Needing something representing Vatican City for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I decided to try Karlheinz Deschner’s God and the Fascists: The Vatican Alliance with Mussolini, Franco, Hitler, and Pavelic. It’s been on my Overdrive wishlist forever, and let’s face it books about Vatican City, or novels set in the minuscule Italian city state aren’t that that plentiful. So I downloaded a borrowable copy for my Kindle and gave it a try.
Originally published in Germany in 1966, in 2013 an English language version was released in 2013 by contrarian-minded publishing house Prometheus Books. Until his death in 2014 Deschner was a vocal critic of not just the Catholic Church but also Christianity in general. Over his long career he penned a number of books detailing his arguments, chief of which was his 10 volume Criminal History of Christianity. Therefore, while reading God and the Fascists one needs take into account his view on religion and how they undoubtably influenced his opinions. Fortunately for me, being an agnostic I have no religious sensibilities to offend. (Plus, to his credit he footnotes everything.) A jeremiad his book might be, Deschner nevertheless makes a compelling, if not convincing case the Vatican for decades enjoyed a cosy relationship with Europe’s fascist dictatorships, enabling them in their efforts to oppress, subjugate and even exterminate their perceived enemies.
By the early 1920s the Catholic Church found itself at odds with both liberal, representative democracy and atheistic communism. The groundwork for this adversarial relationship originated in the previous century. After its territories known as the Papal States were forcibly integrated into the modern Kingdom of Italy in the late 19th century, the Popes and other members of the Catholic hierarchy sullenly saw themselves imprisoned under a kind of house arrest. Looking askance at much of Europe, and indeed much of the world the Church in Rome saw its long-treasured beliefs and institutions under attack from such modern concepts as democracy, science and secularism. Like a cranky and bigoted old uncle known for his derogatory tirades against women, minorities and the LGTBQ community the Papacy was seen by the rest of the world as out of step, reactionary and troublesome.
But in aftermath of World War I a new political system emerged in Europe, challenging both Soviet-style communism and parliamentary democracy. Starting with Italy, the Church was more than happy to throw in its lot with these new fascist leaders, granting legitimacy and offering assistance to the newly founded repressive regime. In return the Catholic Church as was re-elevated to its privileged role in Italian society. (As well as given a huge financial payout that served as seed money for the Vatican Bank.) Perhaps most of all, a small sliver territory around the Vatican was declared a sovereign nation, with the fascist Mussolini serving as midwife to its birth.
Over the next several decades the Vatican would form close alliances with fascist Germany, Spain and the wartime Nazi puppet state of Croatia. Its Papal emissaries served as friendly diplomats to give friendly lip service and encouragement as those regimes slaughtered innocents and oppressed peoples across Europe. Only when its clergy or resources were threatened by these powers did the Vatican ever protest. Even after World War II, with Germany and its allies vanquished high ranking officials within the Vatican (especially those from Croatia) gave sanctuary to war criminals and helped many flee to South America via the infamous “Ratline.”
If you end up reading God and the Fascists I would highly encourage you to read two additional books, both by the same author. Even though it’s a bit of a tome start with Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll. From there, proceed to his 2014 historical thriller Warburg in Rome.