The Pope and Mussolini

The Pope and Mussolini; The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David Kertzer. Random House, 2014.

In 1922, Achille Ratti was elected Pope and became Pius XI. That same year Benito Mussolini led a mob of Italian fascist in a “march on Rome.” Whereupon King Emanuel lll asked Mussolini, il Duce, to form a government. David Kertzer has chronicled the complicated diplomacy between the Papacy and Mussolini’s regime. This ‘dance around Italian political power’ occurred in the shadow of the National Socialists triumph in Germany.

Kertzer concludes that Pius played a crucial role in the making of Mussolini’s dictatorship and then in helping him stay in power. Pius also understood that, in the interests of the Holy Church, he needed to reign in the leftish political activity of the Catholic priesthood. In exchange for that support, Mussolini agreed to the restoration of privileges which the Papacy and the Catholic Church had lost in the revolutionary activities surrounding the unification of Italy in 1870.

Prior to his election to the Papacy, Ratti had taken a diplomatic post in Poland. There, according to Kertzer, he picked up a mild dose of anti-Semitism – or perhaps better said, his Polish experienced buttressed the anti-Semitism long a part of Church teaching. In Poland he apparently also nurtured his strong dislike of Bolshevism. The threat which Soviet Communism poised to Europe including his Italy became a life-long obsession.

Ratti, now back in Italy and Pope, had initial apprehensions about Mussolini’s National Fascist Party. Many of the membership were thugs, and took it upon themselves to club to death il Duce’s political rivals, including the leadership of the Catholic Popular Party. Pius also recognized the growing fascist dictatorship that Mussolini was building.

Much of the negotiations between Pope and Dictator were carried on through the office of the Papal Secretary of State. It mattered who held this office, always a priest of course, but also somewhat independent of the Papacy. Kertzer believes that the Pope’s dismissal of Pietro Gasparri and his replacement by Eugenio Pacelli was a significant move. Pacelli had been the Papal nuncio to Germany and was in favor of a settlement with the National Socialists to end their assault on the Roman Church in Germany.

One of the more important moments in this always evolving relationship between the Papacy and the Italian State was the Lateran Accords of February 1929. Not a religious person, il Duce understood that many Italians were. Open conflict with the Pope was not in the best interests of his broad program of social and political reform.

According to Kertzer the Accords put the Catholic Church in the pro-fascist camp. In exchange for security from interference with Catholic institutions, the Pope agreed to silence Mussolini’s critics within the Church. That included clerical opposition to Mussolini’s Abyssinian conquest in 1932 and later his invasion of neighboring Albania. Pius opposed both wars, but generally the Papal staff either talked him into moderation or in some cases edited the Pope’s written statements before their publication. The Italian public loved these wars. Were they not the beginning of a new Roman Empire?

One of the favors that Pius asked of Mussolini was that he temper Adolf Hitler’s racial policies and dismiss Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg! Pius had signed a “concordat” with the National Socialists soon after Hitler became Chancellor, but had been unable to protect German clergy from being sent to the new concentration camp at Dachau.

Pius was also hoping that Mussolini could convince Hitler to change his mind about the Nazi definition of what constituted a Jew. The Nuremberg Laws did not recognize the conversion of a Jew to Catholicism as changing anything. Pius argued that with conversion, Jews becoming good Catholics – should make them safe from German racial policies.

Again the Papacy and the German and Austrian Catholic clergy remained silent for the most part with Anschluss, Hitler’s occupation of Austria. The crisis over Czechoslovakia? Mussolini claimed it was his proposal for the Czechoslovaks to give up their Sudeten border areas. He came back from Munich claiming that he had ‘brought peace in their time,’ taking credit for Hitler’s willingness to come to some accord. His boast was about as hollow as Neville Chamberlain’s similar claim.

It is interesting that Kertzer believes Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938 marks a turning point in racist policy in both countries. Pius Xl’s health was declining and also his resistance to racism. Mussolini had negotiated a treaty with Hitler creating the Berlin-Rome Axis two years previously, tying the Italian future to German foreign policy. Matters were set for an unmitigated disaster for Italy and for all of Europe.

Kertzer ends his narrative with Pius’s death in 1939. Mussolini is thrown out of office in July 1943 and dies ignominiously in ’45 while attempting flight to Switzerland. It might have been better to have continued the story at least through 1943 and il Duce’s exit. Particularly since Pius XII who succeeded Pius Xl in 1939, continued the Vatican’s accommodation to Mussolini, Italian fascism, and the German-Italian alliance.



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