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The Pope and Mussolini
August 4, 2015
reviewed by William P. Meyers

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title: The Pope and Mussolini, the Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
author: David I Kertzer
publisher: Random House, New York
year of publication: 2015
format: hardcover

They are all dead now. Benito Mussolini, Pope Pius XI, Pope Pius XII, King Victor Emmanuel III, the pederast cardinals and bully boy fascists, their socialist and communist opponents, the Jews and Protestants they hated, humiliated, and often killed, the children and wives and mistresses.

Almost no one cares any more about the fine points of Fascism or what the Catholic Church did from 1920 to 1945. And so it is safe to tell the truth. A professor can write an accurate book and not be called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, not be cast out of academia, not see that book shredded because American Catholics would boycott any bookstore that dared sell it.

But it was great drama when it happened: the March on Rome, the admiring crowds, the bully squads pouring castor oil down victims' throats, the idea that Italy could become a world power, the invasion of Ethiopia, and then World War II.

David I Kertzer, a professor of Italian studies at Brown University, tells the story convincingly, backed by a great deal of research, including papers from the Vatican Archive and Mussolini's spies in the Vatican. He brings Mussolini, Popes and flunkies to life better than many novelists. He does not go deeply into why the Catholic Church and the Fascist Party of Italy were so easily married, but he details the courtship, the marriage with its love making and vicious fights, and the divorce.

Benito Mussolini is quickly established as an interesting guy, though his life before he became the fascist leader only occupies a few pages. Despite having a Catholic mother he was raised a socialist and atheist by his father. He was defined by his ambition. When he hit his ceiling within socialism, he left and helped create fascism. When fascism looked too weak to hold onto power, he embraced the Catholic Church. He used the fascists who were still anti-Catholic as a stick, and he used the Pope's dream of total religious exclusivity as a carrot.

The Pope hated atheism, Protestantism, socialism and communism. Pope Pius XI was so full of himself he thought he was using Mussolini to rid Italy of these hated ideologies.

Combined Benito and Pius ruled Italy with an iron hand, while they fought with each other in secret, often over issues that seem ridiculously petty today. Italians of that era only saw the iron hand. Only the archives preserved the fighting within the marriage.

Neither man could tolerate disagreement. Each had an army of sycophantic followers. Their main source of disagreement was about what constituted disloyalty to Mussolini's state, or to the Catholic Church. All public schools in Italy were made into Catholic schools, and every fascist group, including the youth groups, had a Catholic chaplain. But that was not enough for the Pope. He liked his separate organization, Catholic Action, which had been a political group but which was supposed to be purely religious, once the basic deal with the fascists was made.

But where does religion end and politics begin? That is the sticking point in a state that is not quite a theocracy and not quite merely a dictatorship enforcing religious orthodoxy.

A large part of the book is devoted to the attitude of fascists and the Catholic Church to the Jews. Because we know (those of us who have read a bit about the era) that Hitler was violently anti-jewish, and Mussolini was an ally of Hitler, we tend to think that it was Mussolini who started the anti-semitic ball rolling in Italy. But Kertzer reminds us that the Church was seriously anti-jewish long before fascism arose. In particular he documents how the Jesuits pushed a rabid anti-jewish agenda. Pius XI is shown to have been anti-Jewish long before he became Pope.

The myth that the Church protected Jews in Italy is torn to shreds by the evidence. Mussolini was not anti-jewish until Hitler and Pius XI put pressure on him to become so. The Church had a disagreement with Hitler, but it was about what to do with Jews. Hitler wanted to kill them, the Church wanted to give them the alternative of converting to Christianity. Kertzer shows, in detail, how in the end the Church made the decision to not even defend Italian Catholics with jewish backgrounds from Hitler and Mussolini.

Sadly, in the end reason did not prevail. Italians did not just wake up and reject fascism and Catholicism. The fascists and Catholics lost the war. Had they won it, likely we would all be good fascist Roman Catholics today.

It might have been different if it were not for the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. The Popes and American Catholics did a good job protecting the Roman Catholic, fascist-ruled nations of Spain, Italy, France and Germany from intervention by the United States. But the Japanese were being squeezed. God forgot to tell the Pope to tell Hitler to tell the Japanese to not give the U.S. any excuse to get into the war. And so the Catholics lost World War II, defeated in part by Roman Catholic American soldiers who gave their lives in Italy and France because their nation was more important to them than the faith of their ancestors. Or maybe because the Church had done such a good job teaching them to follow orders.

And partly for that reason the Catholic Church survived. In the end American Catholics could not save Hitler or Petain or Mussolini, but they did save the Church and Popes and General Franco. Then all they had to do was re-write a little history. They exaggerated the arguments that had taken place within the Catholic community, between Pius XI and Pius XII and Mussolini and Hitler, and made them seem like a great struggle between good and evil.

This book won the Pulizer Prize for Biography for 2015.

The truth is out again, but my guess is the Catholic Church and its insane belief system will march on, and faith will yet again triumph over both facts and ethics.


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