Book Review: Charles A. Coulombe’s The Pope’s Legion

The history of Vatican soldiers: Paying the price of one’s belief

Catholic for All Seasons

A man stands alongside his co-conspirators against the wall of an army headquarters in Berlin. He is considered to be the most brilliant officer in the German Army, is a decorated war hero, is loved and admired by all who know him, and is worshipped by his young wife and their five children.

A glittering career is prophesied him and he is expected to be, one day, the next chief of staff. He has just one problem: He cannot reconcile serving the Nazi regime with his Catholic conscience. Thus as has now become familiar to a new generation through the recent film Valkyrie, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg chose death before dishonor.

What price are we willing to pay for our beliefs? This is the central question posed by Charles A. Coulombe in his book The Pope’s Legion, which he presented at The British Bookshop, against a backdrop of shelves packed with books of fiction, romance, history, biography, humor and crime. A silver haired, grey-suited American (but one, who rather unusually wears a Fleurs-de-lys tie and a Double Eagle lapel pin) Charles A. Coulombe, has the laid-back manner of a Californian; he is at turns garrulous and ironic, but can switch within the blink of an eye to intense seriousness and conviction.

This book is not intended for the masses. It deals with a neglected chapter of history: the Papal Zouaves, the multinational fighting force that defended the Vatican. Although the historical work focuses on Rome in the latter half of the 19th Century, the broader question that confronted Stauffenber and many like him – how to reconcile loyalty to a sovereign power with a devout Catholic faith – is his central preoccupation.

Charles A. Coulombe is a historian and also a practicing Catholic. He is also the son of a French Canadian father and an Austrian/Anglo-American mother. This disparate background goes a long way to explaining his fascination for what he describes as that which “unifies without homogenizing.”

Religion, for him, is able to transcend all barriers, whether national or class, and he draws on countless examples in his book to illustrate his case. Thus aristocrats fought along peasants, the Irish fought alongside the English, as well as the French Canadians, Dutch, Belgians, Germans and Swiss in what was a highly romantic enterprise. Without resources, without state-of-the-art weaponry, outnumbered and outgunned, the Papal Zouaves never had a chance against the forces of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel. Their defeat in 1870 meant that they were pretty much erased from history, “forgotten because defeated.”

But prior to The Great War, they had a habit of popping up in fiction. They were also, according to Charles A. Coulombe, an “extraordinary bunch of men,” many of whom went on to distinguished careers after the war was lost.  They are for him a shining example of true “idealists,” while our age is “dry and dull” by comparison.  But one wonders: Are such men, who are “willing to throw everything away for what they believe,” admirable?

For some such men are idealists, for others fanatics, or even terrorists. Still: it is a question worth raising. The Pope’s Legion makes a useful contribution to the discussion.

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