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How a Pope Helped Mussolini Rise to Power

And tried to stop him before it was too late

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

“Since those heady years of the Second Vatican Council, both Pope John XXIII and the Council itself have become controversial among those in the Church who yearn for the old days.” Thus starts the final paragraph of David Kertzer’s new book. He continues: “Pius XII has become their hero, defender of the Church’s eternal verities. Meanwhile, his predecessor, Pius XI, remains all but forgotten.” Indeed, even the opening in 2006, under John Paul II, of a great part of the Vatican archives dealing with the papacy of Pius XI, which ran from 1922 to 1939, seemed only to add fuel to the controversy surrounding Pius XII, since Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli had been the secretary of state of Pius XI throughout the 1930s and the new documents allowed a better scrutiny of the origins of his wartime policies. The papacy of Pius XI remained essentially a foil for discussing his successor.

Kertzer’s excellent volume will change all of that: Pius XI will not be “all but forgotten” anymore. The Pope and Mussolini is the natural sequel to the author’s preceding studies of the Catholic Church’s massive contribution to modern anti-Semitism: 
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and The Popes Against the Jews. 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.

Yet there is a beginning before the beginning. In his prologue, Kertzer turns to Pius’s last days. The dying pope had convened a solemn meeting of bishops in St. Peter’s Basilica for February 11, 1939. There, his entourage feared, he planned to lash out at Mussolini’s policies. The text of the papal speech was ready, but would the pontiff have the strength to deliver it? Would he even live long enough? Pius ordered the text to be printed in hundreds of copies for distribution to the bishops, if need be. On February 10, the Pope died. Mussolini was relieved: the speech, of which he had been informed by his spies, would not be delivered. But what about the printed copies? There was a man at the highest level of the Vatican hierarchy who understood the need to calm the waters (and on whom Mussolini could rely): he was the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. Pacelli, Kertzer reports, “ordered the pope’s desk cleared, the printed copies of his speech seized.” And three weeks later, Cardinal Pacelli was elected pope and took the 
name Pius XII.

Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis

Kertzer’s larger argument is that from the outset, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Pius XI and Mussolini needed each other: this was “the fatal embrace,” which the Vicar of St. Peter’s certainly welcomed. In immediate political terms, both men seemed to benefit from the collusion, but by the 1930s, the Church was increasingly caught in a vise, as it was forced to accept moral and political compromises that Pius XI had not foreseen. During the last years of his life, he tried to resist, but both his health and the political leanings of his powerful advisers derailed his efforts. The outcome would become fully visible under his successor.

Achille Ratti was no liberal. His choice of the papal name Pius XI stressed the continuity between his pontificate and those of Pius IX and Pius X, the apostles of anti-modernism and arch-conservatism, the opponents of democracy, and the proponents of religious anti-Semitism as regularly expressed in the shrillest terms in the Roman Jesuits’ bimonthly La Civiltà Cattolica, directly supervised by the Vatican. Ratti himself gave vent to his own anti-Semitism during his mission to postwar Poland, in his frequent reports from Warsaw on the alleged Jewish danger. And 
although his election to the papacy had been opposed by the most conservative cardinals, his elevation did not denote a major difference in outlook. It meant, in fact, the readiness for a rapprochement with the new Italian government headed by Benito Mussolini and his Fascist party, notwithstanding the anti-clerical past of the Duce and the frequent acts of violence against Catholic institutions perpetrated by Fascist militias.

“The pope,” writes Kertzer, “had seen something in Mussolini he liked. Despite all their differences, the two men shared some important values. Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat. Both thought Italy was mired in crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” Pius XI expected the new regime to help the Church re-assert its influence in Italian society, while Mussolini relied upon the Vatican’s support to legitimize his own rule in Italy and in the wider world. Confidential conversations soon started, and during the next two decades Mussolini would often receive the man chosen by the Pope as the Vatican’s go-between, the elderly Jesuit 
Pietro Tacchi Venturi.

In a vivid style, Kertzer describes the ups and downs of the ensuing relations between the pontiff and the dictator. They reached a high point, advantageous for both sides, in the Lateran Accords of February 11, 1929 and in the concordat between the Vatican and Italy of the same date. The accords gave back to the papacy what it had lost in 1870, when the kingdom of Italy seized the remains of the papal states in Rome. From 1870 on, the popes had considered themselves prisoners inside their Vatican buildings, refusing to recognize the validity of the new situation and avoiding all contact with Italian governments. The Lateran agreements restored the temporal authority of the pope over a state, small in size but sovereign, the Vatican state. Italy, like any other country, had to rely henceforth on full diplomatic relations with the papal state in order to maintain official ties with it. The confidential channels of communication remained essential, of course.

The concordat recognized the Catholic faith as the state religion in Italy, ensured religious education throughout the school system, made religious marriage mandatory, and guaranteed the free activity of Catholic Action (the national Catholic laypersons organization). At first glance the Pope reaped most of the advantages from the Accords, but only at first glance. After all, Mussolini could henceforth rely on the Holy See’s support of his regime and his policies—a priceless benefit in a deeply Catholic country. What it meant tangibly would soon be apparent. In the aftermath of the concordat, the papacy would have too much to lose were it to break with the regime over such policies as the continued harassment of Catholic Action, the attack on Abyssinia and the barbaric warfare methods of the Italian army, the embracing of Hitler’s Germany, and, ultimately, in the autumn of 1938, the announcement by Italy of anti-Semitic laws that were a close copy of the Nazi legislation about the Jews.

It was in the course of this evolution that the full scale of Pius XI’s predicament became clear. Kertzer describes it meticulously. Pius had a strong personality; he displayed an authoritarian streak and did not shy away from angry outbursts from the very beginning of his papacy—in the 1920s, nobody in the Curia would have dared to obstruct Pius’s policies. But this changed in 1930, when Pius replaced his old and servile secretary of state with Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the former nuncio in Germany. The aristocratic Pacelli brought to his new position vast diplomatic experience, a supple mind, and a devotion to the interests of the Church that led him to prefer at times extreme compromise with Mussolini’s regime and also with Hitler’s Germany. Lesser members of Pius’s entourage shared Pacelli’s views, so that when the major crisis of the pontificate arose in 1938 and Pius decided to take a stand, he did not find support among his closest advisers. (Some of them, incidentally, had also a personal interest in not angering Mussolini, lest Italian newspapers be induced to spread information about the pederasty that was rife among senior figures of the Vatican, which Kertzer discovered in Italian police files.)

A criminal dimension pervaded Mussolini’s regime from the very outset, becoming particularly apparent in the violence used against his political enemies. Yet anti-Semitism, which was part and parcel of the ideology of all European fascist or extreme right-wing movements, played no major role in Italian fascism until the late 1930s. The first of Mussolini’s quasi-official mistresses, Margharitta Sarfatti, was Jewish. Of course, the increasingly close relations between Italy and Nazi Germany were a sinister portent, particularly for Italy’s Jews—but well before Nazism came to play the decisive role in Italy’s anti-Semitic turn, it was the Church, particularly the Vatican, that prodded the Duce in that direction. Thus, in Kertzer’s words, “the charge that Jews were the evil force behind a worldwide conspiracy against Christianity and European civilization had long been heard in the Vatican; the Jesuits of La Civiltà Cattolica were among its most avid proponents.” And further: “The belief in a worldwide conspiracy of Jews, Masons and Protestants was not one that Mussolini shared at the time [1925], but in the next years the pope’s Jesuit emissary Tacchi Venturi would employ all his powers to persuade him to see the world in these terms.”

Both Ratti, during his postwar mission in Warsaw, and Pacelli, as nuncio in Munich at the time of the communist revolution, became convinced of the decisive role of Jews in Bolshevism. Yet notwithstanding this common stand, the Pope and his secretary of state could not ignore the vicious campaign against the Catholic Church that had started in Nazi Germany in the mid-’30s. The systematic harassment of priests on charges of currency trafficking and immorality represented a direct violation of the concordat between Berlin and the Holy See that was signed in 1933. The Vatican had to react. Secretary of State Pacelli was in favor of sending a pastoral letter to Hitler, to be shared only with the German episcopate, but his boss decided on the much more drastic step of an encyclical written in German to be read in the churches. Pacelli had to follow along. On Palm Sunday, March 21, 1937, the famous encyclical Mit brennender Sorge (“With Deep Anxiety”) was read from all pulpits in Germany. It denounced the Nazi persecution of the Church and the regime’s neo-paganism. But it soon became clear that there were growing divergences between Pius, who was incensed by Hitler’s racial ideology and policies, and his entourage headed by Pacelli, which aimed at reining him in, lest repeated attacks against the Nazi leader could harm his ally Mussolini in the eyes of the Italians. In Kertzer’s words, “Cardinal Pacelli remained Mussolini’s most powerful ally in the Vatican.”

In June 1938, while Europe seemed to be hurtling toward war owing to Hitler’s threats against Czechoslovakia (Austria had been annexed to the Reich in March of that same year), the Führer made his second state visit to Italy. It is probably then that he convinced Mussolini to adopt anti-Jewish legislation similar to that of the Reich, so as to eliminate ideological discrepancies between the two regimes. And so it was: the Italian “Manifesto on Race” was published on July 14, and the first laws against the Jews of Italy followed in early August. The full anti-Semitic legislation was announced in early September.

At first the Pope seemed to accept the anti-Jewish campaign. According to a memorandum conveyed to Mussolini by Tacchi Venturi on August 6, Pius appeared gravely concerned first and foremost about the continued harassment of members of Catholic Action by the regime. Regarding the Jewish question, the Pope recognized that “it was up to the nation’s government to take those opportune measures in this matter in defense of its legitimate interests.... It is Our intention,” he added, “not to interfere with them.” But, as Kertzer notes, “the pope felt duty-bound to appeal to 
Mussolini’s ‘Christian sense’ and warn him ‘against any type of measures that were inhumane and unchristian.’ ”

On August 16, an agreement was reached between Tacchi Venturi and Mussolini pledging that Catholic Action would not be hindered any more in its activities. As for the Jews, Mussolini promised that “the new anti-Jewish laws would be no harsher than those that the popes themselves had imposed for centuries on the Jews.” The agreement was published on August 25. “Encouraged by his advisors,” Kertzer observes, “the pope was gradually making his peace with the deal that Tacchi Venturi had made with Mussolini.” Yet Pius’s determination to fight racial ideology of the Nazi type remained undiminished, and ultimately it influenced his attitude toward Mussolini’s policies as well.

In June 1938, Pius demanded to meet the American Jesuit John LaFarge, the author of Interracial Justice, who was visiting Rome. When they met in July, the Pope, unbeknown to Pacelli, asked LaFarge to prepare a text (it was to become an encyclical) against racism and anti-Semitism. An overwhelmed LaFarge submitted the Pope’s demand to the General of the Jesuits, Tadeusz Ledochowski, possibly the most radical anti-Semite in the higher ranks of the Vatican. Ledochowski could not oppose Pius’s demand, though he declared that the Pope had gone mad—and he added two more “experienced” Jesuits to help LaFarge. By September, the draft of the encyclical was ready. It was forwarded to Ledochowski,who chose to submit it for advice to the editor-in-chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, Father Enrico Rosa, who could fairly be considered Ledochowski’s match in virulent anti-Semitism.

There the text rested for weeks on end. The Pope, however, did not remain inactive. In early September 1938, Pius declared to the staff of Belgian Catholic radio, during an audience: “It is impossible for Christians to participate in anti-Semitism.... Spiritually we are all Semites.” This was too much for the papal entourage: L’Osservatore romano mentioned the Pope’s remarks but not his words in defense of the Jews. “How exactly Pacelli and his undersecretary, Domenico Tardini, had ensured that the Vatican newspaper ignored the pope’s explosive remarks remains a mystery,” Kertzer notes, and he adds that “most of the pages from Pacelli’s log of his meetings with the pope in these months are, curiously, missing from those open to researchers at the 
Vatican Secret Archives.”

The text that was meant to be the encyclical Humani Generis Unitas finally reached Pius after its authors started inquiring about its fate. It was too late: the Pope lay dying. As soon as Pius died, Pacelli moved, and he moved quickly, as we have seen. The additional details are stupefying. Not only were all copies of Pius’s speech destroyed on Pacelli’s orders, but the text of the encyclical that Ledochowski had finally sent to Pius three weeks earlier (and that was found among the Pope’s papers) was hidden. It might have offended Mussolini and, more importantly, Hitler. Only decades later did this encyclical “against racial anti-Semitism” see the light of day. By then, of course, the compromises and the crimes had been committed. 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.

Saul Friedländer is professor of history at UCLA and the author of, among other books, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945 (HarperCollins) and Pius XII and the Third Reich: A Documentation (Knopf). He was recently awarded the Dan David Prize.