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September 12, 2011
The Church in Italy under Allied and Nazi Occupation, 1943-1945
By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

By Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. *

In this, our last installment on the Church during the Second World War in Italy, we will examine the experiences of the Church during the German and Allied occupations. The beginning of the end for Mussolini came on the night of 9 July 1943. That night, a daring amphibious landing took place on the island of Sicily, in an Allied attempt to take the war to the enemy. It was an audacious undertaking, dreamed-up by Churchill, whose previous experience of an amphibious invasion had been anything but positive.

Indeed, the disastrous landing at Gallipoli in the First World War appeared, at the time, to have ended the war leader’s political career.

This time, however, the gamble paid off. This was due in no small part to the reluctance of the Italian defenders to fight the Allied forces, notwithstanding the encouragements given to them by the Archbishop of Palermo, Luigi, Cardinal Lavitrano. To the latter’s credit, it has to be said that he was severely injured during a bombing raid on his city, which he had refused to abandon whilst his flock was subject to the violence of war. It was also Cardinal Lavitrano who welcomed the Allied conquerors, swayed to a large extent by the vast Italian-American contingent amongst the invading army, many being the children of people who had left Sicily only a generation ago.

The same Cardinal Lavitrano had also been a strong supporter of St. Padre Pio, and vital in the renewal of Faith on the Italian island. He embodies the difficulties of encountering the Italian Church during the Fascist epoch: by many standards Lavitrano and his contemporaries were exemplary Churchmen, deeply concerned with the well-being, both materially and spiritually, of their flock and deeply devoted to the spreading of the Gospel. Yet, on the other hand, they were Italian patriots. It was a conundrum they found hard to solve, but the invasion of Sicily resolved it for them.

The conquest of what is a large island took the Allied troops just over one month, and the Italian army left behind 130,000 prisoners of war. By contrast, ‘only’ 10,000 Italian soldiers were either killed or wounded. By the time that Sicily fell, however, Mussolini was no longer Il Duce. On the night of 25 July, as it became clear that the Axis forces could not withstand the Allied attack on Sicily, his rule had come to an end. This had not been a popular revolt, but an intervention by the king and the Fascist ruling council, who believed that Mussolini had endangered the survival of Italy. He was replaced by a fellow Fascist, Marshall Pietro Bodaglio, the conqueror of Abyssinia in 1935.

For some time, the new Italian government refused to leave the German alliance. The Nazis, however, put in place a contingency for the liberation of Mussolini and a full-scale German occupation of Italy. This became urgent when, on 3 September, the new government signed an armistice with the Allies. Ever since 1 August, German troops had quietly began to infiltrate the north of Italy; now they initiated a full-scale occupation. At the same time, the British army crossed from Sicily to the mainland and began their slow and tortuous route towards the Alps.

In some places, the Italians resisted the Germans with some force. On the Greek islands of Corfu and Cephalonia, in particular, their resistance has become famous, immortalized in the novel and film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Other Italians, however, stayed loyal to Mussolini, who was liberated by the Germans to head a puppet government. Indeed, Italy descended into civil war, or rather into a civil war punctuated by war between the Allies and the Germans, as Philip Morgan noted in his recent (2007) The Fall of Mussolini.

What about the Church? She was now caught between two warring Italian factions, the neo-pagan regime of Hitler and the Allied armies which some of its bishops had been preaching against prior to 1943. The first major challenge offered by the new dispensation in Italy came in Rome itself, and directly concerned the Papacy. On 6 October 1943, the Nazis ordered the deportation of all Rome’s Jews. There were, at this time, some 8,000 Jews in the Eternal City, and the charge has frequently been leveled that Pius XII did nothing to help them. This is a myth. The diaries of the German SS war criminal, Adolph Eichmann, executed by the Israelis, show categorically that the Pope directly approached the Nazis in Rome to tell them that he opposed their plans. Ironically, he used the later instigator of the so-called Ratlines or escape routes for Nazis, the Austrian bishop, Alois Hudal, to convey his displeasure.

Jewish historian, Rabbi David Dalin, whose research is the most comprehensive to date, shows that the Holy Father ordered the rescue of as many Jews as possible. Some 3,000 were housed in his summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, 5,000 more in monasteries in Rome, including 500 in the Vatican itself and 60 in the Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University. Here, the choice was stark: evil versus good, and the Pope did not hesitate to make his choice. In other fields, too, Pope Pius XII’s foresight delivered fruits.

Catholic Action, over which the Church had clashed twice with Italy’s Fascists, now stood up and became the kernel for the Christian Democratic Party, which would safeguard the country from a Communist take-over in the years immediately following the war. That this was timely may be seen from the large-scale revolts against Fascist rule which followed the collapse of the Mussolini regime, with, amongst others, dock workers marching under the Soviet flag in Genoa.

In the meantime, the Pope had to preserve his neutrality. This was more difficult with the German army camped outside the walls of the Vatican, but also more necessary than ever. This meant he had to be more careful and avoid showing favoritism. This, of course, has given rise to the stories about the silent Pope, acquiescing in the murderous activities of the Nazis, which, as seen, are rather far off the mark. So Pope Pius XII, without the troublesome figure of Mussolini around, who had, after all, in large measures restored the Church’s position in Italy, could become more involved in espousing the course of righteousness, even if he still had to watch his step.

On 4 June 1944, almost a year after the fall of Mussolini, the Allies finally liberated Rome. This left the Holy Father free to focus on the rapidly growing threat of Communism, on the protection of Hungary’s Jews, and on the reconstruction of Italy. The main burden of the Italian Church in the occupied zone now fell onto the shoulders of Bl. Cardinal Schuster of Milan, by virtue of his being the largest diocese in the north of the country.

Cardinal Schuster’s convoluted relationship with Fascism, and with Mussolini in particular, has already been noted. From late 1943, he was one of the few people in northern Italy who knew both sides of the conflict, and his role was one of mediation and attempts to achieve peace. His resolute stance against any racism and Anti-Semitism had been noticeable from 1938 onwards, and had done much to mitigate his initial embrace of Fascism in the wake of the Lateran Treaty. The fact that Schuster was trusted by all sides is a significant comment on the Church’s position during those final years of the war in Italy: there was no longer any notion of Church and Fascist government working together. Instead, the Church worked to prevent further destruction and damage to Italy. If the Lateran Treaty and Italian patriotism had ensured a period in which Church and state had been close, then the Anti-Semitic law of 1938, the conflicts over Catholic Action, and the Nazi occupation, had brought this closeness to a shuddering halt.

The fluctuations of the relations and the ambivalence of the Church’s view of Italian Fascism together constitute the history of the experience of the Catholic Church during the Second World War in Italy.

Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.

Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.

Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.

In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.

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