A Conversation between Jon Meacham and David Kertzer, author of
The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe
When Pope John Paul II first announced the opening of Pius XI's archives, what made you think there might be an untold
story buried inside?
The Vatican’s alliance with Mussolini has long been controversial. Historians and journalists formed two camps.
On one side were those who claimed that, far from being an ally, the Vatican was Mussolini’s greatest adversary during
the twenty years of the Fascist regime. On the other side, people charged that the Church offered the regime crucial
support. Yet until the 2006 opening of the Vatican’s archives—and with it a series of other Church archives—the
controversy remained unsettled.
The Pope and Mussolini is based on more than seven years of archival research. Tell me about one or two documents you
uncovered that were breakthroughs in your understanding of these two men and this era.
There were so many revealing documents, of so many different kinds, that it is hard to identify just one or two.
Perhaps the most dramatic—what could even be called a kind of “smoking gun”—was the three-page text of a secret
agreement between the Vatican and Mussolini reached two weeks before the racial laws were first announced. The trail of
documents I unearthed shows the pope’s shadowy, but fascinating, Jesuit personal envoy to Mussolini, Pietro Tacchi
Venturi, spending the days before the agreement going back and forth between the pope and the dictator to work out an
accord. Shockingly, it states the Vatican’s agreement to make no objection to the racial laws as long as they were no
more repressive than the popes’ own restrictions on the Jews in the days of the Papal States. And in fact the laws that
were soon announced—expelling all Jewish students from the schools, firing all Jewish teachers, forbidding Jews from
holding other positions of influence—were similar to those that had been in effect in Rome as long as the popes held
But not all of the most revealing documents were to be found in the Vatican archives. We know more about what was
going on behind the scenes in the Vatican in these years than for any other time in history thanks to the dense network
of spies the Fascists placed in and around the Vatican. These too shed much light on the pope and what he was dealing
In the final months of his life Pius XI began to realize he had made a poisonous bargain with Mussolini and fascism.
He tried to change the course of the church's relationship to Mussolini and Hitler, but it proved too late and he died
in February, 1939 as the world was sliding into catastrophe. How much do you think Pius XI understood about what was
coming to Italy, Europe, and the church?
Pius XI was in many ways a tragic figure. His mentality was formed in a certain conservative Church ambience of
the late nineteenth century and people should not act according to their own beliefs and conscience, but according to
the directives of the Church hierarchy.
It was only after he had been pope for over a decade that Hitler’s rise to power in Germany and Mussolini’s own
increasing efforts to portray himself as a demi-god began to challenge the pope’s worldview. Something similar might be
said about his attitude toward the Jews. He came from a Catholic environment in which the Jews were not only demonized
as the crucifiers as Christ, cursed by God, but viewed as part of an occult conspiracy aimed at enslaving Christians and
achieving world domination. Yet in his own city of Milan, he had gotten along with the small Jewish community and
indeed even took Hebrew lessons from the local rabbi. Watching how his views of Jews percolated in the years leading to
the Holocaust is to see a man struggling with a conflict he does not entirely comprehend.
As for his understanding of what was coming by the late 1930s, the newly available archives make clear he was
convinced that Europe was hurtling toward a cataclysm.
Do you think there was a moment where a road or course not taken could have changed things significantly?
A huge amount of attention has been paid to the question of the “silence” of Pius XI’s successor, Pius XII, during
the Holocaust. This has turned into a rather heated debate over whether Pius could have affected German behavior by
forcefully denouncing the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. I don’t want to get involved in that debate here, but what is
clear to me is that the popes had much greater influence over Italians than they did over the Germans. Of course the
popes themselves were all Italians, as were virtually all the members of the Curia. And while only a third of Germans
were Catholic, Italians were overwhelmingly Catholic. So the interesting question for me is could the pope have
prevented Italy from allying with Nazi Germanyz/ Might Italy never have entered the war on Germany’s side if the
Vatican had acted differently? This is a huge question and I am not sure if it has ever been posed in quite this way
Jon Meacham is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin and Winston, and American
Gospel. The former editor of Newsweek, he is an Executive Editor and Executive Vice President of Random House.