David I. Kertzer is the author of the new book The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe. His many other books include The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Amalia's Tale, Prisoner of the Vatican, and The Popes Against the Jews. He is the Paul Dupee Jr. University Professor of Social Science and professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Q: Why did you decide to focus your new book on the dynamic between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini?
A: I decided to write The Pope and Mussolini in 2002 when Pope John Paul II authorized the opening of the Vatican archives for the papacy of Pius XI.
These years—1922-39—were incredibly dramatic and important ones in the course of modern history, and they are cloaked in controversy. The role played by the Church in enabling the world’s first Fascist regime to come to power has been fiercely debated. And then, of course, the role played by the pope and the Vatican as Hitler came to power in Germany and Mussolini and Hitler formed their fateful alliance could hardly be more controversial.
Now, with the opening of the Church archives, we were finally in a position to know what had happened.
Q: You write, "The relationship of the two larger-than-life figures at the center of this book turned out to be even more intriguing than I suspected." Why was that?
A: Although the two men lived scarcely a mile apart from each other in Rome, in many ways they could hardly have been more different. Mussolini was not only a violent bully, but he had long been a vicious anticleric. Pius XI, a deeply religious man who had spent most of his adult life as a Church librarian, would seem to be Mussolini’s polar opposite. Yet they came to have a deep mutual dependence.
What is most fascinating though is how the men negotiated the tension that came from the belief each had of his supremacy. The pope once commented that there was only one “totalitarian” organization in Italy and that was the Roman Catholic Church, not the Fascist regime. Clearly this was not a perspective Mussolini appreciated…
Q: What are some of the greatest misperceptions about the relationship between Mussolini and the Vatican?
A: Following the disaster of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Vatican has tried to rewrite this now embarrassing part of its history. (In this, by the way, it is not alone, as Italians too now cast themselves as having been partisans of the allied cause and not in league with Hitler.)
Denying the crucial enabling role the Vatican played in the demise of Italy’s democracy and the rise of the Fascist dictatorship, the Holy See has tried to sell the story of a pope and a Church that constantly fought against Mussolini.
A related misperception concerns the role played by the Church in Mussolini’s imposition of the anti-Semitic “racial laws” in 1938. These laws threw all Jewish children out of school, fired all Jewish teachers, government workers, members of the military, and many others. Jews were suddenly treated as a noxious foreign race.
According to the official Vatican account, the pope and the Church valiantly opposed these laws. What actually happened was very different.
Q: How did you research this book, and what surprised you the most in the course of your research?
A: The book is based on many years of archival research. This involved not only the newly opened Vatican archives and other Church archives, such as the central Jesuit archives in Rome, but also a variety of Fascist archives—the Central Italian State Archives and the archives of the Italian Foreign Ministry, among others. I also worked in the French and U.S diplomatic archives.
I ended up with about 25,000 pages of archival documents digitized in my computer, plus thousands of pages of published diplomatic correspondence and other primary materials. Weaving together many different sources for the same historic events was fascinating and allowed me to gain an understanding that would not have been possible otherwise.
There were many surprises in the research, which I report in the book. Perhaps the greatest surprise was the secret deal worked out between the pope’s personal emissary to Mussolini and the dictator, in advance of the racial laws, pledging that the Church would not oppose them. What an incredible document….
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a new book, sticking with popes and politics, but going back to the nineteenth century.
In 1848, in the face of a popular revolt, Pope Pius IX fled Rome and took refuge in a fortress in the Kingdom of Naples. From there he called on Europe’s Catholic powers to send their armies to restore him to power and to resurrect the Papal States. Meanwhile, in Rome, Mazzini, Garibaldi and others proclaimed a Roman Republic and the end of the pope’s temporal power. It is a dramatic story I am eager to tell.
Q: Anything else we should know?A: Recently news has leaked out that an earlier book of mine, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg, with the screenplay being written by Tony Kushner. I am very excited.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb