Every so often, the history major in me overpowers the English major and I wind up veering from my fiction roots into the realm of non-fiction. It’s been a few years since my senior year seminar on the rise of totalitarian regimes in the wake of World War I and I was feeling nostalgic, so I was drawn to David I. Kertzer’s The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe.
The Vatican made more of its records from that time available in 2006, allowing for a deeper level of insight into the two major influences on the lives of Italian Catholics and their relationship with each other. What Kertzer found particularly interesting was the clearer portrait of Pius XI that appeared. With an authoritarian personality that gravitated to similar aspects in the dictator, Pius XI and Mussolini established a mutually beneficial relationship between government and Vatican that appears to only have survived into the papacy of Pius XII because of Pius XI’s death.
The Pope and Mussolini illuminates just how much give and take there was between the two forces over nearly aspect of fascism as it was implemented. Despite how aware and how much input each side offered when it came to matters of policy, the dictator and the pope only ever met in person once. The number of people standing between the faces of each side is remarkable. Particularly at the end of his life, Pius XI had a number of advisors and officials doing everything in their power to soften his judgments and wishes regarding Mussolini’s policies, especially with regards to Italy’s relationship with Germany and Hitler’s Nazis (though his objections were strong, I found where they were centered to be surprising).
Kertzer’s does an adequate job of creating portraits of not just Mussolini and Pius XI, but the innumerable men (and in Mussolini’s case, women) surrounding and attempting to influence each of them as well. The book’s early pacing is very comfortable. I think that, at least in my case, so much attention in my schooling was paid to Hitler’s rise and the shifts going on with Russia’s establishment of the Soviet states that Italy and Mussolini get sort of brushed over. I never realized before just how much before Hitler Mussolini and his Fascist party came to power, or what a great formative impact they had on Hitler. I will chalk this misimpression to my own oversight as well as America’s fascination with the horrors of the Holocaust and the formation of our Cold War foes, the Soviet Union. Also, as Kertzer’s book proves, the Fascist alliance with the Catholic Church went a long way towards legitimizing the regime in the eyes of the world at large.
As the book progressed, the events described felt unnecessarily drawn out. It seemed to me that this was done to build up the question of how close Pius XI came to denouncing Fascism in his final days. This would have been fine, except that the answer appeared in the book’s Prologue. It’s true, the Prologue makes more sense once the reader has a fuller picture of who the key players are, but the rest is anti-climactic. I’m not sure I would have opened the book with quite that much information on Pius XI’s demise; leave the question unanswered at least so the reader is satisfied later instead of experiencing déjà vu.