By Joan Brunwasser | 28 April 2014
My guest today is David Kertzer, Dupee University Professor of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology and Italian Studies at Brown University since 1992. Welcome to OpEdNews, David. You have already written numerous books about Italy and Italian history. Why did you feel compelled to write your latest—The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe [Random House, March, 2014]? Hasn’t everything on the subject already been said?
There has been a huge controversy about the role of the popes and the Vatican in dealing with the advent of Fascism, Hitler, and, ultimately, the Holocaust. While this has generated a huge literature, the fact is much was unknown until the recent opening of the Vatican archives for the 1920s and 1930s. Working with thousands of newly available documents in these Roman archives, along with a mass of reports of Mussolini’s spies, I found many new revelations. So, in short, yes, there is much new to be learned.
Where to begin? According to your book, there is much that is not particularly flattering in those archives. So, why did the Vatican open itself up to criticism? Couldn’t it just as easily have left the archives closed?
The Vatican has a policy that it opens its historical archives not according to any fixed number of years but by papacy, at the discretion of the current pope. The Roman Catholic Church takes its history very seriously, and the archives are heavily used by clergy themselves. In 2002, Pope John Paul II decided it was time to open the next archive not yet opened, for Pius XI, who reigned from 1922 to 1939. It was when I heard his announcement in 2002 that I decided I wanted to be among the first to see the long hidden documents covering these fateful years.
Lest anyone accuse you of doing a superficial job, please give us a sense of the scope of this: the amount of time you spent, number of documents perused and copied.
I got going in earnest on the research during my sabbatical year in Italy in 2004-5. From then until the time I sat down to write the book several years later, I read through thousands of archival documents. In all, I ended up identifying and digitizing (so that I would have it all in my computer) about 25,000 pages of documents from the Vatican Secret Archives, the central Jesuit archives in Rome, the Italian Central State Archives (which have not only Mussolini’s correspondence but also the mass of reports of his spies in the Vatican), the archives of the Italian Foreign Ministry, and foreign ministry archives in Paris and Washington.
Thank you. You’ve laid the groundwork. Now, let’s talk about what the perception of Pope Pius XI was before you wrote this book. If I understand correctly, the picture was murky but the general idea was that the Vatican did what it could but its hands were tied. What did you discover? Did your research confirm that picture?
Certainly, the view of this dramatic period of history presented by the Church portrays the pope as one of Mussolini’s fiercest critics and the pope and Mussolini constantly in a state of conflict. What I discovered was something very different. Although Pius XI realized that Mussolini had not a religious bone in his body, he thought that the dictator could be God’s instrument to restore the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy. In order to ensure Church support for his dictatorship, Mussolini—ever the opportunist—was more than willing to go along.
It was really a marriage of convenience for both of them. And this unlikely union yoked two people who were both remarkably similar in some ways and very different at the same time. Can you flesh out this dichotomy for our readers?
Yes, in many ways Mussolini and the pope could hardly have been more different. Mussolini grew up in a poor, left-wing, anticlerical family, while the pope’s family were devout Catholics, his father in charge of a factory. Mussolini was a violent rabble-rouser whose main concern was advancing himself; the pope was deeply religious and of a scholarly bent, spending most of his adult life before becoming pope as a Church librarian. Yet they also had some things in common: both had short tempers and those around them feared their wrath. Neither had any sympathy for democratic ideals.
I was surprised by the almost paranoid fear of Communism that fed the Church’s actions and ideology, David. Where did that come from and how did it play out?
To understand why the pope would have embraced Mussolini, this is absolutely crucial. Remember that the Bolshevik revolution had only taken place five years before Achille Ratti became Pope Pius XI. Fear of the spread of Communism was rife throughout Europe, and nowhere was it more keenly felt than in the Roman Catholic Church. The pope came to see Mussolini and Fascism as his best bet for keeping the Communists—and Socialists—from gaining power in Italy. Something similar would happen a decade later when Hitler came to power in Germany.
Am I cynical for thinking that at least part of the fear of Communism was because of all the property/real estate that the Church held?
Certainly fear that a Communist, or even Socialist, government would seize some of the Church’s property played a role. Whenever unfriendly regimes had come to power in the past in Italy—as when Napoleon conquered the peninsula—large amounts of Church property were seized.
The Church also seemed obsessed about the perceived threat of Protestants, despite the fact that they were a tiny fraction of the population in Italy, which was and remains overwhelmingly Catholic. What was that all about?
The pope only met with Mussolini once in all the years they lived a mile apart in Rome. In that 1932 meeting, the first subject he wanted to discuss was what he described as “the greatest cross” he had to bear. That was the fact that Protestants were trying to spread their influence in Italy. Mussolini tried to argue with him, saying Protestants were a tiny minority—under 1%—but the pope would have none of it. In this, the Church battle against the Protestants, begun in the sixteenth century, was still going strong. One of the requests the pope constantly made of the Fascist authorities was that they confiscate Protestant publications and prevent the Protestants from holding gatherings.
Within this framework, the Jews almost seem to be an afterthought. But the Vatican’s historical feelings and policies actually had a lot to do with what ultimately happened to Italy’s Jews. Can you talk about this a bit?
While the pope was more concerned about the threat posed by Protestants, the Church in Italy had long been engaged in warning of a Jewish threat. Major Vatican-linked publications played a big role in demonizing the Jews as modern anti-Semitism took shape in Europe in the late nineteenth century. When Pius XI came to St. Peter’s throne in 1922 the Vatican was still very much warning good Christians about the Jews. Jews were blamed for practically all the evils of the modern day, in Church eyes, from capitalism to Communism. When Mussolini announced his anti-Semitic campaign in 1938, the Fascists drew heavily on Church materials. In fact, they claimed to be carrying out the wishes of the Church.
Let’s look beyond Italy for a moment. In November, 1938, Nazis throughout Germany and Austria orchestrated the razing of thousands of synagogues, Jewish stores, schools, hospitals and homes. Jews were terrorized, arrested and murdered by the scores. 30,000 were herded together and transported to concentration camps. This came to be known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and it got huge news coverage at the time. The Vatican response was—absolutely zero. In fact, what was niggling the Vatican wasn’t what was happening to the Jews: [your book, p. 343] it was the controversy about marriages between Catholics and former Jews who had converted. Not only did the Vatican support Italian anti-racial laws, the circles around Pius XI sought a closer relationship with Hitler. How much did the Vatican’s approval and appeasement of Hitler play a factor with the German Catholic clergy who initially strongly and actively opposed him?
This is an extremely controversial subject. Fortunately, there is an excellent book on this subject, The Pope and the Devil, published in 2010. Written by Professor Hubert Wolf, dean of modern Church historians in Germany, and a priest himself, it makes clear what actually happened. One of the major obstacles to Hitler’s consolidation of a dictatorship was the Catholic Center Party. Indeed, through the 1920s and into the early 1930s, the German Church supported the Center Party and opposed Hitler and his Nazis. The head of Germany’s government in the early 1930s came from the Catholic Center party. But when Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in early 1933, the Vatican decided to try to reach a deal with him and in doing so let the German Church hierarchy know it should abandon its strong anti-Nazi stance. The Center party dissolved within months of this.
I imagine that book has not been well-received by the Catholic establishment. On another topic, your book discusses the suppressed evidence of cardinals’ misbehavior involving other men and minor boys. One of these cardinals was a close ally of the pope. Does this have any relevance to more recent history and all the scandals that have rocked the Church?
When the Vatican opens its archives to scholars, it does not make available those papers that deal with sensitive “personnel” matters. But it turns out that because by the late 1920s and through the 1930s Mussolini had a dense network of spies in the Vatican, we have insight into these cases of sexual misbehavior high in the Vatican in this period that we have for no other period of Church history. I focus in particular in my book on the two prelates who literally stood at the side of Pius XI every day, and on the two very different outcomes the trail of pederasty accusations against them had. Certainly both were covered up, and in one case a high prelate close to the pope with a long history of pederasty accusations was made a cardinal.
This book involved years of poring over the abundant and newly available documents. Did you go into your research with any expectations? What kind of surprises did you find along the way?
There were many surprises, both in the newly opened Vatican and Jesuit archives, and in various Italian Fascist regime archives. Let me briefly mention just two. I discovered that within months of Mussolini coming to power he and the pope agreed on a personal intermediary. Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a Jesuit who played this role, met with Mussolini one-on-one over a hundred times over the following years, carrying requests from the pope. Just what the pope wanted Mussolini to use his repressive powers to do was in itself eye opening. But I also discovered that the pope’s envoy used his access to try to convince Mussolini that Italy’s Jews presented a threat to him and he should take action against them. Another example is the secret agreement that the pope’s envoy worked out with Mussolini pledging the pope’s silence when the anti-Semitic racial laws were announced in 1938. It is a stupefying document that only now has seen the light of day with the opening of the archives.
Your book was just published a few weeks ago. It’s a bit early, but how has The Pope and Mussolini been received so far? I can’t imagine the Church hierarchy, or the rank and file, for that matter, will be thrilled with your findings, however scrupulously reached.
The book reviews have been enthusiastic, which has been gratifying. The New Republic, Commentary, and other magazines have run long stories on the book. The New Yorker had a nice blurb, and a long piece is due in the New York Review of Books. The trade press has also been very kind: Publishers’ Weekly and Kirkus both gave the book a starred review. I have spoken to about twenty audiences around the country, and the crowds have often been large, and the interest great. I imagine Church reaction will come soon, as the Italian edition of the book was published by Rizzoli in March. Within the Church there are many who recognize the importance of coming to terms with this troubling history and they have greeted my book warmly. On the other hand, the right wing of the Church, for whom Pope Pius XII, the last pre-Vatican II pope, is the great hero, will no doubt heap abuse on the book and on me.
Another of your books is getting renewed attention right now. I’m referring to The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. Would you care to bring our readers up to date on the book and the latest developments?
Variety “broke” the news recently that Steven Spielberg is making a film based on my 1997 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The book tells the story of a small Jewish child seized on orders of the Inquisitor in 1858, in the papal states, based on a rumor that he had been secretly baptized by a Christian servant girl. The episode becomes an international cause célèbre involving the pope directly. The Variety story about the plans for the film contained some errors, and the thousand or so online stories about the film since then have only magnified them. Several years ago now Spielberg read the book and decided he wanted to make a movie out of it. He was at the time in the midst of working with Tony Kushner on the script for Lincoln and he asked Tony to write the screenplay for the Mortara film based on my book. Kushner has been working on the script and I am hoping the film will soon be made. I can’t imagine a better combination than Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner for making this film, and of course I am also excited that a Spielberg film will likely lead many more people to read the book.
That is definitely exciting. What haven’t we talked about, David? Anything you’d like to add before we wrap this up?
I think we’ve covered a lot of ground. I have tried, in The Pope and Mussolini, to write a book that, while based on often dramatic new findings in the archives, is written in a way that general readers will find captivating. If I succeed in getting people who know little of this history to see how exciting—and consequential—it is, I will be very pleased. Thanks for helping me spread the word.
My pleasure. Thanks for being so generous with your time, David. The Pope and Mussolini has removed the shroud of mystery surrounding this historic alliance.
David Kertzer’s website.
David Kertzer's The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. pic.twitter.com/m4WkTWuym7
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) August 31, 2017
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The Vatican’s Role in the Promulgation of Italy’s 1938 Racial Laws (Full Video)
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