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The relationship between the Vatican and the Eastern European Communist regimes during the 1960s and 1970s has been a topic vehemently discussed but rarely studied sine ira et studio. The most controversial aspect of this relationship has been a complex of diplomatic meetings, discussions, agreements, and their ramifications in various countries under Communist rule, often subsumed as “Vatican Ostpolitik.” The very term goes back to West Germany’s diplomatic engagement since Willy Brandt aimed at finding a modus vivendi with Communist regimes in Europe within the limits set by the Cold War confrontation.
Among the most hotly debated problems related to Vatican Ostpolitik are those related to its effects on the Communist regimes and the Catholics who lived under their rule: Did the Ostpolitik of Rome, did the efforts of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli as the main diplomat entrusted with the delicate diplomatic task in Eastern Europe by Paul VI, favor in the end only the Communist regimes by raising their international prestige and their national position while the oppressed churches and believers were betrayed? Or were those negotiations with the Communist governments, as Casaroli claimed, the only possible way to solve urgent pastoral problems in an atmosphere of understanding? Until today, these questions are debated, often even mixed with the other great controversy about the effects of the Second Vatican Council. [End Page 151]
From the perspective of historiography one could conclude that while debates in general could stimulate further research, in this case, the polarization and formation of extreme positions on this main question have until recently almost paralyzed historical research. Furthermore, the complexity of the historical problem and questions of Vatican Ostpolitik require broad and intensive international co-operation of researchers of the history of the Vatican, the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, the United States—to name only the most important actors in this global drama. Finally, half a century after the most intensive phase of Casaroli’s diplomatic mission, both international cooperation and new various scholarly approaches are beginning to appear on the horizon. Independently of each other, two new compilations have seen the light most recently: Apart from the volume under review, Piotr Kosicki has edited the book Vatican II behind the Iron Curtain (The Catholic University of America Press, 2016) which studies the participation of a number of Eastern European bishops in the Council.
András Fejérdy’s edited volume The Vatican «Ostpolitik», 1958–1978, based on a 2014 conference at the Hungarian Academy of Rome, is a ground-breaking new book that every scholar who is interested in subjects like Vatican diplomacy, the role of religion during the Cold War, or the history of Catholics in Europe during the 1950s and 1960s has to consult. The book offers so many new insights, highlights new, completely forgotten, or rather: never even considered events, personalities, documents, and archives, that, without exaggeration, it will change the course of historiography in this particular field.
The thirteen collected essays—most of which are (not always good) translations—are divided into three groups: general diplomatic studies on the Vatican, the Soviet Union, and Austria (Introduction, Pál Hatos, Roberto Morozzo della Rocca, Adriano Roccucci and Thomas Gronier), new sources from Moscow, Latvia, the United States, and Czechoslovakia (Nadezhda Belyakova, Adam Somorjai, Inese Runce, Pavol Jakubčin), and four case studies of the negotiations between the Holy See and Communist regimes (Fejérdy, Emilia Hrabovec, Krysztof Strzałka, Roland Cerny-Werner).
The tension between historians who argue that Casaroli’s mission was not a derivation from the long history of Vatican diplomacy and supported by all popes including John Paul II (Morozzo della Rocca, Roccucci) and those who still believe that it was naïve to negotiate with the Communist regimes (Hatos) can still be felt. However, Hatos’ fascinating review of the “Cultural context of the Vatican’s Ostpolitik” rests on an exaggerated dichotomy between West and East...