Book Review: The Pope's Soldiers: A Military History of the Modern Vatican


by David Alvarez

Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2011. Pp. xii, 429. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 0700617701

The Pope’s Soldiers opens with a reminder that during the Renaissance the Holy See had been a military power with which to reckon, but had then declined rapidly.  During the mid-nineteenth century, however, papal military power revived, becoming a credible force for several decades, though one surprisingly over-looked by historians. 

Alvarez, author of Spies in the Vatican: Espionage and Intrigue from Napoleon to the Holocaust, opens with a look at the inept Papal forces of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  He examines the causes of their decrepitude,
various proposals for reform, and the factors frustrating modernization.  Alvarez then discusses in some detail more serious efforts to reform the armed forces that began in the post-Napoleonic era.  Each time a good start was made, however, war intervened, pitting the half-ready troops against better equipped, more numerous foes.  Against Austrian regulars in 1848-1849, Piedmontese regulars and Italian nationalist insurgents in 1861, and finally, Italian regulars in 1871, papal troops often served with skill and discipline, but they were always so greatly outnumbered as to be fighting against hopeless odds.  There followed a long period of total neglect, with limited efforts at reform, until the eve of the Second World War, when a reform of the Swiss Guard and other ceremonial units was initiated to provide greater security for the pope against Italian fascist threats and, during the war itself, the very real danger of a Nazi occupation of the Vatican.  Finally, Alvarez discusses the transformation of papal military and police forces into modern security forces, albeit with attached ceremonial functions.

This is a surprisingly engaging study. Alvarez sets the reform of the papal armed forces within the framework of contemporary events, takes into account the evolution of military technology and organization, gives us excellent profiles of a great many clergymen, bureaucrats, soldiers, diplomats, and others, and writes some very good battle pieces as he discusses the service of papal troops in the field.  

A volume in the UPK series Modern War Studies, The Pope’s Soldiers will prove an excellent read for anyone interested in the papacy, military reform, the Risorgimento, the covert side of World War II, or just good military history.
Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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