Thursday, May 29, 2014

Warburg in Rome by James Carroll

Warburg in Rome is a historical novel that presents a litany of evil, shame and suffering:  the evil of sadism fueled by greed, hatred and lust; the shame of those who could have acted against the evil sooner and more forcefully; and the suffering of pretty much everyone.  If you are looking for a cheery read, do not look here.  If you are looking for the details of some of the history of WWII and post-WWII coming to life, at least a bit, Warburg in Rome is a book that can offer you that.

The Sant'Angelo Bridge with St. Peter's in the background

At the beginning of the book, David Warburg, the main protagonist of Warburg in Rome, is given the War Refugee Board's posting abroad, in Rome, Italy.  The War Refugee Board, set up in January 1944 by special order of the U.S. President, worked with private money to help rescue as many victims of Hitler's work/death camps as possible. 

The War Refugee Board's few employees funded resistance groups, diplomats from neutral countries, and organizations set up specifically to help the Jewish victims of Hitler's Final Solution.  Certainly set up too late to help the millions of victims in Europe, the Board did manage to save up to 200,000 Jews and thousands of non-Jews from certain death.

The author mixes fact and fiction in Warburg in Rome.  As with all historical novels, it helps to know some of the history before reading the book, to better appreciate the facts and to better identify the fiction.  I did notice some historical errors, but perhaps they were literary distortions?  I read up on the history before and during my reading of Warburg in Rome.

FDR's second-term cabinet, including Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of the Treasury, father of the War Refugee Board

Much of the early part of the book, which I received as a review-copy, consists of flashback accounts of the events that precede the liberation of Rome.  The post liberation period in Rome is where most of the book's story takes place.  The flashback sequences continue throughout the book.

Part One of Warburg in Rome describes Rome in the immediate aftermath of its liberation, and we are given an idea of the enormous scale of the relief effort needed to feed, house and clothe the people left in war-ravaged Rome, Italy, only one of the many European cities that had to cope with post war refugees. 

FDR announcing the fall of Rome to Allied forces

The liberation of Rome from the forces of Nazi Germany held the tinge of shame for those Italians who had cheered on Mussolini and his Fascist party.  Italy's liberation was also a type of occupation, just like Germany's was, later, despite the King of Italy having reversed the defeated Fascist government's alliance with Nazi Germany. 

Italy, before and during World War II was the scene of a low-level civil war, between the Fascist forces, the Communist opposition, and the various other affiliated groups.  Resistance fighters of all affiliations left blood in their wakes.

Described within the novel is the shameful history of anti-Semitism in the ancient Catholic church, and thus in Italy, the country in the world most influenced by the Catholic church, whose home is in Rome's Vatican City.

City View and Monumento Vittorio Emanuele Il, The Vatican, Rome, Italy, showing the city-state within the city

The protagonist, David Warburg comes from a working-class American background, and earned his law degree at Yale, after undergraduate studies elsewhere on a sports scholarship.  He is a non-practicing, secular Jew at the beginning of the book.  We meet David when he is offered the Rome posting.  David is obsessed with a desire to leave his war-funding, bill-drafting work in Washington, D.C., and to contribute to stopping the massacre of helpless Europeans, the majority of whom were Jewish.

When we first meet Marguerite d'Erasmo, the half Franch, half Italian, Red Cross administrator in Rome, Italy, she is living under the Nazi German occupation of The Eternal City, and struggling to help some of the refugee Jews escape capture.  Marguerite is as battered as Rome, but:
...she had discovered within herself the unlikely gift for functioning with equilibrium and efficiency inside a full-blown, unending nightmare. 


We meet a middle-aged Jewish-Italian resistance man who helped hide Jews in Rome, many in the catacombs under the Ancient Roman Appian Way, others in crypts, attics, cellars and Vatican properties spotted around the ancient city.  He has a lovely inter-faith bantering exchange in the book with an old French priest, who is another substantial character in Warburg in Rome.

We meet a Catholic Monsignor from New York, Father Kevin Deane, who is to help manage the Catholic Relief Services efforts from the Vatican, and to perform other more secret assignments.  He initially has the role in the book of defending the Church and the Pope's wartime behavior, and enacting the Church's actions after the war, despite his growing ill-ease at the ugly truths he discovers for himself in Rome.

Deane's dealings within the Vatican show us exactly what the Vatican is:  the headquarters for a centuries-old multinational corporation.  Like all head offices, ambition and secret-dealing to obtain or maintain power is rampant, and seemingly noble long-term goals are used to justify despicable short-term actions.

Visitors are Shown the Tombs in the Crypt of San Callisto Church Near the Via Appia, refuge of Christians, and during WWII to Jewish refugees

The others in the long cast of characters are mostly unsavory, to say the least.  If you were not negative about the mass of humanity on the planet before reading Warburg in Rome, you will be after having read it.  "Good" really is vastly outgunned by "Evil", but not all evil is banal; it is also stomach-churningly vile, which the author does not shy from depicting.

There are images in the book of horrible atrocities perpetrated by sadistic humans on defenseless humans, the sadists spurred on by that horrible aspect of human-nature:  blood-lust, and the sickening euphoria and violent sexual lust that blood-lust provokes. 


Allied Air Raid of Rome during WWII

One theme in Warburg in Rome is the potential for sadism, in varying degrees, that exists in all of us.  It can be provoked and cultivated by others and by ourselves.  The more one is brutalized, the more one brutalizes others, the more one witnesses brutality, fictional or real, the more any natural or learned compassion is destroyed.  It takes constant vigilance for witnesses and victims of brutality to keep from becoming brutes.  All the characters in Warburg in Rome are affected by the brutality of WWII.

The efforts of the War Refugee  Board may have been "too little, too late", in the words of the Board's real director, but the act of forming the Board and the work its members performed, had real meaning.  In the words of one of the book's characters:
...the meaning of such an act for the thousands whose faith in humanity had been shattered would be impossible to calculate.

Red Cross Nurses treat a patient in Rome during WWII

Part Two of Warburg in Rome deals with the period after the Unconditional Surrender of Nazi Germany.  Warburg remains in Rome, despite the War Refugee Board being shut down.  He works to help Jews find refuge away from the societies that had turned on them, away from the camps where they had been sent to die.

While advertised as a "thriller", the book does not move quickly enough, for me, to be really thrilling.  The historical subjects are all in the history books, especially the more recent history books, so the outcomes are not in question, making the story intrinsically un-thrilling. 

Warburg in Rome is a historical novel; there is no doubt about that.  The history is richly detailed and broadly researched, letting us inside the U.S. government, the various militaries, the Vatican, the various resistance movements, and the multiple relief efforts.

Scene from the Battle of Monte Cassino, 1944

The characters are interesting but I never connected with them, probably because my life is so different from their lives.  I could admire them and despise them, but caring for any one of them was difficult.  Most of the characters are so damaged that they barely care for themselves.

I found myself admiring those few characters who had been battered into pulp by their war experiences, but who still found the ability, or gift, to care enough to try to end the suffering of others.  The author makes it very clear that those persons' helping of others provides the only salve that can begin the healing of the wounds their souls have suffered.  But even some of those characters' compassion succumbs under the relentless evil to which they are subjected or to which they see others subjected.

One interesting aspect in the book is the author's portrayal of U.S. Catholic soldiers being stationed in Rome.  Each soldier would eventually make the pilgrimage to St. Peter's Church, at the Vatican.
There on the mammoth threshold of the largest church in the world, each one waited for his pupils to dilate, for his heart to slow down.  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!  More than twice the size of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York!

... Back home, this Catholic kid was accustomed to a Protestant culture's condescension, but here he could see for himself the world-historic glories of Catholicism...
The priest in Warburg in Rome discovers what history came to see later:
...the Church's deadly entanglement in the nihilism that had swamped Europe--nihilism the war's true victor.

One of the good men in Warburg in Rome is someone who history has found to be truly good, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, an Archbishop during WWII, and later Pope John XIII.  Many years after WWII, Roncalli said about that nihilism, and Catholic anti-Semitism, and WWII: 
We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognize in their faces the features of our privileged brethren.  We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads.
Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love.  Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews.  Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh.  For we know what we did. 
Roncalli also instigated the Second Vatican Council and instructed the Council to reshape the face of Catholicism, including a revised liturgy that removed any negative references to Jews.  (Source)

From the book's description, which like all book descriptions these days, tells us too much of the plot:
From the author of the New York Times best-selling Constantine's Sword, a novel set in post-World War II Rome, where the fate of recently liberated Jews and the Church's dark wartime secrets intertwine

David Warburg, newly minted director of the U.S. War Refugee Board, arrives in Rome at war's end, determined to bring aid to the destitute European Jews streaming into the city.  Marguerite d'Erasmo, a French-Italian Red Cross worker with a shadowed past, is initially Warburg's guide to a complicated Rome; while a charismatic young American Catholic priest, Monsignor Kevin Deane, seems equally committed to aiding Italian Jews.

But the city is a labyrinth of desperate fugitives, runaway Nazis, Jewish resisters, and criminal Church figures.  Marguerite, caught between justice and revenge, is forced to play a double game.  At the center of the maze, Warburg discovers one of history's great scandals-the Vatican ratline, a clandestine escape route maintained by Church officials and providing scores of Nazi war criminals with secret passage to Argentina.

Warburg's disillusionment is complete when, turning to American intelligence officials, he learns that the dark secret is not so secret, and that even those he trusts may betray him.
James Carroll delivers an authoritative, stirring novel that reckons powerfully with the postwar complexities of good and evil in the Eternal City.

Warburg in Rome is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which publishes "renowned and awarded novels, nonfiction, children's books and reference works for readers throughout the world".

Warburg in Rome is available in hardback.  Here is a direct link to the book at

The author has many other books to his name, one having to do with similar themes:  Constantine's Sword:  The Church and the Jews.  Here are direct links to some of the author's books at

Visit the author's website Author Website.

To help with research before reading the book, here are links to some articles about the War Refugee Board.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:  Article 1, Article 2.

Wikipedia's article:

Here is an interview with the author, James Carroll, discussing his faith that survives despite organized religion's failings:

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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