Celso Costantini. The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal: Celso Costantini's Wartime Diaries, 1938-1947. Edited by Bruno Fabio Pighin. Translated by Laurence B. Mussio. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2014. xxviii + 488 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-4299-0.
Reviewed by Emanuele Sica (Royal Military College of Canada)
Published on H-Italy (October, 2014)
Commissioned by Niamh Cullen (University of Southampton)
The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal
The years 1938 through 1947 arguably mark one of the most controversial periods of modern Italian history. At the start of that decade, the Italian Fascist regime inebriated the Italian populace with flamboyant rhetoric after the successful Ethiopian campaign of 1936. Meanwhile, Benito Mussolini strengthened his friendship with Adolf Hitler, first with the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936 and later formalized by the Pact of Steel in 1939. While Western democracies, such as Great Britain and France, seemed impotent to quench Italian expansionism, Mussolini's domestic prestige soared. Few Italians dared oppose him in public while roaring crowds were hailing what seemed at that time the birth of a new Roman Empire.
Ten years later, Italy was in sore shape. The Italian war effort had been nothing short of a disappointment, resulting in the deaths and captivity of hundreds of thousands of Italians abroad. To add insult to injury, after the demise of Il Duce. in June 1943 and the subsequent armistice, the Italian peninsula became a theater of war between German and Allied forces, a struggle compounded by a civil war that tore apart the Italian social and political fabric.
This dramatic period is here unfurled through the eyes of Cardinal Celso Constantini, the secretary of the Congregation for Propagation of Faith, the Vatican organization responsible for the spread of Catholic faith through its missionary work. From his privileged position at the top of Vatican society in the heart of Rome, in his diary, Cardinal Constantini described the evolution of international and domestic politics by meeting with an impressive number of senior civil servants, politicians, professionals, and Fascist officials. Among these dignitaries stand the figure of Galeazzo Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law and Italian foreign minister during the war. The two had already met repeatedly in China during the 1930s, when Ciano was the consul in Shanghai and later Mussolini's representative in Beijing while Constantini was the first apostolic delegate in China. Constantini described Ciano as an intelligent and educated person, unlike many other uncouth Fascist leaders, with, however, a big stain: although skeptical of Italian participation in the war which he judged premature in light of the paucity of Italian military means, Ciano did not explicitly oppose Italy's alliance with Germany and the subsequent entry into war.
To be sure, Cardinal Constantini's judgment of the Fascist regime was equally ambivalent. The Fascist regime at its inception had been eyed rather favorably by the Catholic Church, and this stance is evident in his diary (see, for instance, his diary entry on June 12, 1940). After all, not only had Mussolini proved a bulwark against the rise of Communism in the 1920s, but he also actively sought a rapprochement with the Holy See. The negotiations led in 1929 to the Conciliation (known also as the Lateran Pacts) whereby the Italian state officially recognized the sovereign state of the Vatican City and sanctioned the Catholic religion as the sole religion of the Italian state, in return for the Holy See's noninterference in Italian domestic and international affairs. This marriage of heaven and earth, acknowledged by Cardinal Constantini as a major achievement of Pope Pius XI and Mussolini (February 5, 1945) nonetheless slowly turned sour by the Fascist alliance with Nazi Germany which led Italy into a disastrous war. Cardinal Constantini, since the first months of war, did not refrain from criticizing the botched war effort both on pragmatic (Italy as woefully unprepared) and ethical grounds (Italy's alliance with Nazi Germany and its aggressions against its neighbors such as France and Greece). Understandably, as the war dragged on, his scathing comments on the Italian leaders became judgments without appeal, from dubbing Mussolini as "a paper strategist who has led Italy to so many defeats" (March 15, 1942, p. 130) to tagging King Victor Emmanuel III unceremoniously as "a man bereft of high political principles and religious conscience (December 6, 1943, p. 238). Such harsh judgments were arguably influenced not only by the Holy See's pacifism enshrined by Pope Pius XII's heavy lobbying against the war in the late 1930s, but also by the death of the cardinal's beloved nephew Luciano, an artillery Alpine (mountain soldier), killed in March 1941 on the Greek mountains.
While the diary spans over a decade, most of its entries focus on 1943-44, when following the September 1943 armistice, most of the Italian peninsula was militarily occupied by the Germans. One could almost see Cardinal Constantini hunched on his desk with an anguished expression as he was describing Rome's darkest hours: from the destruction of the San Lorenzo's neighborhood by the Allied bombing campaign to the utter shock at the news that the king and prime minister, General Pietro Badoglio, had ignominiously scampered away to the southern tip of the Italian peninsula, moving to the account of the arrival of German columns, "the new Landsknecht," and the Gestapo massive roundups in the frantic search for Partisans and Jews. The arrival of Allied troops on June 5, 1944, in fact proved to be a deliverance for the people of Rome, prostrated by months of hunger and constant fear from both the bombardments and the German occupation.
The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal opens a window on the war years of the Fascist regime, and presents insights of the growing opposition within Italian society to Mussolini's dreadful decision of joining the fray in 1940. A product of a paternalistic church, Cardinal Constantini's conservatism explains the benevolent image of the Fascist regime in its first decade and his suspiciousness of anything on the left of the political spectrum. Yet he also staunchly opposed to the injustices of a totalitarian regime and its shift to a vicious anti-Semitism and repressive apparatus. To this end, Cardinal Constantini did not hesitate to hide for six months Alcide De Gasperi, the leader of the Catholic political party, the Democrazia Cristiana, who would become the most important prime minister in immediate postwar Italy.
As a firsthand account of the last years of the Fascist regime and the first period of reconstruction, the book will certainly appeal to scholars focusing their interest on the Holy See, the history of modern Italy, and the history of the Fascist regime. However, those looking for new insights on the controversies of Pope Pius XII and his role to stop the Holocaust will be disappointed. If nothing else, Cardinal Constantini had only words of sincere praises for the head of the Catholic Church, and his stance is indeed hardly baffling.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-italy.
Emanuele Sica. Review of Costantini, Celso, The Secrets of a Vatican Cardinal: Celso Costantini's Wartime Diaries, 1938-1947.
H-Italy, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|