Summary and book reviews of The Pope and Mussolini by David Kertzer

The Pope and Mussolini

The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

by David I. Kertzer

The Pope and Mussolini by David I. Kertzer
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2014, 592 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Linda Hitchcock

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About this Book

Book Summary

The gripping story of Pope Pius XI's secret relations with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. This groundbreaking work will forever change our understanding of the Vatican's role in the rise of Fascism in Europe.

The Pope and Mussolini tells the story of two men who came to power in 1922, and together changed the course of twentieth-century history. In most respects, they could not have been more different. One was scholarly and devout, the other thuggish and profane. Yet Pius XI and "Il Duce" had many things in common. They shared a distrust of democracy and a visceral hatred of Communism. Both were prone to sudden fits of temper and were fiercely protective of the prerogatives of their office. ("We have many interests to protect," the Pope declared, soon after Mussolini seized control of the government in 1922.) Each relied on the other to consolidate his power and achieve his political goals.

In a challenge to the conventional history of this period, in which a heroic Church does battle with the Fascist regime, Kertzer shows how Pius XI played a crucial role in making Mussolini's dictatorship possible and keeping him in power. In exchange for Vatican support, Mussolini restored many of the privileges the Church had lost and gave in to the pope's demands that the police enforce Catholic morality. Yet in the last years of his life - as the Italian dictator grew ever closer to Hitler - the pontiff's faith in this treacherous bargain started to waver. With his health failing, he began to lash out at the Duce and threatened to denounce Mussolini's anti-Semitic racial laws before it was too late. Horrified by the threat to the Church-Fascist alliance, the Vatican's inner circle, including the future Pope Pius XII, struggled to restrain the headstrong pope from destroying a partnership that had served both the Church and the dictator for many years.

The Pope and Mussolini brims with memorable portraits of the men who helped enable the reign of Fascism in Italy: Father Pietro Tacchi Venturi, Pius's personal emissary to the dictator, a wily anti-Semite known as Mussolini's Rasputin; Victor Emmanuel III, the king of Italy, an object of widespread derision who lacked the stature - literally and figuratively - to stand up to the domineering Duce; and Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, whose political skills and ambition made him Mussolini's most powerful ally inside the Vatican, and positioned him to succeed the pontiff as the controversial Pius XII, whose actions during World War II would be subject for debate for decades to come.

With the recent opening of the Vatican archives covering Pius XI's papacy, the full story of the Pope's complex relationship with his Fascist partner can finally be told. Vivid, dramatic, with surprises at every turn, The Pope and Mussolini is history writ large and with the lightning hand of truth.

Chapter one
A New Pope

Outside the Vatican gate, a small crowd gathered, applauding the black sedans as they slowly made their way inside the medieval wall. In recognition or appreciation, or simply from habit, each arriving cardinal waved a hand in ecclesiastical benediction from his backseat. Standing on either side of the gate was a harlequin-clad Swiss Guard, his white-gloved hand raised to his gleaming helmet in salute. A little later, once the last cardinal had found his room in the Apostolic Palace, six officials scurried through the long, cold halls, each swinging a bell. A voice shouted "Extra omnes!" as the last of the outsiders exited. Clutching a massive antique key chain, a Chigi prince, the conclave's ceremonial marshal, locked the heavy door from the outside. Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the chamberlain, locked it from within. The windows were sealed. It was Thursday, February 2, 1922. The doors would not open again until there was a new pope.

Only two weeks ...

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  • award image

    Pulitzer Prize for Letters, Drama and Music
    2015

Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Pope and Mussolini is a fascinating must-read for anyone interested in history who would like to learn more about the backstory of the origins of Fascism and the role of the Catholic Church in the early to mid-20th century. Backed with an extensive bibliography and footnotes, Kertzer has distilled seven years of intensive research into a work of nonfiction that reads like a spy thriller. It's an ideal selection for a book club as it is spiced with intriguing anecdotes about Mussolini's mistresses and the fascist spy network Il Duce unleashed inside Vatican City.   (Reviewed by Linda Hitchcock).

Full Review (856 words).

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Media Reviews

The Daily Beast

The Pope and Mussolini matches rigorous scholarship with a fair yet forceful prose voice. It is an impressive work of history

USA Today

Vividly recounted . . . Kertzer had access to recently opened Vatican archives regarding Pius XI, and his thorough research goes a long way in overturning conventional notions about Catholic church resistance to Mussolini.

San Francisco Chronicle

Captivating . . . the real Da Vinci Code - only it’s rigorously documented and far less implausible.

The Christian Science Monitor

Stunning . . . remarkable . . . Kertzer authoritatively banishes decades of denial and uncertainty about the Vatican's relationship with Italy’s fascist state.

Booklist

An important work of history, Kertzer’s adroit profiles of Pius and Mussolini will broaden its audience.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Kertzer unravels the relationship between two of 20th-century Europe's most important political figures and does so in an accessible style that makes for a fast-paced must-read.

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. Kertzer is unflinching and relentless in his exposure of the Vatican's shocking actions.

Author Blurb Joseph J. Ellis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Revolutionary Summer
David Kertzer has an eye for a story, an ear for the right word, and an instinct for human tragedy. They all come together in The Pope and Mussolini to document, with meticulous scholarship and novelistic flair, the complicity between Pius XI and the Fascist leader in creating an unholy alliance between the Vatican and a totalitarian government rooted in corruption and brutality. This is a sophisticated blockbuster.

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Beyond the Book

The Surprising Love Life of a Dictator

Political power seems to be an eternally compelling aphrodisiac. Benito Mussolini was a legendary Lothario who is estimated to have experienced casual sexual relations during his years as a dictator with as many as 5,000 women. Italian archives contain the guest registers listing the arrival and departure times of these "Fascist visitors," the preferred euphemism for the often nameless lovers and contain confirmation of the trysts in written statements from Mussolini's long-time valet Quinto Navarra.

Mussolini was an unlikely sex symbol. No towering Adonis, the "Knight" was a mere 5'6" in his tall, tight boots, and by late middle age, the youthful chiseled features had softened to rounded cheeks, a bald dome atop a plump torso and with...

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