Mussolini tried to undercut Hitler, historian says

By Associated Press

Rome - Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini once privately suggested that the Vatican consider excommunicating Adolf Hitler, a historian said Saturday, citing a document recently disclosed by the Holy See. Experts were surprised by the document, but noted that Mussolini's remark came in April, 1938, the year before he sealed a wartime alliance with the Nazi leader.

Professor Emma Fattorini pointed out that Hitler had invaded Austria shortly before Mussolini's reported remark. The Italian dictator was worried about his own borders, she said. She speculated that Mussolini's aim was "to weaken Hitler and have more power himself, to do it in a way that the Church would stop Hitler a bit." The Hitler-Mussolini relationship was always ambivalent, she said. "They love each other, they hate each other, they study each other," she said.

The Vatican document describes an April 10, 1938, meeting between the go-between from the Holy See to Mussolini, Rev. Pietro Tacchi Venturi and Pope Pius XI. Tacchi Venturi told the pope about his private talks with Mussolini three days earlier. According to the document, Mussolini had advised the Vatican envoy "that it would be worth while with Hitler to be more forceful, without half-measures; not right away, not immediately, but waiting for the most opportune moment to adopt more forceful measures, for example, excommunication." Hitler was born into a Roman Catholic family, but did not practise the faith.

It was not clear how the Vatican reacted to Mussolini's suggestion. Ms. Fattorini said the Holy See has not released other documents that would help explain the case. Dennis Mack Smith, the author of a Mussolini biography, said the Italian leader often made casual suggestions of this type, reflecting his initial doubts about Hitler. "He's not too keen on him in 1938," said Mack Smith, the author of a Mussolini biography. "Hitler actually asked Mussolini for a formal alliance in the course of 1938, but Mussolini doesn't accept this until 1939. Until then, it's something Hitler wanted, but something Mussolini didn't want. He was trying to keep his distance a bit."

In February, the Vatican opened to researchers archives covering its relations with Germany from 1922-39; many other documents are still secret. The Holy See made the 1922-39 documents available years ahead of schedule in a bid to deflect criticism that it was silent in the face of the Holocaust.

A central figure of criticism is Pope Pius XII, who succeeded Pius XI in 1939 and was pontiff throughout the Second World War. The Vatican has strongly defended the actions of the wartime pope.

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