Shadows of the Occident

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

Simon Unger-Alvi

This project examines the intellectual evolution of Catholic-conservative movements across Western Europe. Specifically, it focuses on the relations between Christian Democrats and former supporters of dictatorial regimes in Italy, Germany, and France. In this context, the project primarily analyses the role of the Catholic Church in Europe’s political landscape. Thereby, it questions narratives of post-war historiography that mainly revolved around contradictory categories of ‘fascist continuities’ and ‘democratic rebeginnings’. Instead, this study seeks 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.

These discourses clearly corresponded to a newly gained prestige of the Catholic Church. Based on newspaper articles, party publications, and the sources of the Apostolic Archives on the pontificate of Pius XII, this project researches patterns of religious-conservative thought that aimed at democratic reform and European integration, but simultaneously perpetuated classical reactionary themes. 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. Politically, this went alongside new concepts such as the ‘social market economy’ in Germany, Gaullism in France, and ideas of ‘Catholic Corporatism’ in Italy. 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 project 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, the project addresses 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.

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