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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: July 2009

5 - Hegemony by default: Christian democracy in postwar Europe


It appeared unlikely that Christian democracy would emerge victorious from World War II. Conservative political Catholicism was discredited. Its interwar economic policies seemed to have aggravated the effects of the world economic crisis, contributing to the breakdown of democratic regimes everywhere. Many conservative Catholics subsequently supported clerical dictatorships and fascism. Moreover, most Catholics who opted for resistance against the German occupation were democratic left-Catholics – a minority within the Catholic political camp in interwar Europe. At the same time, the Catholic Church hierarchy was morally compromised. The Vatican had strongly supported clerical dictatorships out of fear of communist revolution in Europe. It had also failed to take a strong stance against the extermination of Jews.

To many, the future seemed to belong to socialism. It offered voters an innovative economic policy of nationalisation, state intervention and planning, which promised to cure the ills of industrial capitalism and to homogenise internally fragmented national societies. As such it appeared to be the only credible democratic alternative to revolutionary communism that would lead Europe straight into the emerging Soviet camp. Socialism also had a proud tradition of resistance to national socialism, fascism and militant clericalism. Moreover, at the core of its political belief system was a kind of internationalism that seemed to fit ideally with the agenda of the newly founded United Nations.