Democratization

The late 1950s were clearly marked by processes of democratization in Western Europe and beyond. Nonetheless, historians need to acknowledge and explain the Vatican’s political failure to overcome its close association with anti-democratic and dictatorial regimes. In this context, our research team examines the Church’s often ambivalent relation to right-wing dictatorships against the wider intellectual background of European conservatism.

Specifically, our historians at the GHI in Rome focus on the relations between Christian Democrats and former supporters of dictatorial regimes in Italy, Germany, and France. Thereby, our group aims to question narratives of post-war historiography that mainly revolved around contradictory categories of ‘fascist continuities’ and ‘democratic rebeginnings’. Instead, we need to understand how former supporters of fascist regimes cooperated with former critics in order to find common answers to shared questions of modernity, secularism, and an alleged cultural ‘decline’ in Europe.1

Based on newspaper articles, party publications, and the sources from the Vatican Archives, our team will research patterns of religious-conservative thought that aimed at democratic reform and European integration, but simultaneously perpetuated classical reactionary themes.2 Catholic authors of the 1950s, for example, often propagated the ideal of a ‘third way’ in order to save European culture from both the communism of the Eastern bloc and the ‘materialism’ of the Anglo-American sphere.3 Politically, this went alongside new concepts such as the ‘social market economy’ in Germany, Gaullism in France, and ideas of ‘Catholic Corporatism’ in Italy.4 At the same time, both the Church and conservative parties recurred to the notion of a West European ‘Occident’, whose continuity to premodernity and the Christian Middle Ages should be re-established.

 By retracing these intellectual themes, this research group seeks to explain how ideas that had already defined fascism and National Socialism could be integrated and democratically re-interpreted within Christian-conservative worldviews. For the ‘salvation of the Occident’, various branches of the European right could be mobilized. On the one hand, a new Christian identity simplified the integration of Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany into the Western alliance. On the other hand, however, the intermediation of the Catholic Church also created close ties between democratic states and clerically backed dictatorships in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America. Hence, we need to address the question to what extent post-war Catholicism allowed for an intellectual convergence of the European right, which had formerly been divided into supporters and opponents of fascist regimes. In this context, the challenge is to reconstruct mentalities for which the question of fascism was not of primary political concern. Ultimately, the project thus contributes to a new understanding of post-war democratization processes and aims to reveal the ambiguities between democratic ideals and a deeply rooted religious conservatism.

State visit of Konrad Adenauer in France, 1962
Service in the Cathedral of Reims with Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer, 1962, Wikimedia Commons

See also:

Shadows of the Occident. Catholicism in the Political Thought of Post-War Europe, 1945-1960

  1. On this problem, see for example: Johannes Großmann, Die Internationale der Konservativen. Transnationale Elitenzirkel und private Außenpolitik in Westeuropa seit 1945 (Munich, 2014). []
  2. This tension also marked Catholic identity in other parts of the world. See, for example: Kathleen Cummings, New Women of the Old Faith: Gender and American Catholic Identity in the Progressive Era (Chapel Hill, 2009). []
  3. Philippe Chenaux, De la chrétienté à l’Europe: les catholiques et l’idée européenne au XXe siècle (Tours, 2007). []
  4. Paul Betts, Ruins and Renewal: Civilizing Europe after World War II (London, 2020); Martin Conway, Western Europe’s Democratic Age: 1945-1968 (Princeton, 2020). []
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