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Captivating book examines Mussolini and Pope Pius XI

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The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
David I. Kertzer

Although the slaughter we call war has been a constant of human history, the first half of the last century may well be regarded in the infinite horizons of the future as the most gruesome period of time through which humanity lived and suffered. 

The war to end all wars between 1914 and 1918, alas, did no such thing. It was merely the melancholy precursor to the unimaginably horrific killing that began in Europe in the mid-1930s, swept across the world like red, hot fire destroying dry sage and that stopped, if only officially, in 1945.

Europe was then a nasty, boiling stew of demagogic politics, seething resentments, economic fears, exploitative finger-pointing, xenophobia and vile scapegoating.  The black-shirted Fascists of Italy, led by Benito Mussolini, were among those who lit the flame and ensured the cauldron would boil without cease or relent.

Mussolini was an intriguing individual.

A man of massive vanity but empty of moral substance, haughty ways but low education, pompous bearing but crude character, he mesmerized most of his countrymen for more than two decades. He abolished parliamentary democracy, beat up political opponents, and in some cases had them killed, ruled by intimidation and brutishness, enacted grotesque “racial laws”, despised the Church and its encumbering moralities and yet gained the loyalty, if not also the affection, of a majority of his countrymen. 

In the early 1920s Adolf Hitler considered Mussolini his mentor. (The Nazi pupil, we know, would vastly surpass the Fascist teacher in devising fiendishly evil plans.) Mussolini and his squadristi (gangs) of bullies and henchmen led their country to national ruin and shame.

That a thug could reach the pinnacle of political power in his country has many examples, ancient and modern.  Rule by gun and truncheon can be very effective. But a structure built by fear eventually crumbles underneath the weight of its own cruelty.

What has intrigued historians and has been the subject of argument and discussion over the years is the extent to which the Vatican opposed or aided him. Did the leadership of the Catholic Church in Italy inveigh and rail against the aggressive, roughhouse policies of Il Duce? Did they seek an accommodation with the dictator, as a way of lying low, so to speak, until the storm passed? Or did they actively and deliberately try to harness the storm, steering its wild winds away from causing harm to the clerical edifice they ruled?

In The Pope and Mussolini, Kertzer, a historian at Brown University, offers a definitive answer.

“The Vatican played a central role both in making the Fascist regime possible and in keeping it in power,” Kertzer writes. “Far from opposing the treatment of Jews as second-class citizens, the Church provided Mussolini with his potent arguments for adopting just such harsh measures against them.  The Vatican made a secret deal with Mussolini to refrain from any criticism of Italy’s infamous anti-Semitic ‘racial laws’ in exchange for better treatment of Catholic organizations.”

Not all the leaders of the Vatican were equally culpable in this enterprise. Indeed, Pope Pius XI grew increasingly to distrust Mussolini and regret his accommodations with him. It was his hope, as a last act before he died in 1939, to set the record straight and to unburden his conscience regarding  Mussolini’s “Un-Christian” policies with a specially written encyclical. But even this last act was thwarted by his fellow clerics who refused to distribute it.

Kertzer is uniquely qualified to write about the Vatican’s relationship with Mussolini. The author of nine books, Mussolini and the Pope follows upon Kertzer’s previous work, The Popes Against the Jews. In that book Kertzer examined the larger, equally delicate and difficult subject of how doctrinal Vatican teachings contributed to the proliferation of modern anti-Jewish sentiments.

In researching these books,  Kertzer relied upon the previously sealed Vatican archives for his primary material. Indeed it was the recently canonized Pope John Paul II himself who unsealed that period of Vatican archives and who invited Kertzer to examine the vast library of documents and to draw the appropriate conclusions from them.

Faithful to the pope’s instructions, Kertzer followed the evidence and  pulled no punches in both books.

For The Pope and Mussolini, Kertzer  spent more than seven years in archival research, which included poring over previously sealed Vatican documents and thousands of pages of Italian, French, British, American and German diplomatic correspondence, diaries and memoirs.

Afterwards Kertzer could write:  “That the Duce and his minions counted on the men around the pope to keep Pius XI’s increasing doubts about Mussolini and Hitler under control is a story embarrassing for a multitude of reasons, not least the fact that the central player in these efforts was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the man who would succeed Pius XI…. With the opening in 2006 of the Vatican archives covering this dramatic period, the full story of these years, in all its richness, emotional highs and lows and surprises can finally be told.”

 The Pope and Mussolini is a captivating work told with a scholar’s attention to detail and the narrative skill of a journalist. Kertzer lets the documents and the words written more than 75 years ago tell the story that history, morality and truth demand be told.

This was Pope John Paul II’s wish.  Kertzer has honoured the late pontiff’s wishes with solemn clarity

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