globe,” May 26, 2022.

Pope Pius XII (Courtesy of PerlePress Productions)


William Ryan burst on the literary scene in 2010 with debut novel, THE HOLY THIEF, the first of his Captain Alexi Korolev trilogy that takes place during the 1930s Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.  His second and third volumes in the trifecta, THE BLOODY MEADOW and THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT set Ryan apart from other historical crime writers as he continued to navigate the justice system under Stalin.  THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is a departure for Ryan as it is a standalone novel that begins with his protagonist, Paul Brandt, a Wehrmacht soldier, wounded on the eastern front experiencing flashbacks on a hospital train bound for Hamburg.  Brandt slips into unconsciousness taking him back to his relationship with his mother, and a young woman named Judith who has disappeared, for which he blames himself.

Ryan easily catches the attention of the reader with an absorbing story of a man who suffered severe injuries and wondered what he could do with the rest of his life.  The time period is late 1944 and early 1945 in the Upper Silesia part of Poland that had been under Nazi occupation since 1939.  However, as the novel unfolds Russian troops and tanks are making their way west endangering any Germans in their path.  Brandt returns home to the family farm and notices an emaciated young woman who is being held prisoner at an SS “Rest Hut” near the farm.  He is convinced that the woman is Judith, whose real name is Agneta Gruber who Brandt last saw her before the war broke out when they were arrested for anti-Nazi activity in Vienna.  Given the choice of death in prison or the army, Brandt enlisted in the Wehrmacht, but retained a guilt that he had abandoned Agneta years before.

(Russian T-34 Tank during WWII)

The physically debilitated Brandt, against the wishes of his family decides to accept a job at the Rest Hut as it’s steward as a means of trying to rescue Agneta and four other woman as the SS had begun murdering their prisoners.  Ryan creates the backstory of the relationship between Brandt and Agneta and Brandt’s obsession with saving her and assuaging his guilt.  The remorse Brandt feels goes beyond his relationship with a woman he still loves to righting the many wrongs he committed on the eastern front as a soldier.

Once Ryan introduces the suicide of an SS officer named Schmidt the novel begins to branch out from the single track of Brandt’s hopes for saving the woman to the Holocaust.  It seems his commander Obersturmfuhrer Friedrich Neumann orders Brandt to destroy Schmidt’s diary and other possessions which delineates what the SS has done on the eastern front murdering Jews.  Ryan manages the Holocaust with subtlety as he does not become involved in descriptions of mass murder, but he provides a number of hints concerning the horrors that have occurred.  For example, Neumann’s comment that he did not want to remain in Kiev and sought his transfer to Upper Silesia.  He like everyone knew what was occurring as he stated, “he hadn’t planned to become a murderer, he didn’t think.  It just turned out that way.”

Ryan does an excellent job juxtaposing a comparison of Brandt’s and Neumann’s beliefs and attitude toward the war, what they witnessed, and been involved in.  Both men develop doubts and disgust at themselves as they pondered their future.  They realize the Russians are not far away when Ryan introduces a third track to the novel through the character of Polya Kolanka, a female T-34 tank driver, one of the few in the Russian military.  We follow her quest to reach Germany and her experiences as the Soviet Union is about to overrun the Germans. 

Homeless refugee women and children, Russia, 1941.
(Refugees fleeing Russians at the end of World War II)

As Ryan’s plot evolves Brandt must navigate between a number of interesting characters.  There is Mayor Weber, a drunk with power who distrusts Brandt and has no compunction about killing.  Second in importance is the sadistic Scharfuhrer Peichl who reveled in beating prisoners.  Hubert, a partisan fighter in the forest who is in love with Brandt’s sister Monika.  Lastly, the four woman who are imprisoned with Agneta.

Ryan has authored a taut novel that expresses the dilemmas faced by Germans and Russians as the war winds down.  The reader wonders what will become of Brandt and whether he will be able to save the woman he loves, among others.  The novel is well written and follows the facts of World War II to a tee.  The novel is in part based on the experiences of Karl Hocker, an adjutant to the last Commandant of Auschwitz and he incorporates photographic documentation created by Hocker that had disappeared until 2005.  Many of the pictures were taken at a rest hut near a small village called Porabka, about twenty kilometers from Auschwitz.  Ryan uses this factual information to recreate a fictional account of an SS Rest Hut and introduces characters that reflect the hazards and emotions that their situation has fostered.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is an excellent read and I look forward to his latest standalone novel, WINTER GUEST which will be released this October.


Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 8, 1863. Photo by Alexander Gardner/LOC/Creative Commons
(Abraham Lincoln)

To date over 16,000 books have been written on Abraham Lincoln, so why another?  In the current case, John Avlon a former Daily Beast editor, author of serious studies of political centrism, and a current CNN analyst has authored LINCOLN AND THE FIGHT FOR PEACE AND FREEDOM which takes a unique approach toward our 16th president.  The book focuses on the six weeks from Lincoln’s second inauguration through his assassination as the Civil War finally concluded and the war over the peace had begun.  According to Avlon, Lincoln evolved into the conciliator-in-chief in his approach to the south and was vehemently against a punitive peace.  Lincoln sought to reunite the country through empathy, understanding, humility and a deep belief that in order to bring the country together after four years of war and over 600,000 casualties a reconstruction policy must be implemented that was perceptive of the needs and beliefs of the former enemy and bring about a coalescing of moderate political elements to block the extremists that remained on both sides of the political spectrum.  For Avlon Lincoln’s approach to winning the peace would serve as a model for future post war negotiations, for example General Lucius Clay’s approach toward Germany after World War II to prevent the revanchism that took place after World War I.

Today our politicians are engaged in a form of political partisanship which at times places our nation at the precipice of civil war.  No matter the issue; protecting children from the ravages of a failed gun control debate, overturning Roe v. Wade, the refusal to accept the results of a fair and free democratic election, the denial of voting rights, and numerous other issues makes it clear that something is broken in our political system.  The question that confronts the American electorate is whether politicians, with their lust for power are so dug in their positions that the odds of any reconciliation between Democrats and Republicans, with extreme elements in both parties appears unlikely in the near future.

Ulysses S. Grant
(Ulysses S. Grant)

In the state that we find our political discourse, John Avlon raised the banner of Abraham Lincoln to serve as a role model as to how we can fix, or at least reorient our body politic.  Avlon begins his narrative on April 4, 1865, as the Civil War winds down with Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, Va. the capital of the defeated Confederacy. Unaccompanied by a large number of troops or any celebratory instruments the president walked the streets of the city with his son Tad greeting former enemy soldiers and citizens with compassion, humor, and kindness.  Lincoln’s mantra was to heal the nation and not erase the history of the war – history required learning the right lessons, so we would not be condemned to repeat them.  He was committed to stopping the cycle of violence, changing his focus from winning the war, to winning the peace.

Lincoln’s world view centered on three ”indispensable conditions:” no ceasefire before surrender, the restoration of the union, and the end of slavery for all time.  “Everything else was negotiable.  Lincoln wanted a hard war to be followed by a soft peace; but there would be no compromise on these core principles.”  For Lincoln winning the peace meant if you failed to do so you would have lost the war.  Lincoln worked without a historical parallel to guide him.  He would establish a new model of leadership focused on reconciliation that would make a long and just peace possible – unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace.  Even though he would be assassinated five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, in the last six weeks of his life that included his second inaugural address he articulated a clear vision that he hoped would result in a peaceful reunification of his country, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”


(Tad Lincoln)

The fight for peace needed to be waged with the intensity that rivals war in order for the United States to be redeemed and serve as a beacon of universal freedom.  To achieve this “unconditional surrender” was sacrosanct.  Lincoln needed to eradicate the cause of the war – slavery and ensuring the rebels accepted a decisive defeat.  Lincoln wanted a constitutional amendment ending slavery before the end of the war as he was fully aware that once the war concluded Congress would not have the courage to do so.  “The 13th amendment was the political expression of unconditional surrender: there would be no retreat from the end of slavery.”

Avlon has written a highly readable account of how Lincoln hoped to achieve his goals dealing with a recalcitrant Congress and elements in the Confederacy who did not want to admit defeat.  He takes the reader through the history of the final six weeks of Lincoln’s presidency step by step culminating in his assassination at Ford’s theater.  Lincoln’s core beliefs can be summed up in the Biblical construct of the “golden rule,” a combination of common sense and the moral imagination to dislodge deeply ingrained prejudice.

Frederick Douglass
(Frederick Douglass)

Avlon has the uncanny ability to apply his phrasing to portray Lincoln’s soul be it a visit to City Point, Va. to reach out to wounded Confederate soldiers to his tearful and heart felt reaction to the carnage of war when he visited battlefields.  Avlon is able to convey the substance of Lincoln on a personal and public level as he grappled with bringing the war to a conclusion and at the same time set the foundation of lasting peace through reconciliation and understanding.  At times it seems Lincoln may have been too lenient, but Avlon points to certain non-negotiable issues where the president’s back was stiffened where he refused to give in.  As Lincoln biographer and historian Allen Guelzo writes it is “Lincoln who tells the African American soldiers of the Black 29th Connecticut that ‘you are now as free as I am,’ and if they meet any Southerners who claim to not know that you are free, take the sword and the bayonet and teach them that you are; for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”*

I agree with Guelzo’s analysis of Avlon’s overall theme in that “As much as Avlon is convinced that Lincoln’s “commitment to reconciliation retains the force of revelation,” “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace” is short on the exact content of that revelation for the postwar years. Frederick Douglass insisted in 1866 that “Mr. Lincoln would have been in favor of the enfranchisement of the colored race,” and Avlon is not wrong to see Lincoln favoring a reinvention of the South as a small-scale manufacturing economy to replace the plantation oligarchy that triggered the war. But Lincoln played his political cards so close to the chest that, beyond this, it is unclear exactly what directions he thought Reconstruction should take. It is still less clear whether even he would have been successful (had he survived the assassin’s bullet) in pulling any of it off in just the three years that remained to him in his second term.”

General Robert E. Lee, Mathew B. Brady (American, born Ireland, 1823?–1896 New York), Albumen silver print from glass negative
(Robert E. Lee)

Avlon possesses a tremendous faith in the words and actions of Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime and how they resonated in the last third of the 19th century through the end of World War II.  As historian Ted Widmer writes, “Lincoln offers a boost of confidence at a time when our history, instead of uniting us, has become yet another battleground. With insight, he chooses familiar and lesser-known Lincoln phrases to remind readers how much we still have to learn from our 16th president. His book also offers an extra dividend, coming as it does in the midst of Ukraine’s agony. Avlon closes with the final sentences of the second inaugural address, and its hope that we can “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” As Lincoln understood, the work of democracy at home is indispensable to the work of peace abroad. It is reassuring to have the case for each restated so cogently.”**

*Allen C. Guelzo, “A Lincoln for Our Polarized Times,” New York Times, February 15, 2022.

**Ted Widmer, “Lessons from Lincoln’s Leadership at the Close of the Civil War,” Washington Post, April 15, 2022.

Abraham Lincoln in a portrait by Matthew Brady, taken in December 1861.

DECEMBER ’41 by William Martin

Roosevelt and family in front of the Saint Croix Christmas tree in 1941.
(The Roosevelt family, Christmas, 1941)

For those  who are familiar with the works of William Martin you have come to appreciate his Peter Fallon mysteries.  Novels such as HARVARD YARD, THE LINCOLN LETTER, CITY OF DREAMS, THE LOST CONSTITUTION, and BOUND FOR GLORY are structured with two alternating time periods, one dating back a century or two to our contemporary world reaching climaxes when the two came together.  Martin’s focus in other novels rests on the traditional chronological approach of historical fiction that includes; ANNAPOLIS, BACK BAY, CAPE COD, and CITIZEN WASHINGTON.  After a ten year hiatus from his last novel, Martin has authored DECEMBER ’41 a supercharged work that adopts the traditional chronological timeline which develops a plot that was designed to culminate in the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Christmas Eve, 1941 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a surprise visit of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The novel itself has elements of detective mysteries from the 1930s and 40s with dialogue, scenes, and characters from that time period.  Martin blends this approach with commentary about race, ethnicity, misogyny, and the role of the United States in the world.  In a way Martin has taken a page from Philip Roth’s novel, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA raising the same issues but his effort is about defeating Roosevelt through assassination, while Roth focused on replacing Roosevelt with Charles Lindbergh in the White House.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sit in the White House in 1941
(Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sit in the White House in 1941)

Martin begins the novel as Roosevelt is addressing Congress with his “a date which will live in infamy speech” as the American people hung on every word from coast to coast.  At the same time at a shooting range in a Los Angeles County canyon a group of Nazi sympathizers and spies engaged in target practice, one of which had plans to kill President Roosevelt.

Martin has created a scenario that at the time was not out of the realm of possibility, particularly after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941.  Martin develops three main characters; Kevin Cusack, a script reader at Warner Brother studios, Martin Browning, a virulent supporter of Nazi Germany and an American citizen, and Frank Carter, an FBI agent stationed in Los Angeles.  The three characters evolve slowly and by the end of the novel they will all come together.  Along the way there are a series of other personalities that play important roles.  Vivian Hopewell, a starry eyed Marlene Dietrich look alike; Stella Madden, a hard nosed female detective; Madden’s flamboyant assistant, Bartholomew Bennet; Stanley Smith, a Pullman porter on a cross country train; Emile Gunst, a member of the German Bund who imports German ceramics; Helen and Wilhelm Stauer, Browning’s co-conspirators, and a host of other savory and unsavory characters.

Image 1 - Santa Fe Railroad 1940 Super Chief Vintage Poster Print Retro Style B&W Art

The texture of the time period is front and center.  The reader is provided glimpses into the Hollywood culture of the 1940s with cameos from John Wayne, John Huston, Hal Wallis, Humphrey Bogart, Erol Flynn, constant references to Leslie Howard, and what it took for a female to achieve stardom. 

Martin also delves into topics which are still germane today and compares them to earlier examples in American history.  For example, when discussing the inferior quality of American leadership, he points to Warren G. Harding.  His approach to the world balance of power fosters a debate as to which is the greater threat, Communism or Nazism.  The antisemitism of the period, the America Firsters, the KKK, and the Nazi ideology espoused by certain individuals is a dominant theme.  In discussing the interaction between diverse characters, American racism comes to the fore particularly the role of porters on American railroads and trains with nicknames like “Super Chief.” In summary, the first half of the novel is not up to Martin’s usual standards in developing his plot.  However, once a number of characters board a train from Los Angeles to the east coast the novel begins to gather steam.  The question is has Martin written a storyline that is feasible, the answer is yes, but has he branched out and produced an approach that is new, the answer is no.  In the end the novel is an easy read, but it is not as absorbing as his other efforts.  When I picked up a William Martin novel I had great expectations.  I anticipated something that was in the realm of previous Martin efforts, Ken Follett or Frederick Forsyth.   However, the current work left me somewhat disappointed.   Despite some exciting and heart pounding scenes, overall, it left me hoping for a plot that was more engaging with greater depth.

President Roosevelt family photo. Courtesy the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.