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

  • Review
By – May 22, 2014

Although an athe­ist by con­vic­tion, Ben­i­to Mus­soli­ni, seek­ing legit­i­ma­cy for his fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship, signed a con­cor­dat with the Catholic Church in 1929. The so-called Lat­er­an Treaty returned to the Vat­i­can most of the priv­i­leges it had lost when Italy was uni­fied as a sec­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­try in 1871. The Vat­i­can sub­se­quent­ly signed a con­cor­dat in 1933 with Nazi Ger­many, with the promise that both dic­ta­tors would join the Church in the fight against Bol­she­vism, which they believed was spawned by the world-wide Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy. As Mus­soli­ni moved clos­er to Hitler, Pope Pius XI saw an increas­ing ero­sion of the agree­ments both dic­ta­tors had signed with the Vat­i­can, and con­clud­ed that both coun­tries were pro­mot­ing a pagan reli­gion based on a cult of per­son­al­i­ty. What began as the restora­tion of Italy as a Catholic coun­try with all of its past priv­i­leges now wit­nessed the per­se­cu­tion of Catholic priests and nuns in Nazi Ger­many and a decreas­ing influ­ence of the Church in Italy. In 1938, when Mus­soli­ni passed his racial laws, the pope was opposed by most of his bureau­cra­cy — includ­ing Euge­nio Pacel­li, the future Pius XII — in his deter­mi­na­tion to crit­i­cize Mussolini’s treat­ment of the Jews.

As Pius XI con­tin­ued to wit­ness the dete­ri­o­ra­tion of rela­tions between the Vat­i­can and the dic­ta­tors, he autho­rized John LaFarge, an Amer­i­can priest, to write a draft of an encycli­cal that would have attacked Nazi racism and anti-Semi­tism, Humani Gener­is Uni­tas (“The Uni­ty of the Human Race”). Vat­i­can Sec­re­tary of State Euge­nio Pacel­li, how­ev­er, appoint­ed two con­ser­v­a­tive church offi­cials to join Lafarge so as to tem­per the essence of Pius XI’s encycli­cal. The encycli­cal was nev­er com­plet­ed. When Pius XI died in 1939, the Pacel­li, fear­ful that Mus­soli­ni would be out­raged over a doc­u­ment that was crit­i­cal of both his racial laws as well as his Nazi partner’s anti-Semit­ic poli­cies, buried the doc­u­ment in the Vat­i­can archives where it remained until its dis­cov­ery in 1972 and sub­se­quent pub­li­ca­tion in 1997.

David Kertzer, whose book won the Pulitzer Prize, is an author­i­ty on Jew­ish – Church his­to­ry, and includes in his riv­et­ing account the preva­lence of anti-Jew­ish atti­tudes among the Vat­i­can hier­ar­chy — rang­ing from extreme to mild prej­u­dice, with Pius XI among the for­mer. Kertzer s vol­ume makes it clear that an under­stand­ing of the silence“of Pius XII dur­ing the Holo­caust requires tak­ing into account his reluc­tance to con­front fas­cism and Nazism as the pope’s sec­re­tary of state, as well as his atti­tudes towards the Jews dur­ing the papa­cy of Pius XI.

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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