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Reading David Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini:The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe will be a bitter pill for some, a series of revelations, or confirmations, for others and just damn good history for many.  Lapsed Catholic or devout, immigrant Italian or Vatican visitor, Jews of families escaped or destroyed will all curse the small steps taken and not taken that had Mussolini and Italy leading the way to the terrible exit to war in 1939.

Books Pope and MussoliniThe Pope in question is Pius XI, from his investiture in 1922 to his death in 1939.  Mussolini of course is Il Duce, as he liked to be called, founder and leader of the Italian Fascist party, and Prime Minister from November, 1921, until his death by partisan firing squad in April of 1945.  The book is a detailed and intriguing look at their complicated relationship, each trying to use the other to accomplish his own aims despite an initial, and on-going, mutual antagonism.

The Pope, formerly a studious librarian known as Achille Ratti, wanted the Vatican returned to a measure of the power it had enjoyed before its shattering reduction in 1861 when the new Italian state reduced the Papal empire to a few buildings in Rome.  Even if he didn’t imagine a return of territory and earthly rule, a reversal of the liberal ideas of individuality and separation of church and state was necessary and urgent.  Perhaps a partnership and mutual respect between Church and State reasserting a proper direction to Italian lives would be possible.  He wanted a re-Catholicized state, religion in the schools, government funds to the clergy, Papal designation of proper holidays, just for starters.  Mussolini was determined to return Italy — with himself as its leader– to something approaching the glory of the ancient Roman Empire, and to claim a place among the contending empires of the day, the British, French, German and Russian.

The two men were united by a belief that the world was full of enemies and that the way to confront that was the re-institution of order and obedience under the leadership of a strong, certain man.  They were separated by different ideas of who that man was, where the source of power came from and the trustworthiness and competence of the other.


David L. Kertzer is just the person to help us through this.  Historian, anthropologist and Italianist he has worked for years, and published much, on Italy, its people, the Popes and the Jews.  Added to this is seven years of research in previously secret archives of the Italian state and the Vatican.  The result is a very readable re-creation, sometimes daily, of the intricate two-step of the two men.  And not only them, but a cast of, especially Vatican, subordinates, each with his own view of matters and ability to shape what the two principals heard and how they acted.

Early on he provides a very good “Cast of Characters,” which the reader will be glad of.  It’s sometimes hard to follow the players: Italian names, and German, positional titles, changes in those positions, name changes as priests becomes popes, names of important journals and magazines in which attacks are launched and arguments made.


He begins with a brief background in Italian history.  From the loss of Vatican power in the 1860s, resulting in a Papal no-voting edict for Catholics to its reversal and creation of the Catholic Popular Party in 1919 to compete against the Socialists;  from Mussolini’s early association with anti-clerical, anti-war socialists to his split with them as his own war-spirit grew. WW I ended, with 500,000 dead, the economy in chaos and a rising tide of agricultural and industrial militancy stirred by the example of the Russian revolution. Returning soldiers, with no jobs and no easy resettlement, found solidarity with each other and against an ungrateful government and the under-classes threatening revolution; the shattering defeat at Caporetto (November, 1917) provided soldiers and nationalists their own ‘stab-in-the-back” narrative to shape and direct their resentment.  One of them, Benito Mussolini, after leaving the army, rose to prominence as a newspaper writer and polemicist and in March 1919 called the first meeting of the new Fascist Party, attracting many regional and urban groups which had been self organizing to push back against labor –read socialist– agitation.  Within a year he had jettisoned all remnants of socialist ideas and was campaigning on a return of law and order, the growth of nationalist pride and a place in the world of Imperial nations.

Despite his strong anti-clerical roots, Mussolini saw, as his new party battled for legitimacy, that the influence of the Pope over Italian Catholics would help him enormously. When he gave his first parliamentary speech after being elected in 1921 he surprised his followers, the Pope and most Catholics by declaring that fundamental interests joined Catholics and Fascists.

Into this, in February of 1922, Achille Ratti, for years a scholarly librarian, was voted as Pope on the 14th ballot, a compromise solution after more experienced candidates could not secure a victory. He chose Pius XI as his title.

Although Vatican journals and news accounts had been inveighing against rising fascism and the squads of black shirts beating priests and Popular Party activists, the pope saw that they too, especially the leader, Mussolini, shared his distrust and fear of socialists and communists. Perhaps there was some trading to be done.  By December, 1922,  communication between the two had been established, promises made and some kept.

Mussolini ordered crucifixes to be placed on the walls of every classroom in the country, then in hospitals and court rooms. The Vatican began praising the Fascist response to the scourge of Bolshevism. In February, 1929, after many gestures of good faith and reciprocal interest, the relationship was sealed with the signing of the Lateran Accords. The interpretation of, and fidelity to, the agreements spelled out between church and state, (Pius XI and Mussolini,) provided, for the next ten years, the framework of their relationship, arguing over exactly what had been meant, promised and broken.

King Victor Emmanuel III, Pope Pius XI, Benito Mussolini

King Victor Emmanuel III, Pope Pius XI, Benito Mussolini

Mini biographies for the two men appear appropriately spaced through the book, broadening our view of both.  Mussolini the lover, and casual father appears, keeping mistresses by the score as well as a wife and recognized children, fit for state portraits. Surrounding the Pope are a city’s worth of envoys, secretaries and ambassadors whom we get to know, with sometimes clench-toothed interest. The Jesuits and Franciscans the worst among them.

We get a good sense of the major mile-stones, and turning points, in their relation to each other and in Mussolini’s drive towards war: Mussolini’s election to the Parliament in 1921; the assassination of Giacomo Matteoti in May of 1924 by fascist squadristi, leading to a precipitous fall in Mussolini’s popularity, his depression and then revival after receiving support from the Pope; the Lateran accords in 1929, codifying the church-state relationship; the continual struggle over whether Catholic Action was a political party and a danger to the Fascists (Mussolini) or an organization concerned only with Catholic belief and behavior (Pius XI); the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, (and first use of poison gas against civilians), giving a boost to Mussolini’s prestige; the German take-over of Austria in March of 1938 after Mussolini had vowed to protect its independence, severely affecting Pius’ view of him.

The heart of the newly discovered material seems to concern the initially shared, but increasingly contentious views of the two men on Jews. They shared the belief that Jews were a mortal enemy – to Catholics and to Italy.  For the Pope, however, it was a matter of religion: a converted Jew was indeed a Catholic and should be treated as one. Mussolini increasingly agreed with the rising Hitler, that a Jew was racially a Jew, and could never be other than loyal to his own.  Hitler, however, saw Catholics and Freemasons as almost as dangerous. He closed down Catholic Churches. Catholic schools were disbanded. Particularly alarming to Pius and other non-Italian Catholics was a wave of Nazi “immorality trials” of priests for homosexuality and pederasty.  Despite Mussolini’s increasing support of the Nazi project, and the Pope’s support of Mussolini, the Pope began to see Hitler as a mortal enemy of the church. Outside of Italy, Catholics, along with most other observers, also saw the threat.  The French in particular directed pressure, public and private, against the Pope, saying his support of Fascism was defacto support of Nazism; Fascist and Nazi, originally seen as separate national political movements, seemed now to be a difference without a distinction. The Pope didn’t want to hear this and tried to push back against the Nazis while holding Mussolini close.

Mussolini also kept playing a double game.  Germany was necessary, he had decided, to his own dreams of Empire.  Italian Catholic support was necessary to stay in power. He sent letters of advice to Hitler’s men as to how to woo the Catholics, not make enemies of them and tried to mollify the Pope over their treatment.

Matters began to come to a head with the German take-over of Austria, March, 1938.  The Pope was furious at the Austrian high-clergy for joining others in welcoming the Church’s enemy with unprompted ‘Heil Hitlers,’ and distraught that Mussolini’s promises to protect Austrian independence had so easily been given up.  Mussolini, momentarily panicked, realized that a powerful Germany on the Italian border was a danger, and proposed that a Papal excommunication of the Catholic Hitler was the only thing that would stop him!

The 16 year alliance really began to unravel when Mussolini overcame his concern about a strong Germany and issued an invitation to Hitler to visit Rome and the Pope himself, sure that this would further the relationship he wanted. Enormous festivities were planned.  Sickened by such a welcome to “the greatest enemy that Christ and the Church have had in modern times,” Pius had the Vatican closed and disappeared into his summer home. Yet, even at this late date, educated by years of Vatican support, ordinary priests, joined in the jubilant crowds cheering on the two saviors of the nations.

That summer, 1938, Pius brought an outsider to the Vatican, an American priest who had ministered to African American congregations and written an influential book called Interracial Justice. John LaFarge was to write, in secret, an encyclical on racism and anti-Semitism, of vital importance to a proper understanding of Catholicism.  All racial identity was subordinate to religious identity; it was to be called On the Unity of Humankind. Mussolini, for his part, following the July round-up of 40,000 Jews in Austria, issued a series of anti-Semitic laws, which further disturbed the Pope.  Following a round of negotiations between the two a new agreement was reached, hammered out by the Pope’s Mussolini leaning diplomats and Mussolini himself, saying in essence that the state would treat Jews no worse than the church had for centuries.  In fact, it would do better, not requiring the return of distinctive colored caps, nor that a Jews live in ghettos. With that, a virulent, government led campaign against Jews began, seconded by newspapers all over the country.  By early September, all Jewish teachers were fired; no Christian children could be taught by Jews.

Although the campaign was supported by the Vatican’s own journal, the Pope himself was greatly troubled — especially over the issue of “mixed marriages.”  A converted Jew was a Catholic, in his view and so marriage to another Catholic was no longer “mixed,” and deserved the support of the Church.  In Mussolini’s edict, a Jew, converted or not, was a Jew and therefore such marriages were “mixed” and prohibited.  In several public appearances the Pope made his views known, to the great distress of his Vatican staff who were trying to keep a furious Mussolini and a furious Pius XI from wrecking the convenient alliance they had been living with.

The Pope, ailing and near death, was resolute, however.  He planned to give an address on the 10th anniversary of the Lateran accords “condemning Fascism,” and along with it release the encyclical he had had prepared. It was too late.  He died two days before the date, on February 10, 1939.  His circle of trusted aides made sure that no word of this speech got out and that all copies of the encyclical, printed and ready for delivery, were destroyed.  They were not seen again until the Vatican archives were opened in 2002.


Those who read just for the narrative sweep, will be swept along; major names will get texture and nuance, minor names will become familiar. That Italy’s Mussolini provided the model and his black-shirts the template for Hitler’s rise will be clear.  The confusion in the Vatican, yet the repeated strong endorsement of Mussolini’s actions, and the unhappy consequences, should be a lesson for all those who enter into partnership with someone more cunning than they, and who also has a devoted ‘army’ at their beck and call.

Those who read for detail will be gratified as well.  Kertzer is generous with his end-notes and sources of facts and opinion.  One need not slow down to read each one; they make a delightful appendix afterward and a reason to page back and forth to the events that are particularly interesting.

My interest in reading history, memoirs, and fiction about war is always in the question: where on the road to suffering and loss were there opportunities to detour away?  Given the millennial old tool-box of the human mind with all its self-interest and fear of others, its greed and its uncertainty, its use of language to lie, distort, exhort yet given also that the experience of war is universally traumatic and, in everyone’s public pronouncements, is to be avoided — how do we manage not to be lured into another war with all its promises of victory and justice?

My take-away from the Pope and Mussolini was that Pius XI was hopelessly out-gunned by Mussolini’s cunning and charismatic power.  He had almost no diplomatic, or even high-bureaucratic experience, entailing judgment of character, observation of the loss of meaning and intent in conveyed communications.  He did not have enough scholarly or spiritual capacity to move his narrow anti-racism to a wider and deeper plane.  He seems to have been trapped in the Vatican itself, not seeing or understanding the meaning of the increasing attacks on Jews, socialists and various others either in Italy or Germany.  As though a man obsessed with currying his own back yard, he is oblivious to what is going on outside the wall; worse, he is ordering measures and compromises to strengthen growth in his yard which contribute to the chaos outside, as a man ordering nitrite for fertilizer which is skimmed from explosives for his neighbor.

He did not double check that the instructions he sent his envoys with were, in fact, carried as delivered.  He was incurious.  He had no Bravo Team to give him scenarios outside the one he thought he had command of. Which is not to suggest he was only a naif caught in a cage-match.  He knew of, and complained about, continuing black-shirt attacks on Catholic Action.  He received assurances.  Then they happened again.  One suspects that, at some point, he made the cold-blooded calculation that to keep crucifixes in the classrooms and stipends coming to the church a certain level of fear and injuries was tolerable.

Books Mussolini ItalyMussolini, of course, is well covered in many other places.  Mussolini’s Italy by R.J.B. Bosworth is a terrific book on the man and the many Italians who fought with, and against, him.

If there is one thing I would have liked to see more of, it is the origins and growth of the “right” as Mussolini was coming into prominence.  It was not his creation, though certainly he was key to its consolidation and growth.  As Mussolini turns against his socialist comrades, Kertzer says “Recruits began streaming in from the extreme right.”  From where? Who were they?  A page or two laying in more detail about the economic situation, war shame and fury, why returning (peasant) soldiers were willing to take up cudgels against peasants or workers who had not been in the war would have been helpful.  In short, what were the sources that let Fascism grow when, for example, the Bonus Army march on Washington D.C. in 1932, was only a footnote in history?

There is plenty in the book to provide a beginning for a fascinating, and contemporary play, or film, penetrating into the private moments of the actors, getting to the substrate of their actions, the emotional truths, letting us see doubts and (sometimes fearful) determination. Why was there so little resistance to the authoritarian slide? What was going on which propelled so many parish priests into support of Fascism even as Pius was explicitly telling them not to go to processions and parades?  A strong theme we are familiar with in abusive relationships could be mined; as power inequalities grow what contributes to the weaker partner revising acceptable behavior downward instead of severing the partnership?   Why could the Pope, and his Vatican staff, not see the damage to all of Italy done by the bargain they kept re-making?

Such a play might be along the lines of A Man For All Seasons (with no one as noble as More is made out to be,) or something similar to the currently popular Wolf Hall, with Henry VIII, Cromwell, More, Tyndale and others pressing, ordering, lying, dying over matters of church and state, loyalty and conscience, fear and sacrifice.  In fact, I’d bet the drive for power and the maps of decisions made in all of these, look very similar, and that we can see them operating today in many places around the world.