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.
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