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.
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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.
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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.
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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