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The Pope at War summary

David I. Kertzer

The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler

4.4 (211 ratings)
17 mins

Brief summary

"The Pope at War" by David I. Kertzer, explores the role of Pope Pius XI in World War II. It reveals the pope's complex relationships with Hitler and Mussolini, and how he struggled to maintain the Catholic Church's neutrality amidst rising fascism.

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    The Pope at War
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    The death of a pope

    Sometimes you can see the future coming a mile away. Eugenio Pacelli, who served as secretary of state to Pope Pius XI, left a very distinct impression on those he interacted with. From ambassadors to statesmen to fellow cardinals, people viewed him as a devout and pious man but essentially lacking in will or character. Those opinions should have been a warning sign.

    At the beginning of 1939, an aging and ailing Pope Pius XI was going head-to-head with Il Duce, otherwise known as Benito Mussolini. Disgusted with his racial policies and fearful of his connection with Hitler, Pius XI was preparing an encyclical along with a speech. Both would take a hard-line stance against Nazism and the anti-Jewish laws of Italy’s fascist regime.

    Unfortunately for the world, on February 10, just days before the speech was to occur, the pope succumbed to his deteriorating health and died. Pacelli was immediately petitioned by representatives of Mussolini to put a stop to the printing and distribution of his predecessor’s speech. Pacelli agreed that it would be best to destroy any existing copies.

    The papal conclave which followed saw Eugenio Pacelli elected as pope. He took the name Pius XII after his predecessor even though the two men shared very little in common in terms of personality and character.

    Pope Pius XII was determined to be the pope of peace. He wanted to strengthen the church in terms of morality and piety. He was a conservative, in this way, and he viewed the church’s role as independent of nationalism. One day he’d give a speech based on Romans 13:1 which commands Christians to submit to the authority of their governments.

    These early days of Pius XII’s papacy were prophetic of what was to come. His immediate withdrawal from his predecessor’s plans along with his focus on peace without regard to justice were early signs of how he’d manage the rest of the war.

    While he generally demurred from taking political stances, Pius XII was anxious to participate in brokering peace. One of his first acts was to attempt to bring together a peace meeting. He was given platitudes by Mussolini and Hitler who ultimately rejected his idea, and no such meeting occurred.

    But meetings of another sort did occur.

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    What is The Pope at War about?

    The Pope at War (2022) follows the first years of Eugenio Pacelli’s papacy. Based on documents released by the Vatican in 2020, the book reveals the never-before-told story of the pope’s secret negotiations with Hitler.

    Who should read The Pope at War?

    • World War II history buffs
    • Students of Catholic history
    • Anyone interested in why good people do bad things

    About the Author

    David L. Kertzer is an award-winning author, anthropologist, and historian. His book The Pope and Mussolini won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.

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