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Until the 1980s the history of the Roman Catholic Church and Catholicism in modern Europe was mostly the preserve of the theologically and confessionally defined field of ‘church history’ or ‘ecclesiastic history’. Catholic historiography was sealed off from mainstream (North American and British) historiography, with nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholicism seemingly little more than a backward-looking footnote in the dominant narrative of secular modernity and progress. In a 1991 review article David Blackbourn pointed out that ‘historians in the mainstream have commonly considered Catholicism, if they considered it at all, as a hopelessly obscurantist force at odds with the more serious isms that have shaped the modern age’. Within the same review, however, Blackbourn signaled the emergence of timid but nevertheless clear ‘signs of a change’ in the historiographical direction and a new interest in Catholic history.
This article traces the deep cultural and experiential foundations that animated Christian Democratic Europeanism between the mid-1940s and the birth of the European Economic Community in the late 1950s. It shows how the language of Europeanness, generated in a period of multiple and intense crisis, congealed around symbolisms of Christianity and spirituality. More specifically, it connects the post-Second World War Christian Democratic vision of Europe to the 1920s German-Catholic articulation of the Abendland (the Christian West), understood as a supranational and symbolic space alternative to the Soviet Union and the United States and imbued with anti-materialist, anti-socialist and anti-liberal principles. The argument here is that, in mutated form and in context of the Cold War, this view sustained the political reconstruction of Western Europe after the horrors of the Second World War, the ‘European’ thought and language of Christian Democracy and the commitment to the project of European integration.
In the 1950s the Christian Democratic party turned its attention to agrarian reform projects and development funding for southern Italy. Its social and economic objectives were the destruction of latifundia, the creation of a class of small landowners, industrial and commercial development and the reduction of territorial inequalities. The ultimate goal, however, was political: to gain loyalty, allegiance and electoral consensus. To manage the economy and direct change, the party had to strengthen the organisation, form a ruling class, lay down territorial roots and widen the scope of its propaganda beyond anti-communism. Elections became the testing ground for the party's new reform strategies.
The Italian national elections of 18 April 1948 handed power to the Christian Democratic Party. The Italian Communist Party had, however, gained significant municipal control in the local elections of 1946. For the Communists, the local level became the testing ground where administrative practices, political initiatives, social alliances and economic projects were developed. The leaders and the intellectuals worked to outline the cultural framework of a political project which could challenge national politics from town councils. Meanwhile, with a view to making gains in the local elections of 1951–1952, propaganda was used in an attempt to diffuse and proselytise municipal political programmes among different social classes in a divided socioeconomic environment.
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