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"The Pope and Mussolini" by David I. Kertzer

Random House / Andrea Geremia
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BOOK REVIEW: The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe by David I. Kertzer (Random House) 2014

Reading The Pope and Mussolini by Brown University Prof. David I. Kertzer, is a really eye-opening experience for people who may not be entirely clued-in into how closely Roman Catholic Pontiff, Pope Pius XI, collaborated with megalomaniacal Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini.

And yet Kertzer deftly takes the reader right into that world of violence and intrigue, as two small-minded, conspiratorial and hateful men, find themselves in positions of great power during a particularly turbulent period of European history. Pope Pius XI and Mussolini crossing paths and working together – while essentially despising each other – was an utter disaster in the making as Kertzer (The Popes Against the Jews) shows us.

For Kertzer, gaining access to Vatican documents – made public in 2006 – show that rather than fighting bravely against the rise of fascism in Italy and Europe in the 1920’s and 30’s, the Pope and the Vatican willfully worked side-by-side with noted, visceral anti-cleric Mussolini, who was first Italy's Prime Minister and then supreme dictator and leader - Il Duce

Interestingly, this philandering egomaniac with a penchant for military flair and pomp was, in his younger years, drawn to "godless" Socialism. He hated priests and never attended church. But when the Socialists kicked him out for an infraction, he found a future in Fascism.

And just watching the fanatical, political rise of neo-fascist and popular Republican (once liberal) presidential candidate, Donald Trump, an odious boaster who spews fatuous lies on a daily basis, while exposing us to his gasconade and contemptousness, one can't help but see comparisons between the billionaire bully and the eye-bulging Milanese opportunist of 80 and 90 years ago. 

And yet when reading about the moody and cantankerous Pius XI, he seems like the complete opposite of the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who comes across as politically-engaged, thoughtful, kind, accessible and humble. Everything that Pius XI was not, from reading Kertzer's fantastic account. And just like the Fascists didn't like the Pope, today's American Republicans openly scorn Pope Francis. The comparisons between the Fascists and Republicans are quite striking.

In fact, it seems as though Pius XI is so put-upon during his reign that it is any wonder he remained Pope at all. He didn't seem to like his role at all. He really didn't like anyone other than, perhaps, himself and his power. He hated Protestants, "Jewish intruders," Freemasons, Socialists, Bolsheviks, children, sunbathing women, "modernists," movie operators, and anyone who dared to contradict or question his authority and his infallible "direct line" to God. This from a man who looked the other way when his priests and bishops sexually abused boys in their care.

And yet, for all of the violent and even murderous behavior of the Fascist squadristi, Pope Pius XI ignored it out of "political" expediency. In Mussolini, he saw a useful tool to get things done in Italy that the Roman Catholic Church could not achieve alone.

In the early 1920's, with the rise of the Fascists and the Blackshirt-wearing (squadristi) goon squads, priests and supporters of the Catholic Church, along with Socialists and Communists were targeted for beatings with rubber truncheons and force jars of explosive-diarrhea-inducing castor oil down the throats of anyone resisting the Fascist mob. The humiliation brought about by forced drinking of castor oil helped break anti-fascist resistance. This sort of torture gives some psychological insight into the mind of a Fascist, of course.

Writes Kertzer: "The pope 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 assocation. 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 would do noting to prevent Italian Catholic Action from working with the Fascists to increase police repression of "subversives."

This meant that Socialist newspapers were attacked and shut down by Fascist mobs and the operators beaten or worse, as in the case of one Socialist parliamentarian who was murdered by Fascists and his body dumped in the woods.

Mussolini was a very vain man. Concerned about getting fat, he cut out alcohol and meat. And regarding his thinning hair, he began "rubbing a variety of lotions onto his scalp," in hopes of putting off the inevitable. Adds Kertzer: "Years later this was one battle he gave up, shaving his head in an effort to resemble a Roman emperor.

And traveling from town to town, Mussolini became popular with the rural crowds, most of whom had never seen a government figure in person.

"He was becoming a master at mass hypnosis. What he understood, in a way that none of his predecessors had, was that people were ruled most of all by emotion, and that their reality had less to do with the external world than with the symbolic one he could fashion for them."

Enter Adolf Hitler. As Kertzer writes, “While Mussolini kept a bust of Napoleon in his study, Hitler, who became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, had long kept a bust of Mussolini in his. The Duce was his role model.” 

And reading about Hitler's meeting with Mussolini in June 1934, Il Duce reportedly viewed the top Nazi as a "clown" and "imitator," noting Hitler's ranting on "Nordic races" and his copying of the Fascist salute, which the Nazis fully embraced. Mussolini was concerned about Hitler's plans for Austria, a country Italy wanted to retain in its orbit.

For anyone thinking that the Pope’s “pact with the devil” – his praise of the Nazis and their “good intentions” – was just anti-papist propaganda, Kertzer makes it clear that Pius XI took a shine to The Fuhrer and that it was not so much Hitler,a  Catholic himself, but "anti-Catholic elements" around him that were more troubling. Pius said the same thing of Mussolini when anti-Church actions were taken in the name of Fascism. 

But there are differences between the ideologies of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, writes the author: "Hitler was seeking to unify the German people under a new, pagan religion, its slogan the divinit of the blood and the soil. Mussolini was doing the opposite, unifying Italians under the Catholic religion." And with the rise of the Third Reich, Mussolini worried that Nazi attacks on the Roman Catholic Church would curtail his own ambitions while "harming Italian Fascism's good name."

However, when paganism began creeping into Nazi ideology and Pius noticed this, he became concerned. But Pius's advisers warned him not to offend Hitler, because he was "the Church's best hope for stopping the Communist advance." 

Back in America, Fascism had a conspiracy-minded true believer in radio preacher Father Charles Coughlin, who regularly and hatefully denounced "Jewish bankers" and gained traction during the years of the Great Depression. And Pope Pius XI made sure to give Mussolini and Italy the papal blessing as Italy went to war in Ethiopia. 

"The Duce's increasing embrace of the Fuhrer angered the pope," writes Kertzer, and with the electoral victory of Spain's leftist Popular Front in the spring of 1936, which triggered a military rebellion led by Gen. Francisco Franco, would lead to the targeting of the Church, which was viewed as aligned with Fascism. The more extreme supporters of the Spanish Republic killed priests, monks and nuns and churches were regularly burned to the ground as the Spanish Civil War burned ever hotter. Even Mussolini was shocked by the brutality of Franco, whom he said "For them, executing a thousand men is like eating a plate of macaroni." 

Back in Italy, Mussolini agrees to ramp up the anti-Semitism, in order to cement his relationship with Hitler. Things got uglier for Italy's Jewish population, and the Vatican, with its "sweet deal' with Fascist Italy, looked the other way as "racial laws" were implemented. As Pius entered his last days, working with a Father LaFarge on a new encyclical calling for an end to anti-Semitism and saying that a good Christian should not embrace racism, he would not live to see it issued, and those around him were horrified that releasing it would damage their relationship with Mussolini. 

It appears that Pius felt the racism and anti-Semitism was just too much. The encyclical he never got to read said, in part: he looked forward to the day when "all peoples, all the nations, all the races, all joined together and all of the same blood in the common link of the great human family," uniting the one, "True Faith."

Interestingly, Pope Pius XI continues to be revered in America by extremist Catholic elements. Recently, I noted the masthead of The Wanderer, a far-right Catholic newspaper out of Minnesota. In the corner of the masthead of this newspaper is a quote from Pius XI reading: “No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a true socialist.”

And just today, following elections in Greece, the far-right, Fascist Golden Dawn Party got support of approximately half-a-million Greeks, many of them likely upset with recent immigration issues facing Greece. 

If anything, there is much to learn from The Pope and Mussolini. It's a cautionary tale about violent ideology merging with a worldwide religion and how things don't always end so well for either participant.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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