Herbert Kappler is perhaps best known as the villain of a dramatic World War II rescue story that is well attested historically and perhaps most memorably dramatized by Christopher Plummer in the 1983 movie "The Scarlet and the Black".
Kappler was the Gestapo colonel who ruled Rome during the German occupation of 1943-1944, and who was the urbane yet ruthless arch-nemesis of the heroic Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty. The German officer presided over various atrocities as Hitler's representative in Rome, including the deportation of Jews destined for Auschwitz and the Ardeatine Massacre of hundreds of Italian civilians under Hitler's orders.
Kappler was born in 1907 in Stuttgart, in a nominally Lutheran family. He grew up in the dysfunctional and volatile years of post-World War I Germany, and joined the Nazi party in 1931. As Hitler rose to power, Kappler distinguished himself as a devoted member of the SS and the Gestapo. When the war began, he became head of Gestapo activities in Rome. After the fall of Mussolini in 1943, Kappler effectively took control of civil affairs in Rome as the German army moved in to occupy the city.
One place in Rome, however, did not come under Kappler's control. The Vatican City State's diplomatic "neutrality" had to be respected, and this enabled Pope Plus XII and his subordinates to carry out numerous secret rescue plans for Jews and others throughout the war. One of the most distinguished, resourceful, and clever operatives in these rescues was Monsignor O'Flaherty, a jovial Irish priest who served in the Holy Office.
Taking advantage of his diplomatic immunity, O'Flaherty led the efforts to hide thousands of Jews and escaped Allied prisoners from Kappler's pursuit, placing them in monasteries and convents, safe houses, and even private homes. Though Kappler knew of O'Flaherty's activities and even put a price on his head, he failed to thwart the priest's efforts. O'Flaherty frustrated him, but also elicited a kind of respect and admiration from the Gestapo officer for his cleverness and for the way he risked his life for people he didn't even know.
Kappler was arrested at the end of the war and sentenced to life imprisonment by the Italian government. At this time, he reached out to the only person he knew who had lived a spirit of forgiveness and unconditional love for everyone: Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty! He wrote to the priest and asked him to visit him in prison, and O'Flaherty began to see him regularly and spend long hours with the man who had once sought to kill him. O'Flaherty never disclosed the details of their conversations, revealing only that they frequently discussed "religion and literature."
Clearly, however, the former Nazi zealot was struck by something new and different in this kind priest. Kappler encountered the mercy of Jesus through the patience and human attentiveness of a man who had every natural reason to hate him. After his conviction, in 1949, Kappler was quietly received into the Catholic Church through the ministry of his new friend.
Even the most brutal crimes do not erase entirely the human heart, and when Herbert Kappler's heart sought mercy and forgiveness, he found it in Christ and the Church. Now he could accept his imprisonment as a just penance, because his heart was freed by mercy.
John Janaro "Herbert Kappler." Magnificat (November, 2016).
Reprinted with permission of Magnificat.
John Janaro is Associate Professor Emeritus of Theology at Christendom College. He is a Catholic theologian, and a writer, researcher, and lecturer on issues in religion and culture. He is the author of Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy and The Created Person and the Mystery of God: The Significance of Religion in Human Life. He is married to Eileen Janaro and has five children.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
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