Mussolini and the Church; Mussolini and the Jews – David Kertzer’s new book (2 cents)

On December 30, 2013, I published a note on “Il Duce’s Other Woman”, by Philip Cannistraro and Brian Sullivan, “the untold story of Margherita Sarfatti, Benito Mussolini’s Jewish Mistress, and How She Helped Him to Power”, which you may want to look at (or look at again).  Last night, I went to Sixth and I Historic Synagogue to hear Professor David Kertzer speak about his new book, “The Pope and Mussolini: the Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe”. The two books appear to work well together, although I have yet to read the Kertzer book.

Sarfatti, the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family of Venice and the wife of a sympathetic Jewish attorney at law, and Mussolini, son of the working class, were comrades in the early 20th century socialist movement in Italy, and part of a broader European movement.  As World War I decimated the pacifist socialist movement in Europe, the ambitious Mussolini morphed into the virtual founder of the Italian fascist movement, which was relatively easy for him to do in that he was ruthless, a fearless bully, and bent on getting Italy completely his thumb.

In the early years of fascism, anti-Semitism did not play a role, and Sarfatti (who became Mussolini’s mistress as well as his helpmate) felt no discomfort as as a result of her Jewish background.  Mussolini had no sympathy for  Hitler’s Nazi movement, and German anti-Semitism seemed a thing apart with no connection to Italy, for many years.  But Mussolini, after his unpopular invasion of Ethiopia (an attempt to increase Italy’s colonial empire so that it could better compete with British and French colonialism), and his intervention in the Spanish Civil War (on the same side with Germany) led him to believe that an alliance between Italy and Germany would perhaps be desirable (the reasons are complex) and was inevitable.  Giving Hitler the royal treatment on his visit to Rome, in 1938 Mussolini suddenly adopted racial restrictions in Italy – Jews lost their positions in government and education, Jewish enrollment in universities was greatly limited,  and Jewish social and sexual relationships with non-Jews were proscribed.  Anti-Jewish propaganda became widespread.  Mussolini decided the Jews worldwide were opposed to his regime and therefore dangerous (in this, he may have been correct) and proclaimed it was necessary to strike out against them.

Kertzer’s book does deal with the relationship between Mussolini and the Jews, but this is only a part of his focus. Using the newly opened (2006) Vatican archives of the papal reign of Pius XI (1922 to 1939)he is looking at the broader question of the relationship of the church and the regime.  And his conclusions (as he put it last evening, impossible to reach before the archives were opened) are, at least to me, enlightening.

He makes the point that Mussolini did not have a religious bone in his body, and was strongly in favor of the separation of church and state when he came to power.  The Vatican obviously believed that church and state should be intimately connected.  When Italy was for the first time politically united in the second half of the 19th century, the big loser was the church.  For well over 1000 years, the papacy controlled parts of Italy, sometimes larger parts than other.  In 1870, the church receded to the newly created Vatican state, and for the rest of Italy church and state were separated, and freedom of religion the order of the day.  But Italy remained 99% Catholic (some believing Catholic, others nominally Catholic), and Mussolini’s hold on Italy (he also gained full power in 1922) was dependent upon obtaining the loyalty of Italy’s full Catholic population.

A bargain was made.  The church would stop attacking the fascist regime, and Mussolini would no longer attack the church and would no longer respect the separation of church and state.  Catholicism would become the official religion of Italy, and state and church would cooperate with each other.

The extent of that cooperation was unknown until the papal archives were opened.  And it was extensive and regular, with secret meetings and agreements the order of the day.  The Vatican liaisons included Jesuits who were bitterly anti-Semitic and who did not wince at the growing closeness between Hitler (once in power) and Italy.

But it was Pope Pius XI, who began to wonder about the alliance, and who began to worry about the anti-Jewish measures in fascist Italy.  But Pius, as he neared 80, began to suffer from a variety of health problems and his former powerful vitality and stamina began to fail him. He began to lose control of Vatican policy, it appears, which was more or less under the control of the Vatican Secretary of State, Eugenio Pacelli, who seemed to harbor no concerns about either Mussolini or Hitler.  As Pius XI continued to weaken, he called together a meeting of the hundreds of Italian bishops, and prepared to make a major speech, which he knew would be his last.

As the date of the conference neared, he weakened even further, and asked the Vatican printing office to print a copy of his speech for each of the attendees, just in case he was too weak to deliver it, or if his voice was not strong enough to be heard.  Sadly, Pope Pius XI died – the day before he was to give the speech.

So, his speech (which was to state strong concerns about the Italian government and the course of events in Europe) was never given and the Vatican printing office, at the request of Pacelli, destroyed all printed copies of the speech.  Only the handwritten original remained hidden away in the Vatican archives.

We know a lot about the workings of the Vatican from various notes and pieces of correspondence that were opened to researchers in 2006, and in particular from the Pacelli’s diary, which he kept on a steady basis (except for some mysterious gaps toward the end of the papacy of Pius XI).

After the death of Pope Pius XI, there was a conclave to pick a new pope.  And of course, it was Pacelli for whom the white smoke rose, and who became pope, taking the name Pius XII.  And, as you probably know, it was during the papacy of Pius XII that so much controversy has been raised about the concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany, protecting the Catholics of Germany from Nazi pressure, and achieving Vatican silence with regard to Nazi policies, including Nazi policies regarding the Jews through the days of the “Final Solution”.

I look forward to reading this book, which will undoubtedly fill in a number of holes in our understanding of the relationship between the church and the state in Mussolini’s Italy, and the state and the Jews of that country.


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