Time plays sobering tricks with reputations. When he died in 1958, Pope Pius XII was widely acclaimed as having been a force for good during the Second World War, a brave but austere international statesman. Golda Meir, then Israel's foreign minister, praised him for having "raised his voice in favour of the Jews". Ten years later an Israeli diplomat estimated that Pius had saved "as many as 860,000 Jews". The Vatican continues to this day to push this view and plans are well advanced to canonise Pius.
The rest of the world, however, has been forced to think again. The gradual declassification of official files by governments around the world has demonstrated that not only did this pope fail to utter a single direct condemnation of the Holocaust during the war years, despite knowing all about it, but he also did very little to save the Jews who lived on his doorstep from the death camps.
The first cracks in this plaster saint appeared in 1963 with Rolf Hochhuth's internationally acclaimed play The Representative. Many have taken up its rallying cry that Pius was a fraud. In recent years, a shelf-load of books has appeared condemning his inaction, pointing to his anti-Semitism, as well as to Catholicism's institutional anti-Semitism and its instinctive preference for fascism, however brutal, over communism. Robert Katz's Fatal Silence is pitched by his publishers at this already well-serviced market. So the cover shows Pius, resplendent in white, his eyes staring heavenwards, surrounded by Nazi officials.
And to be fair, Katz does offer insights into the wartime machinations of the Vatican. It still refuses to open all its files from the period - which seems to me to be a conclusive admission of guilt - but Katz has winkled various papers out of God's business address on earth to add to the stash of new information he has uncovered in America in the archives of the Office of Strategic Services. From this we learn that, although Pius's defenders still say that he paid a golden ransom in a vain effort to save Rome's Jews from transportation to the death camps, the most he did was indicate a willingness to chip in if the Jews could not raise the sum demanded. He also shows that no individual Jews were spared, as is often claimed, after Pius personally intervened with the Nazis. Moreover, Katz reveals that those who did escape the Nazi round-up and found sanctuary in church buildings in Rome did so in the face of explicit opposition from the Vatican. The real heroes and heroines were the priests and nuns who refused to bow to Pius's officials and hand over the desperate people whom they were hiding.
The main problem with writing about Pius's wartime is that in effect, he did nothing. Facing the murders of six million people, he remained silent. As Jews were taken away from the ghetto that sat right alongside St Peter's, he may have agonised, but he did not intervene. When he did raise his voice with the German occupiers, it was either to ensure that the Vatican city state would not be compromised - that is to say, he would be safe - or to emphasise his own neutrality in a conflict which, for many, became a battle between good and evil. His unrealistic hope was that the Catholic Church could emerge as the peacemaker across Europe. Instead, both the American and British leaderships, as Katz shows, regarded the papacy as tainted by its association with Nazism and irrelevant in the post-1945 reshaping of the Continent. Both had urged Pius to speak up against the Holocaust and so drew their own conclusions about him. Far from being a saint, then, he was at best a fool, perhaps an anti-Semite and probably a coward.
Despite its cover, the Vatican sections of Fatal Silence make up only a small percentage of this microhistory of occupied Rome from 1943-44. The bulk of the book reminds me more of Antony Beevor's Stalingrad - as a fascinating, blow-by-blow account of the battle for the city between daring leftist partisans, grand but brave Italian monarchists and a whole cast of German occupiers, some appalling thugs and bigots, others sensitive men seeking out the shades of grey in a black-and-white situation. Katz brings the daily grind of the occupation vividly alive: the collaborators at the swanky hotels and expensive hairdressers on the Via Veneto, carrying on as if nothing had changed, while the rest of the population queued for hours to get bread for their families and hid in attics and cellars, all believing that the next day the Allies would roll in and free them. He rescues forgotten stories of individual courage - like that of Teresa Gullace, an impoverished and pregnant mother-of-five, gunned down with her small son clutching her skirt as she called out for her husband, victim of a Nazi round-up, outside the military barracks where he was being held.
Katz has a novelist's gift for narrative and as a result, Fatal Silence reads at times like a thriller. Although this helps you skip through its 400-plus pages, it can detract from its impact as a serious work of history. As Katz puts the final nails in the coffin of Pius XII's reputation, you almost miss the significance because of the piped music in the background. More reconstruction than straight retelling, this is popular history at its best, with its many strengths and occasional drawbacks.
Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald. His biography of Lord Longford is published by Sutton