Mussolini, the Pope, and the Rise of Fascism

Monday, February 10, 2014

David I. Kertzer talks about the complex and secret relationship that Pope Pius XI’s had with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The two men both came to power in 1922, and together changed the course of the 20th-century. Kertzer’s book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, shows how Pius XI played a crucial role in making Mussolini’s dictatorship possible and keeping him in power. But as Mussolini moved closer to Hitler, the pope started to lash out.


David I. Kertzer

Comments [28]

Ed from Larchmont

One can read Rhodes, Anthony 'The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators (1922-1945)'.

Mar. 03 2014 03:44 PM
Ed from Larchmont

For example, his eating by himself, not having his picture taken, and having his family address him as 'your holiness' might not have been a 'clear sense of his position as pope'. It might have been a result of having so much work to do, needing time alone, and as a penitential practice that wins grace. And not having his picture taken could have been humility - it's not about him, it's about the Church.

Feb. 24 2014 01:34 PM
Ed from Larchmont

There had to be more than 35,000 Jewish people in Italy, Rome was the oldest synagogue, or one of them, in the world.

Feb. 17 2014 02:09 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Pius XII was the obvious candidate for pope after the death of Pius XI, the idea that he was promoted by the Nazi ambassador is ridiculous. Msgr. Pacelli (who helped displaced persons in World War I and helped feed displaced persons) had been nuncio to Germany at the time the Nazis became visible. He said of Hitler that 'he was a man who could walk on corpses' and knew he was a complete menace. Msgr. Pacelli spoke against the Nazis then and survived an assassination attempt when a radical broke into his office and fired on him, the bullet hit his pectoral cross (he must have been a bishop at the time). The Nazis knew him as their sworn enemy, and he survived them.
One can take an idea that is a little true and expand it: for example, the Nazis charged the Church with sexual impropriety. Well, it did happen here and there. They claimed it happened everywhere, which wasn't true, but they used it to round up and kill many Catholic priests and religious (do you think they were acting justly? or rationally?)

Feb. 17 2014 02:05 PM
Ed from Larchmont

And then you have to consider that research now shows that by opening the convents and monasteries to Jewish people Pius XII save 800,000+ Jewish people, that 1 of 16 Jewish people in the world have an ancestor rescued by Pius XII. During the war Albert Einstein praised him as the only voice that was speaking out against Hitler, and after the war Golda Meir praised him and the head Rabbi in Rome converted to Catholicm and took the baptismal name Pius. When Pius XII died in 1958 praise from the Jewish communities around the world were sent to the pope. (On the other side you have the play by Hochhuth, who worked for the Soviets.) So it's a stretch to call Pius XII an anti-Semite. (Why do you think that if he told the Nazis that what they were doing was wrong - which he did - that they would have obeyed?)

Feb. 17 2014 01:57 PM
Ed from Larchmont

I guess if you can get the history of Pius XII completely wrong, you might as well get the history of Pius XI completely wrong.

Feb. 17 2014 01:29 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Yes,I guess I'm passionate about this topic in general. The only reason the Vatican would have supported Mussolini over the democratic group was that the democratic group was a communist danger (1920's).

Feb. 11 2014 09:41 PM
Ed from Larchmont

L'Osservatore Romano is owned by the Holy See but (at least now) has an independent editorial board, though it mostly supports the Church.
About these democratic groups that ran in opposition to Mussolini - were they just democratic groups, or were they Communist groups posing as democratic? If so, they were not a viable option.
One could watch the movie about Pope Paul VI 'The man in the tempest' to get another view of this situation.

Feb. 10 2014 02:49 PM
Ed from Larchmont

I guess in summary the Church's role is not to promote democratic or fascist or other forms of government: that is the role of the country under discussion. The Church is concerned that it is allowed to function, and that virtue is promoted, and freedom, and justice. At first Mussolini probably looked like he would support these things. Also, the Church has to deal with the real world.

Feb. 10 2014 02:02 PM
Tony from Canarsie

Ed from Larchmont -- FYI, L'Osservatore Romano is owned by the Holy See.

Feb. 10 2014 01:58 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Do we know the name of the US priest the pope contacted to write the encyclical opposing anti-Semitism?

Feb. 10 2014 01:58 PM


If you want to push your action-reaction theory, then you should start with The Protocols of Elders of Zion, pale of Settlement, pogroms, etc. These were long before Bolsheviks, but explain why Jews supported the Communists.

Your theory is not unlike claims that it is Jews themselves who cause antisemitism, which, of course, is pure rubbish.

Feb. 10 2014 01:55 PM
Ed from Larchmont

L'Osservatore Romano is not the voice of the Vatican but an independent voice.

Feb. 10 2014 01:55 PM
Ed from Larchmont

That's why John Paul didn't believe it in 2000, because it was used as a lie in the 1930s.

Feb. 10 2014 01:50 PM
Ed from Larchmont

At first Mussolini wasn't seen as a terrible person, he was seen as the bringer of civil order, which was needed in this difficult time. Only after a number of years did he become difficult.

Feb. 10 2014 01:49 PM
Wayne Johnson Ph.D. from Bk

Professor Kertzer's important work guides us straight to the silence of the Vatican and Pius X11's "silence" during the holocaust. The Church's antisemitism in full flour. The best drama on this subject is Rolf Hochhuth's play "The Depurty".

Feb. 10 2014 01:46 PM
Ed from Larchmont

More condemnation of Pius XII, all wrong-headed. They had to live in the real world. One reason Pius XI would have supported Mussolini to an extent was to avoid civil chaos, as bad as he was. And what he was wasn't evident at the beginning, but was soon.

Feb. 10 2014 01:41 PM
John A.

For Equal Time,
Might I suggest the writings of the USCCB and other Catholic leaders Against US Congressman Paul Ryan?

Feb. 10 2014 01:33 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

The rise of Fascism in Italy, and Europe as a whole, was a direct by-product of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and the overthrow of the Czar and the seizure of Russia by the Bolsheviks was what brought Mussolini, Franco and Hitler into power. Hitler was able to convince many that Bolshevism was basically a "Jewish" phenomenon and that Judaism = Bolshevism, and this led directly to the Holocaust. Had there been no Bolshevism and the overthrow of the Czar, and then the Kaiser, there would have been no Fascism, must less Nazism.

Now the Church for most of the ages, while deriding the Jews for their "blindness" in refusing to accept Jesus, were nonetheless also protector of the Jews whose survival was necessary till the End of Days and the Return of Jesus. So the position of the Church was always mixed when it came to the "Jewish problem." The Jews were to be kept low but certainly not annihilated, but the takeover of Russia and horrors of the Red terror in Russia and the Ukraine made the re-institutionalization of official antisemitism hard to resist. Mussolini himself was not an anti-semite but his alliance with Hitler forced him to implement anti-Jewish laws in Italy as well.

Feb. 10 2014 01:32 PM
Kate from NJ

Glad to hear an interesting conversation with David Kertzer--please note that while his orientation is historical, he is a trained anthropologist. To those of us who care, we are happy to see/hear cultural anthropologists in the public sphere, addressing issues of social importance.

Feb. 10 2014 01:31 PM
Ed from Larchmont

Medieval conception? There is no right wing/left wing in that sense. The popes during the 20th century paved the way for the Vatican Council.
Your holiness is the standard greeting. He is a head of state.
Yes, he ate alone, he must have been a bad man.
When you say alliance, you mean the concordat agreement, it was not 'an alliance'.

Feb. 10 2014 01:30 PM


1. Half of German guards in Auschwitz were Catholic, and the pope was their spiritual leader, although physically he was miles away.

2. "We are all spiritual Semites" - this is only part of the quote, and there were more than plans by the time he said it. With the other sentence, which you did not quote, he said it is OK. Plus, the Nazis did not go after "spiritual" Jews, but "genetic" ones.

Feb. 10 2014 12:36 PM
I think

If you charge for the ability to comment you can eliminate the next two membership drives, all thanks to d from Larchmont.

Dude! Take a breather.

Feb. 10 2014 11:23 AM
Ed from Larchmont

One of the famous statements of Pius XI was 'We are all spiritual semites', in response to the anti-Jewish plans of the Germans and Mussolini.

Feb. 10 2014 10:40 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The idea that Pius XI 'made it possible for Mussolini to become dictator' - really? He's in a different country for God's sake.

Feb. 10 2014 10:37 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Pius XI instituted in 1925 the Feast of Christ the King on the last Sunday of ordinary time each year (end of November) in response to the fascist dictators who claimed that they were the ultimate king.
By making the definition of Catholic 'someone with a baptismal certificate' the lives of many Italian Jewish people were saved. For all their barbarism, the Germans had a strange need to obey the letter of the law.
Pope Pius XI was pope at a difficult time, from 1922-1938/9, the interwar period which saw the rise of fascism.

Feb. 10 2014 10:36 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Of course the Concordat ended the Vatican captivity - the pope had not left the Vatican since 1870 or so when the Italian government had taken the papal estates (which were used to help support the Vatican and its charities). It turned out for the best because they would have been attacked in WWII.
Pope Pius XI, Achille Ratti was a tough Italian from northern Italy, he had been the Vatican librarian. In the 1930s Mussolini announced that Hitler and he wanted to visit the Vatican museums, etc. Pius XI took everyone to the summer residence at Castle Gondolfo and the Vatican was closed when they arrived (gave him the old dirty digit).
And when Von Ribbontrop, a Catholic (like our Catholic politicians today who betray their church), presented himself to Pius XI, the pope took him by the lapels and said 'You work for a crook', or so the story goes.

Feb. 10 2014 10:32 AM
Ed from Larchmont

Of course Pope Puis XI had a relationship with Mussolini, the Vatican is surrounded by Italy. The concordat with Mussolini was signed I think in 1925 (see the movie 'Pope Paul VI: the man in the tempest'). The young Msgr. Montini argued against signing a treaty with Mussolini but Pope Pius XI overruled him: that Concordat turned out to be very important in protecting Catholic education, and later under Puis XII in protecting many Jewish people since a Catholic was defined as someone having a Baptismal certificate - they issued Baptismal certificates to Jewish people and they were left alone. The Church makes concordats, as opposed to treaties, with hostile governments, to try to ensure that the Church's functions will continue as much as possible in that country.

Feb. 10 2014 09:19 AM

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