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Opened Vatican Archives Reveal Church Aided and Abetted Mussolini

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The Church also seemed obsessed about the perceived threat of Protestants, despite the fact that they were a tiny fraction of the population in Italy, which was and remains overwhelmingly Catholic. What was that all about?

The pope only met with Mussolini once in all the years they lived a mile apart in Rome.  In that 1932 meeting, the first subject he wanted to discuss was what he described as "the greatest cross" he had to bear.  That was the fact that Protestants were trying to spread their influence in Italy.  Mussolini tried to argue with him, saying Protestants were a tiny minority--under 1%--but the pope would have none of it.  In this, the Church battle against the Protestants, begun in the sixteenth century, was still going strong.  One of the requests the pope constantly made of the Fascist authorities was that they confiscate Protestant publications and prevent the Protestants from holding gatherings.

Within this framework, the Jews almost seem to be an afterthought. But the Vatican's historical feelings and policies actually had a lot to do with what ultimately happened to Italy's Jews. Can you talk about this a bit?

While the pope was more concerned about the threat posed by Protestants, the Church in Italy had long been engaged in warning of a Jewish threat.  Major Vatican-linked publications played a big role in demonizing the Jews as modern anti-Semitism took shape in Europe in the late nineteenth century.   When Pius XI came to St. Peter's throne in 1922 the Vatican was still very much warning good Christians about the Jews.  Jews were blamed for practically all the evils of the modern day, in Church eyes, from capitalism to Communism.  When Mussolini announced his anti-Semitic campaign in 1938, the Fascists drew heavily on Church materials.  In fact, they claimed to be carrying out the wishes of the Church.

Let's look beyond Italy for a moment. In November, 1938,  Nazis throughout Germany and Austria orchestrated the razing of thousands of synagogues, Jewish stores, schools, hospitals and homes. Jews were terrorized, arrested and murdered by the scores. 30,000 were herded together and transported to concentration camps. This came to be known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, and it got huge news coverage at the time. The Vatican response was - absolutely zero. In fact, what was niggling the Vatican wasn't what was happening to the Jews:  [your book, p. 343] it was the controversy about marriages between Catholics and former Jews who had converted. Not only did the Vatican support Italian anti-racial laws, the circles around Pius XI sought a closer relationship with Hitler. How much did the Vatican's approval and appeasement of Hitler play a factor with the German Catholic clergy who initially strongly and actively opposed him?

This is an extremely controversial subject.  Fortunately, there is an excellent book on this subject, The Pope and the Devil, published in 2010.  Written by Professor Hubert Wolf, dean of modern Church historians in Germany, and a priest himself, it makes clear what actually happened.  One of the major obstacles to Hitler's consolidation of a dictatorship was the Catholic Center Party.  Indeed, through the 1920s and into the early 1930s, the German Church supported the Center Party and opposed Hitler and his Nazis.  The head of Germany's government in the early 1930s came from the Catholic Center party.  But when Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in early 1933, the Vatican decided to try to reach a deal with him and in doing so let the German Church hierarchy know it should abandon its strong anti-Nazi stance.  The Center party dissolved within months of this.

I imagine that book has not been well-received by the Catholic establishment. On another topic, your book discusses the suppressed evidence of cardinals' misbehavior involving other men and minor boys.  One of these cardinals was a close ally of the pope. Does this have any relevance to more recent history and all the scandals that have rocked the Church?

When the Vatican opens its archives to scholars, it does not make available those papers that deal with sensitive "personnel" matters.  But it turns out that because by the late 1920s and through the 1930s Mussolini had a dense network of spies in the Vatican, we have insight into these cases of sexual misbehavior high in the Vatican in this period that we have for no other period of Church history.  I focus in particular in my book on the two prelates who literally stood at the side of Pius XI every day, and on the two very different outcomes the trail of pederasty accusations against them had.  Certainly both were covered up, and in one case a high prelate close to the pope with a long history of pederasty accusations was made a cardinal.

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David in Sedona
(image by courtesy of the author)

This book involved years of poring over the abundant and newly available documents. Did you go into your research with any expectations? What kind of surprises did you find along the way?

There were many surprises, both in the newly opened Vatican and Jesuit archives, and in various Italian Fascist regime archives.  Let me briefly mention just two.  I discovered that within months of Mussolini coming to power he and the pope agreed on a personal intermediary.  Pietro Tacchi Venturi, a Jesuit who played this role, met with Mussolini one-on-one over a hundred times over the following years, carrying requests from the pope.  Just what the pope wanted Mussolini to use his repressive powers to do was in itself eye opening.  But I also discovered that the pope's envoy used his access to try to convince Mussolini that Italy's Jews presented a threat to him and he should take action against them.  Another example is the secret agreement that the pope's envoy worked out with Mussolini pledging the pope's silence when the anti-Semitic racial laws were announced in 1938.  It is a stupefying document that only now has seen the light of day with the opening of the archives.

Your book was just published a few weeks ago. It's a bit early, but how has The Pope and Mussolini been received so far? I can't imagine the Church hierarchy, or the rank and file, for that matter, will be thrilled with your findings, however scrupulously reached.

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The book reviews have been enthusiastic, which has been gratifying.  The New Republic, Commentary, and other magazines have run long stories on the book.  The New Yorker had a nice blurb, and a long piece is due in the New York Review of Books.  The trade press has also been very kind:  Publishers' Weekly and Kirkus both gave the book a starred review.  I have spoken to about twenty audiences around the country, and the crowds have often been large, and the interest great.  I imagine Church reaction will come soon, as the Italian edition of the book was published by Rizzoli in March.  Within the Church there are many who recognize the importance of coming to terms with this troubling history and they have greeted my book warmly.  On the other hand, the right wing of the Church, for whom Pope Pius XII, the last pre-Vatican II pope, is the great hero, will no doubt heap abuse on the book and on me.

Another of your books is getting renewed attention right now. I'm referring to The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.  Would you care to bring our readers up to date on the book and the latest developments?

Variety " broke" the news recently that Steven Spielberg is making a film based on my 1997 book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The book tells the story of a small Jewish child seized on orders of the Inquisitor in 1858, in the papal states, based on a rumor that he had been secretly baptized by a Christian servant girl.  The episode becomes an international cause célèbre involving the pope directly.  The Variety story about the plans for the film contained some errors, and the thousand or so online stories about the film since then have only magnified them.  Several years ago now Spielberg read the book and decided he wanted to make a movie out of it.  He was at the time in the midst of working with Tony Kushner on the script for Lincoln and he asked Tony to write the screenplay for the Mortara film based on my book.   Kushner has been working on the script and I am hoping the film will soon be made.  I can't imagine a better combination than Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner for making this film, and of course I am also excited that a Spielberg film will likely lead many more people to read the book.

That is definitely exciting. What haven't we talked about, David?  Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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The timing of this interview was inadvertent but, ... by Joan Brunwasser on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 6:23:58 PM
I certainly have no love for Mussolini and Italian... by BFalcon on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 3:48:35 PM
Oh, and:"Mussolini grew up in a poor, left-wing, a... by BFalcon on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 3:50:32 PM
Great interview. This devout ex-Catholic is lookin... by Daniel Geery on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 9:13:45 PM
Thank you. The book is meticulously researched but... by Joan Brunwasser on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 9:18:34 PM
Wow. Just when ya thought you'd heard all the dast... by Meryl Ann Butler on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 9:21:32 PM
It's a bummer, to be sure. But still important to ... by Joan Brunwasser on Monday, Apr 28, 2014 at 9:54:14 PM
Great article, Joan.  Wish I could say the ac... by Burl Hall on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 5:28:34 AM
Thanks for writing, Burl and for sending the link.... by Joan Brunwasser on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 6:45:04 AM
The church "aids and abeds itself".It is the same ... by kanawah on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 8:16:48 AM
Years after my parents had abandoned me to a far-a... by Herman Neuman on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 1:56:47 PM
It's a welcome development that the Church has mad... by Daniel Vasey on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 5:44:14 PM
and Hitler too. Look at the whole history. Good ar... by Davey Jones on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 9:22:29 PM
Thanks Joan!  This is first rate material.&nb... by Michael Collins on Tuesday, Apr 29, 2014 at 9:38:46 PM
that didn't stop mussilini from turning right wing... by liberalsrock on Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014 at 9:27:35 AM
This question could be relevant. How much Black Ea... by Jon Fox on Wednesday, Apr 30, 2014 at 3:51:48 PM