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  • The Pope and His Tanks January 21, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback


    If you open a book of memorable quotations you will find bon mots and phrases that have been validated by time. You will also often find controversy as to where these sentences come from and because they belong to a given people or nation or, indeed, all of humanity they are altered and reascribed. Beach ran across an example of this today while looking into the history of one of his favourite WW2 quotations (though actually it is not a WW2 quotation): Stalin’s ‘How many divisions does the Vatican have?’ It is commonly ascribed to a meeting between Churchill and the Red Tsar in 1944. When Churchill was preaching to Stalin about Poland in that year he made the mistake of mentioning the Vatican. Stalin barked in reply ‘How many divisions does the Vatican have?’ The answer, of course, is none and Stalin’s point was that he didn’t give a damn about ideals or relations, he was interested in the exercise of raw power: something that nineteenth-century Churchill had problems grasping. In this Stalin was truly Lenin’s heir. This episode was recorded by Stalin’s translator, Valentin Berezhkov, a man once complimented by Hitler for his fine Berlin accent.

    This sentence was well known by 1952 when The Economist described it as ‘celebrated’. But what is fascinating is how even by that date it was morphing into different forms. First the wording itself. Sometimes there are divisions, sometimes there are tanks, sometimes there are tanks and aeroplanes. Usually there are references to Stalin as the speaker, but I know of one source where the sentence is ascribed to Lenin. As to the recipient of this Soviet wisdom: it is typically Churchill, but sometimes it is a Soviet minister, sometimes Truman… In a century the cast will have doubled or tripled and our prediction is that divisions will have been definitively replaced by tanks (far more effective as an image) and that the Vatican will have become the Pope. As to the ultimate origins it seems that, of all people, Churchill gives the answer. He, in his Second World War, details the visit of French politician, proto Fascist Pierre Laval, to Moscow in 1935

    To obtain tangible results in the French political field Monsieur Laval now went on a three day visit to Moscow, where he was welcomed by Stalin. There were lengthy discussions, of which a fragment not hitherto published may be recorded. Stalin and Molotov were of course anxious to know above all else what was to be the strength of the French army on the Western Front: how many divisions? what period of service? After this field had been explored Laval said: ‘Can’t you do something to encourage religion and the Catholics in Russia? It would help me so much with the Pope’. ‘Oho!’ said Stalin. ‘The Pope! How many divisions has he got?’ Laval’s answer was not reported to me; but he might certainly have mentioned a number of legions not always visible on parade.

    There is then, at the end, a mystery here. Two sources for the quotation: Berezhkov, writing in the 1970s, says it took place in conversation between Churchill and Stalin in 1944; Churchill that it took place in a conversation between Stalin and Laval in 1935. Of course, the easiest solution is that both were true. At that point, the ‘Vatican’ sentence was a common Stalinist reproach to anyone who dared bring up the Pope in conversation. Perhaps Churchill’s sentence beginning ‘but he might certainly…’ was written in the spirit of someone who wished that he had had the presence of mind to say that. Any other solutions? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Beach can’t help noting that John Paul II struck back for the Vatican. In February 1981 the Pope wrote to the Kremlin that if the Soviet Union invaded Poland (as Communist ‘law and order’ was being shaken by Solidarity) he would personally stand between the tanks and the Polish people. The Soviet Union sensibly drew back from the possibility of invasion: Stalin’s question had finally been answered.

    31 March 2014, Southern Man ‘I think I may have found the first, the pope has tanks phrase in history Napoleon said to his minister Cacault: ‘Treat the pope as if he has 200000 men at his command’. This sounds a wiser way of looking at it than Stalin managed.’ Thanks Southern Man