Two books have emerged recently, both dealing with Pope Pius XI (Achille Ratti) and the failure of his intention to call out fascism publicly in his last speech and encyclical. Italian scholar Emma Fattorini addresses this in Hitler, Mussolini and the Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech That Was Never Made (Polity Press: 2011; originally published 2007). Not very well written (or perhaps it’s the translation), Fattorini’s book focuses chiefly on the speech Pius XI had prepared to deliver in February of 1939, but which was foreclosed by his death two days before a conclave of the Vatican Curia. The Pope, who early on had hailed Mussolini as “the one whom Providence has sent us,” lived to regret both these words and his 1929 Concordat with the Fascist government, especially when the Duce instituted Italy’s racial laws in August and September of 1938. The Pope was mainly incensed about the proviso of the laws that prevented Jewish children from attending public schools at all, and about another section that forbade marriages between Catholics and Jews—even those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. Fattorini describes a meeting on October 24, 1938 between Pius XI and his advisors trying to find a solution to the possible rupture with the government over these laws. When the Jesuit Tacchi-Venturi, the Vatican’s liaison with the Fascist government, explained the government’s rigid position on the “racial question,” and under-secretary of state Tardini underscored this by pointing out the absolute prohibition of any newspaper argument against the racial laws, the Pope erupted:
“But this is enormous! And I am ashamed…ashamed to be Italian. And tell that, Father, to Mussolini himself! I am ashamed not as pope but as an Italian! The Italian people have become a herd of stupid sheep. I will speak out, without fear. I am forced to by the Concordat, but even more so by my conscience. I have no fear! I would prefer to beg in the streets. I will not even ask Mussolini to defend the Vatican. And even if the piazza fills with people, I will not be afraid!” (Fattorini, 163).
Strong words, also cited by David Kertzer in his book, The Pope and Mussolini (Random House 2014.) Kertzer’s book, like Fattorini’s, was made possible by the 2006 opening of the secret Vatican archives referring to Pius XI’s papacy, and is, in my opinion, far superior for being far more detailed, especially for a general reader. It not only leaves us lamenting the fact that Pius XI’s death interrupted what might have been a serious blow against Mussolini’s government and some reduction of the horrors that followed in World War II; it also prepares us by demonstrating the degree to which the Vatican was willing, in the 1920s and early 1930s, to compromise with Mussolini and fascism in order to maintain cordial relations with the Italian government and its (the Vatican’s) prerogatives as a separate state. I will refer mostly to Kertzer in what follows.
What one must know, to understand the fatal 1929 Concordat, is that the Church had, since the 1870 Italian revolution, lost its immense power in Italy. Once in control not only of the Vatican itself but of the Papal States in central Italy—making it a world power that could forge alliances such as the ones that brought the French and Spanish armies to Rome in 1849 to defeat the Italian patriots who had established a Roman Republic—the Holy See had been stripped of its possessions and rule outside the 108 acres of Vatican city. Even there, it was not really sovereign, because technically the Italian government exercised authority over all of Rome and its citizens, including those in the Vatican. All popes had chafed under this perceived reduction of papal sovereignty, and when Pius XI was offered the opportunity to recoup some of this power by allying the Church with Mussolini’s Fascist government in the 1929 Concordat, he did so. Thereby, Mussolini got the legitimization of his rule that he needed (fascism now, in effect, enjoyed the approval of the Catholic Church), and the Vatican recouped some of its power, at least over Vatican City and the major churches in Rome. Those who lived in Vatican City, mainly the Roman curia, became citizens of the Vatican, with the Pope as their ruler. The Catholic religion was made the official and only religion of Italy (even Mussolini, the one-time atheist and socialist became “Catholic”, baptizing and confirming his children, and celebrating his marriage in a Catholic ceremony), with crosses and religious instruction in all Italian classrooms. It was chiefly to maintain these recovered powers and privileges that Pius XI and his curia acceded to each new outrage perpetrated by the Fascist Government: the daylight murder of Unitary Socialist Party leader Giacomo Matteotti; the brutal aggression against Ethiopia in 1935; and the growing alliance with, and even subservience to Adolf Hitler.
The murder of Matteotti is instructive, for it was here that Vatican support truly saved Mussolini from disaster. The murder was simple and brazen: on June 10, 1924, Matteotti was walking from his Roman home to give a speech in the Chamber of Deputies, when three men dragged him into a waiting car. The car then raced through Rome’s streets, blaring its horn to cover the struggle and screams of Matteotti, being savagely beaten in the back. His screams stopped when Matteotti died from the blows; he was then unceremoniously dumped in a shallow grave 15 miles outside of Rome. An uproar followed, impelling Mussolini to fire the head of police and his undersecretary for internal affairs, but it was not enough to quell the storm. Cesare Rossi, Mussolini’s press secretary, became a chief suspect, in addition to Amerigo Dumini, an American-born henchman working for Rossi. With Matteotti’s body still not found by July, the fascist government was mired in deep crisis, with its leader, Mussolini, in a deeper one. Depressed and immobilized, he fully believed, with his enemies in parliament emboldened and even the conservative press opposing him, that his government could not survive. It was at this point that the Vatican came to his aid. The pope instructed his liaison, Father Tacchi-Venturi, to assure Mussolini he still had the pope’s support. Then the pope instructed Father Enrico Rosa, editor of Civilta cattolica, a twice-monthly organ known to express the pope’s views, to write an article on the crisis. The pope even edited drafts that went back and forth before the article was published. What the article did was praise the Fascist leader for all he had done for the Church, imply that he had nothing whatever to do with the murder, and warn the public against any violent action against the government. Indeed, it said that
Even the use of legitimate means to bring it down, as through new elections, should be avoided, for it would bring “serious misfortune.” Most important, the Popular Party [the Catholic party, ed.] could never be justified in entering into an alliance with the Socialists. (Kertzer, 75).
The Pope underlined this last point in a speech he gave to a group of university students in September, when he warned that Italian Catholics could never cooperate with Socialism (almost the entire Church hierarchy regularly inveighed against the Communist-Masonic-Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy threatening civilization). He also ordered Don Luigi Sturzo, former head of the Popular Party, to stop his attacks on the fascist regime. The result was that Sturzo left the country, not to return for twenty years.
Still, Mussolini’s decline continued, save for one problem: no one could come up with an alternative to his rule. By January, he had regained his footing enough to speak in parliament, and faced his accusers with breathtaking boldness. He admitted that “I and I alone assume full political, moral, and historical responsibility for everything that has happened.” After cheers from his Fascist deputies, he went on: “If Fascism has been a criminal organization, I am the head of this criminal association!” As the applause and shouts grew ever more thunderous, he concluded by shouting his defiance:
“Sirs! You have deluded yourselves! You believed that Fascism was finished…but you will see…Italy, sirs, wants peace, wants tranquility, wants calm. We will give it this tranquility, this calm through love if possible, and with force, if it becomes necessary.” (77)
The crisis was over, or, one might say, it was just beginning. For with this speech, Mussolini had effectively ended democracy in Italy; within hours, his thugs had rounded up opposition leaders and jailed them, beat Giovanni Amendola, Liberal leader in parliament, so severely that he eventually died of his wounds, and turned parliament into a Fascist-only house. He then began to take on the aura of a Roman, or even Christ-like deity who could do no wrong.
It was with this conviction of his own infallibility (it should be noted that one of Pius XI’s main objections to both Mussolini and Hitler was their arrogation to themselves of pagan, god-like attributes; in the pope’s view, he alone, as vicar of Christ on earth, could rule infallibly, absolutely; totalitarianism was his prerogative and no one else’s) that Mussolini embarked on his Concordat with the Church mentioned above, and his invasion of a defenseless Ethiopia in order to give Italy an empire. It also allowed him to go to Munich, ostensibly to mediate between Hitler and the European countries looking on anxiously as Germany swallowed up territory, and to welcome Hitler to Italy in order to firm up the alliance he was striking with the Fuhrer in order to defeat the ‘communism threatening to destroy Europe.’ Of course, it was the Fascist-Nazi axis, signed secretly in October of 1936, that would nearly destroy Europe, but facts such as these are no obstacle to one who conceives of himself as infallible. And indeed, one of the major reasons the Vatican was willing to ally with fascism was the pope’s sense that opposing communism, socialism and liberalism were common goals of both the Church and Mussolini.
When it came to the anti-Semitic laws instituted first in Nazi Germany, and then in Italy in 1938, however, the pope began to comprehend the mistake he had made. He had already criticized what he saw as the “aggressive paganism” of the Nazi regime and its efforts to “blend Christianity with race worship.” When Mussolini announced in July 1938 his campaign against Italy’s Jews, claiming that Italy’s people were “of Aryan origin,” and that “All of the work that the regime has done thus far is, in essence, racism,” the pope, despite being seriously ill, felt compelled to resist. He expressed his determination to do so, even though most of his advisors feared angering Mussolini and many in the Church actually agreed that “defensive anti-Semitism” was legitimate to combat the “Jewish invasion in politics, the economy, journalism, morals, and all public life” (Kertzer, 291). So it was that when the racial laws were actually passed on September 1, the pope spoke from his heart in a September 6 audience with the staff of Belgian Catholic Radio. Emotional and near tears, he said:
“It is impossible for Christians to participate in anti-Semitism. We recognize that everyone has the right to self-defense and can undertake those necessary actions to safeguard legitimate interests. But anti-Semitism is inadmissible. Spiritually we are all Semites.” (Kertzer, 320).
This was exactly the type of comment the pope’s advisors, especially Tacchi-Venturi and the pope’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (soon to become Pope Pius XII), feared. Sadly, they were able to limit what they considered irreparable damage by excising the Pope’s inflammatory remarks from the published version in the official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore romano. How this was actually done is not clear for, as Kertzer remarks, “Most of the pages from Pacelli’s log of his meetings with the pope in these months are, curiously, missing from those open to researchers at the Vatican Secret Archives” (320).
Increasingly frail, and increasingly disillusioned with what he considered a betrayal of his trust by the fascist government, the pope nevertheless vowed to do something ‘memorable’ before he died. When told of this, Mussolini at first made threats, and then realized an agreement was needed to prevent an open break before the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Concordat on February 11. But the pope did not wait that long. In remarks he gave to his cardinals, he referred darkly to “the recent apotheosis in Rome prepared for a cross that is the enemy of the Cross of Christ.” The “cross” referred to was the Nazi swastika, leaving no doubt that Nazis should be considered the enemies of Catholicism. And this time the ailing pope made certain that his sentiments were published in L’Osservatore romano. Mussolini exploded once again, refusing the invitation to meet with the pope on February 11, but he still held out hope for some reconciliation. Yet rumors of an impending papal denunciation of his regime, even a secret encyclical on its racism (which was true), continued to spread. Meantime, both the pope and the Duce were proving true to their intransigent natures: each was determined to celebrate the Vatican Accords in his own way, and on his own terms. Mussolini busied himself with preparations for war; the pope made sure his remarks scheduled to be given to the gathered bishops and cardinals went to the printer. An open break seemed inevitable. But by Thursday evening, February 9, 1939, Pius XI’s condition had weakened to the point that death seemed near and he was given the last rites. The next morning, at 5:31 A.M the pontiff breathed his last—only a few hours before he was scheduled to celebrate his Concordat, and issue his most urgent condemnation of racism in Italy yet. Also on his desk was the encyclical, Humani generis unitas, he had been preparing: it rejected “the idea that a good Christian could embrace racism, and demanded an end to the persecution of the Jews.”
In the end, Benito Mussolini’s luck held out for a little longer. Instead of having to deal, in wartime, with the powerful and volatile Pope Pius XI, he was favored with a successor, the Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would become even more of an enabler . Pacelli, an instinctive diplomat and conciliator, did all that he was asked, and more. Within days of his predecessor’s death, Pacelli ordered Pius XI’s secretary to gather all copies of his prepared remarks, including all notes pertinent to it, and secrete them. All printed copies of the speech, as well as the planned encyclical, the new pope ordered destroyed. No one would be allowed to see them in full until the Secret Archives for Pius XI’s papacy were opened in 2006. Then, as the newly elected Pope Pius XII, Eugenio Pacelli opened his papacy by meeting almost immediately with the German ambassador, and assuring him of his Church’s plan to inaugurate a new era of understanding. Having been papal nuncio in Berlin, he understood, he told Ambassador Bergen, that each country chose its own form of government and “it was not the pope’s role to judge what system other countries chose.” On March 15, 1939, three days after Pacelli’s formal coronation, the German military seized the remainder of Czechoslovakia. And with their invasion of Poland on September 1, the Nazis made clear that nothing could stop their march to total war and genocide. As to Pius XII’s relations with Mussolini’s fascist government, the days of easy collaboration seemed to have returned with the new pope. As Kertzer puts it, with the death of the irascible Pius XI, “it was as if a dark cloud had lifted.” Of course, an even darker cloud was beginning to envelop Europe, but that, as they say, is another story.