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'Pope And Mussolini' Tells The 'Secret History' Of Fascism And The Church.

It's commonly thought that the Catholic Church fought heroically against the fascists in Italy. But in The Pope and Mussolini, historian David Kertzer says the church actually lent organizational strength and moral legitimacy to Mussolini's regime.


Other segments from the episode on January 27, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 27, 2014: Interview with David Kertzer; Review of Greg Grandin's book "The Empire of Necessity."


January 27, 2014

Guest: David Kertzer

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. When Benito Mussolini's Fascist Party ruled over Italy in the 1920s and '30s, a commonly accepted narrative holds that the Catholic Church fought heroically against the Fascists. But in a new book, historian David Kertzer says the historical record and a trove of recently released archives tell a far different story.

In 1933, Kertzer writes: Fascist rallies typically began with a morning mass celebrated by a priest, and churches and cathedrals were important props in the pageantry. Kertzer says Pope Pius XI cooperated closely with Mussolini for more than a decade, lending his regime organizational strength and moral legitimacy.

It was a curious alliance, he notes, since Mussolini himself was a committed anti-cleric, but both sides benefitted from the bargain. As World War II approached and Mussolini began to persecute Italy's Jewish population, Pius came to regret his bargain and considered a public break with the regime. The story of why that never happened makes for a dramatic ending to Kertzer's new book, "The Pope and Mussolini." David Kertzer is the Paul Dupee, Jr., professor of Social Science and a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, and the author of nine previous books.

Well, David Kertzer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a couple of basics, here. You know, a lot of us may think of Mussolini's fascism as sort of the Italian wing of Nazism, but, you know, in fact, Mussolini's ascension to power preceded Hitler's, and his fascist movement made a lot of headway long before, you know, Hitler was a significant figure in Germany.

Let's just start with some basics. Tell us who Mussolini was, and what the fascist movement was about, how it got going.

DAVID KERTZER: Well, you're right, Mussolini did - not only did he precede Hitler, but he became a role model for Hitler, who kept a bust of Mussolini in his office in the 1920s as he was plotting his own rise to power. Mussolini came from a modest background in sort of central-northern Italy, an actually heavily anarchist, left-wing kind of area, and his family was part of that.

His father was a left-wing blacksmith. He himself rose to be one of the top leaders of the radical part of the socialist movement. Mussolini edited the national socialist newspaper right before the First World War, and then broke with the socialists over the war, and around the time of the First World War, founded his fascist movement.

It was founded as a kind of nationalist movement, but also an anti-socialist movement. The important thing to remember here is the Russian revolution had just taken place in 1917. So much of Europe was terrified by the prospect of a spreading Bolshevik revolution.

DAVIES: And, of course, Mussolini comes to power in the early '20s. Now, let's talk about the other figure at the center of this story, Pope Pius XI. Tell us where he came from, what kind of man he was.

KERTZER: Well, Achille Ratti - that was his name before becoming pope - came from a heavily Catholic area north of Milan - so, in northern Italy. He early on decided he wanted to be a priest. When he became a young priest, he quickly got involved as a librarian, a kind of church librarian, and became head of a major church library in Milan when he was chosen by the then-pope to come to Rome to become head of the Vatican Library. And he was in the Vatican Library when, out of the blue, the then-Pope Benedict XV called on him right at the end of the First World War to be his personal emissary to Poland. He went to Poland, where the communists, the Bolshevik troops, actually, were about to try to invade Warsaw. They were repelled, but it made a big impact on Monsignor Ratti.

And he became a very visceral anti-communist as a result of that and some other experiences. When he - then in 1921, he was chosen to become archbishop of Milan, a very important position in the church, and he was named a cardinal, and he had barely become cardinal when the pope, Benedict XV, died in early 1922. And he was the rather surprising compromise choice to become pope in February of 1922.

DAVIES: So he becomes Pope Pius XI. As a pope, he was a rather strong-headed authoritarian figure, wasn't he?

KERTZER: Yes. He was someone who had a very keen sense of the dignity of the papal office. He, for example, insisted on eating alone. He wouldn't allow his assistants or other priests or other clergy to eat with him. He insisted when his sister and brother wanted to see him once he became pope, they had to refer to him as Your Holiness, not by his name, and they could only see him by appointment.

And the cardinals and others who came to see him really lived in fear not only of his temper, but he was just a very demanding - he had very high standards and did not tolerate any behavior that he regarded as not up to those standards.

DAVIES: All right, one more piece of history we need to understand, here. You know, we think of Italy as a very Catholic country, and it was in the 1920s. But the church and the Italian government had inherently contentious relations. Explain the background, here.

KERTZER: Yes, I mean, one thing people don't really often understand is Italy is a rather young country. It only formed in 1861, and Rome only became part of it in 1870. The unification of Italy only became possible by doing war with the Papal States and with the pope, so that when Rome was taken away from the pope by military force in 1870, the then-pope, Pius IX, proclaimed himself a prisoner of the Vatican, retreated to the Vatican, excommunicated the king and the leaders of the Italian government and forbade good Catholics from recognizing its legitimacy, running for office or even voting in parliamentary elections. So that at the time that Mussolini came to power in 1922, there had been now, for about six decades, this war between the church and the Italian state.

DAVIES: Mussolini had strong feelings about religion and clerics, didn't he?

KERTZER: Yes. He, you know, coming from the kind of background he did - although, as you mentioned, of course, Italy was a very Catholic country, at least from a formal point of view, 99 percent of the population was Catholic. But there was also a very strong anti-clerical tradition in Italy. So he grew up basically being very anti-clerical.

The first thing he ever wrote as a young journalist was an article called "God Does Not Exist." He referred to priests as parasites and black microbes, and so he really couldn't have been more of an anti-clerical type. And the initial program of the Fascist Party, when it was first begun in 1919, called for an expropriation of much church property and certainly not doing away with one of the fundamental principles of modern Italy, namely the separation of church and state.

So one of the fascinating things of this story, I think, is how, in a very brief period of time, Mussolini came to realize the importance of enlisting the pope's support.

DAVIES: So, when Mussolini is elected to parliament in 1921, he gives a speech, and this violent anti-cleric shocks so many people by embracing the idea of a Christian nation. Why would Mussolini see that as in his and the Fascists' interests?

KERTZER: Well, it was a shocking speech, and for this fierce anti-cleric to say one of the great bases of the greatness of Italy is the fact that it's the world headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, and Italy needed to treasure that identity. And the reason was he was nothing, if not an opportunist.

And he was able to calculate: What would it take for him to come to power and to be able to stay in power? Now, of course, his main opposition was the left, the socialists, the communists. But, in fact, one of the largest parties at the time that would be an obstacle to him was a Catholic party that had been newly formed, only in 1919, called the Popular Party, very popular among Catholics, had the support of local clergy throughout much of the country, elected a large fraction of parliament. Yet for him to come to power, he needed to somehow overcome them, as well.

DAVIES: So he sees a political opportunity in embracing the church. Why would the pope, Pius XI, see it in his interest to ally with the Fascists?

KERTZER: Well, as we were discussing earlier, the popes had seen the Italian government as enemies, basically. They had rejected the notion of separation of church and state. They had lost their privileged position in society. And they had always called that system illegitimate.

They saw - Pius XI began to see at least the possibility that Mussolini might be the person sent by God - a man of providence, as he would later refer to him as - who would reverse all that, who would end the separation of church and state, restore many of the prerogatives of the church. And at the same time as the pope was worried about the rising socialist movement, again in the wake of the Russian revolution, and saw Mussolini as the man who was the best bet, perhaps, to prevent a socialist takeover of Italy.

DAVIES: And neither man had any particular affection for liberal democracy, either.

KERTZER: That's right. Of course, Mussolini, for him the parliamentary system was part of what was holding Italy back. And for the pope, the popes had never been fond of parliamentary democracy for a variety of reasons. One was if they were going to make a deal with the government, they felt, and this was something the pope had expressed, the - how were they to be sure that the next parliament wouldn't just reverse whatever the previous parliament had voted in, whereas with a strong man like Mussolini, things would be different, a real deal could be made.

DAVIES: And the church believed in, you know, an authoritarian view, I suppose, of personal conduct, too. I mean, they had very clear moral scriptures and liked the idea of them being rigidly enforced.

KERTZER: Yes, you know, later on, the pope, in fact, would say, you know, the true, one true totalitarian organization is not the Fascist state or the Fascist Party. It's the Roman Catholic Church. And you have to realize the big break that would come with the Second Vatican Council around 1960.

But back in the 1920s, 1930s, the church still held and the pope still held to a quite medieval vision that believed there should not be freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion. These were all bad things.

DAVIES: So Mussolini becomes the dictator, and the Catholic Church generally supports him. And then in 1929, they reach an historic agreement. Tell us what that was about.

KERTZER: Yes. So, beginning, actually, shortly after this crisis in 1924 and 1925, the pope agrees to enter into secret negotiations with Mussolini about coming up with an agreement that would put an end to this decades-long dispute between the Italian government and the Catholic Church. It's carried out by an envoy of the pope and a representative of Mussolini, and this leads to the agreement which is referred to as the Lateran Accords, because it was announced at the St. John of Lateran Church on February 11th, 1929, which puts an end to the disagreement between the church and the Italian state, and which provides a variety of benefits to the Catholic Church and basically ends the separation of church and state in Italy.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Kertzer. His new book is "The Pope and Mussolini." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, our guest is historian David Kertzer. His new book is "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe."

As Mussolini became more entrenched in power, how did his behavior and self-image change?

KERTZER: Well, this is now the story of the 1930s, after the agreement with the church, and Mussolini is getting to lose contact with reality; he's surrounded by sycophants of various types. He's created this incredible cult of the Duce, so there are big slogans all over sides of homes and barns and whatnot, and Mussolini is always right, Mussolini (speaking foreign language), Mussolini is always right, and he began to have delusions of grandeur.

One of the things he would do, in 1935 he thought Italy should have an empire and so launches an invasion of Ethiopia. The other thing, of course, that's happening is in January 1933, Adolf Hitler comes to power in Germany, and there's this kind of complex relationship between Mussolini, who regards himself as the big brother, and Adolf Hitler, who initially at least saw Mussolini as his role model. And over the next years, of course, this relationship would tighten, but eventually, of course, it would change direction, and Mussolini would come to be the secondary figure in what turned out to be a disastrous relationship for Italy and for the world.

DAVIES: Mussolini at one point wanted to ban the handshake?

KERTZER: Yes, so Mussolini thought the Italians needed to be hardened, and he launched what he called an anti-bourgeois campaign. And among the things he banned, or tried to ban, anyway, was people shouldn't shake hands, they should give the Roman salute, you know, raising their arm and their hand up in the air.

This, like some of the other things he tried to do along these lines, was difficult for many Italians to get used to.

DAVIES: Right, but probably suggests a certain disconnect with reality, in a way.

KERTZER: Yes, he had the head of the Fascist Party of this time, a man named Achille Starace, was kind of his circus master, who kept coming up with these ideas of rituals, mass rituals and other kinds of rites that he thought would make the Italians ever more devoted to their Duce, which is the kind of Latiny term of leader that the Italians used to refer to Mussolini.

In fact, Mussolini required being referred to as Duce, D-U-C-E, it's spelled, and it had to be written in capitals in the newspapers by the 1930s. It couldn't just be written in the normal way.

DAVIES: So you have Mussolini, this megalomaniacal figure, and he wants mass demonstrations. He wants mass organizations that adore him. And then you have this big institution, the Catholic Church, and it seems that there are many, many occasions at which priests would be involved at Fascist public demonstrations, and Fascist officials would be involved in church affairs. So he kind of had the imprimatur of the church.

KERTZER: And you write that Pope Pius XI at times was troubled by this idea of the Duce presenting himself as a god, but in the main, the church supported him.

Yes, the church continued to support him. One of the, I think, the dramas that I try to tell in my book that we can now know really for the first time because it's only recently that the Vatican archives for this period opened up, is the - that Pius XI had increasing doubts about Mussolini, especially both his megalomania and his increasing embrace of Hitler, whom this pope, Pius XI, despised.

And - but despite those worries, at least until the last months of his life, he was reluctant to lose the benefits that came from the alliance that the church had with the - with Mussolini and the Fascist regime.

DAVIES: Yeah, I want to focus on Germany and the pope's change of heart in a bit. But when Mussolini decided that Italy needed an empire, and so he launched this invasion of Ethiopia, and the world was treated to these horrible displays of Italian planes bombing Ethiopian villages, dropping, you know, chemical weapons, there was quite an outcry. How did the church respond to this?

KERTZER: Well, this actually was one of the crucial periods of church support for the Fascist regime because when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, which was in early October 1935, the League of Nations proclaimed a boycott. Actually, Ethiopia was a member nation of the League of Nations. They proclaimed a boycott of Italy. And so Mussolini felt internationally isolated and needed not only internal church support but also something I was able to discover through these newly available documents in Rome, was able to use the Vatican to help him abroad, to, for example, prevent the United States from joining in the boycott, which was extremely important to him.

DAVIES: So the pope had his - had Catholic cardinals around the world, including in the United States, essentially lobbying in support of Italy and its policies.

KERTZER: Yes, I mean I'm - you know, I teach at Brown University here in Providence, Rhode Island, and I think the Italian-American community here was typical. It was very pro-Fascist, pro-Mussolini. They were proud of Mussolini, who seemed to put Italy on the map. And Mussolini organized in December of 1935 what they called the Day of the Wedding Ring, where all good loyal Fascists were to give up their gold wedding rings, which were presumably to be melted down to help offset the effects of the international boycott and help support the war.

In Providence, Rhode Island, hundreds and hundreds of Italian-Americans gave up their wedding rings to the consul of the Fascist Italian government, who represented Rome here in Providence, but similar things happened elsewhere. In Italy itself, priests, bishops, cardinals had their gold pectoral crosses melted down for the Fascist cause, the cause of the Ethiopian war. So this was very important to Mussolini and to the pursuit of the war.

DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that these two men, Mussolini and Pope Pius XI, had this kind of alliance and contention that lasted for, what, close to 18 years, I guess? They were - they met exactly once, right?

KERTZER: Yes. Since becoming pope, although here are two men, they lived a mile or so from each other in Rome, and they had intensive relationships, but the relationship, other than the one time they met, which was in 1932, was all conducted through an intermediary and particularly this one envoy that the pope had, the Jesuit envoy, but also an official ambassador to the Italian state, the Papal Nuncio.

DAVIES: So why didn't they meet more?

KERTZER: Well, there were various reasons. They would have met more often if it was up to the pope. There were other times when there were various crises, when the pope made it known to Mussolini he would welcome discussing things with him, including, for example, the Ethiopian war, if that would help. But Mussolini was not eager to meet with the pope.

Of course the pope would not - never consider going to meet Mussolini at Mussolini's office. So it would be a matter of Mussolini having to come to the Vatican, and for Mussolini to come to the Vatican and its grandeur, all the ritual and pomp that surrounds the pope, was something that made Mussolini very uncomfortable, even if he weren't basically an anti-cleric, which is another part of this.

So Mussolini would never agree to meet one-on-one with the pope again.

DAVIES: David Kertzer will be back in the second half of the show. His book is called "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe." I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: ...Davies in for Terry Gross who is off this week. We're speaking with Brown University historian David Kertzer, whose new book documents a close alliance in the 1920s and '30s between the Catholic Church and Italy's fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Kertzer writes that Pope Pius XI shared Mussolini's hatred for communism and distaste for Western democracy and found the church reaped many benefits from its support for the regime. Kertzer's book is called "The Pope and Mussolini."

In the 1930s, of course, Hitler comes to power in Germany and the pope is very troubled about the German government's repression of the church and its activities and he wants Mussolini to meet with Hitler and do something about it. They do have an encounter and it's kind of a fascinating occasion. Tell us about it.

KERTZER: Yes. So in 1934, Hitler arrives at the - outside Venice, the airport there, where he's met by Mussolini and for their first encounter. Now Mussolini refused to have a translator. Hitler only spoke German. And in fact, Mussolini did learn a number of languages. He did know some German, although he was less than fully fluent, but his pride was such that he wouldn't tolerate a translator. And what he later - as he later recounted in some of his correspondence, Mussolini found Hitler as almost crazed, that he would go on and keep speaking like a phonograph that he couldn't turn of, especially when the question of religion came up, he would talk about how the church befallen into Jews and so forth.

But the pope kept leaning on Mussolini to help him with Hitler. And this is one of the things that really does come through, through the newly available documents in the various archives in the Vatican and elsewhere in Rome, and that is that there were constant series of requests from the time that Hitler comes to power shortly thereafter to Mussolini to intercede on the pope's behalf with Hitler. Who did the pope have who might have influence on Hitler? Certainly nobody in the clergy, in the Catholic clergy could have that kind of influence. He saw Mussolini as extremely valuable in this role. So what we find in the archives, a whole assortment, I mean time after time, month after month requests that Mussolini take action either directly or through his ambassador to Berlin. And Mussolini was at first actually eager to be helpful, at least up to a point. He could show how valuable he was to the pope. But after a while, he wasn't making much progress with Hitler, though curiously, he kept giving Hitler and other of the top Nazi leaders advice on how best to deal with the Catholic Church and how best to deal with the pope and how successful he had been using his methods.

DAVIES: And didn't get the pope anywhere?

KERTZER: No. So and the pope, of course, was furious with Hitler for - well, both for kind of theological reasons, the kind of racism of the - and the Aryan supremacy and so forth, of Nazi ideology was not something that would be at all appealing to the pope, but also because the influence of the Catholic Church in Germany was being quickly eroded.

DAVIES: There's one point at which the pope issues and encyclical criticizing Hitler's treatment of the church in Germany. And you write that Hitler, you know, went on an angry rant about it and threatened to heap disgrace on the church by revealing certain secret information. What was he talking about?

KERTZER: Well, he was talking about pederasty and other kinds of sexual scandals. And in fact, he did create a series of what we refer to as high-profile morality trials against priests, but also against monks and nuns in which they were charged with all sorts of depraved behavior of orgies and abusing children and so forth. And he saw this - Hitler saw this - as kind of his weapon that he could use to try to discredit the Catholic Church.

DAVIES: You know, as the anti-Semitism of Hitler's regime revealed itself, with Kristallnacht and, you know, other outrages, the question emerged of what would the Italian fascist party do toward its Jewish population? First of all, what was the status of Italy's Jews? How many were there? How were they treated?

KERTZER: Well, there were about 35,000 or so Jews in Italy, which is one-tenth of one percent of the population. So it was a very small population and it was found primarily in a few big cities in Italy, so it's quite different than some other parts of Europe. In Poland, for example, 10 percent of the population was Jewish. So it was a small community. It was not seen as a threat to the fascists initially, in fact, there were many Jews who became fascists. They were officeholders, fascist officeholders of various types who were Jewish. And indeed, Mussolini's own long-term early mistress from the time of the First World War into the 1920s was a Jewish woman - Margherita Sarfatti - who was also one of his major political advisors. So in some sense it was a big surprise when Mussolini begins to copy Hitler in his anti-Semitic policies.

DAVIES: This wasn't something that was a longstanding, you know, core commitment of Mussolini's.

KERTZER: No. It was certainly never part of the fascist program. I mean it's not to say there weren't anti-Semitic fascists or an anti-Semitic wing of the fascists, which there was, but it was not identified with Mussolini. And Mussolini, I mean although he participated in the larger probably mild, you might say anti-Semitism at larger culture, nothing marked him as being particularly interested in this issue. And, in fact, he did an interview with a German Jewish reporter, I think was 1933, in which he specifically said that he did not see any problem about Jews and did not believe in racial theories.

DAVIES: And what was the pope's attitude on what was called the Jewish question?

KERTZER: Well, the pope's attitude is more complicated. There had long been in the church a very strong anti-Jewish sentiment. The Jews were demonized, of course, in part for theological reasons, as having been cursed for God and the charge of deicide, of being responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and so forth. But this by the late 19th century had come to be part of a larger anti-Semitic stream in the church which saw the Jews as part of what was wrong with European society, secretly plotting against Christians and many church publications published this kind of material.

The pope, interestingly, had a good relationship when he was in Milan with the local rabbi, for example. And one thing we do know from the documents that are now available if he himself did not see Jews in Italy as any particular problem, even if he may have had ideas about international Jews and Jews in Poland, Jews in other parts of Europe is being identified with communism and so forth, one of the charges being made at the church at the time. So the pope was a part of a anti-Semitic ambience, you might say, but it was not a major issue for him. And he did make a distinction that the Italian Jews were not a threat of any kind.

DAVIES: We're speaking with David Kertzer. His new book is "The Pope and Mussolini." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is historian David Kertzer. His new book is "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe."

Well, in the late '30s, as the alliance between Italy and Germany grew tighter and Mussolini made a military pact with Hitler, Mussolini eventually moved to prepare laws persecuting Italian Jews. And Pope Pius XI, you know, had a change of heart about his longstanding alliance with Mussolini. Kind of take us through his transformation.

KERTZER: Well, in May of 1938, Hitler made a triumphal visit to Italy, including Rome. The pope who despised Hitler refused to receive him, but left the city, went to his summer estate at Castel Gandolfo, closed the Vatican museums so that Hitler wouldn't be able to visit the Vatican museums, and was outraged by the kind of reception planned for - heroic reception planned for Hitler, who he regarded as a major - the major opponent of the church at the time in Europe. So it was in this context right after that visit that in July of 1938, Mussolini has the new racial policy of the Italian government announced in which they refer to the superiority of the pure Italian race and the fact that according to this theory, the Jews were not part of the Italian race and in fact were a threat to good Italians. And this would be followed in early September with the first major series of anti-Semitic laws referred to as the racial laws.

These laws would, for example, kick out all Jewish children out of the public schools, kick out all Jewish teachers and professors as well. Jewish members of professions wouldn't be able to practice their professions. Jewish members of honorary societies would be thrown out and so forth. So this was a very dramatic time for the Jews in Italy and came as a big shock because there really wasn't much precedent for this under the fascist government. So it was at this time that the pope, who was already upset with Mussolini for getting into bed with Hitler, began to be even more alienated. And especially it wasn't so much because of how the Jews were being treated - although, this I think pained the pope - but what it showed about how Mussolini was really making an ever increasingly strengthening pact with Hitler.

DAVIES: This is a remarkable time you write about in the book where, you know, the pope this elderly, his health is failing, and it's clear that he is very troubled and take steps, which it seems would lead to a very public condemnation of Mussolini and anti-Semitism. He drafts this - he charges that American cleric, John La Farge, with drafting an encyclical, which seems like it's going to be a very sharply critical view. But he was surrounded by many people in the Vatican who just weren't going to let this happen.

KERTZER: That's right. And, in fact, when he picks this American Jesuit, John La Farge, who is known for his work against racism, and that is anti-black racism in the United States for this task of drafting an encyclical against anti-Semitism and racism, he does it without letting his secretary of state, Eugenio Pacelli, know or the other people around him. Clearly, he doesn't have confidence that they would share his view that he should be doing this because they would be worried about irritating Mussolini and Hitler as well. So he is making these various moves, but yet the for example, the newspaper, the Vatican daily newspaper, which is not under censorship, L'Osservatore Romano, publishers shortly after the new racial policy is pronounced in mid-August and just before the racial laws, anti-Semitic racial laws, would go into effect in mid-August, 1938, publishes a piece basically calling for measures to be taken against the Jews, seeing the Jews as a danger, saying the church had always called for restricting their rights, saying that the church had opposed giving the Jews equal rights, liberating the Jews in Europe and of the previous century.

This piece in the Vatican daily newspaper was then picked up by the fascist press throughout Italy to justify the imposition of the anti-Semitic racial laws that would go into effect very shortly thereafter. This is just one example. So what you see, if you're looking in the archives, is exactly how these people around the pope - largely in the secretary of state's office, but not only. For example, the world head of the Jesuit order is a very important player here as well - how they are able to thwart the will of the pope.

DAVIES: You know, I have to say, I mean there's an ending to this story, which it's written, you know, like a thriller, like a novel. As the 10th anniversary of the Lateran Accords, which was this historic agreement between the Italian government and the church, the 10th anniversary is to be celebrated. It appears the pope is determined to make a public condemnation of the fascists and really rupture that relationship. But it just doesn't happen. Do you want to tell us the story?

KERTZER: Yes. In fact, one of the things that we learn from Mussolini's correspondence is he was convinced that the pope was going to use the occasion of that 10th anniversary celebration, which he invited all the bishops of Italy to St. Peter's for a speech, that the pope was going to denounce Mussolini and the alliance with Hitler in that speech. So Mussolini was desperately afraid of exactly that.

And the, of course, the timing of the pope's death has led to various conspiracy theories. This big speech that all the bishops were called in to hear that Mussolini was so worried about was to take place on February 11th, 1939. The pope died on February 10th, the day before he was supposed to give the speech. And whether or not you believe in any of these conspiracies, I didn't find any evidence of any foul play myself in the archives, but one thing we do know and that we do recently know because of the newly available documents in the archives and in the fascist archives, is that after - immediately after the pope's death, Mussolini got word to the secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli, who is now as the chamberlain in charge of the pope's effects and basically request that Pacelli destroy all copies of the speech, because the pope actually had made copies - 300 copies - of the speech to give all the Italian bishops...

...destroy all copies of the speech because the pope actually had made copies, 300 copies of the speech to give to all the Italian bishops when they came. Mussolini wanted these destroyed.

DAVIES: So do we know what was in the speech?

KERTZER: The text of the speech only comes out many decades later and was hidden from view until recently. It's - you know, reading it now, it's not the thundering denunciation of fascism that one might like. On the other hand, it was pretty strong stuff. It talked about - warned the bishops that there were fascist spies everywhere, they should watch what they said. He again denounced racism.

So it was the kind of speech that Mussolini would certainly not have liked to hear, much less Hitler.

DAVIES: We should say what happened - what became of the Jewish population of Italy, which was subject to these racial laws which, you know, initially had dealt with, you know, banning them from certain occupations, banning kids from public schools, but did not, you know, mean that there were Italian concentration camps. What became of the Italian Jewish community as the war proceeded?

KERTZER: Well, actually, there were Italian concentration camps, although they were not extermination camps. But you're right, the racial laws had never envisioned the mass murder of the Jews of Italy. But in 1943, Mussolini is overthrown and Hitler sends German troops to flood through the Italian peninsula, take over all of central and northern Italy, take control of Rome. The allies are now trying to battle their way up from Sicily, from the south of the boot, up north.

But it will take a couple of years until the end of the war till they make their way all the way up there. So the Jews now are subject to the Nazi policies of extermination. The Nazis enlist their Italian collaborators to help locate the Jews and to deport them, largely to Auschwitz. There had been, in addition to about 35,000 Italian Jews, by this time there were about 10,000 Jews from Germany and other parts of Nazi occupied Europe who had escaped to Italy.

Of these, something like 8,000 would be sent to - would never make it out of Auschwitz, basically, other concentration camps - would be murdered. The majority, however, do survive the war.

DAVIES: You write in the author's note that the common narrative is that the Roman Catholic Church fought heroically against Italian fascism, you know, and that the Catholic Action, these clubs or these groups that were supported by the church, had been on the forefront of finding fascism. And your book tells a very, very different story, and it strikes me how much of, you know, how much of this was actually publically known at the time, or at least written about, if, you know, in some Italian papers and in some foreign newspapers.

How did this narrative of the Church fighting fascism prevail if so many of these events seemed to be observed at the time?

KERTZER: Well, I think this is a fascinating question and it's part of a larger question - namely, Italy remaking its fascist past. So it's not just the Catholic Church. If you think of Italy right after the war, they had been fascists for 20 years. They had been allies of Hitler. Italian forces had fought alongside of Nazi forces in the eastern front in the Soviet Union and in Africa and elsewhere, the Balkans.

Italy needed to remake its history. And it was rather shameless in remaking its history into an anti-fascist history. Politically, the most important actor at the time was the Christian Democratic Party that would emerge from the war as the major political force in Italian politics, would rule Italy for decades. For them it was absolutely essential that the Church be seen as part of anti-fascism, not as part of the collaboration with fascism.

And so - but at the same time, it was more generally, given that a great majority of Italians were part of fascism in one way or another, it was in everybody's interest to come up with a new narrative and not to look too skeptically at these new stories, even though people who lived through them knew how off base they actually were.

DAVIES: Well, David Kertzer, it's been interesting. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KERTZER: My pleasure.

DAVIES: David Kertzer is a professor of social science, anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University. His book is "The Pope And Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe."

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Four years ago, historian Greg Grandin's book "Fordlandia" told the story of Henry Ford's project to turn a swath of the Amazonian rainforest into Main Street U.S.A. "Fordlandia" was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Grandin has a new work of narrative history about the slave trade called "The Empire of Necessity." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Shortly after sunrise, on the morning of February 20, 1805, sailors on an American ship called the Perseverance anchored near an uninhabited island off the coast of Chile, spied a weird vessel drifting into view. It flew no flag and its threadbare sails were slack. The captain of the Perseverance, a man named Amasa Delano, decided to come to the aid of the ship, whose name, painted in faded white letters along its bow, was the Tryal.

When Captain Delano boarded the Tryal, he found himself amidst a crowd of African slaves, along with a sprinkling of Spanish and mulatto sailors. Delano remained aboard the Tryal for nine hours, becoming increasingly uneasy. The distressed ship's Spanish captain was often listless, even rude. He refused to speak to Delano in private, instead insisting that his African manservant stay always listening by his side.

At one point, Delano witnessed an African slave pull out a knife and slash the head of a Spanish cabin boy, an incident the Tryal's captain dismissed as merely sport. At the end of this strange afternoon, Delano took his leave and climbed down the side of the Tryal to get into his ship's rowboat.

That's when the captain of the Tryal roused himself, broke away from his manservant, and leapt overboard, crashing into Captain Delano's boat. It turns out the black folk aboard the Tryal were only pretending to be enslaved; in fact they had staged a successful revolt some 53 days earlier.

If this scene sounds familiar to you, you know your Melville. Herman Melville drew almost exclusively upon Captain Delano's later memoir to write his own 1855 floating Gothic masterpiece of a short novel, "Benito Cereno." In turn, historian Greg Grandin has written a book that delves deep into Melville's account, as well as into the details of the real-life slave revolt aboard the Tryal.

Grandin elegantly characterizes Delano's fateful visit to the ship as a one-act, nine-hour, full-cast pantomime of the master-slave relation performed by a group of desperate, starving and thirsty men and women, most of whom didn't speak the language of their would-be captors.

Grandin focuses on the story of the Tryal in order to fan out and explore the explosion of the slave trade in the Americas in the early 19th century. His book, "The Empire of Necessity," is a wonder of power, precision and sheer reading pleasure about human horror and degradation.

In it, Grandin dramatizes what historians have acknowledged as the central paradox of the Age of Liberty - that period that began with the American Revolution and extended through the revolutions in France, Haiti and South America. The paradox is that the Age of Liberty was also the Age of Slavery.

The tale of the revolt of the 72 slaves aboard the Tryal is Grandin's touchstone and he keeps returning to it to illuminate the background story of how those two ships and their passengers came to be in the South Pacific in 1805. For instance, Amasa Delano, the American captain, was on a seal hunting expedition and Grandin talks about that industry, as well as the feudal conditions that shaped life aboard the Perseverance and other ships.

One of the most charged sections of "The Empire of Necessity" traces the odyssey of the slaves who wound up on the Tryal - first forced onto a ship off the coast of West Africa, then sold in Buenos Aires, then marched in chains over the top of the Andes to Chile. Grandin evocatively describes the sublime terror of the mountain trail, the static electricity of the air that would cause clothing to spark, the cold that would freeze sweat onto skin.

Grandin also observes that the slaves, at least some of whom were Muslim, made this journey during Ramadan and they staged their revolt on the Tryal during what's called The Night of Power, the holiest day of Islam's holiest month. That fact then prompts Grandin to begin an enlightening exploration of how the mostly Christian slave trade helped spread the influence of Islam.

In his previous book, the much acclaimed "Fordlandia," Grandin chronicled how Henry Ford attempted to establish a utopian version of small town America in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest. In "The Empire of Necessity," Grandin takes readers on a tour of the hell of the slave trade, a tour so revelatory and compelling, we readers, unlike Captain Delano, can't fail to see the truth before our eyes.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Empire of Necessity" by Greg Grandin.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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