Monday, June 25, 2012


Despite its dreary title, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War by Owen Chadwick (Cambridge, 1986) is a marvelous book to which I have returned from time to time with real fascination ever since Jean McCaughey recommended it to me almost 25 years ago. It is largely the tale of a remarkable personality, (Francis) d’Arcy Godolphin Osborne (left), British Minister to the Holy See from 1936 to 1947, who from 1940, when Italy entered the war, was immured in a small flat in the Vatican City (together with other allied diplomats, their families and servants) until the Americans liberated Rome in 1944. Amazingly, throughout this long period, and especially during the traumatic German occupation of 1943–44, Osborne was more or less unmolested—protected by the somewhat quaint and decidedly uncertain conventions of diplomatic immunity while he remained on Vatican territory, much assisted by his friend the kindly Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI. Naturally Osborne was watched, by various organs of the Italian police and intelligence services and various other spies—clerics with fascist sympathies, clerics with Gaullist sympathies, servants in the pay of the Italian police, certain Swiss guards who were not above accepting a little pourbois in exchange for useful information, neutral ambassadors and their staff, but above all the servants. Livio, Osborne’s footman, got hold of the Foreign Office cipher and copied it for the Italian police. Though it was maddening not to be able to cast Livio out, Osborne wisely realized that it was vital that the Italians never knew that he knew that they had his cipher—so Livio stayed, watched in turn by Osborne’s sharp-eyed and resourceful cockney butler John May. In fact it was a stroke of good fortune, because this meant that, together with the diplomatic bag, Osborne could to some extent manipulate the flow of information to the Allies’ advantage. He knew the bag was of course routinely opened and its contents inspected and copied, sometimes more than once along the enormously insecure route by which it passed from him to the Secretariat of State, thence via the papal nuncio to Switzerland then Portugal, and into the hands of the British Ambassador, and finally on to Whitehall—and back again. The Vatican protested loudly and indignantly about Axis interference with its diplomatic bags. Yet Osborne also grasped that the Italians were by no means inclined automatically to share the contents with their German allies, especially as Mussolini’s regime began to unravel, and relations between the two countries deteriorated drastically. Therefore Osborne’s position, not entirely understood in Whitehall until afterwards, was a delicate, even an invidious one. His communications needed to convey enough information that was true and useful so that the Italians never suspected Osborne knew they were intercepting and reading them. Therefore he had no alternative but to use his communications with Whitehall to create the impression that the Vatican not only posed no threat to the Axis powers, but might prove extremely useful to Italy in negotiating the terms of a separately negotiated armistice (i.e. without Germany)—and that by deploring such a possibility in the strongest possible terms, Osborne made the Italians believe it was true. And, in more than one sense it was true. At the same time Osborne had to be careful not to create too alarming an impression in Whitehall (and Washington, D.C.) that the Pope was either completely useless, or far too favorably disposed towards the Italian state at the expense of the Allies, which was in fact not true. In fact, the Pope had engaged from time to time in certain extremely dangerous diplomatic demarches, the purpose of which was to find some way of getting rid of Mussolini. Though Osborne dearly wished to communicate this to Whitehall, he obviously could not. And he was troubled by having deliberately to misrepresent his formal diplomatic discussions with his hosts in the Vatican; he knew very well that his presence there was ipso facto dangerous for the Pope. On the other hand, Osborne thought nothing of liaising secretly with the deliciously gallant Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who let it be known about town that his attitude as an Irish patriot was staunchly anti-British, the better to maintain cover for his extremely effective escape network for escaped allied prisoners-of-war (who knew that they needed to make straight for the Vatican), as well as many Italian Jews and political fugitives from Mussolini—to all of which Monsignor Montini not merely turned a diplomatically blind eye, but took care to conceal as much as possible from his wily colleague in the Secretariat Monsignor Domenico Tardini, who was not nearly so sympathetic to the Allied cause. Towards the end of his life Osborne, a bachelor, became the twelfth and last Duke of Leeds.

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