Mussolini in Myth and Memory: The First Totalitarian Dictator, by Paul Corner, Oxford University Press, 179 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0192866646
The Pope At War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini & Hitler, by David I Kertzer, Oxford University Press, 621 pp, £25, ISBN 978-0192890733
I begin writing this review on a day (October 13th, 2022), in the month of the hundredth anniversary of Mussolini’s march on Rome, when the presidency of the Italian senate passed from Liliana Segre, a survivor of Auschwitz, the only one of her family to return, to a man who collects fascist memorabilia and whose father was a secretary of the fascist party in the 1940s. The new president, Ignazio Maria Benito La Russa, can be seen in several Youtube videos making the fascist salute (as in this one ‑ at around 1.00).
And this afternoon, I stepped into our local baker’s to pick up some focaccia and was greeted by a chorus of fury from the two women who own the place: do they remember nothing, was their demand.
Italy, at least the Italy that I know, is in a kind of mourning. In the focacceria they are hoping that we will shake ourselves. Scendiamo in piazza, they said, a beautiful, seemingly simple expression which literally means ‘let’s descend into the piazza’ but which actually means ‘Let’s organise, let’s march, let’s protest’, because the piazza is the public space. To say something is in piazza is to say that it is being talked about publicly. The piazza is the public memory.
‘Memory,’ Paul Corner suggests, ‘concerns the ways in which people construct a sense of the past … It does not depend on documents or archives … Yet paradoxical as it may seem, memory is not just looking back. It is as much about the present as the past.’ And indeed, we might add, it is about how we construe the future, the structural elements with which we imagine what the world could be like. Memory, argues Corner, is very much a journey and we depart from the present not from the past.
David Kertzer, in a way, is also challenging our memory, or what we think of as memory, in particular the comforting ‘memory’ of the Vatican doing its best to mitigate the effects of fascism in the world. The Vatican itself has been foremost in the creation of these false histories, campaigning against books and plays that depicted Pius XII for what he was and generating histories and films of its own as well as fostering favourable depictions. One such favourable view is the film The Scarlet and The Black (1983), starring Gregory Peck, Christopher Plummer and John Gielgud, in which the heroic Irish priest Father Hugh O’Flaherty struggles to rescue Jews by hiding them about the Borgo Vaticano without the knowledge or cooperation of his superiors. O’Flaherty was real and his activities are well-attested. On the other hand, Pius XII: Under The Roman Sky (2013) seems to be built on a fantasy of ‘the hidden struggle waged by the Pope and many others to save the Jews from the Nazis during WWII’. Kertzer argues convincingly, and with overwhelming mastery of the archives, that no such struggle took place. Quite the opposite, in fact: he paints a grim portrait of a pope more concerned with the continued existence of church institutions than with the nature of the fascist regimes, or indeed with the murder of six million Jews.
Both books are timely, as fascism is back in fashion across the European continent and in particular in the country of its birth. This renaissance is due in large part to forgetting or, perhaps more accurately, to selective remembering. ‘Mussolini was not so bad,’ is the argument, ‘when one considers Hitler or even Franco.’ ‘Mussolini did many good things,’ as the newly appointed president of the senate once argued. That ‘Italian fascism was an essentially benign form of dictatorship’ is another common trope. None of these statements is true in any sense, except perhaps that Hitler was more terrible than any of them, but if you need to position yourself on a political scale which has ‘not being Hitler’ as a point of reference you have already lost the argument. Corner and Kertzer dissect this form of nostalgia and confront the apologists for fascism with the undisputed historical reality.
So what was this reality? Mussolini was the first fascist and he defined many of the characteristics we associate with the movement even today, such as the paramilitary uniform and the straight-arm, so-called ‘Roman salute’ (in fact there is no evidence whatsoever that the Romans used such a gesture). Like much fascist imagery it is borrowed – both the black shirt and the salute were invented by Gabriele D’Annunzio, poet, showman and protofascist, when he led a group of volunteers to seize Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) on behalf of Italian nationalism. On the other hand the cult of violence for its own sake is native to fascism, a violence that was neither reactive nor random but, according to Corner, ‘systematic and aggressive; it was an integral part of fascist activity because it was central to fascist ideology’. Violence was seen as a ‘virtuous agent, purifying the nation of its anti-national enemies’ which included, of course, socialists, communists and anarchists, but also pacifists.
The self-aggrandising mythology of fascism projects this violence as, on the one hand, an unfortunately necessary response to the red menace and, on the other, a glorious ritual by which a man asserts his adherence to fascism and to Mussolini himself. The reality, of course, is somewhat different. Firstly, as Corner points out, the violence was massively on the fascist side. The ‘reds’ persisted in relying on the rule of law, making them sitting ducks for the fascist squads. It was mainly directed against trade unions and cooperatives of poor workers, farmers and labourers and the activists and politicians who organised them, and by an equal coincidence, was primarily to the benefit of the wealthy landowners and industrialists. When the fascist squadristi arrived they came in overwhelming numbers and heavily armed and the police stayed in their barracks while their targets were completely outnumbered and mostly defenceless, so whatever purification took place had nothing to do with heroism or courage and much more to do with the gratuitous cruelty of the schoolyard bully. The result was always the destruction of a labour union, the burning of a cooperative society, the mistreatment or murder of an activist. Later mythologised as a glorious war against a powerful enemy, the courage of the fascist few against the hordes of communists and anarchists, it was in fact a sordid grab for power on behalf of the rich and powerful who backed Mussolini because he could save them from having to pay their workers a fair wage or from the dire threat to local power and patronage of self-organising workers and farm labourers.
The extent to which the forces of law and order supported fascism has been the subject of a hot debate in Italian history. It still is – consider the ferocious response to the G8 protests in Genoa. The right argues that the period from the end of WWI until the advent of Mussolini was a period of chaotic left-wing violence, but Corner observes that it is better seen as a time of unrestrained police brutality. And state repression of worker action was truly murderous. In the twelve months leading up to autumn 1920, for example, police action killed 600 workers and wounded three times that number, mostly strikers or people involved in protests of one kind or another. From that autumn onwards the fascist squads took up the baton (or more literally the cudgel) and political violence became overwhelmingly blackshirt.
Another myth generated by fascist propaganda but this time supported by some left-leaning historians, is that the Italian people themselves were comfortable with fascism and that the regime had a ‘mass consensus’ in its favour. The important Italian historian Renzo de Felice was behind this argument. As is often the case, history must be read in the context in which it was generated. Corner describes very well the postwar mood from which sprang the assertion that fascism had, in fact, been rejected by and overthrown by the Italian people en masse. This too was a kind of forgetting. Certainly the Italian Resistance distinguished itself, diverting huge numbers of German troops from frontline action, harassing and sabotaging the German war effort and even, in the famous case of the city of Genoa, forcing the unconditional surrender of an entire German division. The heroism of the Resistance is beyond doubt. By contrast the behaviour of the Italian fascists during the same period was marked by the massacre of innocents and brutal repression (a fact pointed out by the great leader of the Italian Communist Party [PCI] Enrico Berlinguer in this debate ‑ ‘You fascists were brave above all when you had the protection of the SS,’ he says). What De Felice cast doubt on was the belief that Italians were essentially anti-fascist all along and that the Resistance was an expression of this. Italians were comfortable with the regime, he argued, at least during the years 1929-34.
Corner examines this question at length, pointing out that very quickly Mussolini’s regime took control of every aspect of ordinary life. This, in fact, is the often overlooked meaning of ‘totalitarianism’. Everywhere you looked in Italy of 1929 you saw the black shirt or suspected the informer or the secret policeman. To work you needed a permit from the local fascist. To receive welfare you needed a permit. Socialising centred around fascist activities. Schools preached fascism and anyone who demurred was punished or even expelled. After the Lateran Pacts (1929) the church was massively pro-fascist, sermons eulogising Mussolini and the fasci were preached from parish pulpit to cathedral. Dissenting voices were simply removed from society – to the so-called confini, often islands or remote places (the classic description of a confine is Christ Stopped at Eboli by Carlo Levi). In short, society revolved around fascism and the extent to which you supported the regime determined whether you would work or play or even eat and whether your child would be educated. ‘If everyone was agreed about their support for the regime,’ Corner argues, ‘if there was a mass consensus, then why was it necessary to construct the vast repressive mechanism … Why did Mussolini meet with his chief of police every morning to discuss questions of public order? Why were OVRA and the Political Police created? Why invent the Special Tribunal for crimes against the fascist state?’ State supervision extended far into the private lives of its citizens, including into the reproductive rights of women and there was little about a person’s life that was not known to the state.
The reality probably lies between both sides. A combination of repression, banishment, exclusion and propaganda created a form of consensus: those Italians who stayed simply decided to get on with it because they had no choice. There were many privileges for those who openly supported the regime. For example, near the town of Chiavari, not far from Genoa, is a beautiful modernist building called Colonia Fara. Recently redeveloped as an apartment block, it was originally built as a rest home for sick children where they could take the sea air and undergo so-called heliotherapy – a belief in the healing power of sunshine. Naturally only the children of good fascist families were selected. For a sick child to be sent to Colonia Fara must have seemed like a miracle to a working class family. And then there were those who were grateful for the suppression of leftist dissent and those who were outright supporters of the regime. Like most historical periods it was a checkerboard. But whether this amounted to, in De Felice’s phrase, ‘a mass consensus’ in favour of fascism is another matter entirely. Paul Corner does not think so.
This interesting and timely book explores each of the myths of fascism in turn – the myth that Italian fascism was fundamentally benign (not if you weren’t fascist); the myth of consensus (discussed above); Mussolini as the man who brought order and decency to Italy, he was looking out for the ordinary man (in fact he was corrupt and moulded the state around his corruption, and conditions for the working and labouring classes worsened during his reign); Mussolini the great Italian statesman (supposedly his friendship with Hitler was his one mistake, but in reality there were many, the worst being entry into WWII, followed closely by the barbarism of his Ethiopian colonial ambition); Mussolini the moderniser (the Pontine Marsh bonifica is the outstanding example of this, beautifully explored in Antonio Pennacchi’s Strega Prize-winning novel Mussolini Canal). But above all Corner’s book is a polemic against nostalgia for the fascist period – a nostalgia which is again dominant in Italian politics and looks likely to break through elsewhere, including possibly in France. As always, what happens in Italy is relevant to the rest of the world.
Pius XI, in David Kertzer’s account, seems to have repented of his early grudging acceptance of the regime despite the obvious benefits of the Lateran Accords which granted statehood to the Vatican. In 1939, in his last days, according to Kertzer, he was in the process of drawing up an encyclical which would condemn racism and, in particular, Mussolini’s Racial Laws and the antisemitism of Nazi Germany. He commissioned the anti-racist American Jesuit, John LaFarge to draft it, but died on the day before it could be promulgated. Unfortunately, his secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli (soon to be Pope Pius XII), was far more accommodating to the fascists. After Pius XI’s death, Pacelli agreed with Mussolini’s ambassador to the Holy See that the irascible old pope had created a strain between the Vatican and the fascist leaders and that the encyclical would damage the relationship even further. He had the printed version of the encyclical destroyed – it appears that not a syllable of it remains in the Vatican Archives.
It is interesting at this remove to think that the conclave that elected Pius XII on March 2nd 1939 did so specifically because Pacelli was seen by the cardinal electors as the best chance to reconcile the Vatican with the fascist powers. That is to say, on the eve of World War II, which would lead to the deaths of an estimated sixty-one million people, military and civilian, including six million Jews, almost three million ethnic Poles and four million others deemed sub-human (disabled people, the mentally ill, gay people, Romani, Soviet prisoners, communists etc) the chief concern of the church hierarchy was the reinstatement of cordial relations with the two fascist dictators. It was a particularly ignominious moment in the history of a church which has rarely been on the right side of history. The exigencies of diplomacy were no doubt important to the Vatican, and it shared with the fascists a visceral antipathy to communism, but Pacelli (Pius XII) does not seem to have had serious moral qualms about the two regimes, despite their history of violence and contempt for human rights, not to mention for the sovereignty of neighbouring states.
Pius adopted a technocratic approach to the racial laws – a set of measures designed to exclude Jews from work, business, education and, indeed, society in general – negotiating to have Jews who had converted to Catholicism excluded; that is to say, his principal concern with regard to a set of blatantly antisemitic human rights abuses was to safeguard the position of converts (the devastating effects of the racial laws on Italian Jewish life are beautifully described in Giorgio Bassani’s novel The Garden of The Finzi-Continis.)
When war broke out with the invasion of mainly Catholic Poland, Pius XII chose to remain silent rather than condemn the invasion or even offer support to the faithful there. The French ambassador, who begged him to make a statement on the invasion summarised their conversation as follows: ‘[They] told me that there were forty million Catholics in the Reich and that the Holy See could not expose them to reprisals. In short, I spoke in terms of morality, rights, honour, justice; and they responded to me in terms of method, practicality, tradition and statistics.’
Throughout the period, Pacelli’s concern was for the institutional church and the safety of church members. For example, the book catalogues numerous occasions when the ambassador from Berlin was called into the Vatican to discuss the closure of state schools or the removal of state subsidies to the church, a set of complaints that continued to take up the ambassador’s time even after the Shoah had begun. Never once did Pius XII raise the issue of the concentration camps or the murder of political opponents. Pius XII took the view that the church was not a temporal power and had no particular preference for one kind of political system over another. Even when the Nazis began imprisoning and in some cases executing Polish priests in large numbers, this separation of the spiritual and the temporal prevailed.
However, this oft-expressed indifference to the temporal did not apply to the left. Ultimately, Pius XII favoured fascism because it was against Bolshevism. In the great struggle of Evil versus Good, fascism fell on the good side, despite the fact that Pius was well-informed as to the actual activities of fascist states. Indeed the faithful would have to wait until Christmas 1945 for his first condemnation of totalitarian regimes by which time, as the British ambassador sardonically observed, ‘the only one left was the Soviet Union’.
The pope wasn’t alone in the church, of course, For one example, Cardinal Schuster of Milan (later beatified by John Paul II) was a ‘convinced fascist’ who blessed the Italian troops heading to Ethiopia and was escorted by a blackshirt honour guard to the strains of the fascist marching song ‘Giovinezza’ to meet the federale (the provincial head of the Fascist Party) of Milan. He preached fascism from his pulpit. Bishops and priests at every level either supported fascism or kept their mouths shut.
The pope’s slide into spokesman for the fascist powers happened, as Hemingway said of bankruptcy, in two ways – gradually and then suddenly. It began with carefully modulated sermons on the importance of brotherly love between nations and eventually became a full-throated call for Italians to volunteer to fight for the fatherland. Some examples from the many in Kertzer’s book: in the middle of the Blitz on London, an audience with the French ambassador began with the pope’s irritation with Nazi Germany for continuing to ‘de-Christianise the country’, moved on to his satisfaction that Mussolini had made Catholic religious education compulsory in the schools and ended with a diatribe against communism. ‘One gets the impression,’ the ambassador reported, ‘that for him communism is public enemy number 1.’ In 1941 he was informed by a Catholic army chaplain that ‘the massacre of Jews in Ukraine is now complete’. Pius XII made no protest. Even the horrors of the Shoah as presented to Pius XII by the British ambassador on December 18th, 1942 (‘Entire communities in Poland were massacred …’ ‘One [million] out of three million Jews in Poland have already been murdered.’ ‘500,000 Jews have been transported from occupied Europe… to Poland for liquidation,’ etc) provoked only equivocation.
By 1943, Hitler’s ‘final solution’ was in full swing and the Vatican was besieged with telegrams and letters and diplomatic requests asking for intervention – to stop the murder, to save children, to argue for safe passage of Jews to Palestine, even to speak out publicly about what was happening. Pius XII responded by ordering one of his secretaries of state to come up with a response. The priest came to the conclusion that Jews really only prospered when there were Christians to be cheated and ‘If all and only the Jews come together [in Palestine], one has an enormous gathering in, of swindlers, while lacking those to be swindled …’ Ultimately, the pope’s answer to all these requests was a subtly modulated ‘no’, but the message was sent with the proviso that ‘it would make a bad impression if the Holy See now appeared to refuse … an act of humanity’. So the various nuncios to the affected countries were to be cautious so as not to present the head of the Catholic church as hard-hearted in the face of the extermination of the Jews. By the end of 1943, he was telling the German ambassador that he appreciated ‘the historic significance of the heroic German struggle in the East’, which was saving Europe from ‘the danger of Bolshevism’. By then, the combined German and Italian armies in Russia were in full retreat from Stalingrad and the Italian armies in Libya were desperately trying to hold up Montgomery’s advance.
Whatever about Hitler, Mussolini knew he was finished. He told his mistress Clara Pettacci so several times, but despite her advice, he could not contemplate losing face by surrendering. Later in the interregnum between the removal of Mussolini and the German invasion, Pius XII was again negotiating (this time with Marshal Badoglio as prime minister) to have Jews who had converted to Catholicism and baptised children of mixed marriages declared ‘Aryan’ while making quite clear that although these specific provisions of the racial laws were odious to the Holy See there were ‘others that merit being confirmed’. After the Nazis seized Rome and began rounding up Rome’s Jewish population the Holy See continued to argue actively and successfully on behalf of these converted Jews while making feeble protests with regard to the rest who were to be transported to Germany and ‘liquidated’. Ultimately about a thousand converted Jews were freed and 1,007 (including 105 children under five) were sent to Auschwitz, from which only sixteen would return alive. The day after their train departed the Vatican learned that there had been two further ‘mistakes’ among those transported, two Catholics who had not been freed as requested. One can only suppose that the loss of these two souls pained the Holy Father grievously.
Much of the information in the present book is covered in David Kertzer’s previous monograph on the subject: The Pope and Mussolini (Random House, 2014). What is new is that the Vatican secret archives of the period have been opened for the first time and Kertzer has had access to a rich trove of material that was not available for the previous volume. For example, we now know that Pius XII was conducting secret meetings with an emissary of Hitler, Prince Von Hessen, and that both he and Hitler hoped for an official accord that would grant legitimacy to Hitler’s regime. Kertzer quotes the actual documents, many of which were excluded from all official histories of the Vatican and which provide an interesting insight into the thinking of the papacy. For example, among the things which apparently irritated His Holiness about Nazi Germany was the fact that one ‘could not advance in the SS without having discarded ones membership of the Church’. He wanted these bureaucratic barriers against decent Catholic Nazis to be removed. One might well ask: What was the man thinking?
Or perhaps, a more pertinent question might be: Who was Pius XII? Eugenio Pacelli was born into a family that had formed part of the bureaucracy of the church for generations – the so-called Black Nobility – a family of papal advisors, treasurers, ministers, canon lawyers (his brother had negotiated the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini), very much the technocrats of the Papal States, discomfited by the abolition of those states during the Risorgimento and, like the pope, consequently obsessed with maintaining the political role of the Vatican. He was, in short, the wrong man to be pope during a war of extermination, and the wrong man to be faced with a movement such as fascism. On the other hand, he was perfect for secret meetings, private agreements, diplomatic compromises and devotion to the institution. If the pope is selected by God through the machinations of the conclave then God made a serious mistake with Pacelli. That is to say, a serious mistake if He is concerned for justice rather than the power and wealth of His church. The ambassadors of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, on the other hand, knew exactly what they were doing when they campaigned secretly to have the German, French and Italian cardinals vote for Pacelli.
After the removal of Mussolini by a gang of panicked party members (the allies were rolling through Sicily) the ageing Marshal Badoglio was installed as prime minister. Badoglio was not exactly a clean pair of hands, having overseen the fascisisation of the army and established brutal concentration camps in North Africa where 60,000 Libyans died. The perfect counterpart to Pius, he too was paralysed by the necessity to keep both the Axis and the Allies onside.
Approached to intercede in peace negotiations, the pope and his advisors decided that it would do the Holy See no good to be associated with the losing side to the rest of the world – or linked to the victors in Italy and Germany. It would simply look bad to get involved in peace negotiations, especially as they might not be successful. The pope had a reputation, especially in Italy, for being a peacemaker and, as often with reputations, it was better to let the image speak for itself. In addition, there was the thornier problem of having supported Mussolini and fascism. He was particularly worried about the possibility of a popular uprising. His Swiss Guard commander was relatively confident of defending against ‘likely attacks from revolutionary masses’ but they would require heavy machine guns, hand grenades and automatic weapons. The idea of firing merrily into a popular uprising in St Peter’s Square was perhaps a step too far for the pope. No weapons were forthcoming. In some ways it is a measure of the delusion under which Pius XII (and perhaps the entire Holy See) laboured that they imagined that any revolution in Italy would trouble itself with the mediaeval institution behind the Vatican’s walls. In due course there would be a popular uprising and it would occupy itself with more serious targets – the Nazis and the blackshirts.
Strikingly, there were good priests even in the Vatican. Hugh O’Flaherty was one outstanding example, but there were others, mostly of the lowest ranks, who hid people in the labyrinthine Vatican rooms, some Jews, some antifascists on the run, some deserters, all hiding from the Nazi occupation. To Pius’s shame, when the pressure came on he tried to force them to expel their refugees. When they refused he backed down.
Both of these fascinating books are concerned, in one way or another, with the rewriting of history. In Corner’s case, it is the apologists for fascism that are his target. His book should be compulsory reading in every secondary school in Italy. Kertzer levels his gun at the Vatican historians and at the creation of the myth of the austere, reserved Pius XII desperately battling to save the world. The reality was that Pius decided that fascism was the lesser of the many evils he imagined and that the extinction of Jews and the murder of antifascists, socialists and communists was a price worth paying for the preservation of church institutions. Ironically, for a man who claimed to have no interest in the temporal powers, it was the temporal church that he struggled to protect. That the Vatican survived both its close association with fascism and WWII intact and almost completely undamaged was a diplomatic triumph. At the moral and spiritual level it was an unmitigated catastrophe.
William Wall is the author of seven novels, most recently La Ballata Del Letto Vuoto (Nutrimenti, Rome, due in English in April 2023), five collections of poetry and three of short fiction.