Modern European history is sometimes told as a story of growing secularization. But the Catholic Church played a central role in 20th-century Europe as one of the main purveyors of anti-communism and a frequent ally of far-right reaction.

Pope Pius XII is carried into one of the Vatican’s apostolic halls to bless crowds gathered there. (Bettmann / Getty Images)

We often associate modernity with a decline in the political and social significance of religion. But the modern era has not seen a decline in religion’s importance so much as a radical change in its forms and the way it exerts power in society.

In her 2019 book A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe, historian Giuliana Chamedes charts how the Catholic Church in particular remade itself as a nation-state-like force in twentieth-century Europe, building a distinctly modern international presence to fight what it saw as the global threats of liberalism, socialism, and then communism. In doing so, the Vatican helped lay the ideological groundwork for the crimes of fascism and Nazism.

For Jacobin Radio podcast the Dig, Daniel Denvir interviewed Chamedes about this sordid and lesser-known history, from the Church’s alliances with nationalist projects in the wake of World War I to its dark role in the Holocaust. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion in Modern Europe

Daniel Denvir

I want to ask about your book’s general argument. You write that for a long time, twentieth-century history has been understood as characterized by the rise of secularism and the decline of religion. But you say this is wrong: in fact, religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular were key throughout, especially in Europe — and most important as a force of right-wing reaction.

What is the conventional perspective? Why does it get things wrong, and why does it get things wrong in the ways that it does?

Giuliana Chamedes

The conventional perspective that has been inherited from the twentieth and even the nineteenth century is bound up with the idea that as societies modernize, they supposedly secularize as well. Which is to say, their commitments to religion fall away, they grow increasingly committed to the separation of church and state, and you see a retreat of religion from the public to the private sphere. That has been accompanied by another narrative, which holds that gradually religion might even slip away the more modern and industrialized societies become.

This was a story that you find in all kinds of philosophical and social-scientific tracts. It has an enduring hold on academics and on the popular consciousness. Yet while religion is seen as a force that has not played a significant role in recent US and European history, plenty of pundits and scholars are willing to carve out major spaces for religion in non-Western societies.

Part of what my book was trying to do, and one of its early driving impulses, was to investigate the extent to which that widely repeated claim is correct. The book was written essentially in the immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq and very much shaped by that particular moment in world history and all the hysteria that accompanied that moment, about the place of Islam in politics and so forth. I began simply with the question of whether it is the case that [non-Western countries] are distinctly subject to some sort of premodern, theocratic onslaught, or whether the story’s more complicated.

What I found shocked me. I took a trip, on a little bit of a fluke, to the secret Vatican archives in Rome, and as I got into the archival materials, it hit me on the head that it’s not just that religion has played a role in the story of Europe’s history in the last hundred or hundred and twenty years or so. It’s that religion has played a major role in shaping European politics and European culture, and in helping consolidate a very long-lasting ideology: the ideology of anti-communism.

Daniel Denvir

It’s interesting, because the Vatican has always seen itself as a major power. But ironically, because of a Eurocentric worldview — a view that the Vatican has often very much embraced — the Vatican’s status as a power has been invisible to many in the West.

Giuliana Chamedes

Yes. Curiously enough, the Vatican itself was a leading perpetuator of this Eurocentrism. My book is entitled A Twentieth-Century Crusade: The Vatican’s Battle to Remake Christian Europe because the Vatican was interested in reshaping Europe and the European continent in its image, as a launching ground for what it imagined would be a global recapture of political and cultural affairs.

It was very much the case that the key Vatican officials who were captaining this strategy were not only Europeans, but predominantly Italians. They were completely convinced that their cultural imperialist project needed to begin in Europe, precisely because Europe was, on their view, the site for civilization, the space of progress, the space of modernity.

That’s another key sense in which my book really undermines some of the common assumptions out there about Catholic and papal traditionalism — in the sense that these figures cast themselves and understood themselves as ultramodern. They weren’t reactions to modernity. They were using modernity — using new media, using new tools like international law — to their own ends in the twentieth century.

In that sense, too, the classic modernization-secularization story needs to be turned on its head. It’s not modernity that erases religion. It’s actually a series of innovations associated with first-wave globalization that enable a resurgence on the part of various religious organizations and groups.

Daniel Denvir

Let’s go to the history. You start with World War I. In 1917, Pope Benedict XV named a priest, Eugenio Pacelli — who himself would later become Pope Pius XII in 1939 — papal ambassador to Bavaria, this heavily Catholic region of Germany, at the height of World War I.

Pacelli saw a dark conspiracy behind the United States’ entry in the war: a plan to “Americanize the whole world, making it Freemason so as to liberate it from its servitude to the Kaiser, the Pope, and the priesthood.” You write:

To our modern-day ears, promising to “make the world safe for democracy” might sound like innocent sloganeering. But to Eugenio Pacelli, papal officials, and Catholic conservatives, Woodrow Wilson’s phrase signaled that the American president was raising a revolutionary flag.

Pius XI, who succeeded Benedict, saw Wilsonian democracy as a threat to true peace, which he believed only kings and kingdoms could bring about. His first encyclical stated that it was only people in “the Middle Ages in possession of that true League of Nations, and it was called ‘Christianity.’”

Why did the Church see World War I the way that it did? How was that vision shaped by this long-running and deep Vatican hostility to liberalism?

Giuliana Chamedes

The pope’s hostility to liberalism and to popular sovereignty really gets jump-started by the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century. Over the course of the nineteenth century, you have a veritable industry of counterrevolutionary texts that are being churned out to defend the idea that popular sovereignty and democracy are directly at odds with Catholicism — with core Catholic beliefs and with the expansion and protection of Catholic privileges, specifically, again, in European society.

The pope’s hostility to liberalism and to popular sovereignty really gets jump-started by the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century.

World War I is the culmination of many of these trends, for various reasons. The Vatican enters the scene, when World War I kicks off in 1914, as an extremely beleaguered power. It’s probably at its weakest point in modern history. The papal states that it had occupied for centuries have been stripped away in the course of Italy’s wars of unification.

Daniel Denvir

This was a literal temporal kingdom in Central Italy with millions of subjects. It wasn’t just the pope as the head of the universal church, but the pope as the king of an actual kingdom.

Giuliana Chamedes

Correct — the pope as temporal sovereign. The papal states have been stripped away, and the papacy declares itself a prisoner of the Vatican to elicit some sort of international response to Italy’s actions. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, numerous countries pass laws that attempt to weaken the Church’s traditional power over domains like education, civil society, marriage and divorce law, and so on. The Church sees itself as extremely under threat.

It also has been pretty unsuccessful in preserving its status as a great power among the great powers. It tries to show up at various international conferences, and only rarely does it succeed in getting a seat at the table.

In World War I itself, the Vatican was looking forward to having a seat at the peace conference that draws the war to a close, the Paris Peace Conference of 1918–19. Instead, what ends up happening is that the Vatican is barred from the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 as well, because of a secret clause in a treaty that Italy had signed in 1915 as a condition for it to essentially switch sides and join with its historic enemies. Italy says, we’ll join you on several conditions, one of them being: do not invite the pope or his diplomats to whatever peace conference comes out of this conflict, because we don’t want a revision of those boundaries. They were not interested in ceding those papal states that had been taken from the pope.

Eugenio Pacelli as Pope Pius XII in September 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to the rise of liberalism on continental Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there’s another movement that’s really concerning to the pope, and that is of course socialism. Socialism is also identified and seen as an anticlerical movement, and the pope is extremely worried that a coalition of liberals and socialists will settle a new world order that writes the Vatican and the Catholic Church out of the equation.

That’s the big fear. The entry of the United States into World War I in April 1917 really heightens this concern. As a result of this feeling of extreme weakness, the Vatican decides to change its tactics and essentially stop the policy of simply issuing remonstrations and criticisms of liberal, capitalist, and socialist precepts, and instead go on the offensive.

That’s where the story gets really interesting, because the Vatican decides — first tentatively, and then in a way that develops a momentum of its own — to make use of new media in revolutionary ways. It decides to hugely grow its presence in civil society, precisely in the era of expanding popular sovereignties; even though it maintains its fundamental antidemocratic commitment, it still understands the importance of “the people.”

And it makes use of international legal treaties in order to carve out what is essentially a peace settlement before the official peace settlement is made. As it sees that the empires with which it sympathized, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire, are not going to win this war, the Vatican moves to create an alternative peace settlement of its own. It’s an alternative settlement that’s entirely animated by the fear of a liberal or socialist new order taking shape, which for the Vatican means an order that writes the Church out of the public sphere, as a preface to writing the Church out of existence.

Daniel Denvir

The Catholic Church had lost its own earthly theocracy at the same time that European states were becoming less theocratically in thrall to the Church. You write that the Church responds to this, first, by performing the trappings of a nation-state, creating this massive set of legal documents called the Code of Canon Law that they start drafting in 1904 and complete in 1917. Then, they move onto the international stage and try to insert that Canon Law into the laws of other nation-states across Europe through these treaties called “concordances.”

Giuliana Chamedes

It’s a fascinating attempt to use the letter of the law to serve what are essentially theocratic aims. This is an interesting turn as well because over the nineteenth century, the Vatican had strongly criticized the nation-state as a political form and was very concerned about its existence. It preferred imperial forms of rule.

World War I represents a key turning point for the Vatican, because it’s with World War I and specifically with the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded in March 1918, that the Vatican decides to embrace the state form. It decides self-consciously to help in nation- and state-building projects that are essential to a whole series of Eastern and Central European countries that are newly constituted as a result of this treaty and World War I, or that are newly reconstituted, their borders radically redrawn.

Part of that shift is enabled by the fact that the Vatican itself, in a situation where it is desperately trying to bolster its own power and restore the territorial sovereignty that it lost, starts self-consciously fashioning itself as a new sort of state. In this, it is actually the most innovative of states, because it is a state that already has transnational presence and the possibility to sway individuals really all over the world through what we might call “soft power,” and also what we might call “identity politics.”

This is another funny realization I had along the way. This power that we really do tend to think of as the most backward power — a monarchy in the age of democracy, committed to all sorts of norms within family life and gender relations that feel anathema to our present day — it is at the same time a pioneer of a new form of internationalism that is grounded in a state or state-like presence, but that sees as its mission moving beyond its own borders and creating transnational communities of belonging that can be mobilized for political ends, for religious ends, for cultural ends.

Catholic Nationalism and Internationalism

Daniel Denvir

I want to talk more about national self-determination and nationalism in particular, because this was a huge thing throughout the era. There was the communist variant put forward by Vladimir Lenin, which was anti-colonial; there was a Wilsonian version, which was very much colonialist.

You write about a model for self-determination that was shared by the Vatican and Germany, which was very specifically focused on East-Central Europe — these parts of the Russian Empire cleaved off as independent nation-states thanks to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk of 1918, signed amid World War I after the Bolshevik revolution. What did the Vatican and Germany find to be so important about that region? How did their vision of national self-determination differ from these two better-known variants, the Leninist and the Wilsonian?

Giuliana Chamedes

National self-determination emerges as a sort of norm in this period, but it means very different things depending on who is talking the national self-determination talk. Lenin is the first well-known figure who articulates a commitment to national self-determination.

For him, national self-determination is not only anti-imperialist, but it’s also a stepping-stone to the ultimate abolition of the nation-state and the creation of a global communist society. It’s simply an instrumental phase that will help achieve the breaking apart of empires, and from there, there can be the next stage, akin to the one Karl Marx laid out, which is a post-statist vision for how human beings can get together and create a more just society.

Interestingly, the first person to respond to Lenin in a public forum and get some traction is not Woodrow Wilson. Wilson is the one who people think about today. He was able to famously associate himself with this term — through an elaborate PR campaign, by the way — but it was the pope, before Wilson, who in August 1917 who starts singing the national-self-determination song.

This was quite striking and surprising, not least because on most other things Lenin and the pope would not even have used the same words, but also because the pope again is indicating with this a new willingness to embrace the nation-state as a political form, and in fact help advance projects of nation and state building. When the pope embraces national self-determination, he is in conversation with key figures in the German Empire, who are very much thinking in new ways in their own right.

This is a moment in the war when there’s a split within the rulers of the German Empire over exactly whether it is worth it to try to hold onto the traditional conception of German imperial power, or whether it’s time to think about imperialism in a new way.

A key figure who is advocating the latter position — that is, let’s stay imperialist but think about imperialism in a new way — is a politician in the Catholic Center party, who argues for what he calls “control without territorial control.” What he’s really after here is a form of cultural and economic hegemony that will enable Germany to maintain a presence in those parts of Eastern Europe that it had always wanted in its orbit without actually having to go through the hassle of militarily controlling those lands.

Papal diplomats are very inspired by this German vision, which gets enshrined in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which is a central moment in European and world history that I think has been lost a little bit because there’s so much else going on — we just had the Russian Revolution, World War I is drawing to a close, and so on.

But this treaty is one in which the Germans are in one sense propping up the legitimacy of the Bolsheviks, when no one knew if they would ultimately emerge victorious from the civil war that they were trapped in immediately. On the other hand, the Bolsheviks, knowing that they need to deliver on the promise of getting Russia out of the war, hand over huge swaths of territory.

Daniel Denvir

One million square miles of the old Russian Empire, you write, “giving up Russia’s control of 90 percent of the empire’s coal mines, 54 percent of its industry, 33 percent of its rail system, and 32 percent of its agricultural land.”

Giuliana Chamedes

It’s a huge handover, in the service of the revolution, and in the service of delivering on this key promise that the Bolsheviks had made to end the war. With this handover, you have the formal independence given to states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, but you also have the creation of an informal empire that Germany controls.

This idea of control without direct territorial occupation appeals to papal diplomats, who work hard to bolster this idea within their circles in Rome. They are very inspired by it as they decide to move forward with their own hegemonic project, in the form of concordats that are signed with these new states: with Latvia in 1922, with Lithuania in 1927, with Estonia in 1920, and so on.

Daniel Denvir

These are not savory leaders. Latvia is ruled by Kārlis Ulmanis, this authoritarian strongman. Lithuania is ruled by these anti-liberal authoritarians, Augustinas Voldemaras and Antanas Smetona; the two of them in 1926 help the military overthrow the country’s left-wing government. Poland’s controlled by Józef Piłsudski. The Vatican signs concordats with all of them.

Giuliana Chamedes

Correct. The other curious thing, though, is that these leaders are fairly ideologically diverse. The Vatican is willing to enter into agreements even with political leaders who don’t necessarily resonate in all respects with the Catholic Church.

The church is hoping that through these treaties, which are newly recognized under international law, it will grow its influence within these societies. That it will be able to quash any remaining anticlerical sentiments and movements, and that it will prevent the future separation of church and state — which is the big fear it has about what sort of postwar order will emerge if it’s controlled by the liberals and the socialists.

Daniel Denvir

Does the Vatican want something different out of overwhelmingly Catholic countries like Poland and Lithuania, versus an overwhelmingly Lutheran country like Latvia?

Giuliana Chamedes

Certainly. It has its own hierarchy that is pretty explicit in internal papal documents regarding which of these countries it sees as most valuable, and which ones it really wants to prop up as models before an international audience. In Eastern Europe, Poland is supreme for the pope. That is the key country that needs to have a clear beneficial, strong agreement that binds Polishness to Catholicism in significant respects.

In the case of non-Catholic-majority powers, that concern is not as present. But what’s curious too is that the treaties themselves are cookie-cutter treaties. They look very similar from one context to the next. So the differences really come out in terms of how many papal diplomats are being sent on site, how frequently those papal diplomats are being asked to meet with elected officials and pose in public in photographs with them, and how often Catholic newspapers are writing up stories about the newfound unity and harmony between the Polish ruling elite and the Vatican.

Daniel Denvir

What did these East-Central European leaders want out of the concordats?

Giuliana Chamedes

These leaders are interested in legitimacy. They have emerged from World War I with states, but those states exist on paper and not necessarily yet as objects to which residents owe any sort of natural allegiance.

There’s particular concern about borderland territories, for two different reasons. One, because there are borderland communities that seem to be uninterested in these new national-unification projects, and so they need to be brought into the fold in some way. And two, because despite the work of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, despite the work even of the Paris Peace Conference, some of these borders remain undefined before international law for years and years. So there’s a question about what the actual delimitation of this new nation-state called Poland is, for instance.

What the Vatican can contribute to these sorts of debates and what the Vatican can do in this historical moment is offer a form of clarity. The way the Vatican does that is by having diocesan borders coincide with the real or imagined borders of these new states. That boundary-drawing work is actually helping bolster the sense that there is a “there” there in the first place.

The other thing that the Vatican can do is intervene and make sure that the hierarchy within these countries is in fact loyal to the new country, rather than to some neighboring country. This becomes very relevant in border disputes across the region. Through this unmixing of clergy, it’s able to create a clerical class that has some sort of allegiance to these new nationalistic projects, and therefore, the hope — and often the reality — is that from the pulpit, and from official statements, the upper hierarchy will in fact send the message that the new country exists as a geographic unit and as a cultural-historical force.

The other thing the Vatican can do is intervene and make sure that the hierarchy within these countries is in fact loyal to the new country, rather than to some neighboring country.

This era is often narrated as one of the high moments of nationalism in Europe. There’s some sense in which that’s true: European countries certainly use a lot of nationalistic imagery and language in order to get folks enthusiastic about World War I. Elites are talking the nationalist talk. But there’s another sense in which that whole nationalism story is really inaccurate, because it ignores the fact that many everyday people didn’t necessarily strongly identify with a nation, much less a newly formed nation-state.

The project of nation and state building is an ongoing one. Which is to say that the project of convincing people that they have so much in common that they should all be united in one state form and presumably owe allegiance to the state leader — that’s an idea that needs to be built up and elaborated in these years. The Vatican, curiously enough, is also participating in that broader project.

Daniel Denvir

You write that the Vatican’s diplomacy “helped foreground a new comprehensive understanding of the international order, even as it consolidated the ideal and reality of the nation-state — one people, one land, one culture — as a central component of that order.” How did this new nation-state nationalism relate to this other phenomenon of border-crossing internationalism, which powerfully arose during the same period? Why did people become citizens of the world at the same time they were becoming, for the first time, very narrowly construed as citizens of ethnonationally defined nation-states? They seem, if not contradictory, at least in tension.

Giuliana Chamedes

One way into this question is to think about how, in an important sense, internationalism and nationalism were coconstitutive phenomena. They didn’t always or necessarily oppose one another, and in fact the key figures who unified European nation-states in the nineteenth century were internationalist.

You have socialist internationalists who built the nation; you have liberal internationalists who built the nation. For these figures, there was no strong contradiction here. The nation was the space where you translate some of your ideals into practice, but the vision was to create a community of interlinked nations that all similarly had translated certain ideological precepts into law and policy.

That’s one bit of the answer. The other bit is that the Russian Revolution and the founding of the Communist International does represent a very important global turning point. Part of that has to do with the ideas, which is to say that on paper — though this wouldn’t end up being the case at all — the Bolsheviks were committed to bolstering a global movement that would use the nation-state only for a brief period of time, as an intermediary toward this post-statist, utopic future that they imagined.

That was a radical attack on the idea that you could be a nationalist and an internationalist at the same time. With that proposal, the Communist International, which got off the ground in 1919, is essential to the Bolshevik project. Well before the Russian Civil War is resolved, you have the constitution of this organization that is about uniting workers of the world.

The Catholic Church sees this. Initially, it’s not quite sure whether the Bolsheviks will have much staying power either. But it finds itself concerned by this alternative vision that’s being laid out. Curiously, it becomes the ultrainternationalist force that bolsters the nation-state partly as a response to this threat of some sort of post-statist world in which workers of the world have united and thrown off their chains collectively.

Daniel Denvir

Initially though, you write, the Vatican tried out diplomacy with the Soviet Union — though the Church erased that history. You point to a telling episode that both reveals the reality of this diplomatic effort and also how it was ultimately obscured by the way the Vatican told its own history.

When the Soviet Union invaded Poland in 1920, Achille Ratti, the future pope who was then the nuncio in Warsaw, was instructed to save his post. Not to stand up to the Soviets, but rather to reach out to them in case the Soviets were victorious. You write:

Several years later, this episode would be repackaged and presented as proof of papal bravery in the face of international communism. The new hero narrative held that Achille Ratti had decided to stay in Warsaw to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary and encourage the resistance of the good people of Poland against the Red Army. Polish Catholic papers repeated the myth, affirming that Ratti remained, looking at the wild horde of Muscovites, which approached the Polish capital with torches in their hands and menaced to annihilate our nation, faith, and civilization.

But the new version of the story was far from the truth. The real motivation for Ratti’s presence in Warsaw during the Red Army invasion was anything but anti-communist in spirit. Ratti stayed in the capital in order to strengthen ties with the Bolsheviks.

Why did the Vatican, given its long-standing hostility to socialism, initially seek an accommodation with the Soviet Union? And why did that change so dramatically?

Giuliana Chamedes

This speaks to that earlier point about how the Vatican is willing to conclude treaties with political leaders who espouse a range of different ideologies. That’s because its chief prerogative in the years after World War I is just to get as many of these treaties signed as it possibly can. It’s on a fast-paced mission to get these treaties cranked out and agreed upon by state leaders.

When it comes to state leaders espousing ideologies that the Vatican is not comfortable with, it wants to sign agreements with those folks too, because it sees these treaties in those cases as hopefully acting as a check on what those political leaders will do. It hopes that these treaties will, for instance, bolster possibly a more pro-religious faction or at least diminish the power of the anticlerical.

That’s very much how it operates with the Bolsheviks. It wants to conclude a treaty with them in order to get some protections for the Catholic Church on paper. There are a series of important historical contingencies that enable this illusion to flourish in the first place too that are relevant here. One of them is that initially the Bolsheviks go after the Orthodox Church rather than the Catholic Church.

Daniel Denvir

And the Pope is sort of fine with that, because the Catholic Church was repressed under the Tsar.

Giuliana Chamedes

Absolutely. The Catholic Church was repressed under the Tsar, and it’s ok with the Vatican if the Orthodox Church takes a little bit of a beating. We have various internal documents that celebrate this as a possibility for winning over new converts and basically occupying this space that the Orthodox Church once occupied.

There are these sorts of fantasies circulating around Vatican hallways. There’s also the fantasy of curbing the worst impulses of communism, a movement that the Vatican was well aware of. In the nineteenth century, it had actually condemned communism in the Syllabus of Errors. So the Vatican wasn’t interested in any sort of ideological friendship here, but it was hoping that with a treaty of this sort some of the Bolsheviks’ anticlerical impulses would be checked.

The Vatican wasn’t interested in any sort of ideological friendship, but it was hoping that with a treaty some of the Bolsheviks’ anticlerical impulses would be checked.

The process of trying to negotiate this treaty was a total failure, though. It’s partly a failure because the Bolsheviks want radical democracy within the Church, which the Church is unwilling to deliver. It’s not interested in having everyday Catholics elect the hierarchy, for instance, which is one of the demands the Bolsheviks made.

But it’s also a total failure from the Vatican side, because the key diplomat who is ultimately assigned to negotiate with the Bolsheviks is a rabid anti-communist himself, and he doesn’t agree with the pope that this whole strategy makes any sense. He is essentially working to undermine the possibility of an agreement, pretty much from the get-go.

The Church and the Communist Menace

Daniel Denvir

You write that the roots of the Vatican’s shift to hardcore anti-communism can in part be found in Bavaria, which was home to many conservative Catholics, including their archbishop, Michael von Faulhaber, who described the Great War as “a crusade against atheism, liberalism, and modernism.” But Bavaria was also home to a very powerful radical left.

In 1918, there was the first Bavarian revolution, and then in 1919, a second revolution that led to the creation of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, which was part of this broader council communist movement. That was short-lived; it was crushed by a military force made up of the German army and of right-wing paramilitaries like the Freikorps, who of course play a nasty role shortly thereafter in German history, and it led to the summary execution of leftists.

The papal ambassador to Bavaria at the time was Pacelli, the future pope, who called the whole affair “magnificent.” Explain the politics of postwar Bavaria, this fight between the Right and the Left there, and how it shaped both Catholic politics in Bavaria and also the Vatican’s ultimate embrace of hardcore anti-communism. Despite the Catholic Church’s universalist, evangelist pretensions, what your book shows is that, during this period, the Church had these very particular national commitments, particularly to Bavaria and Italy.

Giuliana Chamedes

Papal diplomats had a home in Bavaria. It was a part of the European continent where they had numerous contacts. They felt very much that this was a stronghold that they needed to hold onto.

Kurt Eisner, minister-president of the revolutionary People’s State of Bavaria, in 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Bavaria was swept by revolution, as was the rest of Germany after World War I, this was seen as an extremely dangerous development. Interestingly, the more moderate revolutionaries were seen as just as dangerous as the radical left ones. There was again this general fear of a democratic revolutionary impulse that was sweeping Europe, and in the papal mindset one of its leading aims was the removal of religion from the public sphere.

Daniel Denvir

At this point they weren’t really distinguishing between liberalism and socialism. They saw them as twin evils.

Giuliana Chamedes

They saw them very much as twin evils. They had a genealogical story according to which socialism was born of liberalism, and so they were intimately historically and ideologically interlinked — according to not just papal diplomats, but many Catholics close to the pope as well.

Whereas the response that the Catholic Church would craft to liberalism would be primarily legal and diplomatic in nature, the response it would craft to socialism and then communism would focus on growing youth organizations, growing after-work adult organizations, and capturing new media in order to launch a cultural-hegemonic crusade. That vision matured, in part, on the ground, as papal diplomats like Pacelli were physically present in Bavaria through these waves of revolution, living in airtight informational communities.

They weren’t out talking to the liberal democrats about how they felt regarding what was going on; they certainly weren’t out talking to the socialists. They were in very narrowly defined informational communities, where, when you read the sources, it kind of feels like plagiarism — the extent to which the views that come up in papal briefs sent back to Rome from Bavaria mimic or echo the views that are articulated in conservative Catholic journals in Bavaria and by the predominantly conservative Catholic hierarchy there.

The conception that these papal diplomats came to of the world battle at stake was matured earlier in Bavaria than it is elsewhere on the continent. In teeny-tiny Bavaria! It’s not as though this is a huge part of the European continent, but if we were to draw a map of Europe from the papacy’s point of view — or even of the world, for that matter, if we were to draw a map of the papal imaginary, in terms of the countries and locations and regions that really mattered — Bavaria has outsize importance, because of all these long-standing ties, because of the vision of it as a Catholic stronghold.

There’s a sense that “as goes Bavaria, so goes the world” in papal headquarters. That’s why what begins as a minoritarian interpretation within the Church, the interpretation of the chaos in the world as caused by the Russian Revolution and caused by international communism, gets picked up in Rome more quickly as a result of the importance that Bavaria has in the papal imaginary.

Daniel Denvir

You’re saying this is where the Vatican learned on the ground. It’s one of the first places where it learned how it would operate in an era of mass politics and street politics and internationalism.

Giuliana Chamedes


That’s right. This is the place where the papacy starts using the media in new ways; it’s a place where it really supports the creation of anti-communist civil society organizations. It sees itself as responding to realities on the ground. It sees itself as a quick-moving, responsive entity that sees reality for what it is, has pulled back the veil, and has come up with a response.

Which is, in effect, to create a Catholic International, that is seen as the counter, and in effect the only global counter, to the Communist International. The Catholic International is the response to the Comintern.

Catholic Anti-Communism, Antisemitism, and Fascism

Daniel Denvir

Bavaria is also where we see this connection between anti-communism and antisemitism being forged. The first Bavarian revolution was led by Kurt Eisner, a Jewish freelance journalist, and the Catholic right really framed him as this pernicious Jewish foreigner, this outside force, that had entered the body politic. The papal ambassador to Bavaria and future pope Pacelli called the Bavarian Socialist Republic a “harsh, Russian-Judaic revolutionary tyranny.” Pacelli was also, you write, obsessed with Jewish radicals’ physiognomy.

This was a moment when the notion of Judeo-Bolshevism, which unfortunately is still with us today, was really taking root. You write that it both conveyed that all Bolsheviks were Jews, but also vice versa, that

what Bolshevism really was, and had always been all along, was a Jewish trick or ruse. According to this view, Jews were simply promoting Bolshevik-style revolution as a way to advance their true aims: the destruction of Christianity and the conquest of the world.

On this view, Jews did not really care about communist principles at all. Communism was just a cover, in the same way that capitalism had supposedly been a cover for the advancement of naked Jewish interests. If capitalist control allowed Jews to make money, communist revolution allowed them to topple the existing order and seize power more quickly. This is what led promoters of this view to improbably claim, say, that the Rothschild family was not only amassing tremendous wealth for itself, but also funneling money into communist movements worldwide.

Why did the Judeo-Bolshevist conspiracy emerge when it did and function the way it did? And how was it that Catholic antisemitism was there in the powerful way that it was, ready at hand, to be used in the war on communism?

Giuliana Chamedes

This point speaks to a broader issue that I’m hoping my book helps shed light on. The centrality of the myth of Judeo-Communism or Judeo-Bolshevism to understanding the twentieth century, and what I might even call anti-communism as a cultural code.

There is a famous scholarly article that argues that antisemitism was a cultural code, in the sense that it was well established as a way of speaking and thinking about the Jews, and speaking and thinking about modernity and radicalism and capitalism long before the rise of Adolf Hitler. I would argue that that is correct. But we need to focus more attention on the extent to which anti-communism also became a cultural code of its own and was interbraided with the preexisting antisemitism and in fact gave the preexisting strands of antisemitism in European culture an extraordinary new life, in the worst possible sense of the term.

This myth of Judeo-Bolshevism drew on older texts before the Russian Revolution like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and various notions of a plot for Jewish global domination in order to simultaneously undermine the legitimacy of communism as a set of ideas and as a political force, and undermine the presence of Jews within the societies in which they were firmly rooted. Back to the nationalism-internationalism point, this is where Jews and Communists were tarred as internationalists who necessarily subverted the nation.

The Catholic International is the response to the Comintern.

That’s where this narrative gets so toxic that we can understand one turn that it took later, with legislation taken against the communists in the 1920s and ’30s, and legislation that targets the Jews specifically in the ’30s. They are animated by a similar impulse, which is to write certain categories out of the possibility of being law-abiding citizens who are serving their nations.

Daniel Denvir

At this same time, the Vatican is also opposing minority protections for Jews in Poland.

Giuliana Chamedes

I see these stories as of a piece. This is the dark underbelly of the national self-determination story, which is often presented in bright, shiny colors as a moment when enslaved peoples are finally emancipated. The dark underbelly here is that in the process of national consolidation, you have the explosion of these myths, including again, very prominently, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism. And these myths hold that there are certain categories of people who are by definition antinational and subversive and should be written out of the national community being forged.

This idea far precedes the Cold War. It was forged in these civil-war-like situations that erupted in the final years of World War I and continued up through the 1920s, with what in most cases in Europe ended up being counterrevolutionary consolidations of power that had disturbing staying power.

Daniel Denvir

The Vatican time and again sided with reactionary forces in Europe in the name of anti-communism. Events in Italy, right outside the Vatican’s front door, were unsurprisingly key.

You write that from 1919 to 1920, Italy was hit by the Biennio Rosso, or Red Biennial, this huge series of strikes and protests. Factory owners and landowners, in response, funded the fascists, who offered what they described as a “third position” between liberalism and communism.

Initially, the Vatican was wary of the Italian fascists, because of their anticlericalism. Then the fascists, you write, changed their approach, and the Church in turn embraced the fascists.

What was the Italian fascists’ initial approach to religion? Given those initial differences, how did they eventually enter into such a close partnership with the Church?

Giuliana Chamedes

Italian fascism was a heterogeneous movement when it first started out. It was composed of a large number of war veterans, who came home unhappy with how they were received, and unhappy with the pretty measly gains that Italy had won as a result of its work during World War I.

Even though Italy was on the winning side, it didn’t get many of the lands it had been promised as a condition for entering the war. A real nationalist fervor set in that sought to simultaneously cast the ruling government as weak and as the reason for Italy’s failure to get what it had been promised, and at the same time spawn a kind of paramilitary imperial project to gain those lands.

What ended up consolidating as a movement known as the Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, the Italian Fasces of Combat, in 1919. It was a movement that was very much shaped by this immediate postwar context. It was strongly nationalistic and responding to a wave of strikes that had swept both cities and the countryside.

These were revolutionary, exciting years for people on the Left. These were the years of factory occupations, of worker self-management experiments, of farmers seizing land and attempting to put in place new notions of property that were no longer strictly wedded to a private property concept, and so on.

All these developments were unsettling for a portion of Italian society. Initially, these Italian Fasces of Combat saw themselves as completing Italy’s national unification through the claiming or reclaiming of land. And they saw themselves as peacemakers with the bludgeon and castor oil in hand. These fascist organizations, for their first few years of existence, were suppressing the left-wing activism that was visibly on the rise across the Italian peninsula with brutal and widespread street violence: through the torching of Socialist Party headquarters and newspaper headquarters, through attacks on peaceful demonstrators, and through the use of terroristic practices that were intended to scare people into obedience.

These men were not all reading the same book; it was not an intellectual movement. It was a bunch of thugs who were enamored of violence, who really saw violence as carrying out some sort of purification of Italy, and who hoped to use violence to grow Italy’s national territory and to suppress what they saw as the leading antinational forces within Italy.

Much of this narrative was bolstered by the fact that the Italian Socialist Party, unlike the other major European socialist parties, declared neutrality during World War I. They were painted as treasonous by the Right, and as antinational, and as subverters of the national interest, and the reason why Italy hadn’t received the gains that it deserved, and so on.

There were also figures within the early fascist movement — including the figure who we now consider its leader, Benito Mussolini — who styled themselves as intellectuals. Mussolini believed that he could unite Italians under the myth of the nation.

Initially, Mussolini was a fervent anticlerical. He famously penned racy anticlerical novels in his youth.

Initially, he was a fervent anticlerical himself. He famously penned these racy anticlerical novels in his youth; he saw the Church as a challenge to Italian nationalism and Italian unification.

But then, in 1921, Mussolini decides to create a political party out of this scattered band of thugs. Some of the thugs are very unhappy with this, by the way, because they are fundamentally committed to being a movement that’s critical of established political parties. So why would you go create a political party yourself? But he’s able to bring along most people in this move to turn fascism into a political party, which will be different from all political parties that the world has ever seen; it will not fall into the corruption of standard parliamentary democratic parties, et cetera, et cetera.

When Mussolini makes this move, that’s when suddenly — lo and behold — his anticlericalism disappears. He gets elected as a deputy, and in Milan, which is where he is, he enters into conversation with leaders of the Church hierarchy, including this figure who seems to crop up everywhere — Achille Ratti, who would become Pope Pius XI and was for a brief period archbishop of Milan.

Mussolini promises that if the Fascist Party takes power in Italy and becomes the majority party, it will be capable of restoring territorial sovereignty to the pope, and it will be capable of restoring the Church to its “rightful place in Italian society.” This is music to the ears of the hierarchy.

Red Guards take over a factory during the Biennio Rosso in 1920. (Wikimedia Commons)

There had even been a Christian democratic party at this point, which one might think would have been the pope’s natural choice. But it turns out that the Christian Democrats in Italy were happy with the idea of separating church and state; they thought it would be better for both parties involved. That was not a position that the pope or the papal diplomats were happy with.

The church doesn’t have clear allies on the Italian political scene. When the fascists emerge, it’s not clear whether they’re going to stick around. They’re a tiny party. But the Church hierarchy is interested, and as the secretary of state of the Vatican says right after the march on Rome, let’s give these guys a shot. Let’s wait and see before passing final judgment. What he means by that is, let’s give them a shot at delivering on what, from the Vatican’s point of view, is the key promise: restoring territorial sovereignty, and restoring power to the Church in the public sphere.

It turns out, in his own way, Mussolini does deliver on that promise. And in the years after the march on Rome of 1922, as the Fascist Party is gradually turning the country from democracy to a dictatorship, he is throwing all kinds of bones to the Church in the buildup to what would be the 1929 Lateran Treaty, in which, as the pope says, Italy is restored to God, and God is restored to Italy. Because an agreement has been signed between these two powers that had for decades been at each other’s throats.

Daniel Denvir

That is when Vatican City becomes the state that it is today and achieves territorial sovereignty.

Giuliana Chamedes

Absolutely. That is when the Vatican gains 108 acres, which doesn’t seem like anything. But if you see the behind-the-scenes negotiations, it was critical for papal diplomats to win territorial sovereignty back and have this sliver of land to call their own and to call a state once again.

Again, in order for this power to feel as though it can pursue its internationalist aims, it sees itself as in dire need of a state. Which is fascinating, in the sense that it’s one of the most sui generis states around. But it has that same imperative that so many nationalists had in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Battle for Hegemony

Daniel Denvir

The Vatican is not naive about what’s going on here. You relate this crucial anecdote about this moment when fascist power was really consolidated in Italy. On January 23, 1925, the fascists assassinated this socialist deputy, Giacomo Matteotti. Initially, that caused a backlash that benefited left-wing parties, including [Antonio] Gramsci’s Communists.

But Mussolini seizes this crisis as an opportunity by taking ownership of the blackshirt street violence and authorizing it as an extension of state violence. This is when he has this infamous line: “If fascism has been a criminal association, then I am the boss. And if all acts of violence have been the outcome of a certain historical-political-moral climate, then the responsibility is mine. For I created this climate.”

A chilling moment, and the Vatican’s response was to gift Mussolini a copy of a book called Zionism and Catholicism, which argued that “Judeo-Bolsheviks sought to destroy current society and dominate the world by themselves, as the Talmud prescribes.”

Giuliana Chamedes

It’s chilling on multiple levels. One key takeaway here, I think, is that hegemony matters.
Fascism won in Italy and fascist movements start winning across Europe, not only because they successfully strategized themselves into power, and not only because they wielded the bludgeon, but also because they recognize that crucial insight Gramsci was elaborating in these same years from prison, having been imprisoned by the fascists as the founder of the Italian Communist Party.

The insight is that in order for you to rule and have legitimacy, you do need mass support, and in order to build that mass support, a key strategy is the pursuit of hegemony. Which is to say, the creation of an informational system in which you provide an explanation of the existing political and cultural realities, and you are able to write yourself into the solution of what is presented as a crisis within that political and cultural moment.

The hegemonic project that the fascists pursue — which has an educational component, which has a civil society component in the creation of youth organizations and after-work organizations — is self-consciously modeled on the parallel hegemonic strategies that the Church has implemented. Even though there is certainly rivalry between fascism and Catholicism, at the same time you have a convergence in the sorts of stories that these movements are telling their followers and the sorts of strategies that they’re deploying in order to get that message across.

Therefore, the deep polarization of the European continent and the monstrosity of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany can’t be understood without taking a big step back and looking at the ways in which there’s a right-wing hegemonic project that takes off in the 1920s that has great explanatory power and that has a hold on individuals because it is exactly meeting them at the grassroots level — through media, through education, through civil society organizations.

I hope that one of the key takeaways that readers get from my book is the idea that hegemony matters. The implication is that hegemony doesn’t only matter for the Right; it matters for the Left, too, if we’re going to have a chance at building an alternative.

Daniel Denvir

You made the point that the Vatican and fascists did not always get along. But when they did have a problem with Italian fascists, it was merely on the issue of the Italian state encroaching upon church power.

Pius XI has this amazing quote, “Fascism declares itself to be Catholic. There is one way alone to be Catholic: obey the Church and its head.” He also said:

If there is a regime that is totalitarian — totalitarian in reality and according to the law — that is the regime of the Church. Man belongs wholly to the Church and must belong wholly to it. Insofar as he is a creature of God, the Church really has the right and duty to claim the totality of its power over individuals. Every man in his entirety belongs to the Church, because in his entirety he belongs to God.

To the extent that the Church had real problems with fascism, was it really because it thought the wrong force was totalitarian?

Giuliana Chamedes

There were two main things that really bothered and worried the Church about fascism. Number one was the idea that fascism had, as its end goal, propping itself up as an alternative religion for the Italian people and for the world. The idea of fascism as a political religion has a huge scholarly life in the years after World War II, so it’s funny to think about how those who invented that idea were in fact Catholics concerned about the displacement of traditional religion by “political religions” like fascism. Specifically, the worry was that the state was going to be erected as a substitute God, and that this was a form of paganism that would fundamentally undermine the institutional authority of the Church and its theological claims.

The way the papacy interpreted this phenomenon was as one that contained individuals who sought to turn fascism into a political religion, but also that it contained individuals who sought to make peace with Catholicism and work with it in the pursuit of shared aims. So they saw themselves as bolstering the latter faction and diminishing the power of the former, which is how they conceptualized a lot of what they did over the course of the 1920s and ’30s.

The church had a similar conception about the Nazi movement ultimately. In 1933, after some initial hesitations, it came down to a similar idea that there were two factions — one more friendly to Catholicism, one less friendly — and that it was important to work with the Nazis so as to strengthen the pro-Catholic faction.

That was one sense in which the Vatican was concerned about fascism. It was also concerned about fascism’s real-world presence and its hold over free time. The creation of fascist after-work and youth organizations in the later part of the 1920s was seen as worrisome by the Church. One of the things it repeatedly fought with the fascists over was when fascists attempted to limit the activities of Catholic youth and after-work organizations.

There was an ongoing battle for control over civil society. That said, the only civil society organizations that were legal in Italy after 1929 were the Catholic ones and the fascist ones. Per the Lateran Treaty, there was the official consensus over the need to recognize both of these and no other options; we’re operating in conditions of strict dictatorship by this point.

There was ideological convergence between fascism and the Church on the imperative, first, of anti-socialism and anti-liberalism, and then also anti-communism.

Even still within that framework, you had plenty of fascists who were eager to get rid of their rival Catholic youth organizations, as they saw them, and plenty of Catholics who were not happy about fascist organizations poaching their members and so forth. Similarly, there were disagreements within the realm of education at this grassroots level, in terms of a hegemonic project.

But there was ideological convergence on the imperative, first, of anti-socialism and anti-liberalism, and then also anti-communism. There was also ideological convergence on the need to strengthen the nation-state. The main difference was over what sort of meanings should be ascribed to that nation-state, and whether it should be erected in a semidivinity or not.

Daniel Denvir

It was a similar situation with the Nazis, who believed in something called “positive Christianity,” which sought to unite Protestants and Catholics together against communism. The church did not like that sort of interdenominational solidarity, no matter how right wing it was.

But the moment that the Catholic Church came around to the Nazis was precisely when Hitler secured the Enabling Act in 1933, which is what finalized and formalized his total dictatorial powers. Because at that same time, he strategically walked back his support for positive Christianity — so the Church responded to this historical moment by lifting their ban on Catholics being party members.

How is it that the Vatican and Hitler ultimately came to an understanding? Was it as close an understanding that it was with fascist Italy?

Giuliana Chamedes

The Catholic Church in Germany had been worried about Nazism as a minoritarian movement in the 1920s, because of what it saw as a form of paganism, with its interest in the worship of the nation, as the narrative went. There was also a concern around the worship of the race and the centrality of race to Nazi thinking, again, because that was seen as the first step toward creating an alternative religion.

There was also a great deal of concern around a later proposal to unite Catholics and Protestants under the anti-communist banner. At this point in history and in fact up through the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council, the Vatican would not be in favor of that sort of dialogue, even if it was concerning a shared enemy like the Communists.

The relation between Nazism and Catholicism was never as close as the relationship between Italian fascism and Catholicism. But there were certain similarities. One of them was the fact that the Vatican felt as though it would be able to split off the anticlerical Nazis by entering into communication with the Nazi Party.

The feeling was also that the Vatican needed to rush into a treaty agreement with Nazi Germany, which it did; there’s some evidence that the pope wasn’t happy that the secretary of state moved so quickly to create this agreement, but ultimately he signed onto it as well. Part of the animating logic there was likely [the hope of controlling] that faction within the Nazi Party that was seen as pagan and dangerous.

What’s striking is that as we get further into the 1930s, when the Vatican speaks out against Nazism, it is really focusing again primarily on this worry that Nazism will spill over into a form of paganism. In 1937, the papacy issues, almost simultaneously, three statements on doctrine, known in papal speak as “encyclicals.” Two of these deal with the communist menace; one of them deals with Nazism.

The one on Nazism is primarily reprimanding Nazi Germany for failing to hold to the terms of the Reichskonkordat of 1933 that it had signed with the Church. The other two documents from 1937, these very important statements on doctrine, are presenting communism as completely beyond the pale, as representing a global movement and a series of ideas that are antithetical at their core to Catholicism.

Though one camp of scholars has tried hard to rehabilitate the papacy by putting a lot of emphasis on its encyclical on Nazism in 1937, when you read the text, it’s striking how meek and mild it is. Particularly when you compare it to the other two texts it was issued almost synchronously with, which are legitimizing and in fact calling for the expansion of a global crusade against communism — tellingly, almost one year into the Spanish Civil War.

The Church in World War II and After

Daniel Denvir

Some more evidence on how deeply twisted Pius XII’s relationship to Nazi Germany was: He opposed the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 because he thought that Hitler was backing off from anti-communism. Then, when Nazi Germany broke that pact in 1941 and invaded Russia and the Baltic state — Operation Barbarossa, tellingly framed as a crusade against godless communism, very much the language of the Vatican — Pius XII did not endorse the invasion, because he was still mad at Hitler for having signed the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union. The pope told Nazi diplomats that the Vatican would support their Eastern Front war, if they would only respect their treaty with the Church.

Giuliana Chamedes

It tells you quite a bit about how much the conceptual universe of these papal diplomats was fundamentally shaped by this immediate post–World War I moment and the imperative of these treaties. Some folks told me, you should write two separate books: one on the papal use of international law, and the other one on the papal anti-communist crusade. My response to that was, no — these two stories are so fundamentally interrelated that they need to be told together.

Precisely because of the notion of protecting these treaties once signed, they will be, in the papal mindset, the way to guard against liberal, socialist, and communist secularization. That idea remains so central that it enables what, from our twenty-first-century point of view, are extraordinary, irresponsible, terrifying diplomatic decisions. To try to practice some sort of historical empathy, I would argue that what from our point of view seems 100 percent unconscionable, was enabled by this early post–World War I moment in which papal diplomats see the defense and promotion of these treaties as the essential way to build Catholic nations and promote Catholic internationalism.

The Vatican felt as though it would be able to split off the anticlerical Nazis by entering into communication with the Nazi Party.

That is how we can understand what seems to be, In the context of World War II and all the atrocities going on, an irrelevant insistence on the treaty and sticking to its terms and restoring the treaty’s commitments and so on. Because to papal diplomats, giving up on the treaty is tantamount to opening up the door to a liberal-socialist-communist new order.

Daniel Denvir

It’s clear that the fascists across Europe and the Vatican shared a hardcore anti-communism. But to what extent did they also share a positive program?

You write that the Great Depression had a huge impact on politics everywhere and the Vatican’s politics in particular, and the pope saw the Great Depression as having been caused by liberal democracies and by economic liberalism. The pope, Pius XI, diagnosed the problem as economic liberalism and liberal democracy — but also saw socialism and communism as products of economic liberalism and liberal democracy.

He called for a corporatist economic order that was neither capitalist nor socialist as the solution. How similar was the Vatican’s diagnosis of the problem to the fascists’ diagnosis of the problem, and how similar was their proposed solution?

Giuliana Chamedes

Social Catholicism, which is to say the attempt on the part of the Catholic Church to formulate its own solution to the “social question” so hotly debated in the nineteenth century, pertaining to workers, wages, capitalism . . . already in the late nineteenth century, the Vatican is attempting to enter this conversation, long before the rise of anything close to fascism. Already in the late nineteenth century, it is coming up with this third-way solution that it is calling corporatist, which is a bizarre throwback to a very nostalgic vision of the Middle Ages, according to which corporations — essentially guilds, professional organizations — are making peace between workers and bosses and ultimately making key economic decisions.

Many of these late nineteenth-century documents are still resonant: they’re calling for a fair wage, they’re calling for social justice — which is, by the way, a Catholic phrase. The history to that turn is precisely the attempt to come up with a third way that’s neither liberal nor socialist, that’s seen as in keeping with core Catholic teachings about treating one another justly.

Pope Pius XI in 1922. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a set of documents issued by the pope, which would be picked up, as you might imagine, by Catholics on the far left and Catholics on the far right. Almost like the Bible, which can be turned to mean various things and contains a high degree of ambiguity and metaphorical language and so on, these nineteenth-century texts laying out a Catholic corporatist vision for the economic order are silent on a number of important questions.

For instance, they seem to suggest that there should be a hierarchy, and in fact there’s something natural to a hierarchy that places bosses above workers. But there are other passages that seem to be suggesting more of a horizontal relationship as a possibility.

These texts also contain a strong articulation of a Catholic anti-capitalism, which would live a very long life. The core of the Catholic critique that’s laid out is the idea that capitalism is fundamentally individualistic and egoistic, and that it is undermining solidaristic impulses that should instead be the ones nurtured to create a healthy human community.

The fascists, as they do with their youth organizations, as they do with their use of media, as they do with their broader hegemonic project, look to the Church in the 1920s on this issue as well. Because they too had risen to power with the line that they were neither liberals nor socialists, and in fact that they were anti-liberals and anti-socialists, they present themselves as corporatists too.

Because Catholic corporatism was a little fuzzy and hadn’t actually been implemented anywhere, Catholic university students decide to get together and organize a series of events where they will openly discuss the extent to which fascist corporatism is in fact Catholic corporatism in practice. They’ve read all the Catholic corporatist texts, they’re interested in what the fascists have to say, and they want to stage a series of conversations about the question that you just asked.

The fascist regime does not like this idea at all and shuts down the meetings. The conversations cannot take place precisely because the fascist regime doesn’t want this debated. They want the public at large who has heard of Catholic corporatism to hear the word “corporatism” and think, oh good, what the fascists are doing is what the Catholics have been telling us we should be doing since the late nineteenth century. They’re not interested in an open conversation.

Alas, what happens through that intervention — initially it’s the fascist secret police and then an order and so on — is that we don’t have good sources that speak to that key question. Instead, the sources we do have, which are public statements issued by the pope and other clerics, continue to wallow in that ambiguous, noncommittal space where it seems that what’s simultaneously being said is that we’re glad about fascist corporatism, but the Catholic version is a little bit better — but I’m not going to tell you why.

Daniel Denvir

The most well-known part of the story that you tell is that Pope Pius XII was silent as Germany embarked on its campaign of genocide against Europe’s Jews. You note, for example, his reaction to the Allied bombing of Italy, which was a fiercely negative reaction; it showed that he was certainly capable of speaking out when he wanted to. The pope even pushed for the United States and Britain to “break with Russia and make peace with Germany, so that Germany could wage its anti-communist crusade against Russia unimpeded.”

What did Pope Pius XII know about the Holocaust, and what was his response? And what have the conventional accounts of the Vatican’s complicity missed? Not only did the Vatican sit by and do essentially nothing as the Jews were slaughtered — they also laid the ideological groundwork for the genocide.

Giuliana Chamedes

From what I’ve seen, the papacy initially didn’t understand the extent of the massacre that was underway, but then it did gradually learn the broad outlines of what was taking place. Even still, it didn’t clearly act. It didn’t speak out.

The dominant reason that was offered at the time and has been offered since for that silence was the fear of retribution, and specifically the fear that Fascist Italy would turn its wrath on the Catholic Church. Therefore, any sort of objection would backfire and damage the Church directly.

This is a very troubling narrative. The other piece of it is the fact that Pope Pius XI, in the final year of his life, had gotten a little bit more outspoken about the fascist regime and its grotesque violations of human rights. He also had articulated what, by our lights, is not a very radical and in fact somewhat antisemitic [stance], but he had articulated a kind of defense of the Jews and a kind of criticism of Italy’s race laws that was never published, which was buried by his successor.

That moment where the Church could have gone in a different direction is an important moment to recuperate. Certainly all the figures in this story are deeply religious, and they are fundamentally committed to a series of precepts including the sacredness of human life. All I can say on the basis of the source I’ve seen so far is that, starting from the early 1940s, we have this extraordinary return of a double obsession: the obsession of protecting the treaties signed after World War I and the obsession of combating communism.

That dual obsession blinds the papacy to what is the real humanitarian story underway and the real human rights crisis underway. The Vatican continues to cast itself as persecuted and beleaguered. And while it’s certainly true that at a certain point in the 1930s the Nazi regime stops honoring the Reichskonkordat, we’re talking about a very different order of magnitude when it comes to the crimes committed against European Jews and Roma and homosexuals versus the crimes committed against the Catholic Church.

I see this as a real moral failing and an instance of shortsightedness on the part of the Church, to not recognize the real human rights emergency. Sadly, the Church didn’t stand alone in this shortsightedness and inability to recognize the nature and extent of the crimes being committed during World War II. But there is something particularly troubling about a power whose own authority rests, in some fundamental sense, on a series of moral claims displaying a moral failing of this magnitude.

Daniel Denvir

After World War II, the Vatican played a lead role in pushing for a Cold War against communism well before that war was launched. It did that by working to undermine left political forces in Western Europe and backing Christian democratic parties, and it benefited from a surge in popular religious devotion after the war.

How did the end of World War II reshape Vatican anti-communism? Or perhaps better, in what ways did the end of the war fail to reshape Vatican anti-communism?

Giuliana Chamedes

Many have reflected on how strange and surprising it is that Christian democratic parties, apparently out of nothing, are able to claim control in country after country in Western Europe after World War II. What I try to show is that the ground had been tilled for them by the papacy’s pursuit of a particular form of religious politics that defined itself against communism, and that mobilized an elaborate theological and ideological apparatus to fight communism from a Christian point of view.

All of that gets picked up again by these Christian democratic parties after World War II. Interestingly, these parties also saw the Vatican’s interwar treaties signed into law once again. That’s a key behind-the-scenes push that papal diplomats are making in their bid to shape the postwar order one more time. Just like they had after World War I — with the difference that now they have all the tools they need already. It’s just a question of getting those treaties reconfirmed, and it’s a question of making sure that the ruling parties understand that the fight against communism is the fight of the moment.

On all sorts of levels, the Vatican’s influence is felt. Papal grassroots youth organizations and adult organizations play a critical role in get-out-the-vote efforts; they play a seminal role in drafting and distributing the propaganda that will help bring the Christian democrats to power; they travel around the countryside with mobile film units showing short videos that are promoting the Christian democrats; they create really flashy and sometimes sort of funny posters and comic books; and so on.

The Vatican’s expansion in the realm of civil society is very much relevant to our understanding of why Christian democracy wins, as is the ideological soil that has been tilled in the interwar years by the Catholic Church. With this, we have a Vatican that in 1944 issues its first, cautious, conditional support for democracy. Many have hailed this 1944 sermon that Pope Pius XII delivers as the Church’s definitive embrace of democracy, ignoring the text and the extent to which Pius XII — very much in keeping with the principles of his predecessors — is basically articulating a version of modernity on Catholic terms.

Starting from the early 1940s, we have this extraordinary return of a double obsession: the obsession of protecting the treaties signed after World War I and the obsession of combating communism.

[This also ignores] the fact that the Catholic Church remains a staunch defender of Francisco Franco’s Spain. In fact, its defense of Franco’s Spain, in addition to the key strategic role that Spain would play in the Cold War, enables the country to move from being a pariah to being integrated within the Western bloc, despite the fact that it was ruled by a dictator who would stay in power until his death in 1975.

We are getting closer and closer to the present in a story that again shows religious politics does not, at a certain point, disappear in a puff of smoke. The forms of religious politics that get mobilized more and more are ones that have been established in the interwar years, in this anti-liberal, anti-communist moment, that touch directly on issues like family politics, gender relations, marriage and divorce law, and then increasingly issues like contraception and abortion.

What develops in the United States is the famous turn of the Republican Party toward these moral issues. We can already learn a lot about that sort of move by attending to this twentieth-century European story. It contains numerous echoes of a politics that’s grounded in moral claims, that’s grounded in the grassroots power that religion has in people’s everyday lives — in the fact that local churches are providing services at low or no cost, which are essential services for working people.

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