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The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 28, 2014

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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.

 

From Booklist

Two leaders came to power in 1922 in Rome, Achille Ratti was elevated to the papacy as Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini was appointed Italian prime minister. How relations between them developed until the pope’s 1939 demise occupies this original history, which rests on Kertzer’s thorough research of available Vatican archives and other sources. His main line of inquiry, the degree of support Pius XI accorded to Mussolini, guides Kertzer’s narrative, which begins with Mussolini’s opportunistic about-face from anticlerical socialist to Catholic-tolerating nationalist. Papal approval during the 1920s, when Mussolini’s regime survived political crises, received its reward in 1929 with the Lateran Accords that reestablished the Vatican as an independent state. Although he finds points of conflict between Pius XI and Mussolini, Kertzer underscores affinities between the Catholic Church and the fascist state, which may arouse controversy. Was the church as acquiescent to Mussolini’s persecutions of Jews as Kertzer portrays? In any event, he adduces evidence that Pius XI seems to have regretted his tacit alliance with Mussolini. An important work of history, Kertzer’s adroit profiles of Pius and Mussolini will broaden its audience. --Gilbert Taylor
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (January 28, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812993462
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812993462
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.9 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (189 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #59,753 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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81 of 93 people found the following review helpful By Brendan Moody VINE VOICE on December 25, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The title of David Kertzer's new book is technically accurate, in that many of the details revealed here were not public knowledge until recently, but it suggests a level of shocking intrigue on which the book doesn't necessarily deliver. Readers who imagine the Catholic Church of the mid-twentieth century to have been benign and apolitical will be surprised to discover the wheeling and dealing of Pius XI's Vatican, and the reactionary attitudes that made an alliance with Mussolini's fascism seem a reasonable option. (Of course, there was more at work than ultra-conservative ideas, and Kertzer's treatments of the rise of Fascism and of the uneasy Italy/Vatican relationship explain well the pragmatic aspects of the alliance.) Those who expect large institutions, religious or otherwise, to fall short of their ideals will be less amazed, and may find Kertzer's solid, detailed, and carefully-supported account a touch on the dry side: despite chapter titles like "Assassins, Pederasts, and Spies," it can be slow going at times. But the frank portraits of grand ambition and petty "office politics" are frequently striking. I might quibble with Kertzer's use of government spy reports as sources: like many scholars using similar material, he acknowledges the issues of bias and gossip that render them questionable and suggests interpretive caution, but tends not to exercise that caution in specific cases. That aside, though, this is a balanced account, critical but never unduly so, and a fine study of an unpleasant chapter in history.
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50 of 56 people found the following review helpful By R. Bono on February 13, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I saw a PBS interview of the mild mannered academic researcher, and read his book which I found to be carefully researched, thorough, and insightful. It took seven years to write. Kertzer, in my opinion, did not do a "hit job" on the pope. If there is a hit job, it was done by the pope to himself, and not incidentally, to the Italian people. But the reasons are revelatory.

Pius XI's withdrawal of support of the center Catholic party, made Mussolini's reign possible, which the dictator readily acknowledged. In fact he couldn't believe his good fortune, that his chief opposition would cave. With this tacit backing, all other political parties were destroyed by the thug black shirts. Pius XI, as enabler, was more comfortable with a dictator, who like himself, demanded absolute obedience. Mussolini was "the man of Providence", to use Pius's words. Pius was happier with a dictator than he ever could be with a democrat, or anyone on the left. If the reader is uncomfortable with this idea, be forewarned, for it is very well documented.

Additionally, the author presents a very acute discussion of the difference between German and Italian attitudes towards Jews....both anti-Semetic. One, the Nazi, purely being race based; the other, the Italian, being behavior based. How all this got mixed with with nationalism, politics...and historically, with religion, is an important thread of the book. In fact, it was those same ancient (now renounced) historic sources of anti-Semitism of the RCC, which were part of what gave Mussolini legitimacy, as he used church support for his particular strain of anti-Semitism.
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56 of 70 people found the following review helpful By Craig Howell on February 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
I heard Mr. Kertzer speak in DC a few nights ago, purchased the book, and read it right through in just a couple of days. It is a gripping, well-told, well-documented and largely appalling story that should be read by anybody interested in the origins of World War II and in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. Pius XI and Mussolini each had their own reasons for supporting each other, but in the end it was a disaster for everybody concerned. The Pope was blinded by his own lust to regain the stranglehold he once had over the Italian people, a dominance which was lost once the Papal States were absorbed into a united Italy in 1870. He and the rest of the hierarchy were obsessed with the supposed dangers of democracy, Protestantism, separation of church and state, the imaginary world-wide Jewish Conspiracy that somehow controlled both Communism and Capitalism, freedom of thought and association, Freemasonry, etc. etc. and were more than eager to let a ruthless totalitarian state help the Catholic Church regain its old glories. Mussolini, for his part, needed the visible backing of the Vatican to maintain the loyalty of Italy's Catholic faithful. Kertzer's book fully describes the rise and fall of this unholy alliance.

Though the author spent seven years in research for this book through previously secret records from the Vatican and other sources, I am amazed by just how much of the sordid story has been a part of the public record all along. If there has been controversy among historians and others over just how much support the Vatican provided Mussolini, much of it must be because of a refusal in some quarters to admit the all-too-real fallibility of the political judgments of the Catholic Church.
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