Between Hitler and Mussolini: The agony of Pope Pius XII

David Kertzer’s The Pope at War is a compelling historical account of a Catholic Church and its Pope caught up in the totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century.

Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Pope at War, by David Kertzer Oxford University Press, November 2022, 672 pages, £25

‘Ah! The Germans are lucky. They always find themselves facing morons or cowards,’ Benito Mussolini told Clara Petacci, his young mistress, in one of their many pillow talks. David Kertzer’s The Pope at War (Oxford University Press, out November 2022) is full of telling soundbites from the Italian dictator, and many anguished comments by Pope Pius XII, who faced the devilish task of navigating his tiny country-within-Italy through the Second World War – and to do the same for the globe-spanning Roman Catholic Church. That the two goals were incompatible becomes painfully obvious in Kertzer’s book, which is based on the Vatican’s recently opened archives from the period.

The fact that Pius XII, who had the misfortune of leading the Roman Catholic Church during the war, failed to energetically stand up to Mussolini and Adolf Hitler has long been well-known. Indeed, even at the time there was no doubt that the Pope was pursuing a strategy of neutrality even as the Nazis’ (and the Italian Fascists’) crimes became obvious, and that he did so because he thought that any more forceful action by him would imperil the many Catholics living under Nazi rule or occupation. What the Vatican archives can reveal is how the Pope discussed the matter with his secretary of state and other Vatican officials, and how the Vatican communicated its position – in letters and meetings – to the Axis powers and the Allies. Kertzer is certainly an expert on this period of Italian history, having won a Pulitzer Prize for a previous book on Pius XI’s combative coexistence with Mussolini’s Italy.

The Pope at War is a compelling historical account, not least thanks to its melodramatic protagonists. At its heart is the Vatican, that unique hybrid of a sovereign country and the headquarters of the world’s largest religious denomination. In peace-time, that combination is difficult enough to handle, but the outbreak of the Second World War immediately posed an insoluble predicament for Pius XII: should he, for example, publicly condemn the Nazis’ invasion of Poland, a country with a large and devout Catholic population, or would doing so expose the Poles to retaliation by the Nazis? As for Mussolini, the moment Hitler invaded Germany he observed to Petacci: ‘The poor Poles, poor Poles, what a disaster they’re making! How can they fool themselves into believing in help from the French and the English?’ Monsignor Donemico Tardini, one of Pius’s top officials, labelled the Führer the ‘motorised Attila’.

The war brought a steady stream of Nazi representatives to Rome, where they could meet conveniently with representatives of two states – Italy and the Holy See. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s slow-witted foreign minister, used his first visit to inform the Pope that he – von Ribbentrop — didn’t believe in God and that every German supported Hitler. Pius XII, who had spent his entire career in the Vatican’s service rather than in parish ministry and who resembled an academic more than a national leader, listened to them, constantly weighing in his mind what sort of action he could take without invoking the wrath of Hitler. What’s more, like many others, Pius XII suspected that Germany would win the war. A future Europe would then be ruled by godless brutes, and as the Pope saw it, his task was to make sure that Christians under Nazi rule were at least allowed the most basic rights to practise their religion. Mussolini’s Italy, for its part, caused the Vatican a constant stream of home-grown troubles. After Mussolini decided that his struggling armed forces needed better weapons, Italian authorities melted more than 13,600 bells belonging to Italian churches. Yes, the churches were under the Pope’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but they were on Italian soil. Petacci, an uneducated but ambitious woman who unabashedly provided ‘Ben’ – as she called him – with political advice, told the Duce that the Pope was in cahoots with Britain, ‘anglo-priestly’ forces that must be defeated by Italy.

Even when news of the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ began appearing, and even when Italy’s Fascists began seizing members of Italy’s tiny Jewish community, the Pope anguished about what to do. His feisty secretary of state (foreign minister), Cardinal Luigi Maglione, took German officials to task, while various priests and bishops sent the Vatican shocking updates from the frontlines. Mussolini, though, dispatched angry messages to the Pope whenever Osservatore Romano – the Vatican’s newspaper – or any other Catholic publication criticised him. The Pope thought he could make a contribution by pleading with Nazi and Fascist officials in private conversations and by holding proclamations on the radio and from the papal loggia. Unfortunately, neither the Nazis nor the Fascists were swayed by academic-sounding pleas urging morality, and the public couldn’t make sense of the Pope’s convoluted speeches either. The chaos continued when Italy’s Grand Council deposed Mussolini, who managed to set up a new government in the north under German protection while Italy’s official government set itself up in the south. Because the Pope couldn’t decide which was the legitimate government, his nuncio to Italy was left in limbo. Italian priests and nuns, meanwhile, did their best to act morally by hiding draft dodgers and Jews in their churches, convents and even in the Vatican itself.

The Pope at War is a melodrama, with the constantly agonising Pope as the protagonist. Mussolini makes frequent appearances: often irate, frequently depressed but always delivering a television-worthy soundbite. (It’s a good thing Mussolini died before television became omnipresent.) There’s a cadre of priestly Vatican officials, all with different opinion of what needs to be done. And looming in the background is Hitler himself. Even though The Pope at War is written in a rather academic tone, Pius XII during the Second World War is perfect material for a film or an opera.


Elisabeth Braw