A Last Stand

Emma Fattorini, Hitler, Mussolini & The Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech that was Never Made

Polity, 220pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780745644882

reviewed by Hugh O'Shaughnessy

For decades historians have been fascinated by the riddles which surround the attitude of the aristocratic Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, towards the government and people of Germany – in which he served the Vatican as its nuncio before he was appointed Secretary of State – and to Jews whom he is charged with doing too little to protect. Notably through the writings of Rolf Hockhuth’s play The Representative (1963), the impression has been given that there was no strong force in the Vatican City which opposed the Nazi and the Fascists and their murderous attitudes to Jewry.

This excellent new book by the professor of Modern History at the Sapienza university in Rome unearths and magisterially exposes new evidence. There was in fact a great deal of feeling against the German and Italian leaders in church circles in the years before the Second World War, not least on the part of Achille Ratti, Pius XI. Ratti ,the son of a factory owner, reigned as Pacelli’s predecessor from 1922 until a few months before the War broke out in 1939.

Far from being a man of straw, Ratti was in fact well able to come to his own conclusions and act on them. His rages were legendary and terrified all in the Vatican, including foreign diplomats. In Saints and Sinners (Yale University Press, 2005), his brilliant history of the popes, Eamon Duffy recalls Ratti’s disgust with Charles Maurras, the French fascist leader of Action Française, who tried to yoke the church to his own repulsive ideas: he recalls how, as pope, he called in the ancient superior of the Holy Ghost Fathers to complain that one of their number, a teacher, was spreading Maurras’ ideas in the French seminary in Rome. The superior replied that he would see what he could do; thereupon Pius XI seized the old man by the beard and shouted, ‘I didn’t say, see what you can do, I said sack him!’

In 1918 Ratti was named papal nuncio to the newly independent Poland and Lithuania, and was repulsed by the ease with which the Poles, who were in the process of seizing the Lithuanian capital Vilnius by force, believed that their political, military and diplomatic claims, however mean and cunning, were amply supported by the gospel of Christ and the church as a whole.

After Ratti became pope his worries about Hitler and Mussolini grew rapidly, leading him to publish in1937 his encyclical letter ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ (With burning Anxiety). That devastating document prepared by the pope in secrecy, away from the sight of pro-Germans in the Vatican, was smuggled into Nazi Germany and read from the pulpits on Palm Sunday. It dismissed Hitler’s ‘idolatrous cult’ and ‘the myth of race and blood’ which contradicted the church’s role as a home ‘for all peoples and all nations’. ‘Spiritually,’ Pius XI used to say as he recalled that Abraham was one of the begetters of Judeo-Christianity, ‘we are all semites.’

Hitler’s fury was immense, though it was palliated to some extent to some extent by the reassuring words of Cardinal Pacelli to the Fuhrer. That anti-fascist feeling was assiduously marginalised by the Right, who eventually succeeded in obliterating almost all record of the efforts of the dying Pius XI to publish the most comprehensive attack on the blasphemous rites and rituals of the two governments of the two Axis powers. Approaching death, Ratti set about writing his last work on the nights of 31 January and 1 February in 1939, as the storm clouds of war gathered. He called for ‘…peace, peace, peace for all the world that instead seems seized by a homicidal and suicidal folly of weapons’. He died on 10 February.

Many of those closest to Pius XI were profoundly relieved. Pacelli, once elected Pius XII, set out on his job of smoothing relations with Hitler and Mussolini and erasing Ratti’s protest, doubtless with the aid of Count Włodzimierz Lechódowski, the rabid and baleful Polish anti-communist who, as was the rule in those days, had been elected general of the Jesuit order for life. Ratti‘s appeal was buried, not even mentioned by the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. Fattorini publishes the letter here for the first time, placing it in the context of chaos everywhere from the USSR and Mexico to Spain in a wretched age; in doing so she produces a key document for those interested in Europe’s turbulent pre-war history.
Hugh O'Shaughnessy contributed for decades to the Observer and the Financial Times. He is the author of Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath and Pinochet: the Politics of Torture.