The Pope and Mussolini

Reviews

  • Philadelphia Inquirer, Kenneth A. Briggs, March 16th, 2014

    Pius XI, Mussolini, and their dangerous game

    Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI played the longest political chess match of any two world figures of the 20th century.
    From 1921 to the brink of World War II, each plotted to gain concessions from the other to increase the influence of their causes. The collateral damage in this often bitter struggle was inflicted on Jews and anyone who stood in the way of Mussolini's fascism and Hitler's Third Reich.

    The subtitle of David I. Kertzer's book, The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, spotlights how the relatively unknown conduct of a pope who has remained in the shadow of his lightning-rod successor, Pius XII, made the controversies over the church's dealings with totalitarian racism inevitable.

    While the second half of this brisk, rigorously documented and persuasive account stays with the two main subjects and their strategic moves against one another, the presence of Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, soon to be elected Pius XII, increasingly upstages the main event. Pacelli had been apostolic nuncio to Germany after World War I, then became Pius XI's secretary of state during the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. In Kertzer's telling, Pacelli exercised a conciliatory restraint on Pius XI's increasing antipathy toward the anti-Semitic plague (though his chief concern was Hitler's assault on the church), often by cooling the pope's rage.
    When Mussolini imposed laws of oppression on Jews, for example, Pacelli's silent acquiescence became the keynote of the Vatican's response. "Cardinal Pacelli remained Mussolini's most powerful ally in the Vatican," Kertzer writes.

    Defenders of Pius XII against still unresolved charges that he failed to stand up forcefully to anti-Semitism will not find favorable evidence in Kertzer's review.
    But well before the events sparking the war, Pius XI was creating a remarkable record of his own through a serious of major skirmishes that shaped the course of Italian and Roman Catholic fortunes. In Mussolini, he found a core of common interests and an equally shrewd negotiating partner. They pursued their high-stakes game neither as enemies nor friends, but as chess players. Each drove hard bargains and blew up when they didn't get their way. Each had something the other wanted: the pope needed the dictator's green light to promote church causes in Italy; the dictator coveted at least the pope's implied blessing to undergird his legitimacy.
    Kertzer has given that two-decade drama the astute attention it deserves. The focus is political; the personal profiles are sketchy and asymmetrical. Mussolini is depicted more fulsomely in all his impulsive, rakish, womanizing fashion. Pius XI's autocratic, strategic traits are on full display, but aside from glimpses of him fitted out in medieval papal splendor or perpetually dining alone, we learn little about him or how he fared as a church leader or his religious character. His hatred of Protestants, which was both political and personal, is amply documented in Pius' effort to enlist Mussolini's help in suppressing them.

    The similarities between them were as striking as their differences. Each insisted on loyalty and conformity, had a fiery temper, and had keen instincts for weaknesses in the other's position. Mussolini, as forever captured in newsreels, was blustery, articulate, and ruthless toward his political enemies. Early in his reign, Pius XI hailed him as "a man sent by Providence." Mussolini saw the pope as an instrument in destroying of political opposition by calling off Catholic dissenters. One measure of the premier's success was the pope's acceptance of the fascist invasion of Ethiopia.

    Their major feat, years in the making, was the signing of the 1929 Lateran Accords, by which the pope liberated the Vatican from its captivity enforced by the forces of Italian unity in 1870, and Mussolini won the favor of the Vatican and the pope's pledge to abolish the Popular Party, the Vatican's proxy and the premier's chief nemesis. Il Duce, as he was known, had rejected Catholicism, but swallowed hard and tried to look like a supplicant. He made Catholicism the state religion.

    Neither questioned the Christian anti-Semitism that had prevailed over the centuries. Accordingly, Pius XI regarded Jews as infidels and threats to the social order, though he renounced victimization based solely on race or mere presence. His use of the term "exaggerated nationalism" is cited as a coded attack on Nazi racism and an example of the pope's moral distinction. He would eventually declare, "Spiritually, we are all Semites." At the time of his death on Feb. 10, 1939, the pope had the outlines of an encyclical on justice that suggested a stronger stand, but it never appeared. (Kertzer repeats speculation that Pacelli kept drafts and notes from surfacing.)
    A blunt moral attack on racism and oppression might have radically shifted the Vatican's posture from the image of self-seeking to sacrificing its own welfare for a greater cause. Pius XI was leaving the scene, with Pacelli in the wings. Perhaps it would have emboldened Pius XII.
     

  • Publishers Weekly (starred review), October 21st, 2013

    The 2002 public release of the archives of Pius XI’s papacy revealed a trove of historical treasures that Brown University professor Kertzer (The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara) found “irresistible.” He brings to life an intriguing and unlikely alliance of two powerful individuals, using extensive primary sources from both sides. Whether or not it was truly a partnership is suspect, but they undoubtedly needed each other’s cooperation. The reader is taken inside the papacy in incredible detail, exposing the Vatican’s inner workings, from the Pope’s schedule to what he kept on his desk, to the knife’s-edge particulars of dealing with Mussolini. The insidious way that Il Duce was able to create his dictatorship predates the rise of Hitler in Germany, though their stories possess remarkable parallels. Mussolini’s numerous love affairs offer interesting asides as the myriad intricacies of world-historical events like the Lateran Accords—which ended decades of antagonism between Italy and the Vatican, while establishing the latter’s sovereignty—play out. Kertzer unravels the relationship between two of 20th-century Europe’s most important political figures and does so in an accessible style that makes for a fast-paced must-read. 2 maps, 40 photos. Agent: Wendy Strothman, WJS LLC. (Feb.)

  • Publishers Weekly (starred review), October 21st, 2013

    The 2002 public release of the archives of Pius XI’s papacy revealed a trove of historical treasures that Brown University professor Kertzer (The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara) found “irresistible.” He brings to life an intriguing and unlikely alliance of two powerful individuals, using extensive primary sources from both sides. Whether or not it was truly a partnership is suspect, but they undoubtedly needed each other’s cooperation. The reader is taken inside the papacy in incredible detail, exposing the Vatican’s inner workings, from the Pope’s schedule to what he kept on his desk, to the knife’s-edge particulars of dealing with Mussolini. The insidious way that Il Duce was able to create his dictatorship predates the rise of Hitler in Germany, though their stories possess remarkable parallels. Mussolini’s numerous love affairs offer interesting asides as the myriad intricacies of world-historical events like the Lateran Accords—which ended decades of antagonism between Italy and the Vatican, while establishing the latter’s sovereignty—play out. Kertzer unravels the relationship between two of 20th-century Europe’s most important political figures and does so in an accessible style that makes for a fast-paced must-read. 2 maps, 40 photos. Agent: Wendy Strothman, WJS LLC. (Feb.)

  • Kirkus (starred review), November 4th, 2013

    More deeply troubling revelations around Vatican collaboration with evil.

    With the unsealing of archives in 2006 concerning the papacy of Pius XI, Kertzer (Social Science, Anthropology and Italian Studies/Brown Univ.; Amalia's Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice, 2008, etc.) found the call to scrutinize them “irresistible.” The author spares no toes in his crushing of the church’s “comforting narrative” around its relationship with Mussolini’s fascist regime. The signing of the Lateran Accord in 1929 between the Holy See and the dictator established the Vatican as sovereign territory and bound the Catholic Church and the regime to a new period of codependence. Having been elected to the papacy just as Italy was rocked by cataclysmic violence between fascists thugs and socialists, Pius XI and his advisers “began to question the wisdom of opposing Mussolini’s crusade.” While Mussolini had previously spoken out against the power and holdings of the church, and the fascists unleashed a campaign of beatings of priests and Catholic activists, Mussolini’s sudden and opportunistic embrace of the church by 1922—for example, asking for “God’s help” in his first address to parliament—charmed Pius into thinking he had an ally to bring the church more firmly back into Italian life, which had been challenged by modernism. Although Mussolini’s increasing cultivation of cult status alarmed Pius, his minions and, indeed, the church organ extolled fascism for seeking to “place spiritual values once again in the place of honor they once occupied, especially as required by the battle against liberalism.” Even Mussolini’s suppression of the pope’s darling Catholic Action youth groups did not fray collaboration between them to marginalize Italian Protestants and Jews, until Pius grew ill and it was too late to change course.

    Kertzer is unflinching and relentless in his exposure of the Vatican’s shocking actions.

  • Kirkus (starred review), November 4th, 2013

    More deeply troubling revelations around Vatican collaboration with evil.

    With the unsealing of archives in 2006 concerning the papacy of Pius XI, Kertzer (Social Science, Anthropology and Italian Studies/Brown Univ.; Amalia's Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice, 2008, etc.) found the call to scrutinize them “irresistible.” The author spares no toes in his crushing of the church’s “comforting narrative” around its relationship with Mussolini’s fascist regime. The signing of the Lateran Accord in 1929 between the Holy See and the dictator established the Vatican as sovereign territory and bound the Catholic Church and the regime to a new period of codependence. Having been elected to the papacy just as Italy was rocked by cataclysmic violence between fascists thugs and socialists, Pius XI and his advisers “began to question the wisdom of opposing Mussolini’s crusade.” While Mussolini had previously spoken out against the power and holdings of the church, and the fascists unleashed a campaign of beatings of priests and Catholic activists, Mussolini’s sudden and opportunistic embrace of the church by 1922—for example, asking for “God’s help” in his first address to parliament—charmed Pius into thinking he had an ally to bring the church more firmly back into Italian life, which had been challenged by modernism. Although Mussolini’s increasing cultivation of cult status alarmed Pius, his minions and, indeed, the church organ extolled fascism for seeking to “place spiritual values once again in the place of honor they once occupied, especially as required by the battle against liberalism.” Even Mussolini’s suppression of the pope’s darling Catholic Action youth groups did not fray collaboration between them to marginalize Italian Protestants and Jews, until Pius grew ill and it was too late to change course.

    Kertzer is unflinching and relentless in his exposure of the Vatican’s shocking actions.

  • USA TODAY, Matt Damsker, February 2nd, 2014

    “Pope and Mussolini” reveals a dark alliance

    If 20th-century fascism could be reduced to a coin, heads would be Hitler, tails Mussolini. Twinned in a twisted ideology of geopolitical domination and racial extermination, these tyrants did their worst to steep civilization in a war that benighted Europe and redrew the physical and psychic map of the world.
Benito Mussolini, though, had the more regional role – ever in Hitler’s awful shadow – as Italy’s preening, jut-jawed, “Il Duce.” He seems, by now, a caricature of despotism, a thuggish narcissist who led his people to the wrong side of history and paid the price, shot by Italian communist partisans as the war ended, his body hung upside down on meat hooks to what seems eternal ridicule.
But as Brown University professor David I. Kertzer makes clear in The Pope and Mussolini, his vividly recounted history, the rise of Italian fascism is a tale of a very different partnering than that of Il Duce and Der Fürhrer. Instead, Kertzer portrays the alliance of Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. Both came to power in 1922, when the destiny of Europe, still reeling after World War I, was unforeseeable, and fascism was viewed as a form of authoritarianism that had its practical advantage for a nation seeking political order and a church that had fallen from its height of influence.
Importantly, Kertzer had access to recently opened Vatican archives regarding Pius XI, and his thorough research goes a long way in overturning conventional notions about Catholic church resistance to Mussolini. If anything, it’s a tragic story of a pope’s too-late realization that Hitler’s and Mussolini’s pagan tide of anti-Semitism had drowned any rationale for church support.
The complex history of the Vatican’s role during the Holocaust – and especially the debated history of Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, who assumed the papacy in 1939, on the eve of Hitler’s push toward war – is the shadow that overhangs this book. Kertzer shows how the church’s accommodation with Mussolini in the 1920s and ‘30s helped pave the way for the fascist nightmare Pius XI would regret on his deathbed. He died feeling deeply betrayed by Mussolini’s embrace of Hitler, who had undercut the Catholic Church in Germany while establishing nothing less than a religion of Nazism. And he was horrified, Kertzer affirms, by Mussolini’s decision to brand the Jews “a noxious foreign people.”
Born Achille Ratti in a small town near Milan – where the coarse and unschooled Mussolini had been born to the son of a blacksmith – the bookish, stoic Pius XI rose from the humble rank of Vatican librarian to become an officious pope, a bespectacled cleric whom no one would mistake for a visionary. But he was fiercely loyal to the church, and keenly aware of how the Vatican’s privileges and its stature among the Italian masses had withered during the First World War, under the thumb of a feckless Italian government and monarchy.
As Mussolini’s fascist squadristi, the infamous blackshirts, advanced from the countryside toward Rome in 1921, amassing power where socialists and democrats had mainly sown division, it wasn’t long before an insecure King Victor Emmanuel III chose to install Mussolini as prime minister rather than risk bloodshed.
Once in power, Il Duce was shrewd in using the church to shore up popular support. Though not a religious man, he courted Catholic approval, as Kertzer describes: “He ordered crucifixes to be placed on hospital rooms. He made it a crime to insult a priest or speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion… He showered the church with money, including three million lire to restore churches damaged during the war.” He even had his wife and three children baptized.
As for Pius XI, Kertzer notes that the pope “had seen something in Mussolini he liked. Despite all their differences, the two men shared some important values. Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat.”
Only a cynic could call this a match made in heaven, but for the pope, Mussolini was manna, helping to restore the church to a central role in Catholic life. Perhaps it seemed a small price for Pius XI to limit criticism of the fascist government in church publications, or to trust Mussolini’s empty promise that he would control squadristi violence. The catastrophe to come was never quite clear to this well-meaning man of God, who was hardly alone in his failure to see.

  • Booklist, Gilbert Taylor, December 15th, 2013

    Two leaders came to power in 1922 in Rome, Achille Ratti was elevated to the papacy as Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini was appointed Italian prime minister. How relations between them developed until the pope's demise occupies this original history, which rests on Kertzer's thorough research of available Vatican archives and other sources. His main line of inquiry, the degree of support Pius XI accorded to Mussolini, guides Kertzer's narrative, which begins with Mussolini's opportunistic about-face from anticlerical socialist to Catholic-tolerating nationalist. Papal approval during the 1920s, when Mussolini's regime survived political crises, received its reward in 1929 with the Lateran Accords that reestablished the Vatican as an independent state. Although he finds points of conflict between Pius XI and Mussolinin, Kertzer underscores affinities between the Catholic Church and the fascist state, which may arouse controversy. Was the church as acquiescent to Mussolini's persecutions of Jews as Kertzer portrays? In any event, he adduces evidence that Pius XI seems to have regretted his tacit alliance with Mussolini. An important work of history, Kertzer's adroit profiles of Pius and Mussolini will broaden its audience. 

  • Booklist, Gilbert Taylor, December 15th, 2013

    Two leaders came to power in 1922 in Rome, Achille Ratti was elevated to the papacy as Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini was appointed Italian prime minister. How relations between them developed until the pope's demise occupies this original history, which rests on Kertzer's thorough research of available Vatican archives and other sources. His main line of inquiry, the degree of support Pius XI accorded to Mussolini, guides Kertzer's narrative, which begins with Mussolini's opportunistic about-face from anticlerical socialist to Catholic-tolerating nationalist. Papal approval during the 1920s, when Mussolini's regime survived political crises, received its reward in 1929 with the Lateran Accords that reestablished the Vatican as an independent state. Although he finds points of conflict between Pius XI and Mussolinin, Kertzer underscores affinities between the Catholic Church and the fascist state, which may arouse controversy. Was the church as acquiescent to Mussolini's persecutions of Jews as Kertzer portrays? In any event, he adduces evidence that Pius XI seems to have regretted his tacit alliance with Mussolini. An important work of history, Kertzer's adroit profiles of Pius and Mussolini will broaden its audience. 

  • The Canadian Jewish News, May 5th, 2014

    Captivating book examines Mussolini and Pope Pius XI

    Although the slaughter we call war has been a constant of human history, the first half of the last century may well be regarded in the infinite horizons of the future as the most gruesome period of time through which humanity lived and suffered.
    The war to end all wars between 1914 and 1918, alas, did no such thing. It was merely the melancholy precursor to the unimaginably horrific killing that began in Europe in the mid-1930s, swept across the world like red, hot fire destroying dry sage and that stopped, if only officially, in 1945.
    Europe was then a nasty, boiling stew of demagogic politics, seething resentments, economic fears, exploitative finger-pointing, xenophobia and vile scapegoating. The black-shirted Fascists of Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, were among those who lit the flame and ensured the cauldron would boil without cease or relent.
    Mussolini was an intriguing individual.
    A man of massive vanity but empty of moral substance, haughty ways but low education, pompous bearing but crude character, he mesmerized most of his countrymen for more than two decades. He abolished parliamentary democracy, beat up political opponents, and in some cases had them killed, ruled by intimidation and brutishness, enacted grotesque “racial laws”, despised the Church and its encumbering moralities and yet gained the loyalty, if not also the affection, of a majority of his countrymen.
    In the early 1920s Adolf Hitler considered Mussolini his mentor. (The Nazi pupil, we know, would vastly surpass the Fascist teacher in devising fiendishly evil plans.) Mussolini and his squadristi (gangs) of bullies and henchmen led their country to national ruin and shame.
    That a thug could reach the pinnacle of political power in his country has many examples, ancient and modern. Rule by gun and truncheon can be very effective. But a structure built by fear eventually crumbles underneath the weight of its own cruelty.
    What has intrigued historians and has been the subject of argument and discussion over the years is the extent to which the Vatican opposed or aided him. Did the leadership of the Catholic Church in Italy inveigh and rail against the aggressive, roughhouse policies of Il Duce? Did they seek an accommodation with the dictator, as a way of lying low, so to speak, until the storm passed? Or did they actively and deliberately try to harness the storm, steering its wild winds away from causing harm to the clerical edifice they ruled?
    In The Pope and Mussolini, Kertzer, a historian at Brown University, offers a definitive answer.
    “The Vatican played a central role both in making the Fascist regime possible and in keeping it in power,” Kertzer writes. “Far from opposing the treatment of Jews as second-class citizens, the Church provided Mussolini with his potent arguments for adopting just such harsh measures against them. The Vatican made a secret deal with Mussolini to refrain from any criticism of Italy’s infamous anti-Semitic ‘racial laws’ in exchange for better treatment of Catholic organizations.”
    Not all the leaders of the Vatican were equally culpable in this enterprise. Indeed, Pope Pius XI grew increasingly to distrust Mussolini and regret his accommodations with him. It was his hope, as a last act before he died in 1939, to set the record straight and to unburden his conscience regarding Mussolini’s “Un-Christian” policies with a specially written encyclical. But even this last act was thwarted by his fellow clerics who refused to distribute it.
    Kertzer is uniquely qualified to write about the Vatican’s relationship with Mussolini. The author of nine books, Mussolini and the Pope follows upon Kertzer’s previous work, The Popes Against the Jews. In that book Kertzer examined the larger, equally delicate and difficult subject of how doctrinal Vatican teachings contributed to the proliferation of modern anti-Jewish sentiments.
    In researching these books, Kertzer relied upon the previously sealed Vatican archives for his primary material. Indeed it was the recently canonized Pope John Paul II himself who unsealed that period of Vatican archives and who invited Kertzer to examine the vast library of documents and to draw the appropriate conclusions from them.
    Faithful to the pope’s instructions, Kertzer followed the evidence and pulled no punches in both books.
    For The Pope and Mussolini, Kertzer spent more than seven years in archival research, which included poring over previously sealed Vatican documents and thousands of pages of Italian, French, British, American and German diplomatic correspondence, diaries and memoirs.
    Afterwards Kertzer could write: “That the Duce and his minions counted on the men around the pope to keep Pius XI’s increasing doubts about Mussolini and Hitler under control is a story embarrassing for a multitude of reasons, not least the fact that the central player in these efforts was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the man who would succeed Pius XI…. With the opening in 2006 of the Vatican archives covering this dramatic period, the full story of these years, in all its richness, emotional highs and lows and surprises can finally be told.”
    The Pope and Mussolini is a captivating work told with a scholar’s attention to detail and the narrative skill of a journalist. Kertzer lets the documents and the words written more than 75 years ago tell the story that history, morality and truth demand be told.
    This was Pope John Paul II’s wish. Kertzer has honoured the late pontiff’s wishes with solemn clarity.
     

  • Fra Noi, Judith Anne Testa, May 1st, 2016

    Il Papa and Il Duce
     
    In the history of Italian Fascism, the role of Pope Pius XI is often forgotten. This book shows why it shouldn’t be. Pius’s papacy (1922-1939) coincided withthe rise of Fascism, and initially the pope supported Mussolini’s government. Over time, however, Pius grew disgusted and outraged by Mussolini and his regime, but he was thwarted by Vatican bureau-
    crats and cardinals who believed continued cooperation with Fascism was in the Church’s best interests, as well as by others who supported Fascist goals, including the persecution of Jews.
     
    Kertzer’s detailed and fascinating narrative demonstrates how all this happened. It was Pius XI whosigned the Lateran Accordsof 1929. With that agreement, the separation of church and state the founders of modern Italy had achieved came to an end, and a new era began, with the Catholic Church given numerous privileges and protections in return for supporting Mussolini’s government. For the Church, however, it turned out to be a devil’s bargain the pope lived to profoundly regret. The cynical Mussolini, who despised Catholicism, saw the agreement as a way of legitimizing his regime in the eyes of Italian Catholics, while Pius XI saw the accords as a route to regaining for the Church the power it had lost at the hands of the previous, anti-clerical Italian state. Kertzer reminds us that the Catholic Church in the 1920s was a very different institution than it is today, more comfortable with dictatorial regimes than with democracies, and intolerant of all other faiths. Protestantism was considered a grave threat, and deep animosity toward Judaism, tirelessly repeated in Vatican-approved publications, was taken for granted.
     
    As Pius's doubts about Mussolini intensified, Kertzer follows him almost day by day, as he tried to undo the results of his earlier decisions, only to find himself frustrated by a coterie of clerics, among them the wily, anti-Semitic Jesuit (and secret pedophile) Pietro Tacchi-Venturi, and the pope’s own secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII. The ailing Pius XI had prepared a speech he intended to give to an assembly of bishops, strongly denouncing Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws, but he died a few days before the speech was to be given. Pacelli impounded the original, along with copies the pope had ordered printed, and the speech never saw the light of day. We can only wonder if history might have been different had Pius XI lived to deliver his ringing denunciation.
     
    This is a powerful story, made convincing by the thorough research that supports it. A hundred pages of footnotes document the author’s exhaustive investigations. Kertzer's sources include newly opened sections of the Vatican Secret Archives, Italian state archives from the Mussolini era, police records, the reminiscences of Mussolini’s mistresses, friends and family; diaries, scribbled notes, private and diplomatic correspondence, and thousands of pages of articles from newspapers and magazines of the time, both Catholic and secular. It's a crisp, readable work that addresses an extremely complex situation in clear, understandable terms.
     
    Kertzer isn’t an ax grinder, and he treats Pius XI with remarkable evenhandedness. He understands and even sympathizes with the pope’s moral quandary, but he lets the damning documents — many from the Vatican’s own Secret Archives — speak for themselves.
« Return to The Pope and Mussolini