Hide & Seek is BBC journalist Stephen Walker’s re-telling of the cat-and-mouse antics and escapades of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and the SS and Gestapo head Herbert Kappler, during 1940s wartime Rome. It apparently is a little-known story, and this is Stephen Walker’s effort to right that by giving this story its deserved place in the annals of World War II history.
Monsignor O’Flaherty was an Irish priest assigned to the Vatican, who set up and operated an escape route for Allied POWs and opponents of the Germans, using Vatican City as his base of operations. I have no trouble at all believing that the Monsignor was an incredible character, and his efforts undoubtedly saved many thousands of people, and therefore this story is indeed a story worth telling. The problem with this book unfortunately, is how the story is told.
The essential problem is that the author seemed in two minds over what this book is – a Boy’s Own adventure tale, or a “proper” historical re-telling of the events which occurred, and as such, the writing veers between both poles, and never convinces in either sphere. While reading this, I never once felt any tension or nerves, even during the raid scenes where the Monsignor escapes by the scruff of his neck. In places the attempts to generate tension or suspense are literally laughable. On the other hand, the “historical” style of prose is completely lacking the rigorous references of, say, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, and consequently you cannot take it seriously really, in terms of convincing yourself that you are reading an historically correct version of what actually happened.
The story revolves around the two central characters of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty and Lieut. Colonel Kappler, who we are led to believe are each others arch-Nemesis’. For the reasons mentioned above, it is hard to really feel the alleged animosity and rivalry between these two men. Sure they were enemies, but we never get any real insight into either man’s mind, or indeed of their actual feelings towards each other. Yes they schemed to outwit their immediate opponent, but didn’t everyone on opposite sides do the same during the war? The proof of the author’s failure to generate any sense of true rivalry is demonstrated in the latter parts of the book, when the two men are apparently reconciled. I felt nothing regarding this reconciliation: no sense of amazement for example, as you might expect to feel when hearing that two implacable enemies became warm and friendly towards each other. You would wonder was it even a reconciliation – leaving the author’s gusto aside, essentially all that happened was the two men met a few times, and neither commented to any third-party about their meetings.
“The Nazis occupy Rome. One man begins a mission to fight against oppression”, is how the back cover of this book summarizes its contents. This is not exactly accurate. The “one man” of Hugh O’Flaherty did fight against the Germans by starting an escape route, but not on his own, as the “one man” implies (this is not to take anything away from him whatsoever, but it was a large escape chain), and to be honest, the Monsignor’s motivations and reasons for doing so are never revealed to the reader. This is a big problem I have with this book, as we never get any sort of idea or feel for the Monsignor’s mindset or true thoughts – I would almost argue that the author had insufficient material to write this book. There is no detail of the day-to-day runnings of O’Flaherty’s spy-ring and escape route, and what is there sounds like conjecture.
The book focuses very heavily on the Ardeatine Cave massacres committed by Kappler, perhaps because this is one area where the author could get “hard” facts and information. I had not known about this murder of 335 innocent people, and am glad from a historical point of view that at least I do know about it now; however, it was not clear to me how this tied into the theme of the book, as the Monsignor was not involved whatsoever, and has zero bearing on the “Hide & Seek” premise. One other interesting thing from a historical point of view, was that this book does bring to light the precarious position the Vatican and Pope were in during World War II, particularly during the Nazi occupation of Rome. It was only whilst reading of the Monsignor’s judicious use of Vatican property to elude the Germans, that I realized how thin a line the Vatican walked in keeping its autonomy and freedom, with the Sword of Damacles in the incarnation of the German Wehrmacht, SS and Gestapo, perpetually hanging over its head. Its a wonder really how Hitler never occupied the Vatican – he threatened to do it, yet somehow never actually did it.
Overall, this book is a simplistic and poorly written version of what must have been an amazing reality, and whilst it does enlighten the reader to some interesting historical details, it deserved a better telling than this. Maddeningly, this book ends with a tantalizing allegation from a journalist that Monsignor O’Flaherty was a German double-agent! How can this deserve simply an almost casual mention in the final chapter? Surely this information puts a totally different spin on events, but more damningly, we have such little “feel” for the character of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty by the end of this book, that we are not even in a position to judge for ourselves the veracity of such a proposition – and that is indeed a pretty damning indictment on this book.