HIDE AND SEEK:
The Irish Priest in the Vatican Who Defied the Nazi Command
by Stephen Walker
Paperback: 352 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
One common misconception is that during World War II the Catholic Church did little if anything to help those whom the Nazis hunted, and was actually secretly supportive of Nazism.
Hide and Seek challenges this simplistic interpretation, recounting the battle of will and skill between Herbert Kappler, chief of SS security forces in Rome, and Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who became known as “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” for his daring rescue of thousands of Allied soldiers and Jews. (O’Flaherty was portrayed by Gregory Peck in the 1983 film, The Scarlet and the Black).
Written in the form of a parallel biography, the book by Stephen Walker, an award-winning BBC journalist, traces the careers of O’Flaherty and Keppler.
The seminal experience for O’Flaherty as a young man was the 1919-21 Irish War of Independence, particularly the British government’s deployment of the paramilitary units, the notorious Black and Tans, who ruthlessly sought to suppress the nationalist uprising. O’Flaherty himself narrowly escaped with his life from British captivity. Ever afterwards, he felt disdain for the British. (This was ironic given how he later saved countless British prisoners of war from the Nazis.)
O’Flaherty completed his priestly studies in Rome, was ordained in 1925 and spent the rest of his career working for the Vatican.
By contrast, as a young man, Kappler became fascinated by National Socialism, joining Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1931 and later the SS. He was posted to Rome early in World War II. In 1943, Italy’s armistice with the Allies led to German forces directly occupying Italy. Thenceforth Kappler came to play a more prominent role as head of German security forces, one which brought him and O’Flaherty into direct confrontation.
Many Allied POWs used Italy’s withdrawal from the war in 1943 as an opportunity to escape from the Axis powers, heading southwards to Rome in the hope of gaining assistance from the Church.
Putting aside his personal animosity towards the British, O’Flaherty aided Allied servicemen on the run and soon developed an effective network of assistants and safe houses.
Central to his operations were British Major Sam Derry, an escaped POW, and John May, butler to Sir D’Arcy Osborne, the British representative to the Vatican, who himself channelled significant funds from the British government.
Such funds were augmented by donations from wealthy Romans. However, Monsignor O’Flaherty’s network could not have succeeded without the support of ordinary Italians who provided hiding places, risking their lives in doing so.
Kappler’s intelligence sources provided him with positive evidence that O’Flaherty was at the centre of this operation. He made plans to kidnap him, an operation that was foiled by John May.
Another narrow escape was when SS troops tried to capture him while he was visiting the Palazzo Doria, the residence of a wealthy aristocratic secret supporter. The SS surrounded the palace, whereupon O’Flaherty disguised himself as a coal delivery-man and was driven away in a coal truck.
O’Flaherty reluctantly came to the conclusion that he could only avoid capture by not venturing outside the boundaries of the Vatican, whose neutrality the Nazis respected. Hence, for a significant portion of the occupation, O’Flaherty was confined to conducting his network from Vatican premises, particularly the German College where he was resident.
Keppler, despite being a Nazi, was critical of certain actions demanded of him. He rounded up Jews reluctantly and only after receiving direct orders to do so.
Similarly, after German troops were killed in central Rome in a Partisan attach on March 23, 1944, he initially questioned the wisdom of the cruel reprisals he was ordered to carry out. Hitler himself demanded that 10 persons should be executed for every German soldier killed, and stipulated that the punishment be carried out within 24 hours of the attack. On March 24, 335 Italians were transported to the Ardeatine caves and shot in the head. For the leading role he played in the Ardeatine massacre, Kappler was later imprisoned for life.
The latter part of Walker’s book traces the postwar lives of each man. Incredibly, as a prisoner, Kappler sought out the ministration of the man he had previously tried to kill, Monsignor O’Flaherty. Repenting of the war crimes he had committed, Kappler was received into the Catholic Church.
Owing to ill health, O’Flaherty eventually retired to Ireland, where he died in 1963. Kappler lived on until 1978.
Kappler’s second wife, Anneliese, whom he married in a prison ceremony in 1972, campaigned for his early release, but this was refused by the Italians who never forgot his role in the Andeatine massacre. However, in 1977, Anneliese successfully helped smuggle her husband out of a prison hospital and into West Germany.
Walker dismisses allegations that O’Flaherty may have aided German intelligence. He cites evidence that suggests that O’Flaherty was in possession of a radio which was supplied to him by the British to communicate intelligence to them.
Hide and Seek is a thrilling and lucid account of the careers and wartime roles of Kappler and O’Flaherty. It commemorates not only the heroism of those who risked their lives to protect others, but also the no less important virtues of repentance and forgiveness.