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.