DURING the early part of the last war (and, indeed, but in a different way, later on) the Holy See made repeated efforts to restore peace to Europe and the world. This often involved desperate, at times almost pathetic, attempts to placate, or at least not to alienate, the Nazis.
The hopes Were that they might agree to peace in the West in order to turn East and destroy Soviet communism.
Such hopes ran high when, in March 1940, Germany's Foreign Minister, von Ribbentrop, went to Rome to confess personally to Pope Pius XII. He (Ribbentrop) considered PaceIli, with whom he had become friendly in Germany, to be "a true Pope".
A few days later, the Berlin nuncio, Mgr Orsenigo, sent a long account to the Vatican of German reactions to the Rome visii.
This was a moment, it must be remembered, at which Christianity in Germany was in mortal fear for its rights and privileges, and perhaps for its very life. The Catholic church there was, in general, in a state of mesmerised awe of the Nazi government.
Orsenigo reported having dutifully met von Ribbentrop at the station on his return "to the Reich" and that they had exchanged courteous pleasantries.
The nuncio expressed disappointment at the Vatican's lack of "remonstrances" against Nazi suppression of the Catholic press, thus greatly hampering effective anti-government protest.
He was, however, able to report some developments which were good (and therefore communicable as such to Ribbentrop). The episcopate, for example, has "very much appreciated the gesture of the German government" in diverting 1000 litres of olive oil from war purposes for the use of a certain diocese at the request of its ordinary, Cardinal Bertram.
Orsenigo's report was one of the hundreds of items released for publication among the "Records and Documents of the Holy See relating to World War!!".
The first volume contained some 300,000 words, and caused a mild sensation when published.
The long introduction and all editorial notes were in French, while the actual documents were reproduced in their original languages, mostly Italian.
The somewhat onerous task of translating the volume in question brought meagre financial returns at the time, but entailed several interesting visits to Rome and a highly rewarding insight into the so-called "secret archives" of the Vatican.
All of this came back to me recently when spending a day at Auschwitz. I did so in the course of a visit to Poland whereby thanks to a good Polish friend I was afforded a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in that country today.
Apart from Warsaw and Cracow, I visited the university of Lublin, cradle (since 1918) of Poland's Catholic intelligentsia, the "Ukrainian" town of Przemysl, almost on the Russian border, and explored something of Wadowice, the Pope's birthplace which he is to visit next week as part of his eastern European trip to Hungary and Poland.
My Auschwitz visit coincided with two notable 50th anniversaries. One was that of
the self-immolation of Maximilian Kolbe to save the life of a fellow inmate of Auschwitz. The latter was still alive some 40 years later when he a-aended Kolbe's canonisation.
In defence of life
The other anniversary concerns the most notable exception to the "mesmerised awe" of Nazism mentioned above. It consisted in a vigorous and uniquely effective anti-Nazi protest on the part of Count von Galen, Archbishop of Munster.
Von Galen made so strong a protest against the Nazis' proposed euthanasia programme that widespread public indignation was aroused and the programme was dropped.
Had this protest been fully backed and followed up by the official church, the whole course of history might have been changed. Many, indeed, were ruefully reminded of it during last week's debate on "mercy killing" in the European Parliament.'
No comparable church protest was ever made in the case of the Jews. Rather did the Holy See's policy of rigid circumspection turn von Galen's dramatic stand into a virtually one-off affair.
In the silence that followed, Hitler felt emboldened not only to reintroduce his enforced euthanasia project for the undesirable and "unfit" but he even extended it to orphaned children. Thus did millions of innocent people perish.
Pius' war role
The controversy as to any final verdict on the role played by Pius XII still rages. The background to its enigma is only too clear, even if the surrounding facts will long constitute a grey area.
The most unambiguous and damning indictment of Nazism was thundered from Rome by Pope Pius himself. In a speech to his College of Cardinals he described Nazism as a "satanic spectacle" which was an "arrogant apostasy from Jesus Christ, the denial of his doctrine and of his work of redemption, the cult of violence, the idolatry of race and blood, the overthrow of human liberty and dignity..."
The only trouble about this denunciation was its timing. It was uttered in June 1945, when Nazi Germany had already surrendered and Hitler was safely dead.
It is, of :nurse, all too easy, and can become reprehensibly smug, to be wise after the event., particularly as to Catholic attitudes and policies during the war.
The war in the Far East, for example, continued, as will be remembered, for some months after D-day in Europe. It did not end until the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the 46th anniversary of which was marked last week by a Pax Christi vigil in London.
War too long
But need the war against Japan have gone on so long and reached such a violent climax? Perhaps not. We now discover, through an initiative of the Holy See, it could perhaps have ended sooner, and in a very different way.
"The true story of the plan for peace that might have prevented the horror of Hiroshima" is the publisher's description of a book, recently issued, entitled Peace Without HirosAitria. In it, Martin Quigley tells of the secret action at the Vatican in the spring of 1945.
Based on documents recently declassified by the US and Japan, the author, a former OSS agent, tells how a secret peace plan succeeded in opening communications with Tokyo early that fateful year. With the help of a Vatican diplomat, a Japanese priest, and the Japanese ambassador to the Holy See, talks were initiated. Plans were sidetracked, however, and the war (unnecessarily?) continued.
It is an absorbing work, published by Madison Books and distributed in iie UK through the National Book Network.