|Chapter 16: Azaña vs. Mussolini continued
Meanwhile, in equally Catholic Italy, Mussolini disdained the democratic path to power. Taking advantage of popular
unhappiness over Italy’s failure to gain all the territory that had been secretly promised by the Allies during World War I,
Mussolini’s Fascist Party led a “March on Rome” in 1922 that frightened the king into dissolving the government and
appointing Mussolini as dictator. Despite Mussolini’s anti-clerical writings, his coup was quietly backed by the Catholic
Church, which bet that Fascism’s drive for lockstep “unity” as the ultimate goal of social organization would result in the
Church being united in rather than squeezed out. The Church even persuaded Italy’s Catholic political party to disband rather
than to oppose Mussolini.
The Church guessed right. One of Mussolini’s first acts was to re-install crucifixes in classrooms and courtrooms that had
been removed during Italy’s short-lived attempt to separate Church and state. In 1926, secret negotiations commenced over a
series of agreements that ultimately included a “treaty” in which Italy recognized the 109 acre Vatican City as an independent
country, a concordat establishing Catholicism as Italy’s official religion and granting the Church enormous power, and a
financial “settlement” in which the taxpayers of Italy forked over millions of lire, equivalent to well over $1 billion in today’s
money, to soothe the Pope’s anguish over the loss of his lands when Italy had united as a nation in 1870.
The financial settlement was the most galling aspect of the deal. The people of central Italy had revolted successfully against
the Pope as a monarch claiming to rule by divine right, exactly as the people of the North American colonies had revolted
against another monarch in 1776. Did it ever dawn on Tom Paine, George Washington, et al. to pay a billion dollars to George
III to compensate him for his loss? Mussolini viewed it as simply paying extortion so that the Church would support his
Fascist unity; only by eliminating all dissent at home could he move forward with his dream to re-create a Roman empire. If
Mussolini was going to create a totalitarian state to replace liberal pluralism, he either had to crush the Church or to co-opt it.
Like Talleyrand, Mussolini concluded that co-opting the Church was easier than confronting it.
Not that the Church minded being bought. The Pope gloated that “We have given back God to Italy, and Italy to God.” According
to a shrewd German observer named Adolf Hitler, “The fact that the Curia is now making its peace with Fascism shows that
the Vatican trusts the new political realities far more than it did the former liberal democracy, with which it could not come to
terms.” The French press gloomily agreed with Hitler’s assessment, warning that the agreements represented “the alliance
of the two Romes against the France of 1789.”
The treaties put Catholic indoctrination back into the public schools, recognizing the right of the Catholic bishops to remove
any government-paid teacher of religion at will. Priests were exempted not only from military service and taxes, but even from
jury duty; priests who committed crimes could be punished only by the Church, not by the state.
Mussolini used tax money to pay for the salaries of the clergy and the repair of church buildings. When you pay for something,
of course, you own it; the treaty made it clear that the Church could not appoint a bishop without Mussolini’s advance
approval. “In the Italian State,” he bragged, “the Church is not sovereign, it is not even free.”
Dictatorship works best when the public reveres the dictator. In Italy and around the world, the Catholic Church did everything
it could to promote that reverence. The Pope called Mussolini “the man sent by Providence,” and the Cardinal of Milan referred
to him as “the new Constantine.” The Bishop of Cleveland called him the “Man of Destiny,” and Cardinal O’Connell of Boston,
who received a high Fascist decoration, exalted him as “a genius in the field of government, given to Italy by God.” Catholic
newspapers filled their pages with official propaganda against democracy and praise for the Italian warlike spirit, reminding
the faithful that Jesus himself had said “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Fascism permeated Italian religious life
down to the smallest detail: the protocol of Catholic processions was modified to match that of Fascist parades, and Catholic
publications displayed the year of the regime alongside that of the Christian era.
The reason why Mussolini was so insistent on totalitarian unity at home was to strengthen Italy’s hand abroad. His first major
foreign adventure was the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. The Church could barely contain its enthusiasm; the Cardinal of Milan
crowed that “On the plains of Ethiopia, the Italian Standard carries forward in triumph the Cross of Christ, … and opens the
way for the missionaries of the Gospel.” The Archbishop of Torano intoned that “The war against Ethiopia should be
considered as a holy war, a crusade” that would “open Ethiopia, a country of infidels and schismatics, to the expansion of the
Catholic Faith.” On a specially-proclaimed “Day of Faith” priests turned over their offertory collections to support the war.
Catholic political parties around the world vigorously supported Mussolini’s crusade, and denounced the League of Nations
sanctions against it. Church support never wavered when the Italian army started using poison gas after encountering
unexpectedly strong Ethiopian resistance, nor when it executed 30,000 prisoners in retribution for a failed attempt to
assassinate the military governor. The war ultimately took over three quarters of a million Ethiopian lives.
Back in Spain, the Church did not take Azaña’s victory lying down. Only two weeks after the 1931 parliamentary election, the
Catholic primate was already condemning the triumph of “the enemies of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.” The Catholic press
began trumpeting the success of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany as models for Spain to follow.
The Catholic politician Gil Robles, after returning from a Nazi rally at Nuremberg, proclaimed that “We must reconquer Spain
… We must give Spain a true unity, a new spirit, a totalitarian polity … We must found a new state, purge the fatherland of
Judaizing Freemasons. … What does it matter if we have to shed blood! … We need full power and that is what we demand …
To realize this ideal we are not going to waste time with archaic forms. … When the time comes, either parliament submits or
we will eliminate it.” A coup planned by General Jose Sanjurjo, to have been signaled by the assassination of Azaña, nearly
Politics being what it is, the liberal and secularist parties that took control in 1931 squabbled among themselves once in
power. In the 1933 elections, they were defeated by a right-wing combine, subsidized by Mussolini, that sought to follow in his
footsteps. This was not at all what most Spaniards wanted. In October, 1935, Azaña told the largest crowd that had ever
assembled in Spain: “All Europe today is a battlefield between democracy and its enemies, and Spain is not an exception.
You must choose between democracy, with all its shortcomings, with all its faults, with all its mistakes or errors, and tyranny
with all its horrors. … In Spain one hears frivolous and vain talk of dictatorship. We find it repugnant not only by doctrine, but by
experience and through good sense … Dictatorship is a consequence or political manifestation of intolerance; its propellant
is fanaticism; and its means of action, physical violence. Dictatorship leads to war … it stupefies peoples and drives them
When the next elections were held in February, 1936, the secular side reunited. Once again it scored a decisive victory,
despite the Church’s circulation of a catechism declaring it to be a mortal sin to vote for any candidate who supported freedom
of religion, the press, or education.
After this defeat, the Catholic side gave up on the ballot box. Left to their own devices, Spaniards would never support
continued control by God experts. Great Fascist-style rallies were held at which Gil Robles was hailed with the cry “¡Jefe! ¡Jefe!
¡Jefe!” (the Spanish equivalent of “Führer”) in the hope he might start a Mussolini-style “March on Madrid” to seize power. But it
was not a politician who ultimately acted. It was General Francisco Franco, the recently demoted Army chief of staff, who
launched a rebellion in July, 1936. Franco claimed to be fighting against Communism; in fact, Azaña had excluded all
Communists and even Socialists from his government even though they had contributed to his coalition’s success.
Most of the army quickly joined Franco’s revolt, but there was a problem. The bulk of Franco’s forces were in Spanish
Morocco, and could not easily cross back to Spain because sailors of the Spanish navy remained loyal to the elected
government. The transport solution was an airlift provided by Mussolini, who intervened on Franco’s side from the very start.
Ultimately, some 100,000 Italian troops fought in the war. Hitler jumped in as well, with the Luftwaffe perfecting at Guernica
the saturation bombing techniques that were to prove so effective during World War II.