“Post-War Christian Democracy Was Relatively Short-Lived” Fabio Wolkenstein on the Dark Side of Christian Democratic History and Politics 

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Fabio Wolkenstein – author of the new book Die dunkle Seite der Christdemokratie. Geschichte einer autoritären Versuchung (The Dark Side of Christian Democracy. The History of an Authoritarian Temptation) – sketches the broad variety of Christian politics across modern Europe; discusses the types of political Catholicism and explains how Christian Democratic attitudes to liberalism and democracy have evolved over time; and reflects on how Christian Democracy may have changed over the past half a century – and whether parties like Law and Justice in Poland or Fidesz in Hungary might be seen as representing new forms of Christian politics. 

Fabio Wolkenstein is a Tenure-Track Professor for Transformations of Democracy at the Department of Political Science, University of Vienna. He received his PhD from London School of Economics and Political Science in 2016 and was previously employed in Frankfurt, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Aarhus. Next to a host of articles, Fabio Wolkenstein is the author of two books, the first of which was entitled Rethinking Party Reform(Oxford UP, 2019). Die dunkle Seite der Christdemokratie. Geschichte einer autoritären Versuchung has been published by C.H. Beck.

Ferenc LaczóYour new book explores the history and contemporary state of Christian Democracy with significant attention devoted to the closely connected phenomenon of political Catholicism. Let us perhaps begin our conversation with some large but basic questions: what is political Catholicism and how would you distinguish between its various subtypes? How would you conceptualize Christian Democracy? How do you view its relationship to political Catholicism?

Fabio Wolkenstein: Political Catholicism first emerged in mid-19th-century Europe. At its heart is the politicization of particular concerns of Catholics and of the Catholic Church that arose in the 19th century, such as the defense of particular rights of Catholics or the rights and prerogatives of the Church against secular liberal states that tried to cut the long-standing ties between church and state.

A paradigmatic example of a political party that represented political Catholicism was the German Centre Party, or Zentrumspartei, which was founded in the 1870s. It is the oldest still existing party in Germany, although it is quite insignificant now. That party tried to defend the rights of Catholics against the Prussian state, or later the state institutions of the German Empire under Bismarck in a struggle that became known as Kulturkampf.

In my book I distinguished four different strands of political Catholicism that emerged up until the interwar years in Europe. Because of the overall focus of my book, I looked especially at how these different forms of political Catholicism viewed democracy and modernity more broadly.

First, one might say the least successful historical form of political Catholicism was what I call a democratic-centrist political Catholicism that was represented, for instance, by the short-lived Italian Partito Popolare.The second was a conservative democratic, or “pragmatically” democratic but conservative form of political Catholicism. It did not become the dominant ideology of any single party but was endorsed by influential individuals within certain parties, for example, by Konrad Adenauer when he was still the Mayor of Cologne for the Centre Party.

The former strand of political Catholicism, the democratic-centrist one, affirmed democracy as a regime form. It also affirmed a particular, one may say leftist, interpretation of Catholic social teaching. The Italian Christian Democrat Luigi Sturzo, who was the founder of Popolare, was a key representative of this strand in the early 20th century. This interpretation of Catholic social teaching emphasized social solidarity and welfare.

The latter strand, the conservative democratic form of political Catholicism was often reluctantly democratic. It affirmed what the excellent historian James Chappel called a “paternal” interpretation of Catholic social teaching. At the heart of this interpretation was a strong affirmation of the patriarchal family. The proponents of this interpretation gravitated towards organicist-corporatist views of society, something that in Austria became channeled into the Ständestaat regime of the 1930s, which one might call a guild-based society.

The last two strands of political Catholicism were non-democratic: a modern authoritarian one and an anti-modern authoritarian one. Both were characterized by a rejection of democracy. There was a key difference between them though. While the latter, the anti-modern authoritarian political Catholicism, saw the restoration of monarchy, or even the return to some sort of medieval organic order, as its ultimate goal, the former was more focused on establishing an authoritarian, usually corporatist order based on a strong modern state. This modern authoritarian vision was popular within political Catholicism in the interwar period, especially in the years after the publication of the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI in 1931. There were two regimes that are usually thought to have gone furthest in actually realizing this vision: the Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt Schuschnigg regime in Austria between 1934 and 1938 and then, of course, the António Salazar regime in Portugal starting in 1933. 

These two regimes were seen by many Catholics as the vanguard that uses the modern state to create a corporatist order instead of trying to go back to some sort of idealized medieval social order. 

So these are the four forms of political Catholicism I discuss in the book. 

Lastly, I would like to clarify how Christian Democracy relates to political Catholicism. Although I acknowledge that it is sometimes hard to draw a sharp line, I do treat Christian Democracy as a phenomenon that emerged only after World War II and is in important ways distinct from political Catholicism. 

Christian Democracy was distinct in that it tried to broaden what one may call its representative claim – it represented not only Catholics and tried to keep a great distance from the Church. 

It tried to speak for society at large. Many of the Christian Democratic parties that were founded or re-founded after the World War II called themselves “people’s parties” – a semantic shift could be observed here. 

However, often there were many continuities between those parties and pre-war political Catholicism, but virtually all Christian Democratic parties sought at least to symbolically break with the past by renaming themselves, by changing the way they presented their electoral offer, etc.

Throughout the book, you sound rather critical towards a certain idealization of the Christian Democratic tradition that depicts it as eminently compatible with liberal democracy. How would you characterize the attitude of Christian Democrats to liberalism and democracy? How have those attitudes evolved over time? More specifically, how do you relate to the rather popular thesis that the Second World War was a major watershed, and that Christian Democrats were committed liberal democrats in the years after 1945?

That is a question that goes at the heart of both my book and much of scholarship on the topic. Let me start by saying that I think it is right that some, maybe even the larger part, of the work that has been done on Christian Democracy idealizes it too much. It is not sufficiently attentive to the continuities between political Catholicism in Christian Democracy but focuses only on the discontinuities. It almost repeats the story that many Christian Democrats of the immediate post-war era were themselves affirming. 

One needs to think about these continuities in a way that takes seriously what these people were committed too. 

A key point that I want to make in the book is this: although authoritarian forms of government were indeed largely discredited in the bigger parts of Western Europe after World War II, the fervently anti-liberal and sometimes also anti-democratic beliefs that many Catholics held prior to the war did not disappear overnight. 

When reading programmatic texts by key Christian Democratic politicians and thinkers that were written in the mid- to late 1940s, it often struck me that they spoke affirmatively about democracy, but ultimately seemed to regard it as something like a Zeitgeist phenomenon. 

They recognized and affirmed that the new regimes that were to be established after the war ought to be democratic, but they hardly thought that democratic states are always necessarily better than non-democratic ones. 

This was, incidentally, also the official doctrine of the Church at that time. In short, that doctrine said that any regime, whether democratic or not, can be just and legitimate so long as it served the common good. That is a kind of classic commitment of the Church that prominently started in the early 1890s with a string of encyclicals by Pope Leo XIII.

Many early Christian Democrat thinkers and politicians also remained blatantly skeptical about the need for parliaments and parties. It is quite interesting that we find this skepticism even in the work of such unquestionably democratic Christian Democratic writers like Jacques Maritain, who is often used as a sort of paradigmatic example of a deep political thinker who took Christian politics into the post-war era and into a democratic age. But Maritain says quite explicitly that it would be odd to think that democracy needed parties and all those things that characterized interwar regimes that had their apparent weaknesses. These are important complexities that are usually side-lined by scholars. 

I should add that none of this means that these Christian Democrats were not committed to democracy. 

We just need to look very closely at what it means when they commit to democracy and whether Catholics’ break with political Catholicism and its anti-liberal and anti-democratic legacy has been as fundamental as it is often portrayed in the scholarly literature.

Your book ambitions to develop a European and partly also a comparative interpretation. You cover not only the obvious cases, such as Austria, Germany, or Italy, but devote extended attention to perhaps somewhat lesser-known cases too, like those of Belgium, Ireland, or Portugal. Would you care to comment on how Christian Democracy might have taken different shapes in various countries across Europe and how proper attention to such a broad variety of cases might help us reconsider its history?

I should begin by saying that there is a lot of great recent historical work by the likes of Piotr Kosicki or Wolfram Kaiser, which I find enormously valuable. These scholars have researched Christian Democracy beyond all the “obvious” contexts of Western and parts of Southern Europe, like Italy. These scholars deserve a lot of credit for opening up the debate. 

In my view, there are two ways in which the comparative perspective adds to our understanding of the phenomenon. 

A comparative angle sensitizes us to the fact that Christian Democracy in what one might see as its most paradigmatic, post-war form, was a relatively short-lived phenomenon. 

Many of the parties that were so successful after the World War II in Western Europe quickly experienced electoral decline. The most dramatic example is the French Christian Democratic Party, the Mouvement Républicain Populaire (MRP), Robert Schuman’s party. Essentially, it became electorally insignificant as early as in the 1950s. Meanwhile, in Belgium and the Netherlands the initially strong Christian Democratic parties split in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively. They declined fairly early on – you could see first instances of decline after about a decade.

Alternatively, there were several parties that persisted and continued to be moderately electorally successful, but eventually transformed into something very different from what they were originally. 

I think it is fair to say that this is what happened to the German and Austrian Christian Democratic parties basically from the late 1960s onwards, parties that were relatively successful in elections in the long run. They only rarely experienced real electoral slumps, but they have become ideologically hollowed out and even their supporters found it increasingly difficult to explain what they actually stood for. A kind of essence of Christian Democracy is often appealed too but we should be clear that we are mostly talking about a relatively short period in history when that phenomenon existed – a period that lasted from around 1945 to the mid-60s or so.

Secondly, the comparative perspective allows us to reflect on what the Christian Democratic party family initially had in common ideologically. If we buy the idea that what happened after 1945 was something like the big “Christian Democratic moment,” as Jan-Werner Müller calls it, we can take this as a starting point and ask what these parties really shared, what were their main divergences, and so on. We may also go one step further and ask what is left of these original commonalities today and what has gradually withered way.

To put it in a simplified way, in the immediate aftermath of 1945 all the major Christian Democratic parties endorsed what I would call pro-European social Catholicism

They wanted European integration, they were staunchly anti-communist, yet they were also critical of free markets, they supported redistributive social policies and they had very conservative views, at least from today’s perspective, about the role of the family and of women in society.

If we fast forward and look at the Christian Democratic party family today, it seems that virtually all that is left of these commitments – or all that is still relevant, since anti-communism has become a politically meaningless position after 1989 – is the commitment to European integration. 

When we take this bird’s eye view and compare across country cases, we are sensitized more towards what has withered away gradually and what has made it go away – and the first thing Christian Democrats dropped was the criticism of free markets, but there was still something of this market-critical attitude left until the mid-1970s or so. 

Let us zoom in on recent decades and the new forms of Christian politics that have been emerging. What has been happening with Christian Democracy since the 1970s and 1980s? Which major transformations do you see over the past half a century or so? And crucially for our purposes, how do parties like Law and Justice in Poland or Fidesz in Hungary relate to the history of Christian Democracy in your view? Are they perhaps representative of new forms of Christian politics and, if so, in what exact ways?

First and foremost, we should think of the 1970s as a period of introspection for most Christian Democratic parties. I already mentioned that perhaps we should think of Christian Democracy as a short-lived phenomenon, or at least as a phenomenon that in its paradigmatic form lasted just a few decades. 

What we can say with a great deal of certainty is that the progressive Zeitgeist of the late 1960s meant that Christian Democrats had to, in a sense, reinvent themselves, or at any rate they had to respond to the fact that many of their original commitments – think, for example, of their affirmation of the patriarchal family – were becoming increasingly unpopular, if not discredited. 

In countries with traditionally strong Christian Democratic parties, such as Germany and Austria, this was a period where they were temporarily in opposition. In the 1970s in particular, their Social Democratic rivals were in power, and this was a period where Social Democracy generally was strong across Europe. 

The German and Austrian parties, the CDU and the CSU in Germany and the ÖVP in Austria, are helpful cases in understanding the response of European Christian Democracy to this period of unpopularity, because these two parties really invested in devising strategies of how to cope with this moment of powerlessness. First, they tried to reform themselves internally, programmatically. I would say this was a more of a symbolic move than anything else, but some of the party programs of the 1970s sounded quite progressive. 

More importantly, they tried to intensify transnational organization, and in doing so they wanted to open the door to collaborating with non-Christian Democratic conservative forces across Europe to build a broad alliance against the Left. 

The first important step towards that was taken in 1976, with the founding of the European People’s Party, the supranational umbrella organization of Christian Democratic Parties. The Christian Democrats thereby anticipated the first European Parliament election, which was held in 1979.

Even more importantly, perhaps, in 1978 the European Democratic Union was founded outside of the European Communities context. It was founded as a broader conservative alliance that included both Christian Democrats and a variety of other conservative parties such as, for example, the UK Tories. The idea was that these two transnational organizations should really help these parties build a front against the Left and also help them learn from each other.

This set in motion a broader process of organizational and programmatic expansion. 

The different conservative parties cross-fertilized each other ideologically, and eventually also changed what Christian Democracy stands for, one might say making it a more conventionally conservative, market-liberal project. 

A driving force behind these developments that eventually also affected the European People’s Party, which was initially conceived as a purely Christian Democratic organization, was Helmut Kohl. He had his biggest ideological passion for the project of European integration and was perhaps less committed to a broad range of other originally Christian Democratic political and ideological commitments. He saw this transnational extension as basically bringing the model of the Unionsparteien, and in particular the CDU, to the European level. 

The CDU wasn’t a conventional Christian Democratic Party because it was inter-confessional, which in Germany was a political necessity. It also included market-liberal conservatives, or ordoliberals, as they as they often called themselves; it was, one might say, a broader big tent party than many other Christian Democratic parties, particularly in strictly Catholic countries like Australia or Italy. The CDU included had a much broader variety of views. 

Kohl thought this could be a model for European Christian Democracy as a whole: he thought transnational or supranatural European Christian Democracy has to become like the Union, but that was obviously a very distinctive model which initially faced a lot of resistance on the European level. Fast forward this process of expansion, of bringing ever more political parties into this party family and it also eventually led to Central and Eastern European parties joining the European People’s Party too, one of them being the Hungarian Fidesz party that joined alongside many others after the so-called Big Bang enlargement of 2004. 

That leads to the second question, which is a very interesting one. I actually think Fidesz and the Law and Justice Party in Poland are very different in terms of how they relate to Christian Democracy. To start with Orbán, we can say that, not least because of his close personal connections to Christian Democratic Parties and leaders like Wilfried Martens, Orbán still tries to position Fidesz, as far as I can see, as something like the last real Christian Democratic Party in Europe. The memorandum that he wrote after resigning from the European People’s Party was very much in that tone. While, on the other hand, the Law and Justice Party in Poland seems to have little interest in doing the same, perhaps also in part because Poland has no Christian Democratic tradition – whereas in Hungary, there is a weakly developed Christian Democratic tradition. 

I would be confident in saying, at least as a thesis to work with, that the Law and Justice Party is a case of 21st-century political Catholicism. It presents itself ultimately as closely tied to the Church and has also powerfully revived the notion that one can only be a Pole if one is a pious Catholic.

Indeed, one might say that some of the Law and Justice Party’s flagship policies are squarely aligned with what political Catholicism and even early Christian Democracy demanded. Think of the famous and much-discussed Family 500+ Program which essentially hands out cash to families with more than one child. This is embedded in the broader, and one might say ideological, narrative of supporting families, supporting big families, but also supporting a particular vision of a Catholic patriarchal family, with the mother in the end staying at home and doing the care work. 

With Orbán, on the other hand, my sense is that he’s excellent, and I think almost brilliant, at presenting us with what seems like a big ideological project, while his policies perhaps do not bear that much resemblance to that project. 

There’s a very good book by Éva Fodor who I think quite instructively argues that what Orbán has implemented under the heading of Christian family values was what she calls a carefare policy regime that tries to discipline women into accepting an increased unpaid care work burden combined with unequal treatment in the labor market. If anything, this seems like a caricature of a Christian Democratic commitment to a particular traditional view of the family. 

There are other examples where I personally struggle to see how Orbán’s professed commitment to Christian Democracy is much more than a rhetorical or symbolic commitment. That is not to imply that I’m convinced he doesn’t actually believe in this; I think there’s a long history of politicians who strongly believe in particular things and do something very different from what they might believe in terms of values and general commitments. 

In short, these two parties are quite different, and I think that connecting them to the history of political Catholicism and Christian Democracy can really illuminate their key differences.

In my reading, your book amounts to a critical intervention in discussions of Christian Democracy, discussions which remained surprisingly rare among scholars until rather recently. How would you situate your work in the existing scholarship on European political ideas and, more specifically, on Christian Democracy? Do you see yourself as part of a new wave of scholars dealing with Christian Democracy? And what would you say might be some of the main benefits of taking a more critical perspective when examining this highly influential political tradition through modern methods of scholarship?

There’s certainly growing interest in the topic and I very much welcome that. I think what we should all welcome is that this interest is coming from many different angles. While there is indeed something like a new wave in scholarship, to the extent that political scientists care about the topic they seem to care primarily about how Christian Democratic parties have influenced welfare regimes. 

At the same time, with the work of Carlo Invernizzi Accetti – and I am trying to do something similar at the moment – we have the possibility of a really unique cross-disciplinary dialogue that involves the humanities in its broadest sense, and brings together political theory, history, and hopefully also more empirical social sciences like political science. In a way that might be easier with a topic that hasn’t been extensively studied, where firm traditions have not yet developed. I felt that to write this sort of book I had to become a bit of a historian – it’s for others to judge whether I have succeeded, but I had to take on things that I otherwise would probably not have taken on. 

Now the second thing is that you said that my book amounts to a critical intervention. That’s certainly true to some extent, but I would also say that the book is not critical in the sense that I’m explicitly criticizing or blaming Christian Democratic parties for doing particular things. What I want to do in the book is shift the focus to topics that existing scholarship of Christian Democracy has paid relatively little, and I think too little, attention to, with few exceptions. In this sense, I would say that the book is an attempt to complement some of the work on the topic that has been published in recent times, and indeed, also the great book that Carlo has published under the title What is Christian Democracy?. I should say that Carlo has for many years been a very important interlocutor for me and, in many respects, my book is intended to cover much of what he didn’t say in his book. 

More specifically, in Carlo’s book, he approaches Christian Democracy predominantly through the lens of intellectual history, and he focuses also on French and Italian sources. What you get almost automatically if you do that is a fairly progressive picture of Christian Democracy, which is of course not wrong as such. It’s certainly not a picture that distorts completely what Christian Democracy is or might be, but it captures only one side of the phenomenon – the light or sunny side, so to speak – whereas I’m looking at the shadier, the darker side. 

Once one looks more closely at political practice and maybe turns even more to a broad variety of historical sources rather than focusing on the strictly intellectual history sources – the philosophy and theology behind it – and takes sources in German and other languages into account, a very different picture emerges. It’s one that is much more anti-liberal, perhaps skeptical about democracy, and it’s much more shaped by the legacy of political Catholicism. That’s really what I want to do in in my book. 

It is why I call it “the dark side” which logically implies that there is a light side too – and that’s the side that has mostly been covered in previous scholarship. A good example of another book that doesn’t shy away from the dark side either is a case study of post-war Christian Democracy in Germany by Maria Mitchell The Originsof Christian Democracy. I think a lot of German readers would do well to consult this book because it sheds lights on things in the early Adenauer CDU that German historians are usually not really reporting on.

The last thing you asked me was what are the benefits of such an approach. First and foremost, we will get a more nuanced view of this highly influential ideological tradition. 

In his Contesting Democracy, Jan-Werner Müller writes that there’s one political tradition that in a sense built the world that we Europeans live in, and it’s Christian Democracy. So, we should have a big interest in understanding this tradition, and by only looking at one side of it, we don’t do it justice. 

There’s no political ideology, there’s no family of parties that doesn’t have a certain dark side – the same goes for social democracy. I think that complexity and that nuance are both very important. 

Another benefit is that we will be better placed to understand newly emerging, and some might say troubling, forms of anti-liberal or illiberal Christian nationalism which, at least in the important case of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, present themselves as a continuation of the Christian Democratic project, or even as the vanguard of a Christian Democratic Renaissance in Europe. Going back to the past allows us to better understand what’s going on here, to move beyond the maybe too simplistic story that this is all about power grabs. 

Surely, it’s also about power, but there are political projects behind those power grabs which have to be taken seriously – and we are helped in this process of understanding by looking at the history of Christian Democracy and political Catholicism.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In cooperation with Vilius Kubekas and Hannah Vos.

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