The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer. (Random House, 592 pp. hardcover.)
There are few scholars more able than David I. Kertzer to examine the response of the Vatican to the rise of fascism in Italy and its support for the Third Reich in the early years of Hitler’s dictatorship. A professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, Kertzer won the Pulitzer Prize for The Pope and Mussolini. Drawing on the opened Vatican archives covering Pius XI’s papacy, this invaluable book sheds light on the pope’s early support for Mussolini as well as the Vatican’s institutional culture of anti-Semitism that condoned not only Mussolini’s 1938 racial laws but also ignored the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the decade before World War II.
Achille Ratti, who became Pius XI in 1922, was a strong believer in the binding force of written documents, and he signed during his papacy concordats with fascist Italy in 1929 and Nazi Germany in 1933. Ratti, like most of the Vatican hierarchy, was no friend of democratic government, and in Mussolini, he viewed a leader who would restore Catholicism to its rightful place. As for the Jews, the Vatican was comprised of church officials whose anti-Semitism ranged from mild (as was Pius XI’s) to virulent. Pius XI largely agreed with the Vatican worldview that Jews, liberals and communists sought to undermine people’s faith in the one true religion.
As both Mussolini and Hitler subsequently violated provisions of the concordats, Pius XI became increasingly distrustful of both leaders. Unlike many of his advisors who feared a break with Mussolini, Pius XI believed that far from being movements that confronted the world-wide Jewish conspiracy and communism, both fascism and Nazism were dangerous pagan ideologies.
As Pius XI commenced to speak out against both ideologies, Vatican officials, including Vatican Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, attempted to weaken the pope’s criticism. All of this came to a head in the final years of Puis XI’s life when, against the increasing persecution of the Jews in Germany and in Italy, the pope, speaking before a group of Belgian pilgrims, attacked the ideology of Aryan supremacy, stating “we are the spiritual offspring of Abraham.… We are spiritually Semites.”
Before his death in 1939, Pius XI authorized John LaFarge, an American priest, to draft an encyclical that would have attacked Nazi racism and anti-Semitism, Humani Generis Unitas (“The Unity of the Human Race”). Pacelli, however, appointed two conservative church officials to join LaFarge to temper the essence of the encyclical and it was never completed. The future Pius XII, fearful that Mussolini would be outraged about the document, buried it in the Vatican archives until its discovery in 1972 and subsequent publication in 1997.
Kertzer’s book also sheds light on the politics and personality of Pius XII, who sought to protect Catholic institutions and traditions at all costs, using his office to appease the forces of fascism and Nazism, thus avoiding condemning murderous policies that led to the Shoah.