Category Archives: Italian History

Extended European Civil War

 

Robert Gerwarth, The Vanquished:

Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 

            On November 11th this autumn, the yearly celebrations and remembrances associated with Veteran’s Day (sometimes called Armistice Day) will carry particular weight – that day will mark 100 years to the day when war-weary German generals signed the ceasefire agreement in a French railroad car that ended the four-year conflict still sometimes termed the “Great War.” There will be many ceremonies and much speechifying about valor, sacrifice, and the high cost of preserving peace.  But if Robert Gerwarth, a German-born professor of modern history at University College, Dublin, were to speak at any such ceremony, he might be considered a party crasher.  He would likely ask his listeners not to think of that November day in 1918 as a moment when the killing and carnage stopped across Europe.

               Gerwarth could explain, as he does in The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923, how the November 1918 armistice did not bring peace to much of Europe.  Although the Western Allies, Great Britain and France, found relative peace and stability in the aftermath of the armistice (Britain still had to cope with an unruly Ireland), that was anything but the case in central and eastern Europe.  There, ethnic strife and political violence continued well past November 1918, to the point where, Gerwarth contends, we should think of the post-war period, up to 1923, as one of an “extended European civil war” (p.8; Gerwarth’s book might thus be considered a counterpart to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, reviewed here in July 2013, recounting the ethnic violence and fighting that continued well after the official end to World War II hostilities in 1945).  Not since the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century had a “series of interconnected wars and civil wars in Europe been as inchoate and deadly as in the years after 1917-18” (p.7).

            As his title indicates, Gerwarth’s focus is on World War I’s losers, the “vanquished,” better known as the Central Powers, whose defeat on the battlefield deprived them of justification for their immense sacrifices during the war.  In addition to Germany, the vanquished included the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey and Bulgaria, all of whom had signed ceasefire agreements with the Allies prior to Germany’s capitulation on November 11, 1918.  But the first vanquished power for Gerwarth is Russia. The most populous of all combatant states, Russia “became the first to descend into the chaos of revolution and military defeat” (p.15).  It sued Germany for peace in late 1917, the same year Romanov Tsar Nicholas II had abdicated, and only shortly after Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik party had seized power.

          Gerwarth’s starting point is thus an extensive treatment of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the so-called “Russian Civil War” that followed (his initial chapter is entitled “A Train Journey in Spring,” reminiscent of Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train, reviewed here in December 2017).  He then moves to central and eastern Europe after the November 1918 Armistice, a period when both left and right-wing violence plagued the territories once controlled by the Central Powers.  Gerwarth delves into the specific situations in Germany and just about every other country in central and eastern Europe, including many that came into existence after the war, among them Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia. His survey also includes Italy, which switched sides during the war and saw Europe’s first fascist government come to power in 1922 under Benito Mussolini.

            But Gerwarth uses this extensive country-specific detail to create a broader picture. Europe’s post-war upheaval, he argues, has hitherto been looked at almost exclusively from the perspective of individual countries, e.g., what was going on in Russia and Germany, “as if the revolutionary events that shook Europe between 1917 and the early 1920s were completely unconnected” (p.14). There is no study in any language, he asserts, that “investigates the experiences of all the vanquished states within the confines of one book” (p.14).  Gerwarth seeks to fill this void.

                To this end, The Vanquished emphasizes how the extended post-World War I civil war coincided with the dismantlement of the highly-diverse Hapsburg and Ottoman land empires of central and eastern Europe, replaced by fledgling nation states (Germany too under the Kaiser was considered a European land empire; Romanov Russia, Europe’s other great land empire, ended with the Tsar’s 1917 abdication, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian capitulation to Germany).  Dismantlement of Europe’s land empires was not an initial war aim of the Western Allies, and only became so within the last year of the war. By late 1923, when Europe’s extended civil war had largely ended, Fascist and Bolshevik governments were entrenched in key European states, and the idea that a true nation state required ethnic and religious homogeneity had gained an ominous toehold.

                Gerwarth connects the dots for his macro-portrait in large measure through the peace treaties that purported to settle the conflicts of the World War I era and restructure Europe’s geo-political order. The treaties were not the only cause of the extended political turmoil of the post-war years, but they plainly exacerbated that turmoil.  The first, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, between Russia and Germany, was signed eight months prior to the November armistice, on March 3, 1918.  In the middle chronologically – and in the middle of Gerwarth’s narrative – are the accords that arose out of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference: the Versailles peace treaty, which prescribed terms for Germany; the Treaty of San-Germaine-en-Laye for Austria; Trianon for Hungary; Sèvres for Ottoman Turkey; and Neuilly for Bulgaria.  The end point is the July 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which resolved the extended post-war conflict between Greece and a young, post-Ottoman Turkish Republic. Between Brest-Litovsk and Lausanne, Gerwarth ranges widely yet probes deeply, methodically presenting account after account of the inter-state and civil wars, political revolutions and counter-revolutionary reaction, that ravaged central and eastern Europe in the half-decade following the November 1918 armistice.

* * *

            The March 1918 Treaty of Brest- Litovsk between Russia and Germany stripped the former Romanov Empire of almost all the western, non-Russian portions of its territory, approximately 1.6 million square kilometers, containing almost one-third of its pre-war population and much of its natural resources.  The treaty was a “moment of extraordinary triumph” (p.39) for Germany, bringing it closer to its initial war aim of becoming the dominant power in Central and Eastern Europe. The territorial concessions exacted from Russia as the price for peace, Gerwarth contends, made those imposed upon Germany in the Versailles treaty the following year “seem benign by comparison” (p.39).

            The Russian Civil War that followed n the aftermath of Brest-Litovsk involved counter-revolutionary opponents, peasant insurgencies and the attempts by several regions on the western border of the former Russian Empire to break away from Bolshevik rule.  Allied intervention, initially intended to prevent the Central Powers from taking control of strategic resources, “soon included military aid for the loose confederation of anti-communist forces known as the ‘Whites’ in their struggle against the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks” (p.77).  The eventual Red triumph came at a “staggeringly high price for the country. After two revolutions and seven uninterrupted years of armed conflict, Russia in 1921 lay in ruins” (p.93).

            Two days after the November 1918 armistice, the Russian Red Army sought to recapture western territories lost as a result of Brest-Litovsk.  By early 1919, Bolshevism appeared to be on the march westward, with Germany a cauldron of left and right wing fervor.  Left wing radicals, led by revolutionaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, challenged the post-war government in Berlin in the “Spartacus Uprising.” Bavaria sought to become an independent socialist republic.  Former German soldiers, friekorps, set themselves up as a bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism, aided by a huge contingent of émigrés from the Russian civil war.  Liebknecht and Luxembourg were assassinated in January 1919.  Friekorps paramilitary forces were on the front line in the 1920 “Kapp putsch,” an unsuccessful right-wing attack on the German government in 1920.  Bavaria witnessed another unsuccessful right-wing putsch in 1923this one led by a World War I veteran from Austria and members of his infant National Socialist party.

                With Vienna and Budapest experiencing similar upheaval, the Paris Peace Conference convened in mid-January 1919 to decide the future of the vanquished powers. The vanquished themselves were excluded from the negotiations, to be summoned only when the peace treaties had been finalized.  Russia, immersed in civil war, was similarly missing from the negotiations. The treaties were thus a product of compromise, “not between the victors and the vanquished, but between the key actors among the victorious Allies” (p.174; the deliberations and machinations of the Paris Peace Conference are captured brilliantly in Margaret MacMillan’s 2003 work, Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World).

               The Treaty of Versailles, signed on June 28, 1919, is best known for its Article 231, ascribing sole responsibility for the war to Germany, and its unrealistic war reparation requirements.  Germany was also forced into substantial territorial concessions, with its overseas colonies redistributed among the victorious states.  In Germany, the terms of the treaty, considered a diktat, were greeted with disbelief, uniting an otherwise seriously polarized country in a shared sense of “fundamental betrayal and resentment” (p.203).

            Yet Germany “actually fared better in Paris than all of the other Central Powers” (p.204), Gerwarth contends. The treaty of St. Germaine-en-Laye, signed in September 1919, allotted huge swaths of the former Hapsburg Empire to Italy, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the future state of Yugoslavia, reducing Austria to a “tiny and impoverished Republic in the Alps” (p.5).  The treaty imposed heavy reparations upon both Austria and Hungary and stipulated that the two countries would have to carry most of the old empire’s war debt.  It further proscribed Anschluss, the voluntary union of Austria with the German Reich, an aspiration strongly supported by the political left in both Austria and Germany which seemed consistent with American President Woodrow Wilson’s lofty principle of “national self determination.”  The newly independent state of Hungary was similarly forced to cede large segments of Hungarian-speaking territory and did not sign the Treaty of Trianon until June 1920, and then  under protest.

            Bulgaria’s territorial loses in the Treaty of Neuilly were less extensive than those of Austria and Hungary but, proportionate to its size and GDP, it faced the highest reparations bill of all the Central Powers.  The Treaty of Sèvres, the last of the Paris Peace Conference, signed in August 1920, forced Ottoman Turkey to cede huge amounts of territory to Greeks, Armenians and Kurds, while allowing onerous foreign spheres of influence and domination in much of the remainder.  The treaty also imposed substantial reparations. “No other defeated Central Power had to subject itself to such a compromise of its sovereignty,” Gerwarth writes. For Turkish nationalists, the treaty’s draconian terms continued “in an even more extreme form the humiliating European interference  in Ottoman affairs [that occurred] during the nineteenth century” (p.236).

             But the focus on Versailles’ war guilt clause and the issue of war reparations for all of the Central Powers obscures what Gerwarth considers the most significant outcome of the Paris Peace accords: the “transformation of an entire continent previously dominated by land empires into one composed of ‘nation states’” (p.174).  Neither Great Britain nor France had gone to war in 1914 with the aim of creating a “Europe of nations,” and it was “only from early 1918 onwards that the destruction of the land empires became an explicit war aim” (p.173).  The Paris accords also led to a series of “Minority treaties,” agreements signed by the new nation states, particularly Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, as a precondition for their international recognition, in which the new states guaranteed rights to ethnic and religious minorities living within their boundaries.

            In his post-Paris Peace Conference section, Gerwarth dedicates a full chapter to Italy and its quest for control over the Adriatic port of Fiume, a city also claimed by the emerging state of Yugoslavia.  Fiume was at the top of the list of territories Italy thought it had been promised when it came over to the Allied side in 1915 in the Great War, but failed to gain in Paris, giving rise to the notion of a “mutilated” Italian victory.  For a while, the flamboyant poet Gabriel D’Annunzio occupied Fiume before being driven out by the Italian central government in Rome.

                Fiume became one of the causes that propelled Benito Mussolini to power in 1922 as Europe’s first overtly fascist leader.  Gerwarth observes how Mussolini utilized lessons he drew from Lenin, notably that “parliamentary majorities were far less important than the ability and determination to instill fear in opponents and to act ruthlessly when an opportunity presented itself” (p.163). Mussolini’s appointment as Italian Prime Minister in 1922 was an instance much like Lenin’s coup d’état in 1917 where power was “handed over to the head of a militia party which had imposed its authority by means of violence” (p.163).

            Gerwarth finishes with the 1919-1922 war between Greece and Turkey.  Greece had joined the Allied side in the war in 1915 out of ambition for territory in the Ottoman Empire.  Encouraged by Britain, in May 1919 it launched an invasion at the Aegean city of Smyrna (now Izmir), and for a short time controlled substantial portions of the Turkish mainland, Anatolia.  But Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemel, soon to be known as Attäturk, checked Greece forces, recaptured Smyrma and drove the Greeks from Anatolia. The Turkish nationalists negotiated a new treaty at Lausanne which completely overturned the Treaty of Sèvres. The Treaty of Lausanne recognized the independence of the Republic of Turkey and its sovereignty over what was sometimes termed Asia Minor, modern Turkey, along with its largest city, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and Eastern Thrace, now the Turkish portion of the European continent bordering Bulgaria.  By virtue of Lausanne, Greece became the “last of the vanquished states of the ‘post-war’ period” (p.246).

              But the Lausanne Treaty had ominous implications for Europe as a whole. Drawn up to prevent mass violence between different religious groups, the treaty sanctioned the forced exchange of 1.2 million Orthodox Christians, living in Anatolia, who were sent to Greece, and nearly 400,000 Muslims resettled the other way.  Lausanne:

effectively established the legal right of state governments to expel large parts of their citizens on the grounds of ‘otherness.’ It fatally undermined cultural, ethnic and religious plurality as an ideal to which to aspire . . . [T]he future now seemed to belong to ethnic homogeneity as a pre-condition for nation states to live in peace (p.246).

Lausanne thus all but reversed the commitment of the Paris Peace Conference’s Minority treaties to the defense of vulnerable ethnic minorities. It confirmed what was then becoming an “increasingly popular idea” that a “‘true’ nation state could only be founded on the principle of ethnic or religious homogeneity, and that this had to be achieved at almost any human price” (p.243-44).

             Yet, central and eastern Europe entered into a relatively stable period after Lausanne.  Gerwarth sees a “new spirit of rapprochement” (p.248) from late 1923 onward that lasted throughout the remainder of the 1920s, embodied in such instruments as the Dawes plan, which strove to make German reparations payments more manageable; the Locarno Treaty of 1925, by which Germany acknowledged its post-Versailles western borders; and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, whose high-minded purpose was to ban war as an instrument of foreign policy, except for self-defense.  But the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression reversed much of the progress toward a lasting peace made in the latter portion of the 1920s.  As the decade ended, Fascism and Bolshevism (now referred to more frequently as “Communism”) remained entrenched in Italy and the former Romanov state.  As to Germany, while the fringe National Socialist party was attracting attention for its rabble-rousing attacks on the Versailles treaty, few Germans gave the party any serious chance of achieving power.

* * *

             It is an open question whether Gerwarth offers new detail of Europe’s turbulent period 1917-1923.  The book’s extensive country-specific accounts of these years, especially those pertaining to Russia and Germany, have been the subject matter of numerous other works.   But the virtue of Gerwarth’s work lies in its use of the country-specific histories of Russia, Germany and just about every other European country from Italy eastward to create a comprehensive, thought-provoking portrait of a half-continent awash in ethnic strife and political violence in the aftermath of the November 1918 armistice.  Gerwarth’s  work also seems likely to be at odds with what you might read or hear this coming November 11th.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 22, 2018

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European History, German History, History, Italian History, Russian History

Empowering and Sustaining Fascism

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

      Italy’s fascist government, led by Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943, was the 20th century’s first to be characterized as “totalitarian.” By some accounts, Mussolini himself coined the term and boastfully applied it to his insurgent regime.  That regime came to power in 1922, after Mussolini and a small band of activists from the unruly Fascist party engineered the famous March on Rome in October 1922, which resulted in Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister in Italy’s constitutional monarchy.  Once in power, the charismatic Mussolini, a master of crowd manipulation known as the Duce, eliminated his political opposition and dropped all pretensions of democratic governance in favor of one-man rule. He recklessly took Italy into World War II on Hitler’s side, was deposed by fellow Fascists in 1943 prior to Italy’s surrender to the Allies, and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.

     In The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer reveals the surprising extent to which the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church empowered and sustained fascism in Italy.  Mussolini had his counterpart in Pope Pius XI, appointed head of the Catholic Church in 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power. Pius XI remained pope until his death in February 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II in September of that year.  Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, shines the historian’s spotlight on the improbable but mutually beneficial alliance between Mussolini and Pius XI.

     The Vatican under Pius XI considered Mussolini and his Fascist party to be the only force that could preserve order in Italy and serve as a bulwark against Russian inspired socialism, which the Vatican considered an existential threat to itself and the church. The Vatican benefitted from the explicitly anti-democratic Fascist regime’s measures to reinstate the church’s privileged position within Italian society.  Its support in turn played a major role in legitimizing Mussolini’s fascist regime, allowing the Duce to cast himself as Italy’s “champion of law and order and national pride” (p.26).  Mussolini and Pius XI “came to be disillusioned by the other,” Kertzer concludes, “yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end” (p.407).

      Kertzer’s story has two general parts. In the first, he explains how Mussolini and Pius XI pieced together in 1929 what are known as the “Lateran Accords,” agreements that reversed the strict separation between church and state that had existed since Italian unification in 1861 and had been arguably the most salient characteristic of Italy’s constitutional monarchy. The second involves Hitler’s intrusion into the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship after he was appointed Germany’s chancellor in 1933, with devastating effects for Italy’s small Jewish population.

   Mussolini and Pius XI met only once. Their relationship was conducted primarily through intermediaries, who form an indispensable component of Kertzer’s story.  Most noteworthy among them was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the pope’s principal deputy in 1930 before being named Pope himself, Pius XII, when Pius XI died in 1939.  Kertzer begins and ends with an account of how Pacelli and like-minded subordinates conspired with Mussolini’s spies within the Vatican to prevent dissemination of the dying Pius XI’s most important final work, an undelivered papal speech condemning racism, persecution of the Jews, and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The undelivered speech was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords and would have marked an irreversible rupture to the improbable alliance between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist government.

* * *

     Mussolini, born in 1883 as the son of a small-town blacksmith, started his political career as a socialist and adhered to the strong anti-clerical positions that characterized early 20th century Italian socialism.  As a young rabble-rouser, Mussolini was “part left-wing wild man and part Don Juan” who “always seemed to know how to become the center of attention . . . [H]e was someone you would rather have on your side than against you” (p.21).  More opportunist than ideologue, Mussolini broke with socialism sometime after World War I erupted in 1914. In a transformation that his former socialist colleagues viewed as “inexplicable and traitorous,” Mussolini “kept the revolutionary’s disdain for parliamentary democracy and fascination with the possibilities of violent action” but “jettisoned much of the rest of Marxist ideology” (p.22).

     The period after World War I was a time of great unrest in Italy, when a violent revolution similar to the one that had recently toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia seemed imminent. The chaos surrounding the end of the war created an opportunity for Mussolini. He had “always committed, above all, to himself and to a belief in his own ability to rise to the top. Now he began to see a new path that could allow him to realize those dreams” (p.22). That path involved presenting himself as the protector of the Catholic faith. In his first speech to parliament in late 1922, without any previous consultation with Vatican authorities, the irreligious Mussolini pledged that Fascism would restore Christianity in Italy by building a “Catholic state befitting a Catholic nation” (p.27).

     Mussolini’s protagonist throughout Kertzer’s story, Pius XI, was born Achille Ratti in 1857, twenty-six years before Mussolini.  Ratti seemingly came out of nowhere to become the head of the Catholic Church in 1922.  For most of his career, he had worked as a librarian, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But Pope Benedict XV unexpectedly sent Ratti to Poland in 1918 as his emissary to the heavily Catholic country, where he witnessed the invasion of the Red Army in the wake of the Russian revolution and developed a “lifelong loathing of Communism” (p.xxii).  Ratti then became a cardinal and was a surprising choice for the prestigious position of Archbishop of Milan.  He had barely begun that position when Benedict XV died. After 14 ballots, Ratti was elected pope in February 1922.

     Once in office, Pius XI assumed a manner that was imperious even by the standards of popes.  Compared to his predecessors, Pius XI was “cold and curt” (p.85) and “lacked any hint of diplomatic skills” (p.85).  He insisted that his own brother address him as “Holy Father.”  He had a proclivity for longwinded speeches and frequent outbursts of a volatile temper.  He was a detail oriented, hands on manager who sought to be informed and involved in even the most minor of Vatican administrative matters.  His love of order and deep sense of obedience to authority “set the tone for his reign” (p.39). His commands were to be followed “sooner than immediately,” he liked to say (p.39).

      Pius XI denounced the French Revolution as the “origin of much evil, spreading harmful notions of the ‘rights of man’” (p.84).  He contested the secular, modernist notion that in turning away from the Church, society was advancing; rather society was lapsing back into a “state of barbarism” (p.49). The pope’s vision of the role for the Vatican in society was at heart “medieval” (p.49), Kertzer contends.

     Although Pius XI and Mussolini seemed to have little in common, Kertzer notes that the two men were nonetheless alike in many ways. “Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality. Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them” (p.68). The two men also shared 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. Both thought Italy was mired in a crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” (p.48). Like Mussolini, Pius XI believed that Italy needed a “strong man to lead it, free from the cacophony of multiparty bickering” (p.29).

     Never under any illusion that Mussolini personally embraced Catholic values or cared for anything other than his own aggrandizement, Pius XI nonetheless was willing to test Mussolini’s apparent commitment to restore church influence in Italy.  Mussolini moved quickly to make good on his promises to the Vatican. By the end of 1922, he had ordered crucifixes to be placed in every classroom, courtroom, and hospital in the country. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He required that the Catholic religion be taught in elementary schools and showered the Church with money to restore churches damaged during World War I and to subsidize Church-run schools abroad.

      Through a tendentious back and forth process that lasted four years and forms the heart of this book, Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929. The accords, which included a declaration that Catholicism was “the only religion of the State,” ended the official hostility between the Vatican and the Italian state that had existed since Italy’s the unification in 1861.  The Italian state for the first time officially recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity, with the government having no right to interfere in internal Vatican affairs.  In exchange for the Vatican’s withdrawal of all claims to territory lost at the time of unification, Italy further agreed to pay the Vatican the equivalent of roughly one billion present day US dollars.

      The historic accords offered Mussolini the opportunity to “solidify support for his regime in a way that was otherwise unimaginable” (p.99).  Pius XI saw the accords as a means of reinstating what had been lost in the 1860s with Italian unification, a “hierarchical, authoritarian society run according to Church principles” (p.110). Newspapers throughout the country hailed the accords, emphasizing that they “could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and Fascism, had made it possible” (p.111).  Yet, neither Mussolini nor Pius XI was fully satisfied with the accords. The pope “would not be happy unless he could get Mussolini to respect what he regarded as the Church’s divinely ordained prerogatives.  Mussolini was willing to give the pope what he wanted as long as it did not conflict with his dictatorship and his own dreams of glory” (p.122).

     In the aftermath of the accords, Mussolini became a hero to Catholics in Italy and throughout the world and his popularity reached unimagined heights.  With no significant opposition, his craving for adulation grew and his feeling of self-importance “knew no bounds. His trust in his instincts had grown to the point where he seemed to believe the pope was not the only one in the Eternal City who was infallible” (p.240), Kertzer wryly observes. But as Mussolini’s popularity in Italy soared, Hitler came to power in nearby Germany early in 1933. The latter portion of Kertzer’s book, focused on a three-way Hitler-Mussolini-Pius XI relationship, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Italy and within the Vatican itself.

* * *

     Hitler had been attracted to Mussolini and the way he ruled Italy from as early as the 1922 March on Rome, and Mussolini sensed that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he had a potentially valuable ally with whom he had much in common. Pius XI, by contrast, abhorred from the beginning Hitler’s hostility to Christianity and his treatment of German Catholics. He viewed Nazism as a pagan movement based on tribal nationalism that was contrary to the Church’s belief in the universality of humankind. But Pius XI initially found little that was objectionable in the new German government’s approach to what was then euphemistically termed the “Jewish question.” Pius XI’s views of world Jewry were in line with thinking that was widely prevalent across Europe in the early decades of the 20th century: Jews were “Christ killers” bent upon destroying Christianity; and Jewish influence was behind both the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the amoral, godless capitalism centered in the United States.

     Prior to the Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, Mussolini’s views on Jews had been more liberal than those of the Pope. He did not regard Italy’s small Jewish population as a threat to the Italian state.  After Hitler made a triumphal trip to Italy in 1938, however, Mussolini pushed through a series of “racial laws” which in many senses mirrored measures Hitler was taking in Germany to resolve the “Jewish question.” The racial laws defined the “Jewish race” to include those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. They excluded Jews from the civil service and revoked the citizenship of foreign-born Jews who had become citizens after 1919.  All Jews who were not citizens were ordered to leave the country within six months.  All Jewish teachers, from elementary school through university, were fired.

     In a second wave of racial laws, Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist Party; banned from the military; and barred from owning or directing businesses having more than a hundred employees, or from owning more than fifty hectares of land.  In pursuing the racial laws, Mussolini had obviously fallen under the sway of Hitler. Yet, Kertzer refrains from probing  the motivations behind Mussolini’s thorough and sudden embrace of Nazi approaches to the “Jewish question,” noting simply that Mussolini was “eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews” (p.293).

     The racial laws were presented to the Italian public as a reinstatement of traditional Catholic teachings on the Jews.  Pius XI and the Vatican initially criticized only their application to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.  Neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican “ever voiced any opposition to the great bulk of the racial laws, aimed at stripping Jews of their rights as Italian citizens” (p.345).  Yet, as his health deteriorated and war appeared ever more imminent in Europe in late 1938 and early 1939, Pius XI began to see the racial laws and the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany as anathema to Christian teaching.

     Kertzer’s story ends where it begins, with Pius XI near death and seeking to deliver a speech condemning unequivocally Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, racism and the persecution of the Jews on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Lateran Accords.  The speech would have marked the definitive break between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  During Pius XI’s final days, Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, worked feverishly with other Vatican subordinates to preclude Pius XI from delivering the speech. After the pope’s death, at Mussolini’s urging, they sought to destroy all remaining copies of the undelivered speech.

     Their efforts were almost fully successful. The words the pope had “so painstakingly prepared in the last days of his life would never be seen as long as Pacelli lived” (p.373).  The speech did not become public until 1958, when Pius XII’s successor, John Paul XXIII, in one of his first acts as pope, ordered release of excerpts.  But passages most critical of Mussolini and the Fascist regime were deleted from the released text, “presumably to protect Pacelli, suspected of having buried the speech in order not to offend Mussolini or Hitler” (p.373).  The full text did not become available until 2006, when the Vatican opened its archives on Pius XI.

* * *

     Kertzer’s suspenseful account of Pius XI’s undelivered speech demonstrates his flair for capturing the palace and bureaucratic intrigue that underlay both sides of the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship.  This flair for intrigue, in evidence throughout the book, coupled with his colorful portraits of Mussolini and Pius XI, render Kerzter’s work highly entertaining as well as crucially informative. Although his work is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Mussolini’s regime, his emphasis upon how the Vatican abetted the regime during Pius XI’s papacy constitutes an invaluable addition to our understanding of the nature of the Fascist state and twentieth century totalitarianism under Mussolini.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 11, 2016

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Filed under European History, History, Italian History