Friday, September 25, 2015

Betrothed: Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XI

How love of a Romantic Novel led to global human misery

Perhaps excepting the rare graduate student of Italian Literature, few Americans have heard of Alessandro Manzoni or his novel The Betrothed. I read it only because it was mentioned as the favorite book of Pope Pius XI in David I. Kertzer's The Pope and Mussolini.

The Betrothed was written in the 1820s and was set in and near Milan (Milano) in 1628. It is largely an old-fashioned adventure story centered on the romance of a young peasant couple who are prevented from consummating their planned marriage by an evil local member of the nobility. It is quite readable and modern. As literature it is notable in the way it develops a wide variety of complex characters, from a simple peasant girl to the powerful movers and shakers of the nobility and Roman Catholic Church.

Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI, would have found it easy to identify with several of the characters. Achille was born in 1857 to a silk factory supervisor and his wife in a town just north of Milan. He became a priest early in life and quickly rose to the position of director of the Ambrosiana Library. Thus he could relate to Renzi, the silk worker who is in love with Lucy, as well as with the monk and priest characters up to Cardinal Federigo Borromeo, who founded the Ambrosiana Library. Achille became Cardinal Ratti, archbishop of Milan, in 1921, around the time Benito Mussolini was developing his Fascist Party.

Benito Mussolini was born in a small town in Romagna, northern Italy, in 1883, to a socialist blacksmith and a Roman Catholic schoolteacher. Benito was not baptized, but was sent to a Catholic boarding school. As a young man he was influenced by a variety of writers in the socialist camp, notably Georges Sorel, and was attracted to violent tendencies within the socialist camp. The world would likely be different if he had remained a school teacher, but in 1904 he joined the Italian Army for two years. After another teaching stint he became a Socialist Party functionary. Still attracted to violence, he nevertheless opposed the Italian war against Libya in 1911 [part of a series of preludes to World War I in which European nations began dismembering the Turkish empire].

After initially opposing Italy's entry into World War I, Mussolini switched positions, rejoined the the Italian army, declared himself a nationalist, and began to develop what would come to be called fascism. It was an anti-establishment, nationalist, anti-clerical, violent movement with socialist tinges. It appealed to young men, and to local gangsters. Italy's democratic national government was weak and corrupt, and Benito was elected to it. In 1922 King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Mussolini to be Prime Minister.

And now we are in The Betrothed, at least as far as Cardinal Ratti was concerned. Pope Benedict XV had died in January 1922. A flock of cardinals divided between an ultra-conservative faction and a conservative faction settled on Ratti as the next Pope. He took the name Pope Pius XI. It was all perfectly clear to him. He was the equivalent of Federigo Borromeo, and Benito Mussolini was the equivalent of the character in Betrothed only referred to as The Unknown.

In the novel The Unknown was the leader of bad men, and a threat to all that was good. Yet, through his encounter with the virtuous Lucy and then with Cardinal Borromeo, The Unknown turned his back on evil and becomes a force for good.

Mussolini is now thought of as a dictator with absolute power, but that is a caricature of the real situation. The Pope too, while powerful, depended on a bureaucratic machine to rule. Mussolini had changed his ideology many times prior to becoming Prime Minister, and now made a strategic decision that fed into the Pope's delusion. He decided to embrace the Roman Catholic Church. He eventually made it the only legal religion of Italy.

The Pope liked that the Fascists beat Protestants and atheists into line. But he did not want to take orders from Mussolini. Benito liked that the Catholic Church solidified his rule and enabled him to control some of his own rabid-dog fascists, as well as to destroy his main political rival, the Socialist Party. But he did not want to take orders from the Pope. See The Pope and Mussolini for the gory details.

Reality contradicted The Betrothed. Both Mussolini and the Pope became more evil as the years passed. Hitler rose to power in Germany and added his own evil to the mix. At a crucial time Pius XI helped Hitler become Chancellor of Germany. Probably he again saw Adolf Hitler as a useful tool against atheism and communism, and another The Unknown. It helped that Hitler was Roman Catholic (he thought the small percent of Nazis who were pagan or atheist were nuts).

Pius died in 1939, of natural causes, before the final terrible results of his sponsorship of Mussolini, Hitler, and General Franco became obvious to all. Mussolini died in 1945, shot by communists.

Pius XII, who followed Pius XI, danced with both Hitler and Mussolini, and hoped that they would destroy communism and atheism. Islam, Budhism, and Protestant sects could be mopped up later. But when it became obvious the Allies would defeat the Axis, Pius XII switched sides, thus becoming a cold war ally of the capitalist block.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Harry Truman's Hell

"According to the pleasant mythology Truman later created about those years, he was the solitary rose in the manure pile, an honest public servant unaware of the crimes around him."
Thomas Joseph Pendergast was the political boss of the Democratic Party of Kansas City and effectively controlled the city from 1925 until about 1936.

Harry Truman served in the U.S. Army in World War I, and one of his associates then was a nephew of Pendergast. Truman was elected county judge in 1922 with the backing of the Pendergast machine (which had been started by Tom's older brother). Like many city machines of that era, corruption was rampant. With Prohibition in full swing, vast bootlegging profits slushed around Kansas City; plenty to buy any votes needed to control the political offices.

Harry was a funny guy, according to his own notes. He followed orders from Pendergast, helping the machine to rob the city, but (he claimed) doing his best to minimize that, and refusing to take any graft for his own use. "I could have had $1,500,000.00. I haven't $150.00. Am I a fool or an ethical giant?"

Pendergast liked Harry because he was a competent administrator, kept his own hand out of the till, and yet followed orders. When a U.S. Senate seat became available, it was Pendergast's machine that sent Harry Truman to Washington in 1934, in the depths of the Great Depression. Truman then and later claimed there were no strings attached. Biographer Richard L. Miller observed: "Clearly he protested too much, perhaps to ease his own guilty conscience about his role as an honest front protecting the power of thieves and murderers."

During the Pendergast era Kansas City was the nation's Las Vegas. Nothing illegal was not available and easy to find: alcohol, prostitutes, casinos and other forms of gambling. The city actually prospered, as organized criminals led by Johnny Lazia made sure visitors and citizens were safe from petty crime, and the take from the criminal enterprises was generally divvied up in a civil manner. They even used a lot of it to build up infrastructure. Even after Lazia was gunned down in July of 1934.

Senator Truman, of course, was an ardent supporter of the New Deal. Pendergast eventually fell victim to his own gambling addiction. He was indicted for tax evasion by the IRS and went to jail in 1939. In 1940 a reform slate came to power in Kansas City, just in time to the boom years of World War II.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1940, found he needed the corrupt urban political machines (he had not needed them, at least not much, in 1932 or 1936). American tradition, starting with George Washington, was that no President would serve more than 2 terms. Roosevelt imagined himself indispensable, but he did not openly run for the Democratic nomination. When the convention assembled in Chicago (where the Capone machine still ran things) the delegates thought they were nominating John Nance Garner, then FDR's Vice President. Ed Kelly, Chicago's Mayor and a Capone man, packed the convention hall with thugs who "spontaneously" staged an hour-long demonstration demanding that Roosevelt accept the nomination. Roosevelt did. Mussolini's March on Rome was not more perfectly staged.

By 1944 the bosses were back in charge of the Democratic Party. "The 1944 convention — dominated by Hannegan, Hillman, and the city bosses — added Truman to the ticket. Roosevelt died three months after his fourth inauguration, and Tom Pendergast's boy became President."

President Truman continued the New Deal and tried to extend it to creating a national health insurance program. He also committed heinous war crimes, continuing Roosevelt's policies of purposefully targeting civilians in German and Japanese cities with conventional weapons, then becoming the only human in history to actually use nuclear weapons, and against mainly civilian targets at that.

Go to hell, Harry.

[All quotes were found in Stephen R. Fox's Blood and Power, Organized Crime in Twentieth Century America, William Morrow & Company, 1989.]