The Battle for Rome
Robert Katz
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Buy *The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943 - June 1944* online

The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943 - June 1944
Robert Katz
Simon & Schuster
448 pages
August 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The Italian campaign in World War II was a bloody (and that's not just a swear word, but also a description) waste of time, as the Allies followed Churchill's plan of hitting the "soft underbelly of Europe." Landings at Salerno in southern Italy and, in January 1944 at Anzio just south of Rome, resulted in a stalemate for a great many months, costing thousands of lives and not really gaining much. The ultimate objective was Rome, mainly for the propaganda coup that would benefit whichever army entered it first. When the Allies invaded, many Romans thought that they would be liberated in a matter of days. The Fascist government had been toppled and there was no way the Germans would try to hold Rome and fight in southern Italy.


The Battle for Rome: The Germans, The Allies, The Partisans, and the Pope by Robert Katz tells the story of a city that awaited that "matter of days" for nine long months -- nine months of resistance activity, starvation, and oppression that battered the city's soul and resulted in the deaths of many, including almost the entire Jewish population. Katz examines all of these aspects of the Italian campaign, meshing them into a seamless narrative that is both provocative and fascinating to read. Well-researched and extensively documented, Katz makes use of many sources that have just come to light, including documents recently declassified by the CIA. He uses these to sharply criticize Pope Pius XII and his handling of the Roman situation. Katz does not examine the complete attitude of the Vatican toward Hitler's "Final Solution," but he does examine the attitude as it pertained to the round-up of Jews in Rome after the Germans occupied it, as well as its reaction to the massive reprisal that killed 335 Romans after a particularly effective Partisan attack. The Vatican (and especially the Pope) comes out of this wanting.

While Katz does tell the broader story of occupied Rome, he reserves the brunt of his criticism for Pius. In discussing the road to sainthood that Pius is currently upon (he was almost beatified in September, 2000), Katz has this to say:

"He would be credited as his defenders say he must and his critics say he does not deserve with saving the lives of thousands of Jews, saving the Romans, saving Rome. There would be a Saint of Silence, but the divine grace that is supposed to shine in such a servant of God would light nothing in its path." (p. 346)
Not only was Pius silent in his criticism of the Holocaust, not only was he silent as the Germans systematically rounded up the Jews who were supposedly being protected by the Vatican, but he was silent as the Germans clamped down on the population of Rome, including one of the worst massacres in Italian history. Katz points out that, even if Papal silence in the face of the Holocaust facing Europe may have been "understandable" at times, what awaited his personal flock in Rome deserved some sort of outcry that never came. Instead, he sacrificed everything for a myth of an "open city" where no military presence was allowed. The Germans, while agreeing to this concept, ignored it when it came time to move troops to the front. Instead of protesting this, however, he criticized the Roman partisans for breaking the peace when they attacked. The Vatican has been reluctant to release documents from its archives pertaining to World War II, especially documents related to the Roman occupation.
"The four-decades-old great debate is not even a debate anymore but a polemic in which the Pope's defenders can do no better than cite decades-old research of deflated credibility while the critics, locked out of the Vatican's wartime archives, are driven to search for documents that might lend support to sweeping but irrelevant condemnations of the Catholic hierarchy from Saint Paul to John Paul." (p. 345)
Katz doesn't just tell the Vatican side of the story, though, and he doesn't just criticize Pius. He also tells of the Allied blundering in the Italian campaign, from the non-breakout of the Salerno beachheads that resulted in long months of fighting against Kesslering's various defensive lines, to the invasion at Anzio that, with a little bit of initiative, could have resulted in the fall of Rome in January 1944. He uses the diary of General Mark Clark, the American general who eventually took Rome, extensively, commenting on the relationship between him and his superior officer, General Alexander. Katz does not go into great detail on the fighting, though there is enough to understand what is going on. Instead, he concentrates on the politics of the Italian Campaign, the need to be the first to enter Rome and Churchill's attitude toward the whole thing.

Finally, Katz uses his contacts with some primary figures (OSS spy Peter Tompkins and Rosario Bentivegna) to detail life inside Rome, the partisan activity that took place there, and the endless political struggles between the various partisan groups that almost destroyed the Resistance from within. He uses personal stories in this case, including the diary of a Vatican nun and testimony from the trials of the various German figures within the city. Sometimes Katz makes too much of an aside about the personal lives (especially Rosario and the woman who later became his wife) which distracts from the historical narrative, though it does add a bit of additional tension to the whole story.

Katz weaves all this together into a narrative that is, at times, disjointed. He bounces around from the Vatican to the partisans, then takes a breather and talks about the Allied armies advancing (or, more often, not advancing) on Rome. This is a mostly effective way to tell the tale, especially all of the relationships between the various parties and the events in Rome, but it can become grating.

The Battle for Rome is compelling, thought-provoking, and chilling. Katz spends a whole chapter on the reprisal for the partisan attack on the Via Rasella, detailing the round-up of the prisoners, how they were taken to the caves and then shot five at a time. He details this from the German side, and it presents a picture of men who are revolted by what they are being ordered to do, but do it anyway rather than speak out. It is intense, and the description may not be for the squeamish.

I think Pat Conroy says it best, with a blurb on the back cover:

"Robert Katz has written a fascinating, illuminating, and definitive history of the fall of Rome to the Allies in World War II. The Battle for Rome tells us what the Germans were thinking, what the Partisans were plotting, when the Allies were coming, and what the Pope was failing to do. It is a work both of great history and art."
I couldn't agree more.

© 2003 by David Roy for Curled Up With a Good Book

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