Unholy alliance

David Kertzer’s book refutes the conventional notion of the Catholic Church battling Mussolini’s fascist regime and instead reveals an uneasy but profitable partnership, Steve Donoghue writes

A composite photo commemorating the Lateran Treaty of 1929, left to right: Victor Emmanuel III; Mussolini and Pope Pius XI. Roger Viollet / Getty Images
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As David I Kertzer points out in his important and picture-resetting new book The Pope and Mussolini, both his main characters came to power in the same year. It was in 1922 that Cardinal Achille Ratti, a reserved and bookish autocrat, succeeded his predecessor Benedict XV and became Pope Pius XI, and it was in 1922 that Benito Mussolini’s “March on Rome” seizure of power made him and his fascist followers the political and military masters of Italy.

As Kertzer writes, both men were prickly, thin-skinned and strong-willed. “Each bristled at the charge of being the patsy of the other,” he tells us. “Both demanded unquestioned obedience from their subordinates, whose knees literally quaked in fear of provoking their wrath. Each came to be disillusioned by the other, yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end.”

Their 17-year relationship was fraught with tension and guarded cooperation, although at first, each was mainly concerned with consolidating his own power. By the end of 1926, Mussolini had crushed all internal resistance to his regime, muzzled the press, instituted rubber-stamp treason tribunals and even reinstated capital punishment. By 1929, Pope Pius and his key cardinals (foremost among them Cardinal Pacelli, the now-infamous subject of John Cornwell’s 1999 bestseller Hitler’s Pope) had succeeded in establishing Vatican City as an independent nation within the boundaries of Italy, with the pope as its ruler – a far cry from the once-extensive Papal States, but better than outright dissolution.

Each sounded out the possibility of conciliation, realising how useful they might find each other. On February 11, 1929, Mussolini and the Pope’s emissary, Cardinal Gasparri, signed the Lateran accords, in which the Church promised to squelch all Catholic opposition to fascist rule in exchange for preferential treatment and a sizeable cash settlement. “It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance the Pope gave to the accords,” Kertzer maintains. “Newspapers throughout the country, including the Vatican daily, hammered on the theme that the historic event could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and fascism, had made it possible.”

Rancour increased on both sides of the Lateran accords almost before the ink was dry, driven entirely by the incompatible personalities of the two men in charge. “Pius XI’s most salient personality trait,” noted the Belgian ambassador, “was his insistence that he be obeyed,” whereas the motto Mussolini ha sempre ragione (“Mussolini is always right”) was everywhere: “Painted in huge letters on the sides of buildings throughout the country, the phrase was used to teach children to read.”

Not since the days of Antony and Augustus had Italy been big enough for two supreme leaders, and as the years wore on, the Pope and Il Duce clashed more often. “Sooner or later, people end up smashing their idols,” Pius told an emissary to warn Mussolini. “Tell him that if he doesn’t change what he is doing, it will end badly for him.” And speaking for Mussolini, the Italian ambassador told Cardinal Pacelli, “One of these days ... the Pope would go too far. He would not be happy with the result.”

But although each chafed at the other, each got what he wanted: for the Pope, the temporal protection of a state he distrusted, and for Mussolini, the spiritual blessing of a church he despised.

A great many of the details of Kertzer’s scrupulously researched book will be new even to aficionados of the period. When the Vatican records covering the pre-war period were opened in 2006, the author spent seven years researching and writing, poring over some 25,000 pages of documents, including the transcripts, now stored in Rome’s Central State Archives, of Mussolini’s network of spies and informants in the churches and enclaves of Italy, including the Vatican itself. Kertzer cautions that such material must be handled with extreme scepticism, but even so, as a result of that spy network, “we have a picture of the power struggles, backbiting, personality conflicts and scandals in the Vatican that is richer than for any other period in history”.

The picture that emerges from the proceedings of this spy network, and from all the rest of his research, is one that will doubtless be upsetting to many faithful Catholics who still believe in the straw man Kertzer sets up for his book to knock down, ie that the Roman Catholic Church “fought heroically” against Italian Fascism. Instead, what becomes obvious immediately is that Pope Pius XI was every bit as interested in amassing and maintaining mundane worldly power as the anticlerical dictator was – and was equally willing to trample on the individual liberties of ordinary Italians to get that power and keep it.

In the world of concordats and collusions Kertzer describes, there are no saints on either side of the bargaining table. Indeed, the book could easily have been called Mussolini’s Pope.

It was a seething, unstable battle of wills played out mostly by various cats paws. When the archbishop of Florence, Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, criticised fascist youth groups for organising racy co-ed bathing parties (complete with the season’s revealing ladies’ swimwear), Mussolini wrote a coldly glowering response: “He [Costa] graciously describes us as pagan and savage. Let those above him know that we are neither pagan nor savage and we don’t want to become either …”

When Mussolini began to talk about how he stirred the faith of the people, the Pope sent word: “He should not be trying to put himself somewhere between the Earth and the heavens … Have him reflect, in my name, that God, Our Lord, is only one.”

Throughout Kertzer’s engaging narrative, Mussolini struts like a lampoon in an Italian comic opera. He has all the best lines, and his flamboyant womanising drives even our studious author to moments of exasperation. “One might be forgiven,” he writes, “for wondering how Mussolini had any time for his journalistic and political career as he juggled several love affairs.” About one of Il Duce’s many bastards, Kertzer sighs: “This is not one of Mussolini’s better-documented children.”

Compared to him, the Pope’s shrill carping about ladies’ bathing suits seems even sillier than it otherwise would.

Pius’s moral strictures almost mitigate his guilt at enabling a vicious dictator, but one inadvertent side effect of The Pope and Mussolini is to remove any chance of such mitigation on the part of that shadowy eminence, Cardinal Pacelli. At every turn of the tale, the man Kertzer describes as Mussolini’s most powerful ally in the Vatican is ready with some new aid to dictatorship, some new bit of quisling double-dealing on behalf of papal power. And later on in the story, when the bishops representing Germany’s 27 million Catholics oppose Nazism and support the Centre Party, it’s Pacelli who conveys the Pope’s order that all German Catholic leaders support Hitler – in exchange for protection of church property in Germany. As Pius XI’s health begins to deteriorate, Pacelli looms larger in the narrative, ready to extend his predecessor’s accommodation of evil to maintain Vatican power. Even for the non-faithful, it’s a chilling spectacle.

Such accommodations produced a fretful truce with Mussolini, but they were sharply self-defeating when it came to Hitler; the Nazis almost immediately started ignoring the concordat they signed with the Vatican in 1933, and when the Pope complained to Mussolini, he got no satisfaction.

When Pius XI died in February of 1939, Mussolini felt a surge of relief at the removal of a long-time irritant, but it had been the most fruitful partnership of his career – certainly his dealings with both the Nazis and his own people would not be so fruitful.

And their endings would be much worse.