The Global Pontificate of Pius XII: Catholicism in a Divided World, 1945-1958 

Simon Unger and Julian Sandhagen in conversation with Alex Favalli

PD Dr. Simon Unger is the director of the research group „The Global Pontificate of Pius XII: Catholicism in a Divided World, 1945–1958“. He studied history and philosophy at University College Maastricht, UCLA, and Oxford University, from where he was awarded his doctorate in 2018. In 2016, he was appointed to a lectureship at Magdalen College/Oxford, where he taught modern European history. After completing his PhD, he was a visiting postdoctoral fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington DC (2018–2019) and subsequently became a researcher at the DHI in Rome. Since 2022, Simon Unger is a Junior Fellow of Aspen Institute Italia and a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 2023 he obtained the Venia Legendi (German Habilitation) at the University of Fribourg.

After attaining his BA in History and Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University Berlin, Julian Sandhagen studied Modern European History in Berlin, Sarajevo, and Rome and attained his MA in 2021. His Master-thesis dealt with questions regarding Habsburg Public Health Policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. During his studies, Julian Sandhagen worked at the Chair for Southeast European History at the Humboldt University Berlin. His doctoral research, commencing in October 2022, focuses on the complex relations between the Vatican and multi-confessional, socialist Yugoslavia in the post-war period.

Your project “The Global Pontificate of Pius XII” started in 2022 and will run for three more years: Can you briefly explain what it is about, and which questions it will try to answer?

In 2020, the Vatican has opened its archives for the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), which has been accompanied by strong media coverage. Long awaited within the scholarly community, these new sources allow historians to address a whole range of topics that extend beyond Eugenio Pacelli’s individual biography and relate to greater questions of global politics as well as twentieth-century social and economic history. However, while a lot of scholarly attention has been given to the actions of the Catholic Church during the Second World War and the Holocaust, our research group is the first attempt to focus on the post-war period and tries to address new questions about the Vatican’s role in the phase of reconstruction after 1945, the emerging conflicts between the capitalist West and the communist East, and the processes of decolonization in the global South. We aim to go beyond historical approaches that are limited to the Vatican and the Pope, and employ contemporary approaches of global, transnational, and postcolonial history in our questions and work.

The project focusses on four pillars: The Cold War, Decolonization, Historical Memory and Democratization. Why did you choose these research areas in the context of the Catholic Church?

These four themes form an interconnected field of research, which allows us to formulate important questions regarding very different areas of the church’s activity after the war. For example: What were the major institutional, social, and religious changes in the global Catholic community under Pius XII’s papacy? What was the Vatican’s attitude towards democracy and human rights as well as toward totalitarian and authoritarian regimes? How did Pius XII and the curia cope with the legacies of fascism, collaboration, and the Holocaust within the Catholic Church? In what ways did they influence the formation of the Western alliance and the beginning of the Cold War with its nuclear arms race? How did the Holy See react to the foundation of Israel or to movements of de-colonization in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East? How did the Vatican intervene in Latin American politics and to what extent did it support authoritarian regimes in order to prevent the spread of communism? Of course, all of these topics are interconnected. However, the four “pillars” of our project are intended as a framework to organize our research within the archives.

Your aim is to merge the results of the research team into a larger global history context: why do you plan to do so and what will this contribute to Pius XII’s history?

The two decade-long pontificate of Pius XII stands amidst an ‘Age of Extremes’, which forced Catholics everywhere to situate themselves in relation to conflicting ideologies, totalitarianism, democracy, and modernity. Although a period of accelerating secularization, the pontificate also witnessed the re-emergence of the Catholic Church as an influential global force. In these conflict-laden, but also dynamic years, the Vatican occupied a central role in international politics. With about 80 Apostolic Nunciatures, the Holy See could demonstrate a global presence and presented itself as an actor that stood above national party interests. Yet, the Vatican simultaneously took strong positions in ideological conflicts and thus actively shaped the international political landscape. Research analysing the Catholic Church in the 20th century therefore has to go beyond a Eurocentric focus and must account for the global reach of the Vatican.

Pope Pius XII in visit to the Lateran after the American air raid of Rome in 1943, Source: Associated Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How does your project relate to regional or more local histories? Do you rely mainly on resources available at the pontifical archives in Rome or do you or your colleagues also access archives in other countries and regions? And did views and positions from those regions of the world that are now called the “global South” impact questions of doctrine and politics in the Vatican?

The project aims to build a long-lasting team of scholars who conduct research on Europe, Latin America, the US, Africa, and the Middle East. While the Vatican Archives are undoubtedly central for this project, local archives and actors in other parts of the World also play an important role in almost all of our individual research endeavours. The Vatican was a major actor in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Near and Middle East. It was decidedly anti-communist but struggled with its relation to the US and capitalism. This tension also led to new Catholic visions for the future of the Third World. The Dominican Louis-Joseph Lebret, for example, from his experiences of working in Brazil, Colombia, Senegal, Lebanon and other countries, developed theories for a new ‘human economy’ and development that should transcend the classical divisions of the Cold War. Such calls for global solidarity clearly shaped the Catholic Church’s new ideological and political concerns that competed with older and more conservative ideas about the primacy of the Occident.

Speaking more practically now: Your project has a very comprehensive scope which will require both multi-lingual and multi-site research. What are the specific challenges of that, what experience have you gained working with these challenges in your career so far and how can one tackle such an enormous task?

Obviously, our project is very much a group effort. We are a team of 10 young historians who each have their individual research fields and specializations. In this sense, our group very much follows a division of labour between projects focusing on specific regions and archives. Nevertheless, all members of the research group have to grapple with reading in multiple languages, not only within the primary sources but also in the secondary literature. In addition to this linguistic diversity, we also face logistical challenges when organizing archival visits across different continents, for example. Coordinating these visits requires meticulous planning and coordination, not only in practical terms but also when it comes to translating the collected material into compelling research. These difficulties are, however, intrinsic to the historian’s training or craft.

And finally, being one year into the project, have your first results already influenced the way you think of the Catholic Church in the global context and if so, how?

When discussing the Catholic Church in the 20th century, there is often a heavy emphasis on the Vatican as the central authority of Catholic life. Doctrines that influence Catholic institutions and believers worldwide were created, formulated, and disseminated by the Roman Curia and the Pope. A closer examination of the recently opened sources, however, unveils numerous actors and a more intricate picture of how the church engaged with the challenges of a global post-war order. Therefore, it will be necessary in the future to further highlight the plurality of worldviews and political approaches within global Catholicism.

Alex Favalli works at the Forum Transregionale Studien and is part of the TRAFO Blog’s editorial team.

Citation: Simon Unger; Julian Sandhagen, The Global Pontificate of Pius XII: Catholicism in a Divided World, 1945-1958, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 15.02.2024,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 15. Februar). The Global Pontificate of Pius XII: Catholicism in a Divided World, 1945-1958 . TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. April 2024, von

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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