The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

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"This is the compelling story of Pope Pius XI's secret relations with Benito Mussolini. A ground-breaking work, based on seven years of research in the Vatican and Fascist archives by US National Book Award-finalist David Kertzer, it will forever change our understanding of the Vatican's role in the rise of Fascism in Europe.

Both Pope Pius XI and Mussolini came to power in Rome in 1922. One was scholarly and devout, the other a violent bully. Yet they also had traits in common. Both had explosive tempers. Both ...

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The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

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Overview

"This is the compelling story of Pope Pius XI's secret relations with Benito Mussolini. A ground-breaking work, based on seven years of research in the Vatican and Fascist archives by US National Book Award-finalist David Kertzer, it will forever change our understanding of the Vatican's role in the rise of Fascism in Europe.

Both Pope Pius XI and Mussolini came to power in Rome in 1922. One was scholarly and devout, the other a violent bully. Yet they also had traits in common. Both had explosive tempers. Both bristled at the charge of being the patsy of the other. Both demanded unquestioned obedience from their subordinates, whose knees literally quaked in fear of provoking their wrath. Both came to be disillusioned by the other, yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end.

The book unravels for the first time the key role played between pope and dictator by the shadowy Jesuit go-between, dubbed Mussolini's Rasputin. It also reveals the details of the secret agreement worked out by Mussolini with the pope's personal envoy, offering Vatican support for Italy's notorious, anti-Semitic 'racial laws'. And dramatic new light is shed on the controversial figure of Eugenio Pacelli, who (as Pope Pius XII) would later come to be idolized by some and reviled by others for his silence during the Holocaust. In his role as Vatican Secretary of State, Pacelli had to struggle to keep the pope's explosive temper from leading to a break with both Mussolini and Nazi Germany, as the Italian dictator increasingly embraced the German Fuehrer, whom Pius detested.

With the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI's papacy, the full story of the two men's relationship can now be told for the first time. It is an account that destroys the widely accepted myth of a heroic Church doing battle with the Fascist regime. On the contrary, as David Kertzer shows, Mussolini would not have been able to impose his dictatorship on Italy without the pope's support. In exchange, the pope expected Mussolini to use his repressive reach to enforce Catholic morality - and return the Church to a position of power in Italy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 10/21/2013
The 2002 public release of the archives of Pius XI’s papacy revealed a trove of historical treasures that Brown University professor Kertzer (The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara) found “irresistible.” He brings to life an intriguing and unlikely alliance of two powerful individuals, using extensive primary sources from both sides. Whether or not it was truly a partnership is suspect, but they undoubtedly needed each other’s cooperation. The reader is taken inside the papacy in incredible detail, exposing the Vatican’s inner workings, from the Pope’s schedule to what he kept on his desk, to the knife’s-edge particulars of dealing with Mussolini. The insidious way that Il Duce was able to create his dictatorship predates the rise of Hitler in Germany, though their stories possess remarkable parallels. Mussolini’s numerous love affairs offer interesting asides as the myriad intricacies of world-historical events like the Lateran Accords—which ended decades of antagonism between Italy and the Vatican, while establishing the latter’s sovereignty—play out. Kertzer unravels the relationship between two of 20th-century Europe’s most important political figures and does so in an accessible style that makes for a fast-paced must-read. 2 maps, 40 photos. Agent: Wendy Strothman, WJS LLC. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
“Much more attention has been given to the Vatican’s compromises and complicity with Hitler, but Kertzer tells a fascinating and tragic story of its self-interested support for Mussolini when he was vulnerable early on.”The New Yorker

“A compelling case that the Catholic Church should pay greater penance for its support of Mussolini and the rise of fascism . . . The Pope and Mussolini matches rigorous scholarship with a fair yet forceful prose voice. It is an impressive work of history.”The Daily Beast
 
“Vividly recounted . . . Kertzer had access to recently opened Vatican archives regarding Pius XI, and his thorough research goes a long way in overturning conventional notions about Catholic church resistance to Mussolini.”USA Today
 
“Captivating . . . the real Da Vinci Code—only it’s rigorously documented and far less implausible.”San Francisco Chronicle

“The papacy of Pius XI remained essentially a foil for discussing his successor. Kertzer’s excellent volume will change all of that. . . . From the outset of his new book, Kertzer deftly reconstructs the parallel lives of Achille Ratti, who became Pius XI, and of Benito Mussolini, both men whose beginnings do not point to the historic role that they began to play in 1922. The narration unfolds along the separate political, ideological, and institutional backgrounds of the Pope’s and Duce’s careers and brings up in fascinating detail the issues on which their interests converged and clashed. . . . Kertzer’s essential book reveals a window on this sordid history—a window that for a long time was shuttered, but will not be obscured anymore.”The New Republic
 
“Gripping storytelling . . . a book whose narrative strength is as impressive as its moral subtlety . . . Kertzer has uncovered a fascinating tale of two irascible—and often irrational—potentates, and gives us an account of some murky intellectual finagling, and an often startling investigation of the exercise of power.”The Guardian

“Stunning . . . remarkable . . . Kertzer authoritatively banishes decades of denial and uncertainty about the Vatican's relationship with Italy’s fascist state.”The Christian Science Monitor

“At once sweeping and nuanced . . . required reading for anyone with an interest in the Roman Catholic Church and early twentieth-century European history.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“David Kertzer has an eye for a story, an ear for the right word, and an instinct for human tragedy. They all come together in The Pope and Mussolini to document, with meticulous scholarship and novelistic flair, the complicity between Pius XI and the Fascist leader in creating an unholy alliance between the Vatican and a totalitarian government rooted in corruption and brutality. This is a sophisticated blockbuster.”—Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Revolutionary Summer
 
“A capstone on David Kertzer’s already crucial work, The Pope and Mussolini carefully and eloquently advances the painful but necessary truth of Vatican failure to meet its greatest moral test. This is history for the sake of justice.”—James Carroll, National Book Award–winning author of Constantine’s Sword

The Pope and Mussolini is a riveting story from start to finish, full of startling, documented detail, and nobody is better prepared to tell it than David Kertzer.”—Jack Miles, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of God: A Biography

“Wholly deserving—even demanding—the adjectives ‘groundbreaking,’ ‘courageous,’ and ‘captivating,’ The Pope and Mussolini decisively challenges the received narrative about Pius XI and the Fascist leader. The relationship, in short, was one not of hostility but of mutual dependence. David Kertzer’s conclusions are unflinchingly and conclusively proven, thanks to his profound and thorough research, scholarly authority, and narrative panache. This is a meticulously researched and crafted book, exquisitely written, fresh, mesmerizing, and enlightening.”—Kevin Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Harvard University

The Pope and Mussolini tells the story of two remarkable men, Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI, and Benito Mussolini, Duce of Fascism. Both demanded absolute obedience. Those who knew the pope called him ‘a block of granite’ and ‘cold as marble.’ The highest prelates trembled in his presence. Mussolini, swollen with his success, became ‘a statue’ who listened to no one. David Kertzer tells their stories in counterpoint as they could never have been told before. The opening of the Vatican archives in 2006 and the discovery of a vast archive of Mussolini’s spies in the hierarchy of the Vatican provide Kertzer staggering new evidence, and his wonderful portraits of everybody involved give this book the fascination of a great novel.”—Jonathan Steinberg, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History, University of Pennsylvania, and New York Times bestselling author of Bismarck

“David Kertzer, who pored through the recently opened Vatican secret files gives, us a ghastly history of the poisonous alliance between a weakened Vatican and an ambitious Mussolini. The Pope’s blessing gave Il Duce the needed credibility to take Italy and the Italian people where he wanted them to go. In exchange for that approval, the Fascists provided the Church with its only perceived bulwark against the forces of Communism and the modern age. Enter Hitler. I can imagine Machiavelli overseeing the manipulations on both sides and saying either ‘Well played’ or ‘You go too far’ or ‘Beware.’ David Kertzer has written a harrowing portrait of a ghastly union whose only by-product was the nightmare of World War II.”—John Guare, award-winning playwright and author of Six Degrees of Separation

“A thoroughly engrossing story with an ever-changing cast of fascinating characters . . . Like a couple in a loveless marriage, entered into for all the wrong reasons, Pius XI and Mussolini could not get free of each other. Mussolini hated priests. Pius XI swallowed his scruples about the Duce’s growing megalomania. Each reckoned that he had much to gain from the other. Beneath their endless squabbling about precedence, their continual posturing, Pius and Mussolini undermined and ultimately squandered the happiness of the millions who trusted them. Kertzer has written the definitive book on this tragic history.”—Richard S. Levy, professor of history, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and co-editor of Antisemitism: A History

“The author spares no toes in his crushing of the Church’s ‘comforting narrative’ around its relationship with Mussolini’s Fascist regime. . . . Kertzer is unflinching and relentless in his exposure of the Vatican’s shocking actions. . . . Deeply troubling revelations around Vatican collaboration with evil.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Kertzer unravels the relationship between two of twentieth-century Europe’s most important political figures and does so in an accessible style that makes for a fast-paced must-read.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-11-07
More deeply troubling revelations around Vatican collaboration with evil. With the unsealing of archives in 2006 concerning the papacy of Pius XI, Kertzer (Social Science, Anthropology and Italian Studies/Brown Univ.; Amalia's Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice, 2008, etc.) found the call to scrutinize them "irresistible." The author spares no toes in his crushing of the church's "comforting narrative" around its relationship with Mussolini's fascist regime. The signing of the Lateran Accord in 1929 between the Holy See and the dictator established the Vatican as sovereign territory and bound the Catholic Church and the regime to a new period of codependence. Having been elected to the papacy just as Italy was rocked by cataclysmic violence between fascists thugs and socialists, Pius XI and his advisers "began to question the wisdom of opposing Mussolini's crusade." While Mussolini had previously spoken out against the power and holdings of the church, and the fascists unleashed a campaign of beatings of priests and Catholic activists, Mussolini's sudden and opportunistic embrace of the church by 1922--for example, asking for "God's help" in his first address to parliament--charmed Pius into thinking he had an ally to bring the church more firmly back into Italian life, which had been challenged by modernism. Although Mussolini's increasing cultivation of cult status alarmed Pius, his minions and, indeed, the church organ extolled fascism for seeking to "place spiritual values once again in the place of honor they once occupied, especially as required by the battle against liberalism." Even Mussolini's suppression of the pope's darling Catholic Action youth groups did not fray collaboration between them to marginalize Italian Protestants and Jews, until Pius grew ill and it was too late to change course. Kertzer is unflinching and relentless in his exposure of the Vatican's shocking actions.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812993462
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/28/2014
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 48,844
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David I. Kertzer is the Paul Dupee, Jr. University Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, where he served as provost from 2006 to 2011. He is the author of nine books, including The Popes Against the Jews, which was a finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize, and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He has twice been awarded the Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies for the best work on Italian history. He and his wife, Susan, live in Providence, Rhode Island.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter one

A New Pope

Outside the Vatican gate, a small crowd gathered, applauding the black sedans as they slowly made their way inside the medieval wall. In recognition or appreciation, or simply from habit, each arriving cardinal waved a hand in ecclesiastical benediction from his backseat. Standing on either side of the gate was a harlequin-clad Swiss Guard, his white-gloved hand raised to his gleaming helmet in salute. A little later, once the last cardinal had found his room in the Apostolic Palace, six officials scurried through the long, cold halls, each swinging a bell. A voice shouted "Extra omnes!" as the last of the outsiders exited. Clutching a massive antique key chain, a Chigi prince, the conclave's ceremonial marshal, locked the heavy door from the outside. Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the chamberlain, locked it from within. The windows were sealed. It was Thursday, February 2, 1922. The doors would not open again until there was a new pope.

Only two weeks earlier a persistent cough had begun to bother Pope Benedict XV. Although he was a small, frail man who since childhood had walked with a limp--the Vatican gossips called him the "little one"--he was not old and had enjoyed good health during his seven years on St. Peter's throne. But what began as bronchitis quickly turned into pneumonia, and the sixty-eight-year-old Benedict took last rites. The next afternoon, lying on his simple iron bed, he lost consciousness. The following morning, January 22, he was dead.

Giacomo Della Chiesa had been an unusual choice when the genial but repressive Pius X died in 1914, just as the Great War began. When the fifty-two cardinals assembled in late August that year to elect a successor, Della Chiesa had been a cardinal for only three months. Born to an aristocratic but far-from-wealthy family, respected for his intelligence and good judgment, he did not look the part of a pontiff. Although dignified in bearing, and courtly in manners, he was undersized, with a sallow complexion, an impenetrable mat of black hair, and prominent teeth. Everything about him seemed slightly crooked, from his nose, mouth, and eyes to his shoulders.

As a young priest, Della Chiesa worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State, which deals with the Holy See's relations with governments around the world. There he made his way through the ranks until 1913, when he was sent to Bologna to become its archbishop.

Some believed that Della Chiesa's departure from the Vatican was the work of Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, Pope Pius X's secretary of state and his main partner in the crusade to stamp out any sign of "modernism" in the clergy. Pius X worried that modern ideas were replacing the Church's centuries-old teachings. Particularly noxious, in the pope's view, were beliefs in individual rights and religious freedom, along with the heretical notions that church and state should be separated, and that faith should come to terms with the lessons of science. Believing Della Chiesa to be too moderate, Merry del Val wanted him far from the seat of Church power.

On the tenth ballot, Della Chiesa reached--just barely--the two-thirds vote required. One of Merry del Val's fellow hard-liners, Cardinal Gaetano De Lai, humiliated the new pope by demanding that his ballot be examined to ensure that he had not voted for himself.

Pius X had died at a frightening time for Italians, but his successor's death, in 1922, came amid even greater unrest. Many feared that revolution could erupt at any moment, although they differed on whether it was more likely to be sparked by the socialists or the fascists. The Great War, which the elite had hoped would help unify the...

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