The priest who outfoxed the Nazis

Fri, Mar 4, 2011, 00:00

A new book about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty looks at how the Irish priest helped Jews to flee Rome during the second World War and the Gestapo leader who put a price on his head

MONSIGNOR HUGH O’Flaherty was a reluctant war hero. The native of Cahersiveen in Co Kerry was working in the Vatican when the second World War broke out. A mixture of circumstance, fate and his humanitarian spirit meant he ended up running one of the most successful Allied escape operations seen during the conflict. His story is as remarkable as it is dramatic.

Hugh O’Flaherty was from a nationalist background. His views were formed when, as a young student in Limerick, he saw atrocities being carried out by Black and Tan soldiers from Britain and a number of his friends were killed. When the war began in 1939, he was understandably careful to avoid taking sides. He told one colleague, “I don’t think there is anything to choose between Britain and Germany.”

His views changed, however, after he learned of the violence being inflicted on Jews, and after he began to visit Allied prisoners being held in harsh conditions in Italian jails. In 1943 he began to offer shelter to Allied servicemen who turned up at the Vatican looking for sanctuary. Within months, he had set up an organisation capable of looking after thousands of Allied escapees and Jewish civilians.

In German-occupied Rome, it was a risky operation, and O’Flaherty soon attracted the attention of Herbert Kappler, the SS Obersturmbannfuhrer(lieutenant colonel), who ran the Gestapo there.

Kappler had established a ruthless regime and the two men became adversaries in a real-life game of hide and seek, a fiercely fought rivalry that would culminate in failed attempts by the Nazis to try to kidnap and kill the Monsignor.

Kappler was so desperate to trap O’Flaherty he placed a bounty of 30,000 lire on his head. On another occasion Kappler told his men, “I don’t want to see him alive again”.

O’Flaherty managed to outfox Kappler by dodging raids by German soldiers, using fake documents and secret communication channels. The Monsignor succeeded in evading capture for the duration of the German occupation.

Kappler was an ambitious high-flyer and highly thought of by Adolf Hitler. Throughout the Nazi occupation, however, messages sent by Kappler from Rome to Germany were intercepted by the Allies and the decoded messages that have now been declassified are available in the National Archives in Washington. The documents reveal how Kappler would round up Jews, how he helped to rescue Benito Mussolini and what he thought of the Catholic church and the Vatican. Using the decodes we are able to build up the most comprehensive picture to date of Kappler’s behaviour.

It is with the events of March 1944, however, that the Gestapo chief will forever be associated.

After the Resistance killed 33 German soldiers in a bomb attack, Hitler was enraged and demanded a revenge attack to “make the world tremble”. Kappler drew up the plans to do so. Then Kappler and his men killed 335 people in the Ardeatine Caves, a labyrinth of tunnels outside the city. It was one of the worst atrocities committed on Italian soil during the second World War.

After the war had ended, Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole for the crime. From his cell, Italy’s most famous prisoner penned a letter to his old rival. He invited O’Flaherty to visit him and, within days, the Kerry priest arrived to meet and talk with his former adversary. Their meetings became regular affairs and, according to O’Flaherty’s friends, they discussed religion and literature. The classical singer Veronica Dunne, who knew the Monsignor, remembers O’Flaherty meeting Kappler.

She says the Kerry priest enjoyed the visits. “He took a great liking to him. He used to joke, ‘Here I am, this man who had 30,000 lire over my head for information and now we are sort of pals’.” It seems the feeling was mutual as Kappler would describe O’Flaherty as “a fatherly friend”. At this stage, Kappler who had been raised as Protestant, was considering becoming a Catholic and he was influenced by his former rival.

A nephew of the Monsignor, the former Irish Supreme Court judge who is also called Hugh O’Flaherty, says his uncle urged Kappler to delay his conversion until the trial was concluded. “My uncle advised him that it would be construed as if he was trying to curry favour,” he says.

Kappler waited until he was sentenced and then called on the Monsignor to visit him. The two men prayed together and then O’Flaherty received Kappler into the Catholic church.

In a matter of minutes, Italy’s most notorious Nazi was welcomed into the church by the very man he had tried to kill. According to prison letters discovered by the journalist Pierangelo Maurizio, it appears Kappler’s conversion took place around 1949 but the story didn’t become public until 1959.

Typically the modest and self-effacing Monsignor played down the event. He told one inquisitive reporter, “That is not news, that is something which occurred a long time ago.”

O’Flaherty was awarded a CBE and a US Medal of Freedom for his wartime efforts. He died in Co Kerry in 1963.

Kappler remained in prison in Italy until 1977 when he was dramatically smuggled out by his wife and taken back to Germany. He died in 1978. Their story was dramatised in the 1983 film The Scarlet and the Black.

O’Flaherty’s and Kappler’s rivalry was forged in wartime, and their relationship blossomed in peacetime. It remains one of the most fascinating stories to emerge from the second World War.

Stephen Walker is a political reporter with BBC Northern Ireland. His book Hide and Seekis published by HarperCollins