Reviews for The Pope and Mussolini
In 1929, the Vatican asked Mussolini to insure that his candidates in a coming plebiscite were "free from any tie with Freemasonry, with Judaism, and in short, with any of the anticlerical parties." Mussolini made the changes, got a Vatican endorsement, and solidified his hold on power. Much more attention has been given to the Vatican’s compromises and complicity with Hitler, but Kertzer tells a fascinating and tragic story of its self-interested support for Mussolini when he was vulnerable early on, and Pius XI's belated dismay at racial laws that engulfed even Jews who had been baptized as Catholics. When Pius XI died, in 1939, a speech critical of the laws was on his desk; his successor, Pius XII, quietly buried it.
There are certain things you expect from a pope. If one of his priests is murdered in a high-profile act of political violence, you can usually bank on a ringing condemnation from him of the killers.
But when, in 1923, Father Giovanni Minzoni, a popular and outspoken cleric from near Bologna, died at the hands of Fascist thugs, the recently installed Pope Pius XI maintained a stony silence. His hesitation? To indict the assassins was to indict their leader, Mussolini, and Pius had too many hopes invested in Il Duce to do that.
There were plenty more awkward silences to follow, all of them dictated by the marriage of convenience between the pontiff and Mussolini. Indeed, Pius XI was almost as good at holding his tongue as his eventual successor, Pius XII, who is still regarded as a hero in some parts of Catholicism, but is seen elsewhere as a markedly controversial figure for his public silence during the war years over the Holocaust.
In the debate about "Hitler's Pope", the two Piuses are sometimes presented as a contrasting pair. One of the gravest indictments against Pius XII is that the first act of his papacy in 1939 was to bin a denunciation of anti-semitism that his predecessor, Pius XI, had planned to deliver before death intervened. It had even been printed up by the Vatican.
But according to the American academic David I Kertzer, an expert on the Vatican's long history of anti-semitism, such special pleading for the first Pius is misplaced. This irascible theologian and librarian, so conscious of his own importance that he insisted that his siblings address him as "Holy Father", was, he argues, for long periods hand in glove with the Fascists.
What united the former Achille Ratti and Mussolini, an anticlerical philanderer with a sideline in steamy novels, was an overriding desire to see Italy strong again after the chaos that followed the First World War. The two men - there was a 26-year age gap between them, but both came to high office in 1922 - shared a pathological fear of communism. In return for order, stability, strong government, trains running on time, and a crucifix in every state school, Pius made a pact with the devil. He said nothing about Mussolini's suppression of democracy or the murder of opponents of the regime, and even allowed the virtual disbanding of the powerful, independent Catholic political machine. The prize in all this expedient silence was the 1929 Lateran Accords, which set up the Vatican City State as the world's smallest country and restored the Church to the privileged position in Italy it had lost in reunification.
Only 10 years after signing those accords, though, Pius repented of his foolishness. Even more so the notorious 1933 concordat he had made with Hitler that saw the disbandment of Germany's Catholic Centre Party, one of the last democratic restraints on the Nazis. And so he became an 11th-hour recruit to anti-Fascist ranks - so late a recruit, indeed, that he died before delivering his planned damning sermon.
Such actions may count as redemption in Christian terms, but this is a seedy, disturbing tale, passionately told by Kertzer, and based on new papers released by the Vatican's own archive.
Was Pius XI anti-semitic? No more or less, it seems, than many others at the time, though he used the Jesuit Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a thoroughgoing antisemite, as his go-between with Mussolini. Kertzer wants to throw the book at Pius; but even so, when he strains in his epilogue for the most damning possible verdict, I was still left struggling to place him in the very front row of history's monsters.
In 1938, Pope Pius XI addressed a group of visitors to the Vatican. There were some people, he said, who argued that the state should be all-powerful – "totalitarian". Such an idea, he went on, was absurd, not because individual liberty was too precious to be surrendered, but because "if there is a totalitarian regime – in fact and by right – it is the regime of the church, because man belongs totally to the church".
As David Kertzer demonstrates repeatedly in this nuanced book, to be critical of fascism in Italy in the 30s was not necessarily to be liberal or a lover of democracy. And to be antisemitic was not to be unchristian. The Pope told Mussolini that the church had long seen the need to "rein in the children of Israel" and to take "protective measures against their evil-doing". The Vatican and the fascist regime had many differences, but this they had in common.
Kertzer announces that the Catholic church is generally portrayed as the courageous opponent of fascism, but this is an exaggeration. There is a counter-tradition, John Cornwell's fine book, Hitler's Pope, on Pius XII (who succeeded Pius XI in 1939) exposed the Vatican's culpable passivity in the face of the wartime persecution of Italian Jews. But Kertzer describes something more fundamental than a church leader's strategic decision to protect his own flock rather than to speak up in defence of others. His argument, presented not as polemic but as gripping storytelling, is that much of fascist ideology was inspired by Catholic tradition – the authoritarianism, the intolerance of opposition and the profound suspicion of the Jews.
Pius XI – formerly Achille Ratti, librarian, mountain-climber and admirer of Mark Twain – was elected Pope in February 1922, eight months before Mussolini bullied his way to the Italian premiership. For 17 years the two men held sway over their separate spheres in Rome. In all that time they met only once, but they communicated ceaselessly by means of ambassadors and nuncios, through the press (each had his tame organ) and via less publicly accountable go-betweens. From the copious records of their exchanges Kertzer has uncovered a fascinating tale of two irascible – and often irrational – potentates, and gives us an account of some murky intellectual finagling, and an often startling investigation of the exercise of power.
The accession of Mussolini, known in his youth as mangiaprete – priest-eater – didn't bode well for the papacy. The fascist squads had been beating up clerics and terrorising Catholic youth clubs. But Mussolini saw that he could use the church to legitimise his power, so he set about wooing the clergy. He had his wife and children baptised. He gave money for the restoration of churches. After two generations of secularism, there were once again to be crucifixes in Italy's courts and classrooms. Warily, slowly, the Pope became persuaded that with Mussolini's help Italy might become, once more, a "confessional state".
Only gradually did it become clear how much the church might lose in the process. Pius fretted over inadequately dressed women – backless ballgowns and the skimpy outfits of female gymnasts were particularly worrisome. Mussolini played along, solemnly declaring that, in future, girls' gym lessons would be designed only to make them fit mothers of fascist sons. He was accommodating in aiding the Pope's war on heresy – banning Protestant books and journals on demand. But Mussolini was creating a heresy of his own. Schoolchildren were required to pray to him: "I humbly offer my life to you, o Duce." In January 1938, he summoned more than 2,000 priests, including 60 bishops, to participate in a celebration of his agricultural policy. Neither the Pope nor his secretary of state were happy, but they feared offending the dictator. And so the priests marched in procession through Rome. They laid wreaths, not at a Christian shrine, but on a monument to fascist heroes. They saluted Mussolini as he stood on his balcony and attended a ceremony where they were required to cheer his entrance, to pray for blessings upon him and roar out "O Duce! Duce! Duce!" That the fascists (beginning with their precursor, Gabriele d'Annunzio) had appropriated ecclesiastical rituals and liturgies could perhaps be taken as a compliment to the church, but to recruit its priests for the worship of a secular ruler was to humiliate God's vicar on earth. Mussolini was cock-a-hoop. It was easy to manipulate the church, he told his new allies in Nazi Germany. With a few tax concessions, and free railway tickets for the clergy, he boasted, he had got the Vatican so snugly in his pocket it had even declared his genocidal invasion of Abyssinia "a holy war".
When it comes to the "Jewish question", Kertzer demonstrates that the Pope's failure to protest effectively against the fascist racial laws arose not simply from weakness, but because antisemitism pervaded his church. Mussolini scored a painful hit when he assured Pius that he would do nothing to Italy's Jews that had not already been done under papal rule. Roberto Farinacci, most brutal of the fascist leaders, came close to the truth when he announced: "It is impossible for the Catholic fascist to renounce that antisemitic conscience which the church had formed through the millennia." And Catholic antisemitism was thriving. Among Pius's most valued advisers were several who – as Kertzer amply demonstrates – saw themselves as battling against a diabolical alliance of communists, Protestants, freemasons and Jews.
Avoiding overt partisanship, Kertzer coolly lays out the evidence; he describes his large and various cast of characters, and follows their machinations. We meet the genial Cardinal Gasparri who, narrowly missing the papacy himself, became Pius's secretary of state, handling the negotiations that led in 1929 to the Lateran Accords between the Vatican and the regime. Gasparri, a peasant's son who had risen far, considered Mussolini absurdly ignorant and uncouth; Mussolini thought him "very shrewd". We meet the Jesuit father, Tacchi Venturi, Pius's unofficial emissary, a firm believer in conspiracy theories, who claimed to have been nearly killed by an antifascist hitman (the story doesn't stand up). We meet Monsignor Caccia, Pius's master of ceremonies, who was known to the police and to Mussolini's spies for luring boys to his rooms in the Vatican for sex, rewarding them with contraband cigarettes. And we meet the motley crew familiar from histories of fascism: the doltish Starace, Mussolini's "bulldog"; Ciano, plump and boyish and, in the opinion of the American ambassador, devoid of "standards morally or politically"; and Clara Petacci, the girl with whom Mussolini spent hours of every day on the beach. Some of this is familiar territory, but what is new, and riveting, is how fascists and churchmen alike were forced into intellectual contortions as they struggled to justify the new laws. "Racism" was good. "Exaggerated racism" was bad. "Antisemitism" was good, as long as it was Italian. "German antisemitism" was another thing entirely.
Eventually Pius XI drew back from this casuistry. Kertzer describes the old pope on his deathbed, praying for just a few more days so that he could deliver a speech with the message that "all the nations, all the races" (Jews included) could be united by faith. He dies. Cardinal Pacelli – suave, emollient and devious, where Pius XI was a table-thumper who had no qualms about blurting out uncomfortable truths – clears his desk, suppresses his notes and persuades the Vatican's printer, who has the speech's text ready for distribution, to destroy it so that "not a comma" remains. Eighteen days later Pacelli becomes Pope Pius XII. It is a striking ending for a book whose narrative strength is as impressive as its moral subtlety.
As Benito Mussolini consolidated power in the 1930s, forging alliances with Hitler’s Germany and invading Ethiopia in a vainglorious bid for a new Roman Empire, the only consolation for Italians might have been that God was on their side.
This was anything but the case, writes David I. Kertzer, a Brown professor, in his captivating study of the uneasy bond between Pope Pius XI and Il Duce. Each man mistrusted the other, but the reclusive pope feared the march of communism, Protestantism and anything modern. Mussolini’s roots were in strident anticlericalism, yet church support in Catholic Italy was crucial for tightening his grip.
In exchange for fiery anticommunism and crucial backing of Vatican policy goals, Italian Fascism got a pass from a silent church on its political monopoly.
Long before the war with Britain and France started in 1939 (When Pius XI died), democracy in Italy was lost, along with many lives, with far more to come. If politics is about holding one’s nose while interests are served, the stench here is overpowering. You won’t learn about steel production or railroad strikes from Kertzer, but you will learn what men in power did and failed to do.
The story begins in 1922, when Italy was stumbling in the wake of World War I’s devasatation. Benito Mussolini, once an anti-Catholic socialist (named for the Church-hating Benito Juarez), leveraged nationalism into mass thuggery and found that he needed the acquiescence of the Catholic Church to get Italians’ approval.
In that same year, cardinals in Rome elected an improbable next pope, Achille Ratti, son of a silk factory manager, a librarian for most of his priesthood. Ratti’s lifelong hobby was hiking in the mountains, hence the nickname whispered at the Vatican, “the mountaineer.”
This reclusive loner chosen to lead millions of Catholics at a moment of tremendous political, technological and sexual upheaval looked at the threats facing the traditional church and dug in his heels. He also looked toward the brash, coarse Mussolini. The Vicar of Christ found an unlikely enforcer in the man with a libido that Silvio Berlusconi might envy, plus a gaggle of illegitimate children.
The Vatican looked the other way when Mussolini (whose children weren’t baptized then) had henchmen murder rivals and terrorize priests. The Vatican and the Italian government did finally recognize each other diplomatically during Pius XI’s papacy, an official achievement that helped Mussolini look like a statesman, but some details of their bond mimic pageantry from bad operettas—the Vatican sought a ban on women’s gymnastics (too erotic), and the handshake was also banned in Italy, in favor of the Fascist straight-arm salute. King Victor Emmanuel III, barely 5 feet tall, was Il Duce’s walking rubber stamp.
The pope’s fears went beyond communism and into the realm of paranoia—or was it just his unease with the modern world? Besides bathing suits and women’s cleavage, Pius XI was obsessed by an insidious force in Italy—Protestantism, which never took root in the Reformation and was practiced by a mere 135,000 of 42 million Italians, 37,000 of whom were foreigners. For some context, Italy had only 48,000 Jews in the 1930s, which kept neither the state nor the church from attacking them.
By the 1930s, as Mussolini eliminated all opposition, he sought the pope’s endorsement for a grand adventure, the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Although the League of Nations and the pope (in private) opposed the gambit—in which Italian planes slaughtered civilians with poison gas and bombs—priests blessed battle-ready soldiers.
“Italy finally has her empire,” Mussolini declared.
Church and state would tangle over the racial anti-Semitic laws that were passed in Italy to curry favor with Hitler. The laws failed to recognize converted Jews as Catholics, an affront to church doctrine, which led an ailing Pius XI to finally prepare a speech denouncing Fascism. He died before delivering it, and the text, purloined by his staff, sat in a secret Vatican archive until 2006.
The pomp and shadowy intrigue of “The Pope and Mussolini”—reports from Mussolini’s network of spies in the Vatican have also come to light—is a grim update on Machiavelli. Any publisher’s marketing department will try to peddle this as the real “Da Vinci Code” – only its rigorously documented and far less implausible.
Pius XI was the victim of plots. On the rare occasions that the stubborn pope would lose his patience with Mussolini and prepare a letter questioning him or his policies, Vatican advisers would edit his anger and tone it down. Crucial to these operations were two Jesuits—the pope’s emissary to Mussolini and the order’s Polish Superior General—ardent in their anti-Semitism and in their support for Il Duce.
Yet blaming Pius XI’s age and infirmity for his timidity takes us back to a crisis in leadership. The pope was backward-looking and week. Could a stiffer resistance to Il Duce have changed Italian and European history? We’ll never know, because it never happened, at least not from the Vatican. During the papacy of Pius XI’s compliant successor, Pius XII, trainloads of Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and it took the Fascist leadership to oust Mussolini from power in 1943, after Italy suffered huge casualties on the Russian front.
Readers may wonder where Catholic piety as Fascists trampled their way to power with seeming impunity. Fear more than faith seemed to drive the Vatican response, and that of the country’s Catholic clergy. Kertzer quotes one cardinal saying, “If Mussolini were to go, you would see me hanging from that lamppost.”
Mussolini, ever the cynic and the anticlerical (who put crucifixes in Italian classrooms), advised the Nazis on the benefits of allowing religious instruction in public schools. Small favors had won over the church in Italy, “so that they even declared the war in Abyssinia a holy war.”
“The Catholic Church is like a rubber ball,” writes Kertzer, quoting Il Duce at his most belligerent; “if you don’t keep up the pressure, it will return to its original shape.”
Kertzer ends his study with the judgment, coy in this case, that Pius XI is now forgotten. No longer, thanks to this author. Yet every pope is a candidate for sainthood, even one who made a deal with the devil. Miracles can happen, but with the facts that we now know, the mountaineer’s ascent to heaven will be steep.
As David I Kertzer points out in his important and picture-resetting new book The Pope and Mussolini, both his main characters came to power in the same year. It was in 1922 that Cardinal Achille Ratti, a reserved and bookish autocrat, succeeded his predecessor Benedict XV and became Pope Pius XI, and it was in 1922 that Benito Mussolini’s “March on Rome” seizure of power made him and his fascist followers the political and military masters of Italy.
As Kertzer writes, both men were prickly, thin-skinned and strong-willed. “Each bristled at the charge of being the patsy of the other,” he tells us. “Both demanded unquestioned obedience from their subordinates, whose knees literally quaked in fear of provoking their wrath. Each came to be disillusioned by the other, yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end.”
Their 17-year relationship was fraught with tension and guarded cooperation, although at first, each was mainly concerned with consolidating his own power. By the end of 1926, Mussolini had crushed all internal resistance to his regime, muzzled the press, instituted rubber-stamp treason tribunals and even reinstated capital punishment. By 1929, Pope Pius and his key cardinals (foremost among them Cardinal Pacelli, the now-infamous subject of John Cornwell’s 1999 bestseller Hitler’s Pope) had succeeded in establishing Vatican City as an independent nation within the boundaries of Italy, with the pope as its ruler – a far cry from the once-extensive Papal States, but better than outright dissolution.
Each sounded out the possibility of conciliation, realising how useful they might find each other. On February 11, 1929, Mussolini and the Pope’s emissary, Cardinal Gasparri, signed the Lateran accords, in which the Church promised to squelch all Catholic opposition to fascist rule in exchange for preferential treatment and a sizeable cash settlement. “It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance the Pope gave to the accords,” Kertzer maintains. “Newspapers throughout the country, including the Vatican daily, hammered on the theme that the historic event could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and fascism, had made it possible.”
Rancour increased on both sides of the Lateran accords almost before the ink was dry, driven entirely by the incompatible personalities of the two men in charge. “Pius XI’s most salient personality trait,” noted the Belgian ambassador, “was his insistence that he be obeyed,” whereas the motto Mussolini ha sempre ragione (“Mussolini is always right”) was everywhere: “Painted in huge letters on the sides of buildings throughout the country, the phrase was used to teach children to read.”
Not since the days of Antony and Augustus had Italy been big enough for two supreme leaders, and as the years wore on, the Pope and Il Duce clashed more often. “Sooner or later, people end up smashing their idols,” Pius told an emissary to warn Mussolini. “Tell him that if he doesn’t change what he is doing, it will end badly for him.” And speaking for Mussolini, the Italian ambassador told Cardinal Pacelli, “One of these days ... the Pope would go too far. He would not be happy with the result.”
But although each chafed at the other, each got what he wanted: for the Pope, the temporal protection of a state he distrusted, and for Mussolini, the spiritual blessing of a church he despised.
A great many of the details of Kertzer’s scrupulously researched book will be new even to aficionados of the period. When the Vatican records covering the pre-war period were opened in 2006, the author spent seven years researching and writing, poring over some 25,000 pages of documents, including the transcripts, now stored in Rome’s Central State Archives, of Mussolini’s network of spies and informants in the churches and enclaves of Italy, including the Vatican itself. Kertzer cautions that such material must be handled with extreme scepticism, but even so, as a result of that spy network, “we have a picture of the power struggles, backbiting, personality conflicts and scandals in the Vatican that is richer than for any other period in history”.
The picture that emerges from the proceedings of this spy network, and from all the rest of his research, is one that will doubtless be upsetting to many faithful Catholics who still believe in the straw man Kertzer sets up for his book to knock down, ie that the Roman Catholic Church “fought heroically” against Italian Fascism. Instead, what becomes obvious immediately is that Pope Pius XI was every bit as interested in amassing and maintaining mundane worldly power as the anticlerical dictator was – and was equally willing to trample on the individual liberties of ordinary Italians to get that power and keep it.
In the world of concordats and collusions Kertzer describes, there are no saints on either side of the bargaining table. Indeed, the book could easily have been called Mussolini’s Pope.
It was a seething, unstable battle of wills played out mostly by various cats paws. When the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, criticised fascist youth groups for organising racy co-ed bathing parties (complete with the season’s revealing ladies’ swimwear), Mussolini wrote a coldly glowering response: “He [Costa] graciously describes us as pagan and savage. Let those above him know that we are neither pagan nor savage and we don’t want to become either …”
When Mussolini began to talk about how he stirred the faith of the people, the Pope sent word: “He should not be trying to put himself somewhere between the Earth and the heavens … Have him reflect, in my name, that God, Our Lord, is only one.”
Throughout Kertzer’s engaging narrative, Mussolini struts like a lampoon in an Italian comic opera. He has all the best lines, and his flamboyant womanising drives even our studious author to moments of exasperation. “One might be forgiven,” he writes, “for wondering how Mussolini had any time for his journalistic and political career as he juggled several love affairs.” About one of Il Duce’s many bastards, Kertzer sighs: “This is not one of Mussolini’s better-documented children.”
Compared to him, the Pope’s shrill carping about ladies’ bathing suits seems even sillier than it otherwise would.
Pius’s moral strictures almost mitigate his guilt at enabling a vicious dictator, but one inadvertent side effect of The Pope and Mussolini is to remove any chance of such mitigation on the part of that shadowy eminence, Cardinal Pacelli. At every turn of the tale, the man Kertzer describes as Mussolini’s most powerful ally in the Vatican is ready with some new aid to dictatorship, some new bit of quisling double-dealing on behalf of papal power. And later on in the story, when the bishops representing Germany’s 27 million Catholics oppose Nazism and support the Centre Party, it’s Pacelli who conveys the Pope’s order that all German Catholic leaders support Hitler – in exchange for protection of church property in Germany. As Pius XI’s health begins to deteriorate, Pacelli looms larger in the narrative, ready to extend his predecessor’s accommodation of evil to maintain Vatican power. Even for the non-faithful, it’s a chilling spectacle.
Such accommodations produced a fretful truce with Mussolini, but they were sharply self-defeating when it came to Hitler; the Nazis almost immediately started ignoring the concordat they signed with the Vatican in 1933, and when the Pope complained to Mussolini, he got no satisfaction.
When Pius XI died in February of 1939, Mussolini felt a surge of relief at the removal of a long-time irritant, but it had been the most fruitful partnership of his career – certainly his dealings with both the Nazis and his own people would not be so fruitful.
And their endings would be much worse.
A pessimist is someone who sneezes and thinks it’s a pandemic. Anyone who tackles these two books may feel equally disheartened.
For if Operation Paperclip and The Pope and Mussolini are gauges of human conduct, then it can be argued that we live in the worst of all worlds: where evil conquers good, nobody is to be trusted, things are seldom what they seem, cheaters always prosper, the guilty go free, rogues outnumber the righteous and, therefore, an anti-optimistic view of mankind is both honest and correct.
But before rushing out to buy mood-altering drugs, consider this: These two veteran, award-winning authors are very good, and the true stories they tell are made even more magnetic and compelling by their skill and scholarship. These books are worth reading.
The Pope and Mussolini is a prewar tale, telling how Roman Catholic pontiff and a vain and ambitious politician helped each other to achieve their goals, then went cold on each other in the end. Like Paperclip it, too, is the story of moral expediency.
Kertzer’s book covers the period from 1922 to 1939, detailing the relationship of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. They exercised an interesting if cynical quid pro quo: The church played an important role in bringing the Fascists to power and supporting them, while Mussolini, among other things, agreed to make the Vatican in Rome a city-state and the smallest nation in the world that it remains today.
According to Kertzer, the church’s official version of what went on between the two men—that the church fought tooth-and-nail against the Fascists—is a fable. His seven years of archival investigation, says Kertzer, unveiled overwhelming evidence that the reverse of the church’s version of events is the unbridled truth.
Even more interesting is the disclosure that Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, a close confidant of the pope, did Mussolini’s bidding, ignoring Pius’s last intention before he died to publicly expose the Italian leader as a Hitler stooge and anti-Semite.
At the request of Mussolini, the cardinal erased all evidence of the ruinous speech the pope had been about to give that might have destroyed Il Duce. With world war just over the horizon, guess who became pontiff three weeks later?
British prime minister Winston Churchill said that in war the most important truths are protected by a “bodyguard of lies.” There’s no war in Paperclip or in The Pope, but there are bodyguards.
There always are.
A new book makes a compelling case that the Catholic Church should pay greater penance for its support of Mussolini and the rise of fascism—and what they got in return.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a message on the 50th anniversary of World War II, stating that “the Christians of Europe need to ask forgiveness, even while recognizing that there were varying degrees of responsibility in the events that led to the war.”
Over the next several years, against the advice of certain cardinals, John Paul made a startling call for the church to engage in “the purification of historical memory.”
For a church that considers popes to be infallible—perfect in truth on matters of dogma—the idea of acknowledging its failures in the mud of history was a dramatic shift. In time, John Paul issued a line of apologies to church victims and for such mistakes as the prosecution of Galileo and the past institutional support of slavery. The pope who had endured the Nazi horror in a Polish seminary took special note of “sufferings inflicted upon Jews.” In 1998, the Vatican issued We Remember: A reflection on the Shoah with John Paul’s expressed hope that it might “help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices.” We Remember states:
“We cannot know how many Christians in countries occupied or ruled by the Nazi powers or their allies were horrified at the disappearance of their Jewish neighbours and yet were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest. For Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call to penitence. We deeply regret the errors and failures of those sons and daughters of the Church.”
We Remember avoids a comment on the Vatican’s role “in mediating on the catastrophe which befell the Jewish people, on its causes, and on the moral imperative to ensure that never again such a tragedy will happen. At the same time [the decree] asks our Jewish friends to hear us with an open heart.” The document does say:
“Addressing a group of Belgian pilgrims on 6 September 1938, Pius XI asserted: ‘Anti-Semitism is unacceptable. Spiritually, we are all Semites’… Pius XII, in his very first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus, of 20 October 1939, warned against theories which denied the unity of the human race and against the deification of the State, all of which he saw as leading to a real ‘hour of darkness.’“
The reality behind both of those events, as David I. Kertzer demonstrates in The Pope and Mussolini, was sanitized in the 1998 Vatican version. A distinguished historian at Brown University, Kertzer has advanced John Paul’s cal for “purification of the historical memory” in a manner that the pope could probably have not imagined.
In drawing on archives the Vatican has recently made available, Kertzer explores the milieu of church officials around Pius XI—notably the Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would become the next pope, Pius XII—in a devastating account of how Vatican officials gave passive support to Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime as it began persecuting Jews in alliance with Hitler, over the protests of the dying pope.
Pius XI’s now-famous remark (“Anti-Semitism is unacceptable. Spiritually, we are all Semites.”) was the cry of a defeated man. He had made huge concessions to the authority of Mussolini, legitimizing the dictator in a very real sense, for what the pope expected would be a strengthening of the church. Near his end and knowing he had been betrayed, the pope spoke in a “voice [that] trembled” to the “staff of Belgian Catholic radio,” writes Kertzer. But in that audience at the Vatican, there was no radio to broadcast. His dramatic words were airbrushed from L’Osservatore Romana, the Vatican newspaper of record, which operated outside the tentacles of Fascist censors. Citing state intelligence files, Kertzer notes the surprise of Fascist secret police on the Vatican’s silence about a papal statement.
“How exactly Pacelli and his undersecretary [Monsignor] Domenico Tardini, had ensured that the Vatican newspaper ignored the pope’s explosive remarks remains a mystery,” writes Kertzer. “Most of the pages from Pacelli’s log of his meeting with the popes in these months are, curiously, missing from those open to researchers in the Vatican Secret Archives.”
There is little mystery otherwise in this thorough-going account for which Kertzer also did research in the archives of the Jesuit community of Rome. The complexities within that religious order, renowned for its scholars and loyalty to the pope, make for a numbing leitmotif.
Father Tacchi Venturi became the pope’s personal envoy to Mussolini; the Jesuit wanted secret police to spy on Italy’s Jewish bankers and was fully behind Mussolini’s hammer-stroke nationalism. In 1938 the pope summoned Father John LaFarge, a New York Jesuit and author of Interracial Justice, asking him to “secretly draft an encyclical on what the pope considered to be the most burning questions of the day: racism and anti-Semitism,” writes Kertzer.
“I am stunned. The Rock of Peter has fallen upon my head,” LaFarge told a friend. He ran into opposition from the Superior General of his own order, Father Wlodzimierz Ledóchowski, a Pole who harbored hostile views of Jewish people and insisted on providing two priests to assist LaFarge. Ledóchowski arranged for the encyclical to be watered down and worked with others to have it tabled as the pope faced his final illness.
Kertzer pulls off a considerable achievement in his portrait of Pius XI who emerges in the final chapters as a figure bordering on the tragic. The early chapters cover a political seduction story.
Aloof and bookish, Pius XI (Achille Ratti) spent years as a Vatican librarian before becoming a diplomat and cardinal. As pope, he grew quickly into the role of religious monarch, insisting that his own brother call him “Your Holiness” and “Holy Father.” He ate alone, walked an hour each day in the Vatican gardens with a monsignor at a careful distance behind him, refused to be photographed or speak on the telephone. The pope wanted greater church authority in Italy, notably free reign for the Catholic Action movement of parish groups in alliance with bishops up the ladder to the Vatican; he also wanted financial reparation for the loss of the Papal States, a large farming region in central Italy, after the 1870 Italian unification. The pope of that era, Pio Nono—Pius IX—had declared himself a prisoner of the Vatican in refusing compensation as part of a diplomatic relationship with Italy. For six decades, no pope left the 108-acre city-state.
Mussolini rose in the early 1920s using Fascist hit squads to murder opposition figures and terrorize independent parties, unions, even Catholic-owned banks. A narcissist who juggled mistresses around his common-law family, Mussolini was more hostile to Catholicism than his papal point man, Father Venturi, was toward Jews. But as a demagogue for whom total power meant all, he realized that to capture Italy he needed the church. To woo the pope he had his children baptized and eventually married their mother, an anti-clercalist herself who went along in support of his ambitions.
With the muscular charisma of a Caesar, “Il Duce” appealed to a fractured country with a weak economy. The Catholic Popular Party was an emerging presence, a million members strong, between Socialists and Fascists in the parliament. Mussolini targeted the Catholic party in his courtship of Pius. “As Fascist bands continued to attack local Catholic Party leaders and headquarters, Mussolini cast himself as the only person able to control these overzealous Fascists,” writes Kertzer.
“He bowed to the Vatican’s request that only books approved by the Church be used to teach religion in the schools. He agreed to close down gambling halls. He provided state recognition of the Catholic University of Milan, announced his opposition to divorce, and moved to save the Bank of Rome, closely tied to the Vatican, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Crucifixes were back in the country’s classrooms, and Church holidays were added to the civil calendar.”
Pius ordered the priest who led the Catholic Popular Party to resign. As it disbanded, Mussolini went about gutting Italian democracy, solidifying power in himself, “Il Duce,” as personification of the Fascist state.
In 1929, the Holy See and Italy agreed to the Lateran Accords, which the historian Father Hubert Wolf has called a “pact with the devil.” The Vatican City became a sovereign state with ownership of key properties in Rome. Catholicism became Italy’s official religion. The Holy See had freedom in appointing bishops. Italy paid about $92 million in compensation for parts o Rome and the Papal States, the region lost to the national unification of the 1870s. The Vatican reinvested about 60% of its windfall in government bonds.
The anti-semitism voiced in L’Osservatore Romana, the Jesuit-edited La Civilità cattolica and other church journals as quoted in Kertzer’s narrative surely fall under “the heavy burden of conscience” alluded to in We Remember of 1998. The fear of Bolshevik Communism fueled a scape-goating of Jews, particularly those in Russia, as La Civilità cattolica (Catholic Civilization) editorialized in 1922 on “this tiny minority today [which] has invaded all the avenues of power and imposes its dictatorship on the nation.”
“To build support for its anti-Semitic campaign, the government continued to rely heavily on Catholic imagery, citing Church texts,” writes Kertzer.
By 1938, when a depleted Pius tried to raise his voice against Italian race laws and policies targeting Jews in line with the Nazis, the Catholic Church beyond him was in virtual lockstep with the Fascists.
Mussolini gained stature with Wall Street and Western interests through the 1929 pact; but fusing his visions of glory into an alliance with Hitler put Italy on a disastrous path to war. Pius was too late in what he wanted his words to do.
“The Vatican had not protested the ejection of Jewish children or Jewish teachers from schools, nor that of Jewish professors from the universities,” writes Kertzer of the situation by 1937. “Neither Pacelli nor the pope’s two emissaries…[including] the unofficial Jesuit [Venturi] had ever uttered a word to challenge the government’s decision to treat Jews as a danger to a healthy Italian society.”
Pacelli’s silence, as Pius XII, on the Nazi genocide, was the subject of John Cornwell’s provocatively-titled 1999 best-seller, Hitler’s Pope, a book that drew a scholarly counter-attack on certain points that caused the author, in a revised paperback edition, to retract some of his criticism.
Kertzer mentions Cornwell’s book once, on the second-to-last page of the epilogue (curiously omitting it from his bibliography) and simply lays out the dispute, stating that Pius XII’s “defenders argue that he was the best friend Jews ever had.” But in his treatment of Pacelli’s record of Secretary of State, Kertzer draws a staggering contrast on the tepid impact of his 1939 encyclical, as Pius XII, warning of an “hour of darkness.”
The darkened hour gave way to years of genocidal warfare under the Nazis as Mussolini’s ill-trained troops steadily lost ground. The persecution of European Jews was indeed, as John Paul II noted in 1995, “marked by varying degrees of responsibility.” But the role of the Vatican under the last two popes called Pius lodges deep in that responsibility. If John Paul’s call for “purification of the historical memory” has any meaning to the church, Pius XII’s candidacy for sainthood—put in motion by Paul VI in the 1960s, long before the truth was out—should be halted once and for all.
What a disaster it would be in the church’s efforts to atone for its history of anti-Semitism of Francis or any other future pope were to make a saint of Pacelli. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of the Saints has 99 pages of footnotes in Kertzer’s book which pinpoint records in the Vatican and elsewhere in Rome worth consulting.
Kertzer credits John Paul II with opening the files on the Pius XI papacy, in 2002, which made him decide to embark upon the book. The Pope and Mussolini matches rigorous scholarship with a fair yet forceful prose voice. It is an impressive work of history.
Much of what has been written about the Vatican and the politics of World War II has focused on Pope Pius XII, some of it to the detriment of his reputation.
His predecessor, Pius XI, is now getting attention.
In 2006, the Vatican opened its files on his reign. David I Kertzer, in “The Pope and Mussolini,” uses those documents and others in an at-once sweeping and nuanced look at that period, and as such is required reading for anyone with an interest in the Roman Catholic Church and early 20th-century European history
Kertzer is a professor at Brown University. Among his previous books is “The Popes Against the Jews,” which holds that the Catholic church over two centuries supported anti-Semitism.
Kertzer does not write like an academic, making this new book an engaging and surprisingly quick read – as much as a book of this girth (100 pages of notes and references) can be. But his style can leave one wanting a more straightforward approach, with fewer stylistic flourishes intended to keep the narrative moving.
Benito Mussolini and the pope, though opposites in most respects, had striking similarities, Kertzer writes.
“Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality,” Kertzer writes. “Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them.”
And both hated socialism and distrusted democracy and so, Kertzer writes, they needed each other to protect their respective institutions.
Mussolini particularly needed the church during the Matteotti Crisis in 1924, Kertzer says. A St. Louis native was a key figure in it.
Giacomo Matteotti had gone to the Italian Parliament to repudiate the violence-ridden ’24 election that swept the Fascists to power. Mussolini, who heard the speech, was reported to say that Matteotti “shouldn’t be allowed to remain in circulation.”
Eleven days later, Matteotti was beaten and stabbed to death by Fascist thugs. Their leader was Amerigo Dumini, who was born in St. Louis to Italian immigrant parents and moved to Italy as a teenager.
The crime shocked the Italian public, and support for the Fascists began to unravel.
At this moment of vulnerability, Kertzer writes, the Vatican newspaper told Italians to obey their government and avoid a “leap in the dark.”
For Pius XI, the dark represented what happened to the church when the Bolsheviks assumed power in Russia. (Dumini served only a few months in jail after being convicted of involuntary homicide.)
Did the Vatican’s support save the Fascist Party? Kertzer would say it did. Other historians would say the party had already achieved critical mass.
A key chapter in the book deals with the enactment of racial laws and the Vatican’s reaction.
In 1938, the government fired Jewish teachers, prohibited Jewish children from attending public schools and ordered all Jews who were not citizens out of the country. The Vatican’s official response was silence. Behind the scenes, Vatican operatives worked to protect the rights of Jews who had been baptized into the church.
Kertzer says neither the pope nor his top emissaries “had ever uttered a word to challenge the government’s decision to treat Jews as a danger to healthy Italian society.”
Kertzer made use not only of the Vatican documents, but those of the Fascist Party. Mussolini, it turns out, had a network of informers inside the Vatican who tattled on all manner of activities.
Vatican and Fascist Party politics make the Nixon White House look like kiddie day at the park. That’s not to say that all of it is interesting. Some serious cutting of the machinations would have helped the book.
What is valuable is Kertzer’s portrait of an aging pope. He was disgusted with what Mussolini turned out to be and bedeviled by subordinates who were either loose cannons or mortally afraid that a particular adjective in the Vatican newspaper would offend Il Duce.
To be fair to those subordinates, it should be noted, as Kertzer does, that the anti-clericism ran deep in Italy. Mussolini believed that if push came to shove with the Vatican, he would prevail.
Toward the end of his life, Pius XI was ready to throw himself and the church in front of the Fascists. He ordered the writing of an encyclical repudiating fascism and demanding an end to persecution of the Jews.
But Pius XI died, in 1939, before he could deliver it. His subordinates, including the next pope, Pius XII, withheld the document from the public.
At the end, Pius XI also soured on his countrymen. “The Italian people,” he said, “are a bunch of sheep.”
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.