A mesmerizing tale

by | Oct 20, 2014 | Book Reviews

The Pope and Mussolini
(The Secret History of Pius XI and
the Rise of Fascism in Europe)
David I. Kertzer
Random House, 2014
549 pages, $32

We are in the debt of prolific and award-winning author David I. Kertzer, the Paul Dupee, Jr. University professor of social science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, for this eye-opening and sobering account of history. This is a must-read for all seeking the indispensable truth concerning the critical, though controversial bond between Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator, and Pope Pius XI, the Vatican’s leader representing at that time, 300 million Roman Catholics.

It was Pope John Paul II who made possible this nearly decade in-the-making breakthrough study. He authorized in 2002 the open sharing of the Vatican’s Secret Archives of Pius XI papacy with full disclosure in 2006, along with Kertzer’s availability of the Italian government archives of the Central State Archive and that of the Italian Foreign Ministry.

In a mesmerizing tale, gradually drawing the reader deeper and deeper into a complex web disentangled and clarified by the skillful author, the inescapable conclusion emerges; clearly, the common notion that the Vatican opposed Mussolini’s anti-Jewish racial policies is debunked. The book’s impeccable academic standing of painstaking research with meticulous notes, ref lects the extraordinary care undertaken by Kertzer and his team, mindful of the great sensitivities of the discussed issues.

Though Pius XI and Mussolini are the main protagonists, the figure and impact throughout of Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli who in 1939 became the much-debated Pope Pius XII , hovers over the entire book.

The year 1922 brings fatefully and fatally together two unlikely men to rise to great power. Achilli Ratti, a priest and librarian appointed Archbishop of Milan, who in 1922 becomes Cardinal as well as Pope Pius XI in a surprise replacement for Pope Benedict XI. His partner to be, Benito Mussolini, a radical socialist leader transformed into Italy’s Fascist movement’s founder, prime minister, and dictator who would inspire Hitler’s own ascent into absolute power. Both Pius XI and Mussolini shared humble backgrounds, authoritarian personalities and disdain for both Communism and modernity represented by the French Revolution which they regarded as the tragic outcome of a Masonic-Jewish plot. The Protestants, too, were deemed a threat by Pius XI and his 1928 encyclical forbade interfaith dialogue, while dissolving Friends of Israel, an international Catholic organization focused on converting Jews when it sought to further aid its purpose by removing the deicide charge, the alleged drinking of Christian blood at the Passover ritual and the Good Friday liturgy reference to the “perfidious Jews.”

The Lateran Accords of 1929, based on mutual interests between Pius XI and Mussolini, ended Italy’s hostile church and state separation going back to 1861. A restored privileged Church presence in society’s institutions, with the Vatican reciprocated support for Mussolini as Catholic priests enhanced the Duce’s incredible personality cult in spite of persistent attacks on them by the manipulative leader. It was Cardinal Pacelli, who when elected Pope Pius XII , made sure that gravely ill Pius XI’s intended speech copies— finally somewhat disengaging from Mussolini’s racial policies—for the 10th anniversary of the Accords’ celebration, would disappear upon Pius XI’s death. The Germans vigorously campaigned for Pacelli’s election, “Mussolini’s most powerful ally in the Vatican.”

Two missed opportunities to stymie Hitler’s rise: Pope Pius XI’s support for Hitler in the March 1933 elections in spite of Germany’s Catholic bishops valiant opposition to Hitler, and Mussolini’s denied request to excommunicate Catholic Hitler following his 1938 invasion of Austria, Italy’s benign neighbor. Though the Vatican derided Nazism as neo-Paganism, it was indifferent to the bitter fate of fellow Jewish Italians who were for long an integral and important part of Italian society. In fact, Mussolini’s government utilized medieval anti-Semitic Church literature to impose harsh discrimination laws, driving many Jews to commit suicide or be baptized to escape persecution. A thousand Jews hiding in Rome’s Catholic facilities were transported to Auschwitz. Pope Pius XII ’s protest via Cardinal Maglione was not assertive enough. Most of the total 7,500 Italian Jews who were in Auschwitz perished.

—Rabbi Israel Zoberman is founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim.