The Cold War

In the classical historiography of the post-war period, the Catholic Church largely appears as an actor of only secondary importance. While a plethora of studies exists on Pius XII and his role during the Second World War, those historians who did focus on the Cold War are mainly concerned with the 1970s and 80s, and with John Paul II in particular.1

By contrast, the opening of the Vatican Archives now allows for a systematic analysis of the relations between the Vatican and communist regimes in the 1940s and 50s. Within our project, two parallel strands of research evaluate the Catholic Church’s shifting roles in both Europe and America. In this context, our teams at LMU Munich and the GHI Warsaw focus on South-East and Central Europe, as well as on Poland and the Baltic regions of the Soviet Union. The Collegium Carolinum in Munich and the GHI’s branch office in Prague also unite strong competences on Czechoslovakia. In addition, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford and its Latin American Centre will focus on the Cold War on the other side of the Atlantic and also pursue archival research in Argentina and the US.

On the one hand, the Vatican engaged in diplomatic relations as a sovereign state. On the other hand, however, the Church may also be considered as a ‘non-governmental actor’. Across the world, ecclesiastical structures offered localized modes of action and influence that reached down to the level of individual parishes. Through a network of educational institutions and welfare organizations the Church could maintain its role as a transnational power that transcended the borders between the great political blocs. At the same time, of course, the Vatican was anything but neutral and actively sought to contain and to fight communism across the globe. Therefore, this project focuses on the strategies and doctrines that were developed under Pius XII against the global communist advance and evaluate how they were employed at local levels.

A crucial battlefield, in this context, was Latin America. Already in the 1930s, organizations of the radical left had emerged throughout the continent and would continue their often clandestine activities in the 1940s and 50s, leading to events such as the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). In order to counter such developments, the Church supported and thus helped stabilize conservative and authoritarian regimes that had been inspired by the ideology of Francoism in Spain or Salazar’s Estado Novo in Portugal. Most notably, the complicated role of the Church in Juan Perón’s Argentina will be analyzed in a detailed transatlantic case study within our project. Perón re-introduced religious education in schools, called clerics into the government, and promoted the ‘national saint’ Nuestra Señora de Luján to the honorary rank of a general in the Argentinian army. While the Holy See turned a blind eye to matters of human rights, Perón was awarded the highest Apostolic honours, such as the Grand Cross of the Pius-Order. This “sacred union” between the state and the church seemed to establish a continuity to the historical memory of the Spanish Empire. In the 1950s, however, it was the Vatican that would orchestrate the fall of Peronism.2 When Perón began to enact policies of secularization, raised church taxes, and flirted with socialist ideas, Pius excommunicated him on 16 June 1955. A coup d`état of naval officers began on the very same day that would ultimately lead to a regime change in September. In the next years, Catholic dignitaries such as Cardinal Santiago Luis Copello, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, would shift their sympathies towards Christian-social and Christian-democratic parties that increasingly gained strength in Argentina and its neighbour Chile. From the 1960s onwards, such movements would be crucial for the development of the new Liberation Theology – a set of reformatory ideas that were initially rejected by Rome, but would eventually become highly influential.

Although the Cold War was a conflict of global proportions, its mechanisms can only be understood through in-depth studies of individual cases that were often more ambivalent and complicated than the traditional picture of a simple East-West divide. In order to retrace these ambiguities, the study on Argentina will be complemented by two separate projects on Central and Eastern Europe. Here, the Church had few options to actively promote anti-communist policies, but rather was in a defensive position to maintain its presence in the countries of the Warsaw Pact.3 In particular, our research will analyse the reports of nuncios and other Catholic dignitaries: How did the Vatican react to the curtailment of clerical privileges, to the forceful secularization of monasteries and schools, and to the incarcerations of priests and bishops in the Soviet sphere of influence? How did it respond to communist propaganda material? In this context, we must distinguish of course between various states of the Eastern hemisphere. Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, were formally independent, but closely aligned to the Soviet Union whilst Yugoslavia declared itself to be ‘bloc-free’ and developed a very distinct form of state socialism. In addition, Austria forms a special case as the country remained occupied by Soviet troops until 1955 and declared its permanent neutrality thereafter.

A major challenge, ultimately, is to reconstruct the mechanisms by which Catholicism became a medium of resistance within the Eastern bloc. In the public memory, a crucial turning point seems to have been the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 that was accompanied by global media campaigns of the Vatican. Yet, the relations between the Catholic Church and anti-communist opposition movements were also more ambivalent than previously recognized. In Poland, for example, the Vatican hoped to maintain formerly Prussian and Silesian dioceses, which alienated the general public. More importantly, Pius XII was forced in many cases to cooperate with communist and socialist regimes in order to avoid a complete loss of influence on local church structures. In the first years after 1945, in particular, the Church hoped to avoid sanctions and reprisals by actively promoting a political dialogue with communist governments. In this context, it is also relevant to compare the Vatican’s strategies to that of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Church in the Soviet Union.

From 1950 onwards, the Holy See began to follow a more aggressive course in Central and Eastern Europe in order to support Catholic underground organisations. An important example, in this context, is the papal decree Schismatica Actio Catholica in Cecoslovachia damnatur, which excommunicated the so-called ‘patriotic priests’ who had collaborated with socialist authorities. By contrast, conservative priests and bishops following the Vatican would now be ordained without governmental approval in Czechoslovakia. Such public calls for resistance allowed the pope to position the church in front of a global audience as vanguard against communism. Ultimately, our aim is to retrace and to stress this transnational dimension of papal policies, which placed the Vatican in a global concert of powers. In this context, the Cold War against communism also corresponded to a re-invention of the Church, which now began to strategically endorse the values of the Western alliance. While Pius XI and Pius XII had agitated against capitalism, liberalism, and democracy in the pre-war period, the Church now clearly embraced Truman’s and Eisenhower’s vision of ‘the West’.

“Fastentuch” of the Humanitarian Aid Organisation “Misereor” in Kloster Wernberg, Villach Land/Carinthia, 2018, Wikimedia Commons

See also:

Pius XII and the Cold War: The Vatican’s Struggle against the Communist Ideology in East-Central and Southeastern Europe

Pius XII and the Catholic Global South: The Case of Argentina

  1. See for example: Karl-Joseph Hummel (ed.), Vatikanische Ostpolitik unter Johannes XXIII. und Paul VI. 1958–1978 (Munich, 1999); Stefan Samerski, Johannes Paul II. (Munich, 2008). There are of course notable exceptions: Philippe Chenaux, Une Europe vaticane? : entre le Plan Marshall et les Traités de Rome  (Louvain-la-Neuve, 1990); Philippe Chenaux, L’Église catholique et le communisme en Europe, 1917-1989 (Paris, 2009); Nadežda Alekseevna Beljakova et. al., „Es gibt keinen Gott!“: Kirchen und Kommunismus. Eine Konfliktgeschichte (Freiburg, 2016). []
  2. On Peronism, see for example: Ernesto López, El primer Perón. El militar antes que el pólitico (Buenos Aires, 2009). []
  3. On Poland and Czechoslovakia, see for example: Robert Zurek, ‘Zum Scheitern der kommunistischen Kirchenpolitik in Polen. 1944–1956‘, in: Rainer Bendel (ed.), Kirchen- und Kulturgeschichtsschreibung in Nordost- und Ostmitteleuropa: Initiativen, Methoden, Theorien (Berlin, 2006), pp. 153–172; Jiří Hanus, Die römisch-katholische Kirche, in: Martin Schulze Wessel (ed.), Handbuch der Religions- und Kirchengeschichte der böhmischen Länder und Tschechiens im 20. Jahrhundert (Munich, 2009), pp. 617–640. []
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