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University News

Kertzer awarded Pulitzer Prize for biography of Mussolini, Pope Pius XI

In book, Kertzer sheds light on sordid ties that spawned anti-Semitic policies

University News Editor
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Professor of Anthropology and Italian Studies David Kertzer ’69 P’95 ’98 used long-concealed archives to craft a narrative that includes previously unknown and condemning details about Pope Pius XI.

Professor of Anthropology and Italian Studies David Kertzer ’69 P’95 P’98 secured a Pulitzer Prize Monday for his biography of Pope Pius XI and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Kertzer, who served as provost from 2006 to 2011, said his book, “The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe,” illuminated previously undisclosed details about the Catholic Church’s insidious influence on the fascist dictator Mussolini, including how the Pope may have pushed him toward persecuting Italian Jews.

Pope John Paul II’s decision to divulge the contents of papal documents from the time period between the World Wars proved an auspicious opportunity for Kertzer, who has spent much of his career exploring the history of the papacy and its influence on Italian politics. Kertzer said the archives’ availability spurred him to embark on writing a biography of Pius XI and Mussolini, calling it “too tantalizing a topic not to write about.”

Kertzer also capitalized on the accessibility of fascist documents, noting that the espionage Mussolini conducted on the Vatican exposed what was going on “behind the scenes” in the Catholic enclave of Rome.

Delving through the fascist and papal archives, Kertzer unearthed a papal envoy to the totalitarian government. The messenger conveyed “the Pope’s requests for the dictator to take action … using the police and the authority of the fascist regime,” Kertzer said, adding that documents revealed that the messenger “used his position to try to warn Mussolini about the danger posed by Italy’s Jews.”

The “eye-opening” revelation constitutes a concrete example of Pius XI provoking state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the years leading up to and during World War II, Kertzer said. In 1938, Mussolini’s government, which infamously allied itself with Hitler’s Nazi party, implemented laws that stripped Jews of Italian citizenship and barred them from holding government positions.

Of the prize, Kertzer expressed excitement and offered praise for his colleagues.

“Obviously it’s extremely gratifying to get that kind of recognition,” he said, adding, “There are a number of people who were involved in this book. … It’s awesome to know that everybody gets some recognition.”

President Christina Paxson P’19 acknowledged Kertzer’s accolades in a campus-wide email Monday night, calling the Pulitzer a “rare and well-deserved honor” and adding that Kertzer “mastered an immense body of information” in combing through the archives, ultimately producing a “book that is both authoritative and compelling to read.”

An author of nine books, Kertzer has already commenced a new project, this time turning back the clock to key in on the Vatican and Italy during the Italian states’ 1848 revolution. In addition, his 1997 work “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,” a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, has drawn the attention of famed filmmaker Steven Spielberg and playwright Tony Kushner, who will produce and write the screenplay, respectively, for a film based on the book.

Jordan Harrison MFA’03 also garnered plaudits from the Pulitzer Prize Board, finishing as a finalist for the prize for drama. His recognition marks the fourth time in four years an alum has either been nominated for or taken home the award.

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  1. justin '03 says:

    hooray for jordan harrison!

  2. Maggie Clonme says:

    You see…Kertzer is an intellectual, an accomplished academic, and for some years an effective administrator. That is why he would not want to be the president of Brown University. Nor would the ilk of Thomas Tisch and cohort Ruth Simmons allow him to be one even if he wanted to be one. So, we end up with mediocrity the likes of Chris Paxson. They need that mediocrity in order to keep Ruth Simmons looking good.

  3. justin '04 says:

    yay for jew!

  4. The history of the Catholic Church is unpleasant reading even for” the faithful ” wanting to give it the benefit of the doubt. Reading reviews of Mr. Kertzer’s book I can see quite clearly an anti-Catholic agenda : so the Church has made a MAJOR CONTRIBUTION to modern anti-Semitism ? Is that fair and objective scholarship ? The daily news in recent years suggests that a major contribution to modern anti-Semitism is Zionist Israel itself.
    In the United States and Europe presently Islamophobia trumps anti-Semitism.And whatever the whole truth about the past, all the last few popes have reached out in friendship to the world’s Jews-while attacking the evil of global capitalism, a multi-ethnic conspiracy.

    • emmettcoyne says:

      zionism would never have succeeded if Jews in Christian Europe were truly treated as equals in supposedly democratic societies.The failure to allow true assimilation underscored antipathy toward Jews, and hence, Zionism become a hope for survival. Jews had been treated as “perfidious” for centuries in Roman Catholic liturgy, a major contributor of anti-Semitism in the west. They were charged with deicide. Explain how the RCC wasn’t a major contributor to anti-Semitism?

      • I was a student at St. Michael’s in Providence for the 7th and 8th grades way back in Pre-Vatican II 1960. I don’t recall any hateful anti-Semitic propaganda beyond the rather innocuous ” The Catholic Church is the only true church “. Which is why they call it PAROCHIAL school.
        Why bash the Catholic Church now over perceived anti-Semitism when the last few popes have been very sensitive to the concerns of Jews ?
        Explain how Apartheid Israel is not a major contributor to anti-Semitism today. Too many formerly leftist Jewish intellectuals have betrayed Socialism to worship an idol, the state of Israel. In fact, the once formidable American SWP has gone soft on Zionism.
        The Socialist Workers Party was founded by none other than Leon Trotsky himself, A Jew with a Marxist view of any modern nation state.
        Is it wise for Jews to voice hostility to ANY of the world’s major religions-including Islam ? American public opinion is now turning against Israel. Netanyahu ‘s arrogant speech before the U.S. Congress did not do the Jews of the world any favors.

        • emmettcoyne says:

          Hello! The last few popes have been v. sensitive to concerns of Jews! You think the Holocaust might have caused a bit of a conversion? It was all the centuries previous that planted seeds against Jews as Christ-killers, etc. When Herr Hitler came to power it wasn’t out of an anti-semitic vacuum.
          Read James Carroll’s “The Sword of Constantine” which documents the history of anti-Semitism in the RCC.

          Last few popes sensitive?…B16 allowed the return of “the perfidious Jews” in dragging back Tridentine liturgies.
          I’d say that was pretty insensitive given all that had transgressed. But then again, B16 was a part of the Hitler Youth movement.

          I would suggest reading Eva IIIouz’s article, Enforcing Jewish Separateness to support your Netanyahu view.

          Kertzer has done an admirable work of revealing the behind-the-scenes power play of the Vatican and the rise of Mussolini’s fascism. The RCC has been more predisposed to kings, authoritarian leaders, dictators, etc. rather than democracy. It hasn’t been a big supporter of democratic movements, especially since the French Revolution took away the church’s privileged position. Still today, the RCC resists the People of God having an equal voice in governance. It remains a monarchy, perhaps Europe’s last.

          • I base my perspective on modern anti-Semitism on historical materialism: as human subjects of history there is nothing exceptional or unique about Jews. Ordinary Christians never wake up one morning with a crazed impulse to persecute Jews because holy text singles them out as Christ killers. The Old Testament also said ” do not suffer a witch to live “. And there were insane witch hunts. But these witch hunts were not ” explained ” by holy text.. They were explained by peculiar cultural conditions.
            Hitler’s case against the Jews in ” Mein Kamp ” is nowhere explained by their role as ” Christ Killers “. The Nazi pagan Hitler- and many other Germans- were well aware of the predominance of Jews in international banking and finance capital.. But he made the same mistake as anti-Italian bigots who imagine every person with an Italian surname is ” connected ” to organized crime.
            Oddly enough, Hitler raged against MARXIST Jews. But what did any poor Marxist Jew have to do with the dizzy world of BIG MONEY ?
            Is it not only sane to ask WHY the hostility to Jews today ? It has nothing to do with this Christ killing farce and everything to do with Zionism and clinging to the values of global capitalism. To Ayn Rand-ism, for example.
            Zionists pretend that anti-Semitism is some sort of strange and inexplicable

            psychosis-not connected to anything certain-not all- Jews do

          • emmettcoyne says:

            As Daniel Moynihan pointed out everyone has a right to their opinion but not their facts. Your opinion is based on historical materialism. Doesn’t make it factual – anti-Semitism today is simply because of historical materialism. Your opinion, I opine.

            “Ordinary Christians never wake up one morning…
            Jews feared Good Friday because of rants about Jews killing Christ, setting them up as revenge murder victims. The gospel of John, again read Carroll, reading it literally, underscores how negative it describes Jews, and this remains today.

            re: witches – people look to religious texts to justify their hatred of others. Yes, cultural events factor in, but too often those with a hateful agenda look to sacred texts for justifications. Recall how many preachers here used scripture to justify slavery. Today preachers are quoting OT texts against homosexuals, that they be stoned!
            Perhaps 40,-100,000 persons (almost all women) were executed as witches. They were supported by the text your offer. “Thou shalt not kill” had little effect on so many “believers.”How selective “believers” can be in seeking supportive texts. How come “Thou shalt not kill” didn’t become the overriding text? Because “believers” too often live with cognitive dissonance.

            “The Nazi pagan Hitler…did he ever publicly repudiate his Roman Catholic baptism? Mussolini was hailed by Pius IX as “”a man sent by Providence.” Wasn’t M. an atheist? Did he ever renounce publicly his RC baptism?

            Are Jews the only ones “clinging to the values of global Capitalism?” This only makes your assertion anti-Semitic.

          • Speaking about ” cognitive dissonance “: Way back in 1975 the United Nations declared Zionism to be a form of racism. But the political climate in America has twisted this . It seems that here( and in Europe) anti-Zionism is perceived as a form of racism.
            What would Jews have the Catholic Church do today ? Rewrite sacred scripture ? Or just show zeal for Zionism ? Engels explained a long time ago that war on any RELIGION is foolishness.The obnoxious and truly hateful New Atheists don’t understand this.
            So touchy is this topic that I can predict that not a single Brown professor will comment here. I would be amazed if any of them, more or less, agreed with me.
            [ Some of my best friends are Jews ( and communists ) ]

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