‘Imprisoned in the Vatican’: Neutrality and the Challenges Facing the French Embassy to the Holy See in World War Two

Paper presented at ‘Embassies in Crisis’ conference, British Academy, 9 June 2016


The case of the French embassy to the Holy See in the Second World War was very different to the other embassies being discussed today, given the particular character of the Vatican City State. But I’d like to suggest that it offers a significant example of an embassy in crisis, having to function in the challenging conditions of war, with French diplomats confined within the walls of Vatican City by the Italian state with which France was at war, unable to communicate directly with France, cut off from the outside world, and having to operate from temporary accommodation. The precarious status of the French embassy was made all the more acute by the very survival of Vatican City as an independent state being dependent upon Mussolini’s government observing the terms of the Lateran Treaty.

When war broke out in 1939, the Vatican had only existed as an independent state for ten years following the signing of the Lateran Treaty with the Italian Fascist government in 1929. As the smallest sovereign state with few economic and social interests and only a ceremonial army, many states questioned the worth of diplomatic representation there. With increasing international tensions in the late 1930s, however, the Holy See came to acquire great significance as a neutral intermediary and potential means of reaching and influencing Mussolini.

Italy’s declaration of war against France on 10 June 1940 left the embassy to the Holy See as the only French diplomats to remain in Italy until 1944. The embassy therefore found itself at the centre of important diplomatic manoeuvres between France and Italy. The problem was that the conditions and status of the Vatican left the embassy significantly circumscribed in its ability to operate. The ambassadors, Count Wladimir d’Ormesson, who served from late May 1940 until November 1940 and Leon Berard who served for the remainder of the war, were effectively imprisoned in Vatican City, forbidden from leaving by the Italian government.

The first section of what I’m going to discuss today looks at how the French embassy to the Holy See confronted the challenges of being an embassy to a neutral state located within an enemy state. The second looks at the French ambassador’s role in the attempts to pursue an alternative foreign policy with Italy to the one which culminated in Vichy’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.


Wladimir d’Ormesson was appointed ambassador to the Holy See in late May 1940. With German forces rapidly advancing into France and chaos in government, Foreign Minister Paul Reynaud recalled many of France’s leading diplomats, including Francois Charles-Roux who had been ambassador to the Holy See since 1932, to serve as general secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. D’Ormesson came from a family of diplomats and was well-connected within diplomatic and political circles, but was a journalist with no direct experience of working in foreign affairs. He left for Rome on 28 May 1940 and had his first private audience with Pope Pius XII on 9 June 1940, just a day before Italy declared war against France.


Ambassador Wladimir d’Ormesson and Pope Pius XII


berard at embassy

Georges de Blesson, Ambassador Léon Bérard, François de Vial at an audience with Pope Pius XII



Italy’s declaration of war meant that the French embassy to the Holy See had to leave Taverna Palace, which was on Italian territory in Rome, and move within the walls of Vatican City. Thereafter, the French ambassador was not permitted to leave Vatican City, unless granted special permission by the Italian government and had to be accompanied by Italian police. It was established practice for states to place restrictions upon an enemy state’s embassy at the outbreak of war, but these restrictions were the consequence of Italian encroachments upon the Vatican’s status as a sovereign, neutral state. Indeed, d’Ormesson was fully well that the Italians had placed a spy in the embassy posing as footman, and claimed that everything he said was passed on to the Fascist authorities.

It was normal practice that at times of war, there should be no contact between enemy missions so diplomats could not be accused of consorting with the enemy. But the conditions endured by foreign diplomats in Vatican City created a sense of shared experience that overrode diplomatic protocol. The embassies for all states that had ruptured relations with Italy were moved into the Santa Marta hostel. The first floor was occupied by the Polish ambassador, the second by the French, the third by the Belgian ambassador, and the fourth by the British Minister, D’Arcy Osborne. D’Ormesson had quickly struck up a friendship with Osborne when their countries had been allies, but the French surrender and the rupture in diplomatic relations following Mers-el-Kebir meant that the two ambassadors should have avoided contact. The French press claimed that the two men, who could not help but bump into each other on their shared staircase, would turn away from each other and even get into fights. In reality, however, D’Ormesson continued to have lunch with Osborne almost every day, a factor which contributed to him being recalled by Pierre Laval in October 1940.

The embassy was unable to communicate regularly or directly with France. With few outside visitors and little access to reliable information, it was also cut off from the outside world. With long periods with little to do, it was perhaps inevitable that the ambassador’s judgement became impaired. But rather than him ‘going native’, D’Ormesson’s reports and correspondence suggest that he became increasingly exasperated and frustrated by the gap between what he wanted to do and what he was able to do. We see this in his personal correspondence to Charles-Roux, where he expresses his ‘despair’ at the pope’s ‘passivity’.

Significance of Vatican for Vichy

Like many other governments during the war, Vichy sought the moral and political legitimacy of papal endorsement. Testifying in 1955, Berard described his approach as having been driven ‘by the feeling that France at such a time should maintain closer relations than ever with the high spiritual power from which so many nations sought approval or backing’.

The ideology of the Vichy regime made this particularly important. In the initial period after the defeat, Vichy’s National Revolution sought to roll back the secularisation of the Third Republic and revive notions of France as ‘eldest daughter of the Catholic Church’. D’Ormesson saw the Holy See as a particularly ‘precious’ asset for France as a Catholic country. The values and international status of the Catholic Church posed a challenge to the Italian Fascist government’s own political dogma and ambitions, so its presence in Rome as a rival source of authority benefited French interests.

Relations with Italy

Attempts by key figures within the Vichy government, especially Pierre Laval, to gain closer relations with the Nazis have tended to dominate historical accounts of this period. But in the summer and autumn of 1940, an alternative policy of seeking closer relations with Italy as a counterweight to Germany was being act pursued by Foreign Minister Paul Baudouin and Secretary-General to the Foreign Ministry, Francois Charles-Roux. They sought to isolate Germany by pursuing rapprochement with Italy, emphasising the historical bonds and shared interests of the two ‘Latin and Catholic’ countries.

The French embassy became critical to the realisation of the strategy in three ways. First, it enabled Vichy to have a source of information within Italy, with access to Italian diplomats and others in contact with the Fascist government. Second, it was critical to Baudouin and Charles-Roux’s desires to use the Holy See as intermediary to a recalcitrant Italian government. Third, it gave Vichy the possibility of using the Vatican’s position to reach the Italian people directly, appealing over the heads of the Fascist government and exploiting the pro-French tendencies of much of the population. Radio Vatican and the Vatican’s newspaper, Osservatore Romano, were the only media operating independently from the Fascist state within Italy.

The problem was, however, that communication difficulties with Vichy left d’Ormesson having to pursue this alone, even when he saw it was failing to have any effect upon the Italian government. He worked tirelessly to secure favourable coverage of developments in France on Vatican radio in the hope that the Italian people would hear it and pressurise their government into a change of policy towards France. He also regularly called upon Osservatore Romana to counter anti-French propaganda in the Fascist press in the hope that the Italian Catholic clergy would spread word in their communities.

Having a diplomatic presence at Vatican City also provided the opportunity for unofficial dialogue with elements of the Fascist regime more favourably disposed towards France than Mussolini. In July 1940, Professor Guido Mannacorda, a Catholic agent of the Fascist government proposed a secret meeting with d’Ormesson in the gardens of the Vatican in which he proposed that under the leadership of Mussolini, France and Italy could work together to offset the danger of German domination.

If ultimately, nothing came of the talks, without the embassy to the Holy See, there would have been no other forum for diplomatic activity between France and Italy.


The experiences of the French embassy to the Holy See in World War Two were highly unusual. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs sought to capitalise on the unique position of Vatican City as a neutral state located within the capital city of an enemy state to turn the embassy to the Holy See into a proxy embassy to Italy. But this dual role created tensions with the embassy’s legitimate remit in relation to the Holy See. Despite fulfilling their instructions, both d’Ormesson and Berard pushed back attempts by the Ministry to take this proxy role further, fearing that doing so risked jeopardising the survival of the embassy with repercussions from Italy and the Vatican.

The embassy’s isolation placed considerable onus on the ambassador to initiate and pursue diplomatic manoeuvres. While the other embassies confined within Vatican City were also cut off from their governments and the outside world, what was distinct about this case was that after 24 June 1940 France was neither at war nor peace with Italy but in a prolonged state of armistice. Elements within the Vichy government wanted rapprochement with Italy in which the Catholic heritage of the two countries would be at the heart of a Latin union that would counterbalance German domination. The absence of any other forum for diplomatic contact with Italy pushed the French embassy to the Holy See found to the forefront.

While it may not have had to face such dramatic crises as others, with no civilian population to deal with, the intense pressure brought about by confinement in the claustrophobic environment of the embassy should not be underestimated. We know from Owen Chadwick’s work that it took a toll on the mental and physical health of the British Minister. While his language may have been tinged by hyperbole, as he struggled make sense of the stark contrast between the grandeur and sanctity of the Vatican and the violence of the war being waged beyond its walls, d’Ormesson described his time at the embassy as having been nothing less than ‘torture’.



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