Drew University’s Karpati Lecture Welcomes Pulitzer Prize-Winner David Kertzer

The virtual event was moderated by Drew President Hilary L. Link, PhD

April 2024 – Drew University welcomed Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Kertzer to the virtual George and Alicia Karpati Lecture.

Following a presentation on his most recent book The Pope at War: The Secret History of Pius XII, Mussolini, and Hitler, Kertzer engaged in an enlightening Q&A discussion with President Hilary L. Link, PhD, herself a Renaissance scholar.

In his book, Kertzer explores the true story of Vatican’s actions during WWII, gleaned largely from newly-released Vatican archives for the years of Pope Pius XII.

Kertzer teased one of the more fascinating nuggets from delving into this new information.

“One of the most clamorous things I learned was the Pope actually was engaged from very early in his papacy in secret negotiations with Hitler through Hitler’s personal envoy, Prince Philipp von Hessen…We came across not only the evidence that these evidence took place, but actual more-or-less transcripts from the meetings,” said Kertzer, leaving the audience with plenty more insights to look forward to.

Kertzer and Link, both intimately familiar with the Italian-Vatican region’s history through their scholarly research, discussed a variety of topics related to Kertzer’s findings.

A few illuminating takeaways:

How the Vatican and Italy have owned their history during the Holocaust

Kertzer contextualized the Vatican’s representation of their history through Italy’s own version. Based on his years living in Italy, Kertzer reflected, “I get the impression Italians think they were on the side of the Allies in World War II, not on the side of Nazi Germany.”

Kertzer compared the 50-plus institutions in Italy studying the 18 months of Italian resistance in northern Italy to the lack of institutions studying the 20-year history of Italian fascism that encapsulated the entire country.

“It’s understandable on a psychological level, but it’s a problem for those of us who think it’s important that we face this history and try to understand how it happened so perhaps we can prevent some kind of recurrence in a different form.”

On the church’s role in World War II and the Holocaust

“The Italian churches were big boosters of Italian fascism,” said Kertzer. “I think they made Italian fascism possible. When Italy entered the war, the clergy throughout Italy—the cardinals, the bishops, all the major catholic organizations—urged all good catholics to do their catholic duty and fight in the war, especially when it turned in 1941 against the Soviet Union and it became a kind of Christian crusade. And this all tends to be forgotten and buried.”

Specifically on the Holocaust, Kertzer started before World War II. “The decades of basically Christian antisemitism, demonization of Jews, helped make the Holocaust possible. Obviously, there were other significant factors. But, who was it who murdered all the Jews in Europe? They weren’t people who thought they were pagans. They were people, the majority, who thought they were good Christians. That said, there certainly were many European Jews who were saved in convents and other catholic religious institutions who had the tradition of protecting the vulnerable, refugees and so forth, and this is important to recognize as well.”

On the power dynamic between the papacy, Mussolini, and Hitler

Kertzer explained that Pius XI was concerned over Hitler’s rise and closing down of convents and religious institutions and realized Mussolini, who was close to Hitler, was the best chance to sway policy, and relied on him to do so, though Hitler “did not pay much attention to Mussolini on this,” per Kertzer.

When Pius XII ascended the papacy, World War II had fully broken out and things changed. “Mussolini bragged about how he knew how to intimate the Pope, and Hitler certainly intimated the Pope and knew how to keep him quiet, basically, through various threats,” said Kertzer.

On the Vatican’s reaction to his book

“Not positive,” said Kertzer. “The book came out in Italy at the same time as the American edition. A week later (the Vatican’s newspaper) devoted a full page to attacking the book and two days later the daily newspaper of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Italy devoted a page and a half attacking the book…I think the Vatican still has great difficulty coming to terms with this history. That said, there are many important forces even within the Vatican, to say nothing of those outside the Catholic world, who think it’s important to get to this history in a more clear-eyed way and realize that the official history resembles rather little to the actual history.”

The Karpati Lectureship was established in 2005 by Michael and Noemi Neidorff in honor of Noemi’s parents. It serves to welcome outstanding authors in Jewish/Holocaust studies and Eastern European history to Drew.

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