“The Pope and Mussolini, The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” by David I. Kertzer
Micah Reader in April 2016 by Brenda Levenson
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Temple Micah.
The title of David Kertzer’s 2014 book, The Pope and Mussolini, suggests a union between the two men that a reader called “a deal with the devil.” The author’s large and well-documented volume generated a discussion that left no issue untouched, comments flying on all sides and at rapid pace.
Mussolini came to power in 1922, preceding Hitler by eleven years. Both men were elected through a legal vote. Kertzer’s portrait of Mussolini challenges our view of a clownish figure. Mussolini was in fact an intelligent man skilled at navigating the political arena, in spite of a sense of insecurity born from his lack of higher education and upper-class manners. A priapic, compulsive womanizer, Mussolini was not religious, but Pius XI believed that the country needed a strong man to lead it, and if he could get Mussolini to restore the influence of the Church in Italy, he was ready to legitimize the Fascist party and its leader.
World War I had brought political chaos to Italy. Socialism was tried and failed. Unemployment and poverty ruled. There was fear that the country may follow in the path of the recent Russian revolution. Fascism was seen as the solution. Pius XI had been warned of the movement’s violence and so his decision to support Mussolini surprised his entourage in the Vatican. “We have many interests to protect,” said the Pope, and so did Mussolini. Mussolini would have liked to keep Church and State separated, but instead his government restored the character of Italy as a Catholic Nation. The deal was that the Church would bring “order” among the various groups: Masons, Protestants and Communists among others. In return Mussolini “showered the Church with cash and privileges,” writes Kertzer.
The anti-Semitism of Pius XI was among the issues our group discussed. “The pope did nothing” to protect the 1% of Jews living in Italy, says Kertzer. It was Mussolini who urged Hitler to “stop persecuting the Jews, not the pope,” adds the author. Mussolini’s attempt was perhaps more political than humanitarian, as he expressed the fear that anti-Semitism might result in economic reprisals on the part of international Judaism and some Christians as well. Seven thousand five hundred Jews were sent to Auschwitz, few survived and six thousand Jews converted to Christianity, hoping for Church protection.
Pope Pius XI was succeeded by Pope Pius XII who was equally anti-Semitic and again did nothing to stop the persecution of the Jews although the label of “Hitler’s Pope” is perhaps incorrect. Our group speculated about what might have happened and how different the course of history would have been had the Popes stood up to Hitler.
The anti-Semitism of the Church was troubling to some, but popes have merely followed in the footsteps of the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine (5th century CE) who promulgated laws designed to separate Jews from the rest of the population. The goal to thus demonize the Jews in the eyes of their Catholic neighbors was effective. The papacy has nothing to do with religion, nor did the Crusades centuries ago, or the anti-abortion movement of our time. From its very beginning, the papacy has been and remains a political and financial institution.
That monasteries and convents provided refuge to Jewish children during the war surprised some of our readers as a paradox. However, it should be noted that the ulterior motive was that, should their parents not survive the war and thus not reclaim them, the children would be converted to Catholicism.
“The Pope and Mussolini, The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe” by David I. Kertzer was applauded as a book from which we all learned a great deal. A professor at Brown University, David Kertzer is an anthropologist and an historian.