Customer Reviews: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
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on February 13, 2014
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.

Church support was initially in harmony with Mussolini's own cult of the self, and then was expanded into other of his many crimes, including the unprovoked attacks on Ethiopia and Albania, the destruction of Italian democracy, not to mention the disgraceful Italian racial laws.

Throughout it all, Pius's protests seem of the trivial sort, for in truth his aim was to reestablish pre 1870 church ascendency, where there was no separation of church and state, all controlled by an all powerful RCC. It seems that this pope, like many popes before him, and Mussolini, and Hitler for that matter, had little tolerance for democracy...and the "rights of man"...which he openly ridiculed.

As Pius's doubts grew about Mussolini, we have the perspective of history to see it all blow up in his face. Kertzer follows him, as he lamely tried to undo the results of his own deeply immoral imprudences, only to be suppressed by a coterie of clerics, chief among whom was his own secretary of state, the future Pope Pius XII...the controversial Pacelli.

This is a powerful thesis, made most convincing by the thorough research to support it. There are 100 pages of footnotes. Kertzer's sources include the newly opened Vatican archives, the Italian state files of Mussolini, mistresses, family members; and diaries, correspondence, and literally thousands of pages of newspaper articles from all the key media outlets of the day, written and/or approved by the key operators.

It's an impressive work, and I think, believable. The reader will have to decide for himself or herself, for this serious attempt at an objective understanding of complex truth paints not a pretty picture of this pope, his era, and his minions. Kertzer writes in his Afterwards, that the usual Catholic conservative reaction will double down, as always, on the myth of a brave Vatican fighting against fascism. It's to be expected.

But change is afoot. I hope that Francis, with his exhortation on the poor, is taking the more democratic approach, and is interested to setting the record strait...balancing right and left...which Pius XI and XII, didn't. I hope so.
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VINE VOICEon 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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on February 7, 2014
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.

One figure who winds his way constantly through Kertzer's story is Eugenio Pacelli, Secretary of State under Pius XI, later Pius XII. His machinations would put Macchiavelli to shame. His canonization now seems to be but a matter of time; too bad the Vatican has abolished the office of the Devil's Advocate, because such a person today would have a field day with the material in this book.
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VINE VOICEon April 22, 2015
Well researched history that won its author a Pulitzer prize (and the day after I finished the book, at that!).Mr. Kertzer has made great use of recently released Vatican documents. The author uses literary conventions, such as foreshadowing, to make the way he presents his research more intriguing, and he has set things up with two antagonists/protagonists: Achille Ratti, who would become Pope Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini. In the middle of the book Eugenio Pacelli, who would succeed Ratti as pope, enters the tale and the author sets him up as a dark eminence.

Fascinating stuff.
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on October 2, 2015
Having grown up in Rome, with parents and grandparents who had lived during the Mussolini years, from the “March on Rome” to the end of WWII; having heard their many stories about “Il Duce“; and having watched various Italian movies about the war years; I was very interested in reading this recently published (2014) book.
Like most of the better educated Italians and, by the end by the war, like the vast majority of the Italian population, no one in my family appreciated Mussolini’s dictatorship, or his fascist ideas. Consequently, the stories that they told were not entirely objective or flattering towards “Il Duce“. I purchased the book for an unbiased description of the Mussolini character and of the times of his dictatorship.
I decided to write the review: perhaps the readers will appreciate the point of view of someone like myself who “almost” (that means through her closest older relatives) experienced the Mussolini times directly.
So let us start from the beginning.
First of all - before seeing the actual book, and based on the number of reviews by customers (209, as this review is being published) - I was pleasantly surprised to discover so much interest on the part of the American people in two individuals - the pope and Mussolini - who lived (1) during a period of history when most of us were not born, and (2) in a country located so far from the United States.
The Pope and Mussolini is about 550 pages long, of which 400 or so are dedicated to the actual narrative. The rest includes review excerpts from newspapers and magazines, maps of Rome and the Vatican and the “Cast of Characters” (prior to the narrative); some extensive notes, the bibliography and the index (following the narrative). There are many black and white photographs throughout, which enhance the narrative: it is always interesting to see the pictures of the individuals about whose lives and actions we are learning.
The book is very well written and very informative. It may at times provide more information than necessary, but Mr. Kertzer is such a good narrator that I just could not stop reading until I came to the very end.
Good is the idea of including a separate “Cast of Characters” - that is short biographies of the two title characters, as well as of Mussolini’s associates, and of members of the Church and the many other individuals mentioned in the narrative. These save the tedious effort of having to search through the 400 plus pages of the book, should one need to clarify the information about any such characters, for example, the date and place of birth.
The major emphasis is on the exchanges between (1) Mussolini and his closest associates and (2) the Pope and the rest of the Vatican; in other words, between a dictator with a humongous ego and the most powerful being on earth - the representative of God himself, the being who, through excommunication, can condemn the soul rather than the body, thus punishing the unfortunate individual till the end of time, not just the end of his/her life.
Most of the readers will be surprised how extensive and influential those exchanges were. Although, like most Romans, I was aware of the intrigues going on at the Vatican, I did not realize how involved Mussolini had been with the Church.
I was not entirely happy with the character description of Mussolini which, at least based on the feelings of many of his compatriots, seems far too positive: the man comes through as a reasonably well balanced individual. Even though self centered, he is still within the limits of normality. Mussolini was not within those limits. He was out of touch with reality and expected too much from his fellow citizens, for example, when trying to turn them into a population of heroes. Heroes are born not made, and rare in any population.
I do not agree with Mr. Kertzer, when he suggests that the Italians were “weak“, because they did not respond to Mussolini’s demands with the same enthusiasm as the Germans responded to Hitler‘s. Well, he does not actually state that they were weak, he indicates that this is what Mussolini believed. The Italians are not weak, in fact they were never afraid nor hesitated to fight for the right cause, for example, the country’s independence during the 19th century. But they did not believe in Mussolini. They recognized the unrealistic nature of his goals and did not try to accomplish those goals. What better proof for such conclusions than Italy’s (not Mussolini’s) decision to change sides (as decided by Mussolini) half way through the war - criticized by other nations, possibly justly so.
Unfortunately, when a dictator is in charge, the population has little opportunity to decide whether or not to go along with his decisions.
The final outcome - when both Hitler and Mussolini lost the war and died indecorous deaths (Mussolini certainly did) - confirms those conclusions. The support that the Germans gave to Hitler did not help him in the outcome of the war any more than the lack of support hindered Mussolini.
The description of the events immediately before, during and after Mussolini’s death, is probably short, when compared with he descriptions of other events. It leaves out many details which are important for a full understanding of Mussolini‘s personality and character: those events expose the man in his true image, not the image that he had tried to project: a man with the leadership qualities of Julius Cesar and Napoleon combined. It is unfortunate that Colonnello Valerio (Walter Audisio), and the other partisans likely responsible for Mussolini’s capture, execution and transportation to Piazzale Loreto, are hardly mentioned at all, not during the narrative, not in the “Cast of Characters“. They deserve the proper credit for putting an end to a dictatorship that should never have happened.
Many photographs were taken of the dead bodies of Mussolini and of other prominent fascist leaders, as displayed at Piazzale Loreto in Milan. The addition of at least one or two such photographs would have made the description of the conclusion of Mussolini’s life - when he reaped the results of the seeds that he had sowed during the previous twenty some years - more complete.
I agree with Mr. Kertzer regarding the lack of popularity of Pius XI. Although there was abundant published controversy about Pius XII during the 1960‘s and 70‘s, I never ever heard anything being said - good or bad - about this pope.
All in all - except for the very end - The Pope and Mussolini is a very good book, easy to read, informative and very well written. I learned a great deal from it…… , but I did not change my mind, definitely not my feelings, towards “Il Duce”.
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on March 31, 2014
There have been numerous books about the controversial papacy of Pius XII, formerly Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. His predecessor Pope Pius XI, whose papacy ran from 1922 to 1939, has received much less attention. This scholarly work by David Kertzer fills in the gaps and provides a great deal of useful information about Pius XI and his relationship with Benito Mussolini and the fascist government of Italy. As a relatively new cardinal, Achille Ratti was a compromise candidate for the papacy when Pope Benedict XV died in 1922. The beginning of his papacy as Pius XI coincided with the beginning of Mussolini's ascendancy. Kertzer in this well-researched and highly readable book makes clear that Pius XI and Mussolini needed each other almost from the beginning. Neither man liked the other but they shared many common values. They both abhorred parliamentary democracy as a form of government and they shared a deep-seated detestation of communism. Both were highly authoritarian in outlook and behavior. The Pope saw Mussolini as a means of restoring the position of the Catholic Church in Italian life and Mussolini realized that Pius XI's blessing was necessary for his fascist government to thrive and succeed in a country where the overwhelming majority of the population were Catholics.

From almost the beginning, Pius XI developed a back-channel method of communication with Mussolini using a Jesuit priest, Pietro Tacchi Venturi. Tacchi Venturi's personal life left much to be desired for a member of a religious order like the Jesuits. However, he was a devoted adherent of fascism from a very early stage and smoothed over the often rough relationship between Mussolini and the Pope to the extent that he often misrepresented the Pope's wishes during his personal interviews with the Duce. Tacchi Venturi's main obsession was a deep-seated anti-Semitism which even Mussolini found somewhat distasteful and inappropriate in the earlier years of their relationship.

The close relationship between the Pope and Mussolini culminated in the Lateran Accords of February 1929 and in the Concordat between the Vatican and the Italian state. The Accords restored the pope's authority over the small Vatican State. The Concordat established the Catholic faith as the state religion in Italy, made religious marriage mandatory and made religious education throughout the school system compulsory. In return, Pius XI ignored the thuggish and murderous activities of Mussolini's henchmen. Prominent non-fascist Italian politicians were often murdered in broad daylight and even clergy who would not cooperate with the fascists were subjected to extreme violence by fascist thugs. Pius XI, however, did not want to endanger the benefits that Mussolini conferred on the Church by criticizing the fascists for these actions. The barbaric methods used by the Italian army during the invasion of Ethiopia were likewise overlooked by the Pope. The lower clergy mistaking the Pope's silence for approval converted Mussolini's gratuitous attack on a helpless country into almost a religious cause. The book both describes and illustrates the clergy giving the fascist salute. The separation of Church and State disappeared so that being a good catholic and being a good fascist became virtually synonymous.

Pope Pius XI, however, increasingly realized with the passage of time that he had made a pact with the devil. The Pope greatly disapproved of Hitler because of his persecution of Catholics and the Catholic Church in Nazi Germany and tried, in vain, to get Mussolini to intervene with Hitler on the Church's behalf. Mussolini, however, tried to imitate Hitler in every way. As a result, he introduced a series of anti-Jewish laws in 1938 that were very similar to those introduced in Nazi Germany. These laws had a devastating effect on the tiny Jewish population of Italy who suddenly found that their children were thrown out of public schools, that they were deprived of their livelihoods and property and became increasingly likely to be assaulted by Fascist thugs. However, the Vatican made a secret deal with Mussolini to refrain from any criticism of the anti-Semitic laws in exchange for better treatment of Catholic organizations.

The anti-Semitic laws and their application eventually became too much for Pius XI to stomach in good conscience. In June 1938, Pius met with an American Jesuit, John LaFarge, who had written a book entitled Interracial Justice. Pius requested LaFarge to prepare a text against anti-Semitism. The Pope intended the text, which took a long time to reach his desk because of the obstructionist tactics of various Vatican clerics, to be the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas. The Pope had also prepared a speech condemning racism to be presented at the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords. By that time, however, the Pope was dying. Cardinal Pacelli, who has become the Vatican Secretary of State in 1930, was present when the Pope died and moved quickly at Mussolini's behest to remove the encyclical from the Pope's desk and hide it from view. The Pope's intended speech against racism was likewise destroyed at Pacelli's request and instigation. Only twenty years later, four months after Pacelli died, would Pope John XXIII release excerpts of the speech. However, according to Kertzer, he excised those passages that were most critical of the Fascist regime, presumably to protect Pacelli from the fully-justifiable accusation that he had buried the speech so as not to offend Mussolini or Hitler.

Mr. Kertzer paints a picture of Pius XI as a thoughtful man who found his relationship with Mussolini highly distasteful. However, the thousands of documents that Kertzer researched show clearly that without Pius XI's support Mussolini would have had a much tougher road to follow and that Mussolini dreaded any pronouncements from the Pope that could have undermined him. The Pope therefore had the power to at least limit Mussolini's activities. Regrettably, he failed to do so and therefore contributed to the disasters that followed in Italy and Europe after his death in 1939. After reading Kertzer's book one can deduce that Pius XI was a much better man that his successor, Pius XII, whose sympathy with the Fascists and Nazis and whose wish to avoid offending them are well documented in this book. Regrettably, however, Pius XI seems never to have used his immense moral authority to combat the evils of fascism.

This book fills in historical gaps and should be of great interest to readers interested in the turbulent years leading up to World War II.
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on May 4, 2014
Daniel Kertzer has written a careful history based on the Vatican's own archives as well as the archives of Mussolini's Fascist government. It is chilling. The conjunction of Catholic Vatican spiritual anti-Semitism with Mussolini's embrace of Hitler's racial anti-Semitism is deadly for the Jews of Rome.

I am afraid there will be blowback from Catholics who have been taught to venerate Pius XII who seems to be on track for sainthood. Pius XI and Pius XII were silent when they needed to speak out. They were the Vicars of Christ, the representative of Jesus Christ on earth, and they were silent. Jesus is a Jew and Christianized in infused to its very core with the Hebrew Bible. Christianity was, in early years, viewed as another sect of Judaism until Christianity became politicized. Dictators manipulated Christianity for their own purposes.

This book provides some insights into Mussolini himself and his original Fascist policies. His greed for power motivated him to ally himself with Hitler and the German NAZIs with consequences that challenge the consciences of us all.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon November 14, 2015
A generally solid book on the relationship between the Papacy and the Italian Fascist state. The basis for this book is a large volume of primary research in the Vatican and other Italian archives. The documentation is excellent. This is a narrative of a frequently tense collaboration between the Vatican and Mussolini's Fascist government. Kertzer tells this story primarily by describing the ups and downs of the relationship between Pius XI and Mussolini. The collaboration realized important objectives for both parties. The Vatican wanted a conservative, authoritarian, Catholic confessional state. The Fascists, or at least the most realistic Fascists led by Mussolini, wanted the Church to legitimize Fascist rule. Both sides got much of what they wanted. The Church received substantial state support, a certain amount of autonomy from the Fascist state, incorporation of Catholicism into the Fascist ideology,and deference to the Vatican in matters such as restricting Protestant proselytizing in Italy. Church support was crucial for legitimizing Fascist rule. While not a shotgun marriage, the Vatican-Fascist alliance had considerable strains, often induced by the increasing radicalization of the Fascist state. By the end of the 30s, Pius was increasingly concerned that he'd made a bad deal and his death probably saved Mussolini from considerable embarrassment.

A major theme, which Kertzer has discussed in prior books, is the vicious anti-Semitism of the Church. While Pius and some other Catholics ultimately couldn't stomach the pseudo-scientific racism of the Nazis, its clear from Kertzer's narrative that officially sponsored Catholic anti-Semitism played a major role in legitimizing the demonization of Judaism. Its also clear that Pius' concerns about Fascist anti-Semitism were prompted in part by concerns about the Fascists usurping prerogatives of the Church. Quite a few figures in the hierarchy, including Pius XII, didn't even possess these modest scruples.

This book has some defects. Kertzer is a competent, as opposed to, a good writer. The focus on the roles of Pius XI and Mussolini is understandable but tends to inappropriately emphasize the importance of their personalities. A broader focus on the behavior of the Church would have deepened the story. Kertzer doesn't provide some important context. The collaboration with the Church was part of a larger pattern of Fascist accommodation of powerful conservative institutions in Italian life - the monarchy, the Army, large landowners and industrialists. Similarly, the Church's support of authoritarian,confessional states was hardly restricted to Italy. This phenomenon occurred in Austria and Spain as well.
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on May 4, 2016
This book is basically an anti-Christian,character assassination by a secular militant who lays the problems of the world at the feet of the religious. It is very similar in tone to the John Cornwell Hitler's Pope book.The author asserts that in order to appease Italian Catholics Mussolini made a deal with the Pope in which the Vatican got everything it asked for, and in return the Pope endorsed fascism, [quote] "The pope had seen something in Mussolini he liked. Despite all their differences, the two men shared some 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".

In reality Pius XI had denounced fascist persecution.

In his 1935 book Sawdust Caesar: The Untold Story of Mussolini and Fascism George Seldes wrote a chapter on Mussolini and the Pope that stated "The Pope declared Catholicism and Fascism incompatible.Mussolini declared Fascism and Catholicism incompatible. Both are right. After two years of trying to render unto the Duce the things which are the Duce's and unto God the things that are God's, the real crisis had come and both sides realized that there can be no friendship between two opposing ideologies." Sawdust Caesar is a biography of Mussolini prior to WWII and so it does not have the politically correct neo-liberal filter that is inherent in our modern day media. At the time of the book’s writing, Mussolini was being touted as a legitimate leader throughout the world.

David Kertzer seems to be deliberately misrepresenting historical evidence for his own purposes.
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on July 9, 2015
I really enjoyed reading this book. As a history major and life-long history fan, I learned a great deal from this book. When I ordered it, I thought the book would be about Pope Pius XII, who had received so much criticism for turning his back on the Holocaust. But it was about his predecessor, Pius XI. Okay, I admit I had not read the full, long title of the book; I ordered it because it had won the Pulitzer Prize for history. The similarities between the two principal personalities--Pius XI and Mussolini--is striking. Both loved authoritarianism, and both despised democracy. Each ruled his domain as a feared tyrant. But Mussolini also despised the clergy. However, he quickly realized that, in Catholic Italy, he needed the support of the Vatican to shore up his political strength. And Pius XI wanted to end the Vatican exile and return political power, and money, to the church. So joining forces seemed a marriage made in Heaven. But it turned out to be a marriage made in Hell. This fascinating book details all the surreptitious twists and turns of this fragile relationship.

For much of the book, I struggled to keep the characters straight, since they are all names unfamiliar to me. The author helpfully placed at the front of the book a cast of characters. That would have been more helpful if I had read this in dead-tree format, but on the kindle version, it was not very practical to move back and forth between the cast of characters and the text. So, unless you are already familiar with the personalities of the Mussolini government and the Pius XI Vatican, I would recommend reading this in dead-tree version.
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