Article Note: Todd H. Weir, “A European Culture War in the Twentieth Century? Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Bolshevism between Moscow, Berlin, and the Vatican 1922-1933”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 1 (March 2018)

Article Note: Todd H. Weir, “A European Culture War in the Twentieth Century? Anti-Catholicism and Anti-Bolshevism between Moscow, Berlin, and the Vatican 1922-1933,” Journal of Religious History 39, no. 2 (June 2015): 280-306.

By Beth A. Griech-Polelle, Pacific Lutheran University

Todd H. Weir’s article is a transnational account of the anti-Catholicism gripping Europe in the interwar years. Between 1927-1939, thousands of Catholic clerics and lay people suffered persecution, torture, and murder in places such as Mexico, Spain, and Russia.  Weir addresses an interesting aspect of the ‘culture wars’ by examining the role that religion plays in relation to political ideologies in an age of extremes. The focus is on Germany as the site of a contested ideological and religious struggle between the Vatican and the Soviet Union. The work is divided into two phases of the relationship, covering the 1920s through 1930 as a time when Germany played the role of diplomatic mediator between the Soviet Union and the Vatican via the German Communist Party and the Catholic Center Party. Beginning in 1930, however, Germany became the chief battle arena for an ever-increasing transnational propaganda war between Catholics and communists.

In the first phase, Weir offers explanations as to why both the Vatican and the Soviet Union were open to negotiations. For Vatican officials, the communist takeover meant that there was a need to ensure access to the sacraments for the more than two million Catholics in Russia. It also offered an opportunity for the Church to seek converts from Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism. For Soviet officials, the need to secure diplomatic recognition from powerful entities and to avoid offending countries with substantial Catholic populations were reasons enough to enter into diplomatic talks. Throughout these discussions, Germany emerged as the chief negotiator, particularly since Germany and the Soviet Union had reached a diplomatic agreement in the Treaty of Rapallo in 1922.

During the 1920s, influenced by the Rapallo Treaty, the German Foreign Office refused to do more than mention religious persecution within the Soviet Union. To increase the pressure on the Soviets, Vatican Officials, including Eugenio Pacelli, began using their connections to German Catholic newspapers such as Germania to insert demands for an end to religious persecution. In response, the Bolsheviks issued an April 1929 decree making it possible for the state to persecute religious associations even more. The April decree also placed greater burdens on congregations to maintain the upkeep and taxes on their churches. The persecution and targeting of church leaders also proved to be an effective way of destroying village solidarity and ridding the areas of local elites. The Soviet clamp-down on Catholic priests induced German Catholics, including Friedrich Muckermann, to place still more articles attacking the Soviet authorities for attempting to rid their country of religion.

By 1929, Pope Pius XI had given up hope that diplomacy would win the day. Now, the Vatican would launch a “crusade of prayer” (which opened publicly on March 19, 1930) attacking the persecution of Catholic priests inside the Soviet Union, but the crusade also sought to counter the growing promotion of anticlericalism—especially in Germany. The German Freethinkers, under the influence of Soviet examples, urged Germans to leave the churches through public demonstrations, agitprop theater, and graphic propaganda. Both sides now squared off: the Soviets proclaimed that the Pope was the ringleader of Western powers seeking the destruction of the Soviet Union while the Vatican argued that communists were seeking to spread atheism and anti-clericalism throughout Europe. In Germany, Catholic priests followed the pope’s lead in the “crusade of prayer” and organized marches and demonstrations in which thousands protested the spread of anticlericalism. Priests in Germany were trained to combat atheism largely through the People’s Association for Catholic Germany. Through lectures, demonstrations, conference meetings and brochures, priests were instructed to take positive steps in the fight against the spread of atheism and godlessness. These efforts were transnational when some German priests went as a delegation to Mexico to address uprisings against the Cristero movement.

Weir tracks the divisions among German Social Democrats, German Communists, and Catholic Center Party members, revealing the strains of anticlericalism, fears about secularization, and the rising tide of groups such as the National Socialist German Workers’ Party with its promise to end secularism in Germany. The author concludes his article by suggesting that the study of political ideas “should investigate Christian apology as a crucible in which a number of religious-social discourses and theological-political strategies were forged. Although most succumbed to the more powerful political ideologies and are now largely forgotten, these Christian strategies and discourses represent signature elements of the political culture of the period” (305).