‘Clerical Fascism’: Context, Overview and Conclusion

John Pollard| Published online: 18 May 2007

Taylor and Francis Online

It was the Catholic priest and leader of the Italian People’s Party, Luigi Sturzo, who first coined the term ‘clerico‐fascism’, rather than ‘clerical fascism’, back in 1922. He applied it to former members of his party, almost all laymen, who were either drawn directly into the Fascist movement – the Partito Nazionale Fascista – or set up ‘flanking’ organisations, like the Unione Costituzionale, the Unione Nazionale or the Centro Nazionale Italiano in order to rally Catholic support for the anti‐communist and pro‐Catholic policies of Mussolini and his first Fascist government. Some later stood in Mussolini’s National Block of candidates in the 1924 general elections. 1 However, from that very same period, the term clerico‐fascist was also used in the Italian political context to designate individual members of the clergy who were supporters of Fascism, like Franciscan friar Agostino Gemelli, rector of the Catholic University of Milan and a vociferous supporter of Fascism on such issues as the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 and the introduction of the Racial Laws in 1938, and Father Brucculeri, who supported Fascist policies in the pages of the authoritative Jesuit fortnightly, La Civiltà Cattolica. 2 The papacy, and thus the church in Italy, was an essential component of the ‘block of consensus’ on which the Fascist regime depended during its nearly 21 year existence, hence raising the issue of the institutional church as a form of ‘clerical fascism’, a point to which we will return later.

Yet there is really not much in the way of a historiography of ‘clerico‐fascism’/‘clerical fascism’, since most major historians writing on fascism, particularly in recent years, like Laqueur, Payne, Griffin, Eatwell, Morgan and so on, have said little or nothing about the phenomenon: only Gerhard Botz, in his 1981 essay on Austria used the term ‘clerical fascism’ to describe the ‘Christian, corporative and German’ right‐wing dictatorship of Dollfuss–Schuschnigg in Austria from 1934 to 1938, while Delzell coined the term ‘clerico‐corporative state’ to describe the Estado Novo in Salazar’s Portugal. 3 On the other hand, some authors have tackled aspects of the issue of relations between Catholics and fascism, like Richard Wolff and Jorg Hoensch in their anthology on Catholics, the state and the European radical right; Martin Conway in his excellent essay on Catholic politics in Europe between the wars; and Richard Griffiths in his introduction to European fascism. 4

So what is groundbreaking about this anthology is that this is the first attempt to identify and analyse a Europe‐wide phenomenon. Thus the term ‘clerical fascism’ is used to encompass a wide‐ranging collection of individuals, movements and regimes, or quite simply, moments in the encounter between the Christian religion and fascism, both in terms of their geographical spread, but also in terms of the Christian denominations involved. This means that it is not merely Catholicism, which has been presented so obsessively in the works of such writers as John Cornwell and Daniel Goldhagen as the heart of this encounter – at least in the matter of antisemitism and the Holocaust 5 – but different forms of Protestantism, including Scandinavian variants, and also the eastern Orthodox churches. In addition, the political tendencies of members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a church which was in communion with the papacy but otherwise bore the characteristics (like clerical marriage, vernacular liturgy etc.) of the Orthodox churches that were not, are examined here.

‘Clerical Fascism’

The term ‘clerical fascist’ may be attached as a label to individuals, members of the clergy or laity, who were ‘fellow travellers’, or in Italy, ‘flankers’, of Fascism. Some became fully paid up members of fascist movements. Others remained outside, or belonged to separate movements that gave support to fascism. It can be argued that some ‘clerical fascist’ movements constituted the main or only fascist‐type movement in their state, like the Croatian Ustasha, the Slovak People’s Party/Hlinka Guard or the Iron Guard/Legion of the Archangel Michael in Romania, and the first two actually constituted regimes, even allowing for the possibility that they both belonged to a sub‐species of ‘clerical fascism’, ‘clerical nationalism’. Then there were the ‘abortive’ ‘clerical fascist’ regimes, General O’Duffy’s Blueshirts in Ireland and the radical‐right‐wing movement based on Serbian Orthodoxy in Yugoslavia. In the area of encounter between Christianity and fascist ideas, fascism exerted the pull of attraction based on the concerns and priorities of Christians during the decades of crisis between the two world wars in Europe. Fears circulated about the consequences of the introduction of liberal democracy, about the very real threat of the spread of Bolshevism, hostility to the emancipation and greater visibility of Jews; and in broader terms, to the effects of ‘modernisation’, industrialisation and urbanisation. In the politically and economically unstable, and not to mention the socially ‘disordered’, Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, fascist ideas and movements were very attractive to many Christians.

Sometimes, ‘clerical fascism’ took the form of pragmatic, opportunistic and temporary alliances between fascists and politicians of a Christian inspiration, but at other times, it involved the commitment to fascist party allegiance. Occasionally, these alliances took place at the highest level, as with Pius XI and Mussolini’s ‘marriage of convenience’ in Italy and the initially close relationship between the Croatian hierarchy and the leadership of the Ustasha in the Independent State of Croatia. However, as is clear from different case studies in this collection, the encounters could take more permanent, stable forms in movements and ideologies that were syntheses of fascist ideology and Christian theology.

Fascist and Christian ‘Palingenetic’ Projects

All those Christians, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, attracted to fascist‐style ideologies, movements and regimes did so in very large part as a reaction against, and rejection of, liberal parliamentary democracy, which was seen as alien, if not hostile, to the Christian tradition, whether in Catholic Italy, the Protestant parts of Germany or Orthodox Romania. Liberalism was deemed responsible for secularism and anti‐clericalism, as well as the consequent laws which, from the French Revolution onwards, had restricted the property, privileges and power of the churches. After 1919, for many Christians in central and eastern Europe, democracy was also deemed alien inasmuch as it was a largely Anglo‐Saxon, or at best French, import and imposition in the aftermath of war, the result of President Woodrow Wilson’s crusading spirit embodied in his famous ‘Fourteen Points’. The Weimar Republic seemed to Catholics and Protestants alike to epitomise the triumph of the worst forms of modernisation, with the emancipation granted women, and consequent erosion of Christian‐based forms of patriarchy, in addition to general relaxation of the regulation of matters of sexuality and public morality, not entirely dissimilar from those realised in Lenin’s Russia. 6 Thus, ‘clerical fascism’ can be seen as a major consequence of the ‘culture wars’ between Catholicism and liberalism that had raged in Europe since the early nineteenth century. 7

One of the major factors which attracted Christians to fascists was that they were both engaged in ‘palingenetic’ projects. If, as Griffin argues, fascism, as it emerged in the early 1920s, was a form of ‘palingenetic, populist, ultra‐nationalism’, it is clear that Christians in the same period, and for some of the same reasons, were seeking a moral and spiritual rebirth of European society. 8 The most explicit and compelling form which this Christian palingenetic project took was that which the Catholic Church embarked upon after the election of Pius XI in 1922. Benedict XV (1914–1922) foreshadowed his successor’s commitment to a ‘Christian restoration of society in a Catholic sense’ through his analysis of the causes of the First World War – the spreading of materialism and secularism – in his encyclical Ad Beatissimi: evils which were, of course, essentially seen as the consequences of liberalism and all its works. 9 Pius set forth his comprehensive vision of a Christian ‘reconquest’ of a society vitiated by secularism and anti‐clericalism in his first encyclical of 1922, Ubi Arcano Dei. He then took this programme a stage further by instituting the feast of Christ the King in 1925 and the worldwide development of Catholic Action as a means of mobilising the Catholic faithful. 10 It is no coincidence that, in 1924, one of the leading Italian clerico‐fascist commentators, Piero Misciateli, should have saluted the Duce with these words, ‘From the historical and religious standpoint it is important to understand that Mussolini is a convert, or, as William James defined it, a man born again’. 11 As Jorge Dagnino points out, the commitment to the Christian palingenetic project meant that, even in FUCI, the Italian Catholic student’s movement, there was a strong sympathy for Fascism’s ‘spiritual and moral aspirations’ in the 1930s.

Orthodox and Protestant palingenetic projects may not have been as coherent and well‐organised as the Catholic one, but the aspirations for an end to moral and spiritual ‘decadence’ amongst these Christians denominations were just as clear and explicit, exemplified by the Ukrainian OUN’s demand for ‘the revival of national spirit and Christianity’, as Anton Shekhovstov describes it, or the core belief of members of the Iron Guard that the Legionary Movement ‘would do away with the corruption and moral decadence of the body politic’, and that it was ‘one of spiritual regeneration gifted by God to a people perhaps once in a millennium through its predestined leader, Corneliu Z. Codreanu, the “Captain”’. 12 Many German Protestants, and Catholics with some misgivings, interpreted the coming to power of National Socialism as a moment of spiritual and moral cleansing of Weimar’s Augean Stables, like the Lutheran Landesbischof of Mecklenberg who proclaimed, ‘Our Protestant churches have greeted the turning point of 1933 as a gift and miracle of God’. 13 Even that via media of post‐Reformation churches, the Church of England, produced pro‐fascist clergy like the Reverend Nye who, according to Thomas Linehan, in his demand for a Christian revival of society, used the Catholic slogan, ‘Long Live Christ the King’.

Anti‐communism, Anti‐capitalism and ‘Ruralism’

If fascists and Christians had some similar aspirations, they also shared certain common enemies. Thus most Christians were consistently and sometimes violently anti‐communist. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, as well as other attempted revolutions and even short‐lived Soviet regimes in eastern and central Europe, hung like a shadow over the politics of interwar Europe. Christian movements opposed the economic and social ideas as well as policies, particularly those regarding women and the family, not to mention the atheistic materialism of Soviet communism. The ‘Godless’ campaigns of the Soviet governments against all religions, but especially the Russian Orthodox and the Catholic churches, and the introduction of easy divorce, abortion and the decriminalisation of homosexuality, confirmed the worst fears on this score. 14 For the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, there was an added ethnic issue: Orthodoxy also represented Russian imperialism, to which Ukrainians had been subject for hundreds of years.

Coalitions of forces – monarchy, armed forces and landowners – had cooperated in crushing the threat of Bolshevik revolution in such countries as Hungary and Slovakia, and the authoritarian regimes established in the former, and in Franco’s Spain and Salazar’s Portugal (obviously without the monarchy), were essentially based on such anti‐communist coalitions, plus the Church – as arguably Fascist Italy also was. Yet the difference in the case of Italy was that Mussolini’s regime had been inspired by and built around an autonomous, dynamic mass political movement – Fascism – to which the other elements in the ‘block of consensus’, monarchy, armed forces, church, agrarian and business elites, were subordinate, even if they retained a certain autonomy throughout the life of the regime. It was in this context that Catholic politicians and intellectuals abandoned the Catholic People’s Party and rallied to Fascism.

‘Clerical fascism’ was also characterised by a strong vein of anti‐capitalism. On the basis of persisting hostility towards money‐lending, not to mention its stereotypical association with the Jews, capitalism was abhorred as ‘the evil child of liberalism’. The values it represented – individualism, materialism, profit‐making and the brute forces of the market – were regarded as un‐Christian and anti‐social. Industrialism was another child of capitalism and it produced those twin evils, urbanisation and modernisation, which eroded the moral values of ‘healthy’ rural, agrarian societies. 15 In most European countries in the interwar years, rural, agrarian society remained the heartland of religion, whether Catholicism, Orthodoxy or Protestantism; so the rural, agrarian policies of fascist movements and regimes were a natural meeting point. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Slovakian People’s Party ruled a society that, unlike the western heart of the former Czechoslovak state, was hardly touched by industrialisation and urbanisation. In its institutionalised form in Italy, ‘clerical fascism’ manifested itself with particular strength in the participation of the clergy – bishops and parish priests – in Mussolini’s ‘Battle for Grain’; namely, the unsuccessful attempt to make Fascist Italy self‐sufficient in cereals. 16 In broader terms, this was a signal of Catholic support for Mussolini’s ideology of Ruralisation, the rationale for an attempt to freeze the balance between rural and urban society as a way of preserving social, and therefore political, stability. 17 In Romania, the Iron Guard/Legion of the Archangel Michael was built around, among other things, a romanticisation and idealisation of the ‘long suffering’ peasantry, who constituted 80% of the population. 18 The Nazi doctrine of Blut und Boden [blood and soil] was very consonant with the views of farmers in Protestant areas of Germany, while the Clerical People’s Party of Sweden and the Finnish Lapua movement also found their strongest support in rural areas. 19


The Catholic answer, both to godless communism and heartless capitalism, was corporatism. Catholic corporatist ideas had first emerged in Austria, Germany and Italy in the mid‐nineteenth century as a response to industrialisation. They were then inscribed in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical on Catholic ‘social doctrine’, Rerum Novarum, which was a response both to industrialisation and the rise of a revolutionary Socialist working class movement in many parts of Europe. 20 Built around a neo‐Thomistic idealisation of the medieval guild system, corporatist theorists elaborated a system of organisations representing both capital and labour that would transcend and eliminate the divisions of class conflict. Pius XI produced an even more elaborate system in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno of 1931. 21 Thus the corporatist policies and institutions of the regime were a key factor helping to consolidate the support of Italian Catholics for Fascism in the 1930s. 22 In reality, Pius XI was critical of Fascist corporatism in his 1931 encyclical, rightly perceiving that Mussolini’s corporative institutions, which were essentially the implementation of ideas advanced by the pre‐First World War Italian Nationalist Movement, and therefore not Catholic in inspiration, involved rigid regimentation of the work force and dependence upon the state. 23 Nevertheless, inside of Italy, economists at the Catholic University, like the later Christian Democratic Prime Minister, Amintore Fanfani, and the Jesuit columnist Brucculeri, viewed those corporatist institutions as one of the most attractive elements of Fascism. 24 They were admired by many Catholics outside of Italy, and were imitated by the regimes in Austria, Portugal and Spain, while also evincing keen interest among Catholics in Ireland, as Cronin shows. 25

Antisemitism and Race

That antisemitism should have been one of the most important meeting points between fascist movements and Christianity in the interwar period, an issue around which some forms of clericalism should have crystallised, is hardly surprising given antisemitism’s deeply Christian, theological roots. Some defenders of Pius XII in the ‘Hitler’s Pope’ debate, like Signor Margherite Machione, however, have tried to make a distinction between the racial antisemitism of National Socialism and other fascist movements as opposed to what they regard as the ‘anti‐Judaism’ of Catholicism. Comparing Christian antisemitism to the mutual suspicions and hostility between Catholics and Protestants, they argue that it was an essentially religious phenomenon. 26 This does not make a great deal of sense in the context of interwar Europe. For example, for decades the Jesuit fortnightly, La Civiltà Cattolica, had waged a violently antisemitic campaign, one riddled with the usual accusations of ritual murder, economic exploitation of Christians and other conspiracy theories, including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. 27 This made it very difficult for its editor, Father Rosa, to disassociate it from Mussolini’s introduction of the Racial Laws in 1938.

Antisemitism was an almost universal characteristic of Christian Europe, from Scandinavia to Romania; indeed, in the latter, antisemitism was at the heart of the beliefs held by Corneliu Codreanu’s Legion of the Archangel Michael. To be a Romanian was to be Christian and antisemitic. 28 Only in Italy and the Iberian peninsula was antisemitism not a major political factor. Hoever, even in Italy, where antisemitism was not on Fascism’s agenda until the mid‐1930s (in large part because Jews had been well integrated into Italian society since the Risorgimento, as evidenced by their strong presence in the early Fascist movements), there were isolated pockets of virulent Catholic antisemitism. One has already been cited, that of the Jesuits and their authoritative journal. The other was the Fede e Ragione newspaper in Florence, which represented the most intransigent, integriste form of Italian Catholicism. 29 Yet the deep contamination of all forms of European Christianity by antisemitism did not always lead to fascism. As Griffiths states, ‘antisemitism does not necessarily denote fascism (or “clerical fascism”). It was endemic in Eastern Europe (and particularly strong, for example in Poland)’. 30 Poland, which was indeed a hotbed of antisemitism, was strongly Catholic, yet it did not produce a serious fascist or ‘clerical fascist’ movement. Much the same could be said of Lithuania.

The Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany did not express alarm at the progressive development of Jewish persecution by the Nazis after 1933. Nor did the Catholic hierarchy of Hungary protest when antisemitic legislation was introduced there in 1938; in fact, Catholic bishops voted for the legislation along with Protestant leaders in the upper house of Parliament, though they protested further legislation in 1939 and sought to protect Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz in 1944 and 1945. 31 Yet there was no opposition from clerical members, including Bishop Vojtissak of Spiss, when the Parliament of the Slovak Republic voted to legalise the deportation of Slovak Jews to Auschwitz in 1942; and the role of Monsignor Tiso, priest‐president of the republic during the actual deportation of Slovakian Jews to the death camps, was equivocal to say the least. 32 As Mosignor Tardini, Under Secretary of State in the Vatican, bewailed in 1942, ‘It is a great misfortune that the President of Slovakia is a priest. Everyone knows that the Holy See cannot bring Hitler to heel. But who will understand if we can’t even control a priest?’ 33 The response of the Orthodox Church was no different when similar laws were enacted Romania in the late 1930s and early 1940s. 34

Belief in the superiority of the Aryan race is, of course, more than just antisemitism, and is part of a complex doctrine of biological racialism which reached its fullest stage of development in the mature ideology of German National Socialism. While many Christians shared antisemitic feelings with fascists, only in the context of Protestantism, and more specifically German and Scandinavian Lutheranism, could the encounter between fully developed racial ideas and Christianity evolve into a close, tightly knit synthesis. According to Richard Steigmann‐Gall, the Deutsche Christen [German Christians] in Germany, building upon Luther’s visceral antisemitism, sought to ‘Aryanise’ Christianity: they ‘rejected the Old Testament and contended that Christ was not a Jew’, presenting him instead as an Aryan hero, the archetypal antisemitic warrior. 35 The Swedish Lutheran Manhem Society, according to Lena Berggren, embarked upon a similar project, a ‘second reformation’; stripping out the elements in Christianity which were allegedly the result of Jewish or Catholic ‘perversion’ and re‐presenting Christianity as the cult of ‘the Aryan Jesus’, with Christ as ‘an heroic Christian warrior’ – thus bringing Christianity nearer to Odinism, the Nordic religion, so that the former was no longer a contemptible ‘religion of slaves’, but a ‘religion of warriors’. The Anglican priest’s vision of Jesus as the ‘ideal fascist’, as cited by Tom Linehan, was another variant of this heresy.

This kind of synthesis, or dare one say it miscegenation, of Christian theology and fascist racial ideology was not possible in the Catholic context. ‘Catholic’ means universal, and whatever forms of racial discrimination and segregation might actually have been practised by Catholics, the theological essence of Catholicism remained universalistic, and the Gospel injunction ‘go forth and preach to all nations, baptising in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’ remained the mission statement of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century. As some Protestants rightly perceived, Catholicism was too ‘dogmatic and rigid’ to permit any tampering with an age‐old belief system: Roman centralism and the need to conform under the 1870 dogma of Infallibility made this impossible. In the 1920s and 1930s, Pope Pius XI came out repeatedly and strongly against all forms of ‘exaggerated nationalism’ and racialism: his condemnation of Action Française in 1926; his criticisms of Fascist doctrine in his 1931 encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno; and his attacks on National Socialist ideas in Mit Brennender Sorge in 1937 and in the April 1938 decree of the Sacred Congregation for Seminaries and Universities, which condemned the proposition that ‘human races, by their natural and immutable character are so different that the humblest among them is furthest from the most elevated than from the highest animal species’. 36 He commissioned an encyclical against racialism tout court during the summer of 1938; the result, Humani Generis Unitas, was not published because of his death in February 1939, though he publicly condemned Mussolini’s introduction of the Racial Laws in September 1938. 37 Yet all of the Vatican’s statements on racialism did not prevent the emergence of the OUN, a form of ‘clerical fascism’ on the fringes of the Roman communion, in the milieu of the Greek Catholic Church in the Ukraine which, according to Shekhovstov, not only legitimised the use of violence against communists and other enemies, but also ‘physical mass extermination of existences’. This might help explain the collaboration of some Ukrainians in the Holocaust.

‘Clerical Nationalism’?

Perhaps this is the point at which to explore Aristotle Kallis’s suggestion that there exists a sort of sub‐species of ‘clerical fascism’, ‘clerical nationalism’. The Slovakian People’s Party, with its slogan ‘One God, One People, One Party’, was the product of an intensely Catholic, rural and largely agrarian society, fighting for independence from Czech domination. 38 The clerical element was real, not only in terms of the identification of religion and ethnic nationalism, but also in the pervasive influence of the clergy in the party: two successive leaders, Andrej Hlinka and Josef Tiso, were priests. If the SPP progressively adopted the trappings and policies of a ‘fascistised’ or ‘Nazified’ party, then it was due to circumstances; namely, the fact that it owed its power to Germany’s dismemberment of the Czechoslovak state in March 1939, meaning that it was henceforth pressed down by the massive, inescapable weight of Nazi influence in the country. Certainly, Slovakian Catholic society was deeply permeated by antisemitism, but the destruction of Slovak Jewry was a policy largely forced upon it from outside yet accepted by the more radical, less clerical wing. 39 Much the same can be said about the OUN as of the SPP. While the OUN did display some signs of fascism – a preference for a totalitarian form of government under some kind of ‘leader principle’ – it was essentially a party of frustrated ethnic nationalism centred around an isolated, in some ways embattled, Greek Catholic Church that was the very symbol of this ethnicity. In the same way, Biondich shows that the Croatian Ustasha regime managed to win the support of the church for its Independent State of Croatia as a realisation of Croatian Catholic hopes of winning independence from the hated domination of Orthodox Serb Belgrade.

Perhaps even the Iron Guard/Legion of the Archangel Michael can be described as a form of ‘clerical nationalism’. After all, what is most striking about the Romanian movement is its deep sense of being challenged and threatened, not only by the Jews, but by all the other ethnic minority groups – Saxons, Hungarians, Greeks, Bulgarians and Turks and so on – with whom they had to live in the post‐Versailles ‘Greater Romania’. 40 Juan Linz has observed that: ‘It is no accident that some of the peripheral nationalisms would develop considerable affinity with fascism; that in Eastern Europe integral nationalism would often be fascist or quasi‐fascist’. 41 He advances this view on account of the absence of strong, organised parties of the Christian democratic type in most Eastern European countries. Would this explain the ‘exterminatory nationalism’ of OUN, the genocidal policies of Ustasha – including the participation of some priests – and the complicity of Tiso and other clergy in the deportations of the Jews from Slovakia? Or is this just evidence of the virulence of antisemitism in rural populations?

The Role of the Institutional Churches

The role of the institutional churches in these relationships between Christianity and fascism was as complex as the relationships themselves. In Italy after the Conciliazione of 1929, when Pius XI and Mussolini signed the Lateran Pacts, bringing the 60‐year‐old ‘Roman Question’ to an end, must be regarded as the high point of fascist‐Christian collaboration. Pius XI’s suspicion of liberal democracy and his dislike of priests taking a part in politics – to his extreme annoyance they were active in most European countries, like Monsignor Kaas of the German Centre Party, Seipel of the Austrian Christian Socials, Hlinka and Tiso of the SPP, and even ‘clerical fascist’ priests in Belgium and Hungary – doomed the Italian Catholic party. So the Vatican endorsed and legitimised Mussolini’s Fascist Regime and effectively ruled out any legitimate form of Catholic antifascism. 42 Yet the Church did not completely identify itself with Fascism; it was always different, separate and autonomous, and more significantly, true to its age‐old principles, it prepared for the dopo‐fascismo, for an Italy after Fascism, by building a complex structure of lay organisations around Catholic Action, including, most importantly, FUCI and the Movimento Laureato [association of Catholic graduates], to be held in reserve as a possible new Catholic ruling class. 43 Pius XI not only dispensed with the Catholic Partito Popolare and doomed it to extinction; after the Conciliazione, he dropped with equal ruthlessness the clerico‐fascist elements whose efforts had helped make that historic agreement with Italy possible. 44

Elsewhere in Europe, the Catholic ecclesiastical authorities usually displayed the same opportunism and circumspection. In Belgium, as is clear in Bruno De Wever’s essay, the church authorities kept their distance from Leon Degrelle and the Rexists; and in Hungary, according to Bela Bodo, they behaved in a similar fashion towards incipient ‘clerical fascism’ in that country. Their counterparts in Yugoslavia were rather less circumspect when Anton Pavelić and the Ustasha established their Independent Croatian State which seemed for them to be the realisation of all their hopes of a Catholic state, free from subordination to the Orthodox Serbs in Belgrade. 45 In Germany, however, the activities of the Deutsche Christen, coupled with Hitler’s efforts to bring all the evangelical churches under state control in a Reichskirche, provoked a serious split, with disputes between the supporters of the Confessing Church and the Deutsche Christen. 46

Catholic Fascism? Christian Fascism?

As well as the concepts of clerico‐fascism and ‘clerical fascism’, some historians have used the concepts ‘Catholic fascism’ and ‘Christian fascism’ in analysing the phenomenon of Christians attracted toward fascism. Griffiths does so particularly in relation to the 1930s. He argues that increasing numbers of Catholic intellectuals, especially in Belgium, Britain and France, looked with benevolence upon fascist movements (especially Italy’s following Mussolini’s Conciliazione with the Vatican and the publication in 1931 of Quadragesimo Anno, which was seen as a papal endorsement of corporatist, authoritarian systems), citing the likes of Douglas Jerrold and The English Review in Britain, Robert de Brasillach, Henri Massis and Emmanuel Mounier in France and Leon Degrelle and the Rexists in Belgium. 47 To this list could be added elements of the Swiss Catholic Party, the KVP which, according to Conway, ‘chose to affiliate themselves to the quasi‐fascist National Front’. 48 Domenico Sorrentino, biographer of Egilberto Martire, one of the leading Italian clerico‐fascists, uses the term ‘Catholic fascism’ to describe the belief of his subject, and other Italian Catholics, that Fascism could be ‘baptised’ – an illusion also cherished by Pius XI, but not for as long as Martire. 49

After the Conciliazione and QuadAgesimo Anno, the next milestone in the development of Catholic or Christian fascism was the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This was seen by most European Catholics as an Apocalyptic, titanic struggle between Good and Evil due to of the appalling anti‐clerical violence by some Republican forces, the support of anti‐clerical Mexico and the atheistic Soviet Union for the Republic, and the inevitable lining up of Spanish Catholic forces – including the institutional church – on the side of Franco and the Nationalists. In addition, the Spanish tragedy did not just attract the attention of European Catholics: as Linehan explains, more than one Anglican clergyman was profoundly agitated by the violence committed against the church in Spain. The Romanian Legion also saw the Spanish Civil War as a religious war. Valentin Săndulescu quotes Ion Moţa as saying that ‘machine guns were shooting in the face of Christ’ (in fact, a picture of Republican militia men firing at the head of a massive sculpture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus became of one the icons of the Spanish Civil War). As Săndulescu’s description of the 1937 funeral of Romanian Legionary leaders in Bucharest demonstrates, the clergy of the Romanian Orthodox Church were strongly drawn to the Legionary movement. The Legion was thus, arguably, itself an essentially ‘clerical fascist’/nationalist movement.

The Spanish Civil War was undoubtedly the major moment of encounter between Christians and fascists, but the looming shadow of the diplomatic and military power of German National Socialism in the late 1930s quickly became a solvent of ‘Christian’, and even more so Catholic, fascism. Pius XI ensured that Vatican diplomacy would tread cautiously in Spain, despite the enthusiasm of Italian Catholics for the cause of Spanish Catholicism, because of his fears of Nazi influence in the Iberian peninsula. 50 Generally speaking, Catholics in Italy became increasingly suspicious of Nazi, ‘Nordic’, influences (including Christmas trees!) as the 1930s wore on, seeing Mussolini’s introduction of the Racial Laws in 1938 as their most baleful fruit. 51 As Antonio Cosa Pinto explains, the Portugese church was an important element in helping to prevent the ‘fascistisation’ of Salazar’s regime. On the other hand, Degrelle, instead of moving away from National Socialism, moved increasingly towards it in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and ended up fighting as a member of the Waffen SS on the Eastern Front and, still later, as a public spokesperson of Holocaust denial in the 1960s. 52

‘Clerical Fascism’ since 1945

Fascism is not dead: nor is ‘clerical fascism’. There have arguably been several ‘clerical fascist’ movements in the period since the end of the Second World War. The resurgence of the far Right in North America and Europe over the last 25 years has been characterised by the clear identification of some Christians with, and their affiliation to, antisemitic, xenophobic and racist organisations in both continents. In the United States, the power and influence of the ‘Christian Right’ manifests itself in many ways, most notably inside the Republican Party, but the heady Christian fundamentalism so characteristic of the midwestern and southern states provides the ideal breeding ground for a fusion between religious and racist ideas. Its most extreme manifestation is the Christian Identity/Aryan Nations grouping, a post‐war version of ‘Aryan Christianity’ whose ideology is a bizarre, unstable mix of Christian fundamentalism, Aryan racialism and British‐Israelitism, thus providing a theological rationale for both racism and antisemitism. 53 Christian Identity is thoroughly contemporary, allegedly, among other youth organisations, its own skinhead militias and skinhead hate rock bands. 54

In Europe, latter‐day ‘clerical fascism’ is to be found largely among traditionalist Catholics, like the supporters of the French Archbishop Lefebvre, who broke away from Rome in the 1960s. They would argue that the church has changed, not them. They believe that the church was hijacked at the Second Council of the Vatican (1962–5) by freemasons, liberals, Marxists and perhaps even the Devil himself, with catastrophic results. 55 In particular, they reject the council’s declarations on Jews and on freedom of religion. In France, supporters of Lefebvre (now dead) and his breakaway, schismatic church, have long been strongly sympathetic towards Jean‐Marie Le Pen and the Front National. 56 In Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of communism, there is a Catholicism that has barely been touched by Vatican II, even less by the liberalising and secularising tendencies of the West; hence, it is still to some degree permeated by antisemitism, not to mention hostility to Roma people, and now homophobia. A similar story is evident in Orthodox countries like Romania. In Poland, already before the end of the communist regime in 1989, traditional, nationalistic Catholics had found a home in the Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski [National Polish Rebirth, NOP], an organisation which exhibited signs of all three prejudices. 57 Though some Catholics have tried to disassociate themselves from the more openly neo‐Nazi element in the NOP, their racism and homophobia continue to give rise to concern in other member countries of the European Union.

In Mediterranean Europe, ‘clerical fascism’ has also maintained a postwar presence among traditional Catholics. In Spain, in the galaxy of fascist and para‐fascist groups that emerged during the last years of the Franco regime, the Guerrilleros de Cristo Rey [Warriors of Christ the King] occupied an important place; after the death of Franco, another emerged called Alianza Anticommunista Catolica [Catholic Anti‐Communist Alliance]. 58 In Italy, a variety of far right Catholic groups have appeared over the last few decades, like the Christian Catholic Militia, but have rarely lasted very long. More recently, another traditional Catholic organisation, Alleanza Cattolica [Catholic Alliance], has closely associated itself with both the respectable, ‘post‐fascist’ face of the Italian right, the Alleanza Nazionale of Gianfranco Fini and the rather less respectable face, Forza Nuova, which is heavily influenced by the racist, ‘Nazi‐skin’ tendency. 59 An important factor that needs to be taken into account when contextualising the contemporary Italian situation is the church’s willingness to recruit allies of virtually any political description in its battles over such issues as abortion, bio‐ethics and same‐sex unions, leading parochial clergy in the Lazio region to signal support for the Alleanza Nazionale. 60 This is analogous to the context in which clerico‐fascism emerged in the early 1920s.


All the various tendencies discussed here, clerico‐fascism, ‘clerical fascism’, Catholic fascism, Christian fascism and ‘clerical nationalism’, have one thing in common: a belief that fascist movements and ideas offered the best political vehicle for the protection and promotion of religious interests and objectives, and a sense that those ideas were consonant with Christian ideals and practices. This places the phenomenon in direct contradiction with that school of thought that claims fascism to be somehow a product of ‘disenchantment’, the decline of religion, of secularisation, ‘de‐christianisation’ or the ‘Death of God’. They argue that a key part of the appeal of fascism was its capacity to fill a spiritual, ‘mythopaeic’ vacuum in a secularised society, one whose members needed reassurance and security in a period of socio‐economic disruption and political turmoil when so many other certainties had vanished. 61 In other terms, fascism’s ‘aestheticisation’ and ‘sacralisation’ of politics, its construction of a ‘political religion’ through the use of rituals, uniforms, colourful display, processions and so on, filled this void. 62 However, the case studies published here suggest the reverse: while some people may have been attracted to fascist movements because of the spiritual, religious void in their lives, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of fervent, practising Christians, Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic – people who experienced no such void – were attracted to fascism precisely because it seemed to fulfil and advance their religious aspirations.

Steigmann‐Gall writes, ‘I suggest that, for many of its leaders, Nazism was not the result of a ‘Death of God’ in a secularised society, but rather a radicalised and singularly horrific attempt to preserve God against secularised society’. 63 Leaving aside the radical outcome of the Holocaust, there can be no better explanation of ‘clerical fascism’ than that it was, precisely, an attempt to preserve God against secularised or secularising society. Sandulescu’s description of the funeral of the Legionaries who fell in the Spanish Civil War is of a ceremony that is not so much a form of ‘political religion’ or ‘sacralised religion’, nor a substitute for the absence of religion, but a synthesis of martial rites and existing religious rituals. The presence of numerous Orthodox clergy confirms this, and it was always the case that Orthodox clergy accompanied Legionary demonstrations and processions. 64 The very same phenomenon was observable in Italy when Fascist ‘martyrs’ were interred in the crypt of the Church of Santa Croce in Florence (1934) and in that of San Domenico in Siena (1938) with a ceremony which was a synthesis of Fascist and Catholic rituals. 65 What this clearly demonstrates is that Italian Fascism sought and obtained the blessing of the church for its own cult of the dead.

If Italian Fascism in particular adopted the trappings of religion – credos, litanies, commandments and rituals – it was not in order to fill a secular void in Italian society but because it made the movement and the regime more comprehensible and acceptable to the average Italian, who was steeped in a living and vibrant Catholic culture. In a country which was 99% Catholic and the seat of the Papacy, there was never the remotest possibility that Fascism could in any sense replace Catholicism as a national religion, despite Mussolini’s many claims to the contrary. 66

In the end, what the case studies presented here tell us, and they mark only the beginning of the study of this phenomenon, is that, in the various forms which ‘clerical fascism’ took, Christians made an enormous input into fascism in Europe between the wars and, above all, that ‘clerical fascism’ is as much about religious politics as political religion, at least as far as the first half of the twentieth century is concerned.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s