National memories like personal ones, tend to be self-flattering, soothing, and often glorious. So it comes as a shock when historical research shows those memories to be false. It is even more shocking when research unearths new historical narratives that are awkward, shameful, or even intolerable. Since the end of the Second World War, both the Catholic Church and Italy have treasured heroic memories of their supposedly contentious relations with Benito Mussolini, his Fascist regime, and the anti-Semitic racial laws of 1938. The traditional, self-consoling narrative goes something like this:

Brava gente, the good people of Italy opposed Mussolini’s Fascist regime and the racial laws it produced. The Catholic Church in Italy resisted Italian Fascism. Its cantankerous pope, Pius XI, fought Mussolini and his dictatorship, as did other high-ranking Vatican churchmen. When Italy’s racial laws were published in 1938, church leaders protested them vigorously. They were appalled that Jews would be disenfranchised, marginalized professionally and educationally, ostracized socially, defined by race, and declared ethnically and culturally inferior to their European neighbors. Only semi-heathen and politically illiberal Germany could possibly have championed this sort of pre-Christian tribalism and discrimination.

David Kertzer, the distinguished historian of modern Italy at Brown University and author of the brilliant The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,(Vintage, 1998), tells a much different story in his latest, meticulously researched, and captivating book. The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe (Random House, 529 pages) is based in large part on tens of thousands of documents made available only in 2006 in the Vatican Archives, covering the pontificate of Pius XI (1922–1939), as well as a treasure trove of newly available sources for the same period in the Jesuit archives, along with the rich Fascist archives for these years. Among Kertzer’s conclusions are that the Vatican bureaucracy, far from resisting Mussolini, enabled and sustained the Mussolini dictatorship. Several important Jesuits, including the order’s Superior General, helped support the Fascist regime and tried to muzzle papal criticism of Hitler. These Jesuits also did much to sustain the notion that there was a worldwide conspiracy of Judeo-Bolsheviks intent on subverting healthy Christian society and establishing a Communist empire in the West. Not only did the church fail to resist the 1938 racial laws; church-approved writings provided much of the rationale for discriminating against Italy’s tiny Jewish population. Among those who suppressed criticism of the Italian racial laws and sought to ease tensions between the pope, Mussolini, and Hitler was the Vatican secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, who would succeed Pius XI in 1939.

Most of all, Pius XI and the dictator, who both came to power in 1922, depended on each other for support and for achieving mutual goals. They shared many political ideas; both loathed democracy and Communism. Pius gave sacred legitimacy and removed political obstacles to Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Mussolini restored many ecclesiastical prerogatives that had been lost over the previous decades. Only near the end of Pius XI’s pontificate, when the aging pope grew enraged with Mussolini and his friend and ally Hitler, did the unholy union begin to unravel. But the unraveling was knit up after Pacelli became Pius XII.

As he rose to power, the anti-clerical and irreligious Mussolini (his first publication: “God Does Not Exist”) felt that he needed the support of Italy’s Catholics. Among the obstacles to his rise to power had been the Italian Popular Party, founded by the Sicilian priest Luigi Sturzo in 1919 with the support of Benedict XV. Intended to draw Catholics away from the Socialists with a program of progressive Catholicism, it was by 1922 among the country’s largest parties. The Fascists saw the Popular Party as one of several countrywide organizations that blocked their path to power, and to clear the way, they beat priests, raided party meetings, and sacked party buildings. Unlike Benedict, Pius XI had never embraced the Popular Party, partly because of its professed independence from the Vatican. In addition, both the new pope and Mussolini had profound misgivings about democracy—and both hated Communism and feared a Bolshevik takeover of the West. In the eyes of Pius XI, Mussolini and the Fascists would provide an indispensable bulwark against Communism and other detestable aspects of modernity.

Eventually, the new pope concluded that it would be best to throw his support to the Fascist Party. In 1922, he had his secretary of state send a letter to bishops forbidding priests from joining any party, and in 1926 the Popular Party was disbanded altogether.

Pius XI had done a critically important favor for Mussolini, and upon Il Duce’s assumption of power in 1922, the new leader was eager to communicate his gratitude to the new pope. He ordered his men to kneel in prayer for a moment. As Kertzer observes, Mussolini was well aware that the support he had received from the church was “priceless.” Pius XI made sure that never again would the Vatican-vetted Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica denounce Fascism. Indeed it would legitimate it. Just before the first election held under Mussolini, in 1924, the journal reminded readers of all the benefits provided by the Fascists and of how tirelessly Mussolini had already worked to improve church-government relations.

For his part, Mussolini pleased the Vatican by restoring crucifixes to the country’s classrooms, adding church holidays to the civil calendar, and showering the church with funds to rebuild places of worship damaged in the Great War. In 1921, in one of his earliest speeches as leader, Mussolini pledged that Fascism would help restore a Christian society in Italy. He would build a Catholic state appropriate to a Catholic nation.

The two most powerful men in Italy had fallen into what Kertzer calls a “fatal embrace.” The pope had cast his lot with the former “priest-eater” for the benefits he would provide the Catholic Church in Italy. The Fascist revolution, Kertzer concludes, had become “a clerico-Fascist revolution.”

Then, crisis. In 1924, the leader of the United Socialist Party, Giacomo Matteotti, was murdered by Fascist thugs (following a broad hint from Mussolini that they should do so), after he had criticized Fascists from the Chamber of Deputies and suggested that the recent election, marred by violence, be annulled. Mussolini’s government was in trouble, and the pope “decided to do all he could to save” Mussolini and his regime. The Vatican’s daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, published an editorial reminding its Catholic readers to obey the civil authorities, as Romans 13 instructed them to do. Catholic party members were given a special warning not to help bring down the Fascist regime. The pope sent an emissary to Mussolini to convey his support. In early September, the pope instructed university students that Italian Catholics could never cooperate with Socialists, a parliamentary alliance that would be required if Mussolini were to be deposed.

In the end, Fascism did not fall, “not least,” Kertzer concludes, “due to the pope’s constant efforts to undermine any possible alliance to put an end to Fascist rule.”

Flash forward to 1935, when Mussolini shocked the world by invading Ethiopia. In response, the League of Nations imposed economic sanctions on Italy, and American newspapers began to focus attention on similarities between Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. President Roosevelt denounced Italian Fascism for the first time. Mussolini turned to the Vatican for help. Secretary of State Cardinal Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, was at the ready. He helped organize international resistance to the boycott. He also met with several European ambassadors and threatened that there would be no peace until the sanctions were lifted, which the League did on July 7. Cardinal Pacelli had done the first of many favors for Mussolini. Throughout Mussolini’s time in power, Pacelli was Il Duce’s most powerful and reliable ally in the Vatican. 

By that time, a confidential intermediary between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini, Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, S.J. (1861–1956), had long been attempting to persuade Il Duce of something that many of his fellow Jesuits and Catholic intellectuals believed: that the greatest enemy of the state (and the church) was “the worldwide Jewish-Masonic plutocracy.” This had not been a part of Mussolini’s ideology. In an interview held with the widely read German Jewish journalist Emil Ludwig, he declared that he saw no racial or Jewish problem in Italy. That would change.

In a book replete with intriguing and unsavory characters, Tacchi Venturi is surely the most conniving—and among the most influential. A “powerbroker extraordinaire,” as Kertzer calls him, he hurried from one ministerial office to the other.1 The Jesuit was discreet, but his bond with Mussolini did not go unobserved. Romans dubbed him “Mussolini’s confessor.” He had taken upon himself the task of alerting Mussolini to the threat posed by Western Jews as well as those in Central and Eastern Europe. This was not church doctrine. While Pius XI had—at least at one time—believed that the “hordes” of Jews in Eastern Europe posed a threat to the health of Christian society, he never thought Italy’s tiny Jewish community (one-tenth of 1 percent of the Italian population) was in any way an enemy of the state or the church. But Tacchi Venturi made no such distinction between Eastern and Western Jews. He believed the Jews sought revolution, embraced Bolshevism, and wished to destroy current society and dominate the world by themselves, “as their Talmud prescribes.” Mussolini was, the Jesuit tried to persuade him, the victim of a Jewish-Masonic-Bolshevik conspiracy. The League of Nations, under the domination of “the Jews and Masons,” was aiming to end Fascism and the Mussolini regime. Their goal? To install a Judeo-Bolshevik “empire in Italy.”

Under pressure from the British and French, and feeling himself friendless, Mussolini was quickly seduced by this view, and he eventually saw to the passage of Italy’s 1938 racial laws. He justified them in part with the observation that the new anti-Jewish laws would be no harsher than those that the popes themselves had for centuries imposed on the Jews in the Papal States. He surely even viewed them as more liberal, for as the text of the agreement worked out secretly between Tacchi Venturi and Mussolini put it—an agreement made in the pope’s name just before the announcement of the racial laws—some of the more odious anti-Semitic restrictions would not be put back in place:

As for the Jews, the distinctive caps—of whatever color—will not be brought back, nor the ghettoes, much less will their belongings be confiscated. The Jews, in a word, can be sure that they will not be subject to treatment worse than that which was accorded them for centuries and centuries by the popes who hosted them in the Eternal City and in the lands of their temporal domain.

For Tacchi Venturi and the Jesuits who had composed anti-Semitic articles for decades in the Vatican-vetted Civiltà Cattolica, the racial laws represented the realization of all their religio-political fantasies. The Jews would at last be subject to restrictions aimed at protecting Christian society from their noxious influence. For its part, the Holy See agreed not to criticize the anti-Semitic laws. Given the history of the papacy’s merciless treatment of the Jews in Rome, it was hardly in a position to do so, even if it wished to.

Tacchi Venturi was not the only Jesuit on whom Mussolini knew he could rely or who was overjoyed at the passage of the racial laws. Elected in 1915 to his post as general superior of the order, Wodzimierz Ledóchowski (1866–1942) was the Polish priest who would hold that powerful position for over a quarter century. Ledóchowski did nothing to challenge and much to bolster the belief of both leaders in the existence of a worldwide conspiracy of Jews aimed at undermining healthy Christian societies and bolshevizing the West. He was quite open in his enthusiasm for Mussolini’s Fascist regime, so much so that he effectively neutralized much ecclesiastical and all Jesuit criticism of the regime. In 1936, for example, an article critical of Fascism was published in the Jesuit journal America. Through his ambassador, Mussolini made it known he was displeased. Ledóchowski, as superior general of the Jesuit order, immediately fired the journal’s anti-Fascist editor and replaced him with a new one, who was enthusiastic for the Fascist cause. Ledóchowski observed to the Italian ambassador to the Holy See that attacks on Musssolini for waging war in Ethiopa were “simply a pretext from which international Judaism is profiting in order to advance its attack on Western civilization.”

The view at the top of the Vatican, however, was changing. In 1936, Pope Pius XI, at the urging of the German bishops, prepared an encyclical urging the Nazi government to respect the terms of its 1933 Concordat with the church. Secretary of State Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, was reluctant to antagonize Hitler and advised the pontiff against issuing his criticism in the form of an encyclical. Instead, Pacelli suggested, the pope should simply send Hitler a letter to be shared only with the German bishops. Pius XI rebuffed Pacelli, and in March 1937, bishops and priests throughout Germany read from their pulpits the papal encyclical “With Burning Anxiety,” a critique of Nazi anti-Catholicism. At the same time, the Holy Office had been working on a separate document, recording a list of fundamental principles of Nazism that the church deemed to be in grave error. Among these principles were passages clearly taken from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Throughout the drafting project, Ledóchowski did all he could to prevent the pope from denouncing Hitler. He urged the pope to “avoid going into questions that are very difficult and subtle.” In a handwritten letter in 1936, Ledóchowski urged the pope to issue a worldwide warning about the “terrible danger that grows more menacing each day.” The danger came from Moscow’s atheistic Communist propaganda—all the product of Jews, he said—while “the great world press, it too under Jewish control, barely speaks of it.” He advised: “An encyclical on this argument [would] lead not only the Catholics but others as well to a more energetic and better organized resistance.”

Sharing Ledóchowski’s belief that Communism posed the graver danger, Pius XI agreed to have a special encyclical prepared and, over the following months, frequently sent him drafts for his comments and suggestions. Unhappy that they said nothing about the Jews, Ledóchowski kept pushing the pope to add language linking Jews to the Communist
danger. “It seems necessary to us in such an encyclical,” Ledóchowski advised, in reaction to one such draft:

at least to make an allusion to the Jewish influence, being certain that not only were the intellectual authors of Communism all Jews, but also that the communist movement in Russia was staged by Jews. And now, too, although not always openly in every region, if you look more deeply into it, it is the Jews who are the primary champions and promoters of Communist propaganda.

Over the course of his pontificate, Pius XI grew more suspicious of Hitler’s racism, which he took to be incompatible with the Catholic doctrine of creation. He was appalled when Mussolini invited Hitler to visit Italy. Indeed, Pius XI was so upset with the prospect of Hitler’s disgracing his beloved nation that he choked up in the company of aides and left the city for the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo. After Hitler left, Pius complained that the colossal tribute to Hitler was just the latest sign of Italy’s servility to Germany.

Pius had good reason to rue. In the diocese of Orte, for example, the Franciscans covered their friary with Nazi flags and decorated their bell tower with swastikas. As a train carrying the two Fascist leaders passed, they chanted: “Viva Mussolini! Viva Hitler!” It is not impossible that Hitler’s visit was related to the timing of Mussolini’s anti-Semitic campaign, announced shortly thereafter. “Mussolini,” Kertzer concludes, “was eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought that nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews.”

Soon Pius XI would commission the admirable American Jesuit, Father John Lafarge, who had written a book against American racial injustice, to draft a secret encyclical on racism and anti-Semitism. Ledóchowski was outraged. “The pope is mad,” Ledóchowski thundered. The Jesuit superior general required that Lafarge be accompanied by two colleagues of his choosing as he drafted the encyclical. When the three Jesuits delivered the text to their superior Ledóchowski, they assumed the Jesuit general would send it directly on to the pope. But for seven months, Ledóchowski kept the draft encyclical far from the Throne of Peter. Pius XI died in 1939 before the so-called secret encyclical against racism could be published.

When Pacelli was elected Pius XI’s successor, Kertzer reports, “Mussolini and the other Fascist leaders felt as if they had woken up to find an irritating sore that had long plagued them was miraculously gone.” Within 48 hours of his election, Pius XII summoned the German ambassador, Diego von Bergen, and said he was eager to assure the Nazi government that he sought a new era of understanding. After telling Bergen how close he felt to the German people as a result of his many years in Munich and Berlin, the new Pope came to his main point. He understood, he said, that different countries adopted different forms of government. Amazingly, he concluded that “it was not the pope’s role to judge what system other countries chose.” While much attention has been paid to Pius XII’s relations with the genocidal Nazi regime, until now very little has been written on the same man’s earlier role in quelling criticism of the Nazi and Fascist regimes and in preserving the Vatican’s good relations with Mussolini. Indeed, there is a serious movement within the Catholic Church to make Pius XII a saint. Will the new material Kertzer has uncovered and expertly analyzed make it into his canonization dossier? Not very likely. More likely, Pacelli’s apologists, ever alert to protect Pius XII no matter what the evidence suggests, will (if recent history is any guide) accuse Kertzer of all manner of scholarly dereliction.

On the other hand, intellectually honest historians who have the requisite philological and historical expertise will credit Kertzer with a remarkable achievement in bringing to light, through researches wide in scope and profound in depth, a previously hidden history. And Roman Catholics eager to purge their church of all vestiges of anti-Semitism will welcome his exposé of this unhappy and largely unfaced history. Perhaps Francis I—pope, Jesuit, and philo-Semite—will finally enable historians to uncover this history in all its fullness.


1 One of the strangest chapters in Tacchi Venturi’s curious life was a mysterious attempt to murder him by a young man who got into his apartment and stabbed the Jesuit priest with a paper knife. Tacchi Venturi did everything he could to convince the police that he had been the target of an international assassination attempt. Based on oddities in the story and the physical evidence, the police disbelieved him.  In fact, the reasons for attacking him were personal and not political.  As it turned out, the attempt on his life had been made by a young man with whom, at least according to a police informant, the Jesuit priest may have had illicit relations.  As the Fascist police were not anxious to look into the personal life of the Jesuit who was so close to both Mussolini and Pius XI, or look into his possible relations with boys or young men, they were content to bring the investigation to a close.  The attacker was never found.

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