Project Description

In 2020, the Vatican has opened its archives for the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), which has been accompanied by strong media coverage. Long-awaited within the scholarly community, these new sources allow historians to address a whole range of topics that extend beyond Eugenio Pacelli’s individual biography and relate to greater questions of global politics as well as twentieth-century social and economic history. In particular, large teams of scholars in both Europe and America have now begun to scrutinize the actions of the Catholic Church during the Second World War and the Holocaust. By contrast, our research group is the first to focus on the post-war period and to address new questions about the Vatican’s role in the phase of reconstruction after 1945, the emerging conflicts between the capitalist West and the communist East, and the processes of decolonization in the global South.

The two decade-long pontificate of Pius XII stands amidst an ‘Age of Extremes’, which forced Catholics to situate themselves in relation to conflicting ideologies, totalitarianism, democracy, and modernity. Although a period of accelerating secularization, the pontificate also witnessed the re-emergence of the Catholic Church as an influential global force. In these conflict-laden, but also dynamic years, the Vatican occupied a central role in international politics. With about 80 Apostolic Nunciatures, the Holy See could demonstrate a global presence and presented itself as an actor that stood above national party interests. Yet, the Vatican simultaneously took strong positions in ideological conflicts and thus actively shaped the international political landscape.

This project aims to build a long-lasting team of scholars who conduct research on Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Israel. Although the participants are based at various universities and research institutes, they meet regularly in Rome in order to consult the Vatican Archives. Together, we organize workshops and international conferences held in Rome, Warsaw, and at our partner universities in order to establish a permanent network. Overall, our group covers four large research areas:

  1. The Cold War
  2. Decolonization 
  3. Historical Memory
  4. Democratization

Together, these four themes form an interconnected field of research in which we face a multitude of questions: What were the major institutional, social, and religious changes in the global Catholic community under Pius XII’s papacy? What was the Vatican’s attitude towards democracy and human rights as well as totalitarian and authoritarian regimes? How did Pius XII and the curia cope with the legacies of fascism, collaboration, and the Holocaust within the Catholic Church? In what ways did they influence the formation of the Western alliance and the beginning of the Cold War with its nuclear arms race? How did the Holy See react to the foundation of Israel or to movements of de-colonization in Africa and Asia? How did the Vatican intervene in Latin American politics and to what extent did it support authoritarian regimes in order to prevent the spread of communism? In addition to these political questions, future scholarship should examine how Pius XII reacted as a theologian to challenges of secularization, technological progress, and rapidly changing gender relations. These issues, of course, gained a particular importance in the Second Vatican Council that was started only four years after Pacelli’s death.

The Vatican Secret Archive
Interiors of the Vatican Apostolic Archive, Wikimedia Commons