The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

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9780812993462: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

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From National Book Award finalist David I. Kertzer comes the gripping story of Pope Pius XI’s secret relations with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. This groundbreaking work, based on seven years of research in the Vatican and Fascist archives, including reports from Mussolini’s spies inside the highest levels of the Church, will forever change our understanding of the Vatican’s role in the rise of Fascism in Europe.

 
The Pope and Mussolini tells the story of two men who came to power in 1922, and together changed the course of twentieth-century history. In most respects, they could not have been more different. One was scholarly and devout, the other thuggish and profane. Yet Pius XI and “Il Duce” had many things in common. They shared a distrust of democracy and a visceral hatred of Communism. Both were prone to sudden fits of temper and were fiercely protective of the prerogatives of their office. (“We have many interests to protect,” the Pope declared, soon after Mussolini seized control of the government in 1922.) Each relied on the other to consolidate his power and achieve his political goals.
 
In a challenge to the conventional history of this period, in which a heroic Church does battle with the Fascist regime, Kertzer shows how Pius XI played a crucial role in making Mussolini’s dictatorship possible and keeping him in power. In exchange for Vatican support, Mussolini restored many of the privileges the Church had lost and gave in to the pope’s demands that the police enforce Catholic morality. Yet in the last years of his life—as the Italian dictator grew ever closer to Hitler—the pontiff’s faith in this treacherous bargain started to waver. With his health failing, he began to lash out at the Duce and threatened to denounce Mussolini’s anti-Semitic racial laws before it was too late. Horrified by the threat to the Church-Fascist alliance, the Vatican’s inner circle, including the future Pope Pius XII, struggled to restrain the headstrong pope from destroying a partnership that had served both the Church and the dictator for many years.
 
The Pope and Mussolini brims with memorable portraits of the men who helped enable the reign of Fascism in Italy: Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, Pius’s personal emissary to the dictator, a wily anti-Semite known as Mussolini’s Rasputin; Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, an object of widespread derision who lacked the stature—literally and figuratively—to stand up to the domineering Duce; and Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, whose political skills and ambition made him Mussolini’s most powerful ally inside the Vatican, and positioned him to succeed the pontiff as the controversial Pius XII, whose actions during World War II would be subject for debate for decades to come.
 
With the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI’s papacy, the full story of the Pope’s complex relationship with his Fascist partner can finally be told. Vivid, dramatic, with surprises at every turn, The Pope and Mussolini is history writ large and with the lightning hand of truth.
 
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
 
“Kertzer has an eye for a story, an ear for the right word, and an instinct for human tragedy. This is a sophisticated blockbuster.”—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Revolutionary Summer
 
“A fascinating and tragic story.”—The New Yorker

“Revelatory . . . [a] detailed portrait.”The New York Review of Books

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Review:

A Conversation between Jon Meacham and David Kertzer, author of

The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

When Pope John Paul II first announced the opening of Pius XI's archives, what made you think there might be an untold story buried inside?

    The Vatican’s alliance with Mussolini has long been controversial.  Historians and journalists formed two camps.  On one side were those who claimed that, far from being an ally, the Vatican was Mussolini’s greatest adversary during the twenty years of the Fascist regime.  On the other side, people charged that the Church offered the regime crucial support.  Yet until the 2006 opening of the Vatican’s archives—and with it a series of other Church archives—the controversy remained unsettled. 

The Pope and Mussolini is based on more than seven years of archival research.  Tell me about one or two documents you uncovered that were breakthroughs in your understanding of these two men and this era.

    There were so many revealing documents, of so many different kinds, that it is hard to identify just one or two.  Perhaps the most dramatic—what could even be called a kind of “smoking gun”—was the three-page text of a secret agreement between the Vatican and Mussolini reached two weeks before the racial laws were first announced.  The trail of documents I unearthed shows the pope’s shadowy, but fascinating, Jesuit personal envoy to Mussolini, Pietro Tacchi Venturi, spending the days before the agreement going back and forth between the pope and the dictator to work out an accord.  Shockingly, it states the Vatican’s agreement to make no objection to the racial laws as long as they were no more repressive than the popes’ own restrictions on the Jews in the days of the Papal States.  And in fact the laws that were soon announced—expelling all Jewish students from the schools, firing all Jewish teachers, forbidding Jews from holding other positions of influence—were similar to those that had been in effect in Rome as long as the popes held power there.

    But not all of the most revealing documents were to be found in the Vatican archives.  We know more about what was going on behind the scenes in the Vatican in these years than for any other time in history thanks to the dense network of spies the Fascists placed in and around the Vatican.  These too shed much light on the pope and what he was dealing with.

In the final months of his life Pius XI began to realize he had made a poisonous bargain with Mussolini and fascism.  He tried to change the course of the church's relationship to Mussolini and Hitler, but it proved too late and he died in February, 1939 as the world was sliding into catastrophe.  How much do you think Pius XI understood about what was coming to Italy, Europe, and the church?

    Pius XI was in many ways a tragic figure.  His mentality was formed in a certain conservative Church ambience of the late nineteenth century and people should not act according to their own beliefs and conscience, but according to the directives of the Church hierarchy.

    It was only after he had been pope for over a decade that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Mussolini’s own increasing efforts to portray himself as a demi-god began to challenge the pope’s worldview.  Something similar might be said about his attitude toward the Jews.  He came from a Catholic environment in which the Jews were not only demonized as the crucifiers as Christ, cursed by God, but viewed as part of an occult conspiracy aimed at enslaving Christians and achieving world domination.  Yet in his own city of Milan, he had gotten along with the small Jewish community and indeed even took Hebrew lessons from the local rabbi.  Watching how his views of Jews percolated in the years leading to the Holocaust is to see a man struggling with a conflict he does not entirely comprehend.

    As for his understanding of what was coming by the late 1930s, the newly available archives make clear he was convinced that Europe was hurtling toward a cataclysm.

Do you think there was a moment where a road or course not taken could have changed things significantly?

    A huge amount of attention has been paid to the question of the “silence” of Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, during the Holocaust.  This has turned into a rather heated debate over whether Pius could have affected German behavior by forcefully denouncing the mass murder of Europe’s Jews.  I don’t want to get involved in that debate here, but what is clear to me is that the popes had much greater influence over Italians than they did over the Germans.  Of course the popes themselves were all Italians, as were virtually all the members of the Curia.  And while only a third of Germans were Catholic, Italians were overwhelmingly Catholic.  So the interesting question for me is could the pope have prevented Italy from allying with Nazi Germanyz/  Might Italy never have entered the war on Germany’s side if the Vatican had acted differently?  This is a huge question and I am not sure if it has ever been posed in quite this way before.

Jon Meacham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin and Winston, and American Gospel.  The former editor of Newsweek, he is an Executive Editor and Executive Vice President of Random House.

 

About the Author:

David I. Kertzer is the Paul Dupee, Jr. University Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, where he served as provost from 2006 to 2011. He is the author of eleven books, including The Popes Against the Jews, which was a finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has twice been awarded the Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies for the best work on Italian history. He and his wife, Susan, live in Providence, Rhode Island.

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