Article Note: Giuliana Chamedes, “The Vatican, Nazi-Fascism, and the Making of Transnational Anti-Communism in the 1930s”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 1 (March 2018)

Article Note: Giuliana Chamedes, “The Vatican, Nazi-Fascism, and the Making of Transnational Anti-Communism in the 1930s,” Journal of Contemporary History 51, no. 2 (April 2016): 261-290.

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Pacific Lutheran University

Giuliana Chamedes’ article addresses the intersection of Soviet, Vatican, and German policies through an examination of the Vatican’s Secretariat on Atheism and its transnational campaign to fight the spread of international Communism. In the early 1930s, the Vatican launched the Secretariat on Atheism as a branch of its foreign policy apparatus. The Secretariat led the anti-communist campaign by publishing monthly journals, creating traveling exhibitions, and sponsoring radio programs, writing contests, and even film propaganda. Although the Secretariat was deeply engaged in the fight against the spread of communism, Chamedes argues that the Secretariat’s success was due in part to its willingness to work with pre-existing networks of anti-communists, including the Nazis, Fascists, and others in Europe and in the Americas.

The creation of the Secretariat was part of the Vatican’s determination to re-assert Rome as the center of global Catholic life while simultaneously underscoring the Catholic Church’s ongoing prominence in international affairs. It was also part of an effort to protect the Church against threats that seemed to challenge the very existence of the Church. By revealing more information about the under-studied Secretariat on Atheism, Chamedes’ article expands on the history of transnational anti-communism. In addition, Chamedes’ research helps us to understand how Catholic Church leaders got involved with Fascists and Nazis in the Vatican’s quest to gain control over the multitude of anti-communist organizations.

Chamedes notes that Vatican-Soviet relations were carried on diplomatically throughout the 1920s and that a change in the relationship came about in the early 1930s. For Chamedes, the Vatican’s “crusade of prayer” played only a small role in the changing dynamics of Vatican-Soviet relations. Rather, she cites the years 1932-1933 as the moment when mild protests against Soviet policy were replaced with a transnational campaign, aiming to vilify communism “as the greatest existing threat to the survival of Catholicism and the Catholic Church” (266). She connects this sea change to several factors, including the outbreaks of anticlerical violence in Spain and Mexico and the emergence of a new cadre of Vatican insiders such as Eugenio Pacelli, who functioned as the Secretary of State at the Vatican. By 1931, Pacelli was obsessed with the rise of the Spanish Republic and its attempts to separate Church and State. He was convinced that the Spanish Republic was part of a communist plot to destroy Catholic Spain. He took a similar approach when examining events in Mexico. By early 1932, Pacelli revealed in a circular letter sent to Vatican officials in 39 countries that a new campaign was going to be launched from Rome to fight against the existential threat of communism against Catholicism and the Church.

1932 was also the year in which the Vatican developed the anti-communist encyclical, Divinum Mandatum. Pacelli was once again involved in this project as well and the encyclical argued that the international Catholic Church could weaken international communism. The encyclical, however, was never published and the reasons remain somewhat unclear. This did not stop Pacelli. In January 1933, a group of officials at the Vatican agreed to form the Secretariat on Atheism. The organization would be run by the Jesuits, who would keep in continual contact with the Secretary of State, and Rome would serve as the organization’s home base. Its purpose would be to launch an international counter-revolution in an attempt to defeat the aims of the Soviet Union. The new organization began by coordinating itself with anti-communist activists in Europe, the Americas, and in countries in Asia and Africa.

The Secretariat argued that it was uniquely qualified to lead the charge against communists, asserting that “the Vatican was the only ‘dynamic and truly global organization’ that stood ‘above all nations and nationalities’, and was capable of competing with international communism…” (271). Unlike Fascist and Nazi propaganda, the Secretariat did focus on communism as being essentially atheistic and godless, therefore avoiding the anti-Semitic tropes employed by men such as Hitler. Despite the struggle between the Secretariat and Nazi-Fascist forces for leadership in the charge against communism, Chamedes argues that cooperation between the competitors actually increased when one examines the case studies of traveling exhibitions and a writing competition.

With the urging and support of Pope Pius XI, the Secretariat on Atheism was charged with overseeing an international writing competition (although the role of the Secretariat was to be kept secret). The judges for the competition were known for their fascist and proto-fascist sympathies. Over 500 novels were submitted, and a Russian émigré to Vienna, Alja Rachmanova, won first place. Her novel represented the triumph of Christianity over an immoral and extremely violent Bolshevism. While Rachmanova’s novel did not employ Nazi-Fascist motifs, the second-place novel, written by Erik Maria Ritter von Kühnelt-Leddihn, told the story of a Jesuit and two other men who traveled around Europe beating up communists. Further book prizes were awarded in ways which underscored the growing interconnectedness between the Secretariat and radical right-wing political movements. For instance, when writing to the judges of the competition, Pius XI noted that book awards should go to authors who stressed themes that were anti-democratic, authoritarian, and rooted in religious political thinking (275). The Pope also warned that the novels should not stress extreme nationalism as that would threaten the role of the Catholic Church as an international organization capable of leading the fight against communism.

By the spring of 1936, as the Spanish Civil War was close to erupting, the Secretariat released a traveling exhibit meant to re-affirm that the Vatican was the leader in the fight against Communism. The thrust of the exhibit stressed that the Soviet Union and its nefarious influence could only be defeated with the collaboration of state powers with the Vatican. Using many types of modern staging techniques, visitors would encounter the growing threat of international communism. The final room in the exhibit, however, showed the Secretariat’s brochures, posters, and related material, leaving visitors with a feeling of hope that the Catholic Church was capable of defeating communism. The exhibition traveled to many different European cities and was followed up by two other exhibitions in 1938 and in 1939. In the case of these exhibitions, the Vatican did not shy away from working with Nazi and Fascist governments, as their anti-communist agenda was a shared one. This common cause also led to agreements with the Gestapo that allowed previously banned publications to be brought into Nazi Germany, showing the work of the Secretariat in its battle with the Soviet Union.

In March 1937 the Vatican released three encyclicals, one of which addressed the growing Soviet threat. Divini Redemptoris revealed the influence of the Secretariat on Atheism in its emphasis that the power and resources of the Catholic Church would be the only effective means of maintaining world peace. This encyclical was followed by Firmissimam Constantiam, which argued that violent action was needed in response to threats against Catholicism in Mexico. Using the theory of just war, the encyclical allowed and even encouraged the use of force in the fight against communism. The final encyclical of 1937, Mit brennender Sorge, addressed the rise of racist ideology. Though it avoided naming Nazi Germany specifically, it nonetheless clarified some of the Church’s position regarding Nazism.

Until the outbreak of the Second World War, many European nations and the United States of America courted the Vatican to support the fight against the spread of communism. However, once the war began in 1939, the Secretariat on Atheism was shut down. Chamedes suggests that because of Vatican cooperation with Nazi-Fascist forces during the interwar years, the Secretariat was never reopened. Chamedes concludes: “In order to weaken the Soviet Union and the global appeal of communism, the Vatican agreed to a tactical cooperation with Nazi-Fascist forces in a number of on-the-ground campaigns. The Vatican often took the initiative in doing so, even as it increasingly distanced itself in doctrinal terms from the Fascist and Nazi project” (289-290).