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The Church’s Second World War is twisted and distorted in the popular imagination

The heroism and sacrifice of priests living under the Nazis is forgotten

By on Monday, 21 October 2013

Priebke's funeral last week (AP)

Priebke's funeral last week (AP)


I was reading The Abomination by Jonathan Holt when something pulled me up short. It’s an upmarket Dan Brown style whodunit set in Venice. Someone – perhaps the Vatican – is behind the assassination of female priests. Watch out lady vicars, Pope Francis is behind you! That was too silly to give me pause. But then an old Italian partisan popped up in the story, remembering how the cowardly local priests ran away from the Nazis during the war. I recall rather different stories about partisans, priests and Nazis in Italy – true stories.

The news that the Vatican had refused a public requiem Mass for an unrepentant Nazi reminded me of one real abomination. The Nazi in question, Erich Priebke was an SS officer in charge of carrying out a reprisal for a partisan attack. On 24 March 1944, 335 people, mainly civilians from a rural Roman suburb, were taken into the tunnels of some disused quarries, forced to keel, and shot individually with a single bullet to the head. One prisoner, who confessed he was a deserter from the Austrian army, was permitted to live. He later recalled the courage of Father Pietro Pappagallo who had been arrested for helping Jews, allies and partisans escape the Nazis. The priest had blessed each victim before they died, knowing that he too would be shot – as indeed he was.

Other similar massacres took place in Italy during the war – did the local priests run away there? In the hill village of Sant’Anna di Stazzema, the SS murdered about 560 villagers and refugees on 12 August 1944. The priest Fiore Menguzzo was shot in the church point blank before the hundred parishioners gathered with him were machine-gunned, including pregnant women and children. Finally, in the early autumn of 1944 the Nazis killed seven hundred and seventy civilians from the village of Marzabotto south of Bologna for the support they had given to partisans and resistance fighters. Described as “bandits” 45 of the dead were less than two years old and 110 were less than ten. But many other lives were saved by the parish priest Don Giovanni Fomasini, who was caught burying the victims against Nazis commands, and was shot for his actions, one of five priests the Nazis killed in the area.

Fiction has a nasty way of insinuating its way into claims of being “fact”. As Priebke lies buried with the contempt of the Vatican heaped upon him we should remember not only the abomination he took part in, and others like it, but also the courage of the priests who died with the victims and for them. It’s not enough to uncover scandals to make a better world, the light of the good should also be seen, as an example to us all. We hear a great deal about priests who have erred, less about the good done by the vast majority of the clergy, or the exceptional sacrifices of a few.

  • terry

    According to Odino Pieroni, “Il Contributo del Clero Pisano alla Resistenza” in Resistenza ai Giorni Nostri (Pisa: A.N.P.I., 2005), 176, in the Tuscany region alone, 65 priests in separate instances were arrested, tortured and killed for aiding Partisans, prisoners of war (POWs), and people of the Jewish faith. The number of priests killed in Italy for such reasons at such a time must run into more than a hundred at least.

    It is indeed a great pity that their sacrifices are not better known and commemorated.

  • NatOns

    The Vatican officials failed publicly in their non-political but ever-sincere charity toward sinners. Here the Diocese was right: in refusing a public Requiem to this scandalous man; it went seriously wrong in leaving it there .. as if washing its hands of the difficulty. A private burial for an openly anti-Jewish and thus anti-Catholic bigot could have been arranged, quietly and decorously, with the family and State officials; what happened was a disgusting travesty of Catholic Faith played out in public before a devouring media, more than eager to pit Catholic ‘splinter groups’ against the popular will and the Vatican’s dour reticence.

    This is just the Williamson affair in outrageous reverse; the Vatican officials knew of this man’s odious opinions (or ought to have done) and instead of pre-planning a way of dealing with the inevitable media-fest, they run to nearest safety exit. Bp Williamson was very properly reaffirmed as excommunicate, and a warning given to those who would like to hide their anti-semitism and Judeo-phobias behind a Catholic front. But in this sad episode a genuine act of charity, due from any Catholic, has been turned into a political issue .. leaving a religious society with a (further) smeared reputation (not that many really care).

  • Benedict Carter

    “Bp Williamson was very properly reaffirmed as excommunicate …”? Sorry NatOns, but without seeking to carry a candle for this foolish man, he is not excommunicate at all.

    Also, is there not some doubt as to whether Priebke sought absolution before he died?

  • Benedict Carter

    Something like 20% of the entire population of Poland was killed in World War II, by the Soviets and Germans in 1939, then by the Germans until 1944 and then again by the Soviets.

    I think the number of priests killed by both sides was 10,000.

    Yes, a Catholic holocaust. Queue the evil comments.

  • johnhenry

    The number of tramontane priests murdered by the Nazis in places like Dachau was far higher, not meaning to belittle the courageous sacrifices of the Italian priesthood. An excellent book about their experiences (in Dachau) was written by a survivor, Fr Jean Bernard, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau.

  • Guest

    Yes, I was reading but the other day an account of the murders of monks, nuns, priests and laity in Catholic Poland. It was a horrendous business and must not be forgotten.

  • James M

    “The Church’s Second World War is twisted and distorted in the popular imagination”

    ## Events in Croatia between 1941 & 1944 are nothing to be happy about. And someone like Mgr Tiso is problematic, to say the least. It’s as unhistorical to represent the Church during WW2 in a wholly favourable light as it to represent it in a purely unfavourable one. The truth is likely to be somewhere in between.

  • pbecke

    Weren’t you disdaining the middle-classes for being uneducated yesterday. It’s. ‘Cue’, as in ‘autocue’.

  • pbecke

    I saw a TV documentary a few decades ago now, in which a former sergeant-major, who had served in every theatre of the war, had been tasked with liaising with resistance groups in the various occupied countries; and of all that he witnessed in every such country, he never saw such bravery from the civilian population of any other country comparable with the extraordinary epic bravery that he witnessed from the civilian population in Northern Italy. He was quite moved talking about it.

    There was also a much more recent TV programme on the ‘insane’ bravery of the Polish pilots over here. They had ‘unfinished business’ with the Germans, and the number of their kills was astonishing in comparison with other nationalities. In fact, if they heard a German plane, they wouldn’t wait for orders form a superior, but dashed off to their planes. Moreover, no doubt, to the shock and bewilderment of the enemy pilots, they charged straight at them, firing away like mad.

    A group captain didn’t believe that their record could have been as prolific as was stated, so decided to go up with them to see. He saw an enemy plane and decided to go after it, but before he could do so, a Polish pilot had darted in and downed it!

    Then, of course, after everyone else had failed to flush out the German paratroopers at the top of Monte Cassino, they sent in the Poles for the last stretch, a suicide mission, and indeed, many were killed, But, mad as hornets or a meat-axe – take your pick – they did the job, and the surviving Germans, themselves very brave troops, were taken prisoner.

  • pbecke

    About 20 years ago, wasn’t a French monastery, presumably, SSPX or closely affiliated with it, discovered to have been hiding a Nazi war criminal?

    Would they not also have links with the so-called, Rat Line, smuggling some of the monsters of the Nazi concentration camps to Argentina and the like?

  • NatOns

    Yes, BC, true; but even sincere death-bed repentance does not remove the odium from odious opinions – to imagine it does is the Protestant error in regard to fiery test of deeds in Purgatory .. they assert that Christ’s atonement has already expunged all taint of sin past, present or future (and that belief in this human notion removes absolutely all personal culpability for wrongdoings, penitently confessed or not).

    Bishop Williamson remains suspended from all functional episcopal authority because of this odium, and his refusal to obey the summons from Rome to distance himself in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion from holocaust denial draws no need for a new formal decree of excommunication – his rebellion is its own excommunication (against Benedict XVI’s clear censure and official command); I should not have suggested more: truly, M C! M C! M M C!

    So, yes, I do take your well made point – unlike (the otherwise orthodox) Fr Feeney with his anti-Jewish contentions – Bp Williamson has not drawn down excommunication in the form of Acta Apostolicae Sedis; if I recall, however, the Bishop once expelled from the Society insisted he would ordain and elevate as necessary – and that is self-excommunication personified (for personal actions have corporate repercussions).

    Apologies for any confusion raised or error asserted, thanks for the correction!


  • Hermit Crab

    Bishop Williamson is “mad” in the way that Enoch Powell was “mad”. It is to be like Don Quixote.

  • Jarmila

    FINALLY!!!! An article describing with love and sincerity the incredible heroism of priests and other faithful during WWII.
    How many people know that around SIX MILLION Christians were murdered during WWII, at first by the nazis and then by the communists, Stalin and his friends in for ex Spain, where 33.000 catholics; priests bishops, religious and other faithful were butchered; some priests were SKINNED ALIVE by theses stalinists. Then followed the horrendous persecutions, murders and horrible torture of priests and others in Roumania, Hungaria, Poland, DDR, etc etc etc.
    My husband and I are often talking about WHY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH IS TALKING SO LITTLE about these victims and their heroic deeds and wittness. This HURTS! And it doesn´t bring anything good to anyone not to present the TRUTH.
    Very few catholics we have talked with know much, if anythibng, about the heroic deeds of pope Pius XII during the war, that he, according to experts and historians(many!) saved, directly or indirectly, around 850.000 Jews! Even Albert Einstein, after the war, wrote a long article in New York Times, lauding the heroism of pope Pius.
    Instead of just blaming Dan Brown and Holt, who, from their point of view, are just doing what they feel is important, we should ask ourselves WHY WE-THE CHURC – above all priests and bishops hardly ever talk openly about this. DON´T WE OWE THIS LITTLE TO THE VICTIMS?
    Where does this odd “philosophy” of silence in the church have its roots?
    A church that gives the impression of being ashamed, or intimidated to telling the truth about its own sufferings and heroic past, does not come forward to non believers as very convincing. Not even to most catholics, who know far too little, sometimes NOTHING ABOUT this.
    It is fine to demonstrate love and sympathy for victims in Lampedusa, as well as for people all over the world, of all religions. But it DOES give a strange impression when the same compassion is denied catholic victims
    Honestly, we are very, very puzzled and, yes, discomforted by this..

  • NatOns

    Unfortunately, I agree. Even in madness, the Truth can be witnessed .. usually in delivering very unwelcome or painful truths; in fact, in demon possession the Truth may yet still be witnessed. I think back to the insane and fanciful picture of ‘Rivers of blood’ that so deeply upset many – both justly and unjustly – at that time; then I ponder the terrifying death of a young soldier in London (like that of a young scholar not that far off some years before, both brutal murders that show how easily mere prejudice can be institutionalised in man’s heart .. )×4-700×933.jpg

  • Hermit Crab

    Bishop Williamson has great gifts. But something went awry, “some vicious mole of nature”, as Hamlet puts it:

    So, oft it chances in particular men,
    That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
    As, in their birth–wherein they are not guilty,
    Since nature cannot choose his origin–
    By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
    Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
    Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
    The form of plausive manners, that these men,
    Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
    Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,–
    Their virtues else–be they as pure as grace,
    As infinite as man may undergo–
    Shall in the general censure take corruption
    From that particular fault.

    Hamlet Act 1, Scene 4

  • Atilla The Possum

    What a brilliant post in response to the article!

  • NatOns

    Tertullian had great gifts, so too did Luther; they are carrying, I say, the one defect .. breaking down the forts of reason. I appreciate both Tertullian and Luther, schismatics and heretics as they became and revelled in; I cannot appreciate their rebellion – it is a free choice, HC, not a mole burrowing alien-like into their otherwise pure as grace souls. A cancer plaguing their own body, and its cause advanced to others as the cure for all ills – death – no doubt; it is the pride of conceit .. and all of us have it gnawing at us still, even in the New Adam, though in Him we are all called to enjoy loveliness, holiness and blamelessness as witnessed in Mary’s heart before God (however much some may deny it of her).

    ‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.’ Eph 1 : 2-4.

    God bless you and your witness to faith in the Lord, it is always a blessing to behold.


  • Benedict Carter

    STILL smarting about that, aren’t you?

    Bet you are a “Eucharistic Minister”.

    Queue/cue – not when one is making a wordplay squire.

  • pbecke

    About what? You’re always talking in riddles. Can’t you frame at least intelligible and coherent, if ‘half-educated, middle-class’ questions? Such as those ‘half-educated middle-class’ people you seem to despise are capable of framing?

    What are you now, after your ragamuffin childhood? Upper middle-class? Upper class? Marcel WOULD be proud of you.

  • pbecke

    Oh. And no. I’m not a eucharistic minister. Be careful to avoid ‘crown and anchor’ hustlers and betting shops. Keep your pennies under lock and key.

  • pbecke

    Silence came the stern reply.

  • pbecke

    Wordplay, my eye. But I admire your nerve.

  • pbecke

    You mean, a very keen intellect, but deranged assumptions? ‘Twas ever the intellectual’s downfall. What a good thing God chooses to judge us on our hearts and not our brains. I wouldn’t care to meet Dr Mengele in heaven, would you? Or Eichmann?

  • Angela

    And priests and bishops keep silent!

  • lucio apollyon

    While we must remember the heroism of the individual clergymen who have saved the lives of civilians, there is, in the history of World War II, a often ignored chapter of the fate of Italian Protestants who – subjected to bitter persecution from the regime and the church as Mussolini slogan was “to believe in a different religion other than the Catholic one is treason against the crown, the motherland and God” – were often interned in the lonely little islands around the Italian peninsula. Those who bore Biblical names were often consigned to the SS together with the Jews and sent to Dachau. All this is very well documented by the Archives of the Italian Foreign Office in Rome and duly acknowledged by the Vatican, but no apology was ever issued for the complicity of some local priests in handing over (particularly in Apulia) Protestants to the SS. The reading of this official report did upset me tremendously.

  • ostrava

    There were some of courage; some who kept their heads down; and some who collaborated. Just as among the laity of the occupied countries.