Knocking on the Vatican’s Gates. Refugees, the Holy See, and the Spectre of Communism, 1945-1958

(Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship, 2023-2026)

Knocking on the Vatican’s Gates is a 3-year-long research project focusing on the Vatican and refugees in the early Cold War.

This project is the first to explore the crucial – but hitherto neglected – role of the Vatican Relief Commission (the Pontificia Commissione di Assistenza, PCA) in assisting and resettling European refugees after World War II and in the early Cold War. It takes advantage of an unprecedented opportunity: the opening of the part of the Vatican Apostolic Archive (or VAA, named the Vatican Secret Archive until 2019) pertaining to the pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958) in March 2020. To meet its central aim - adding nuance to our understanding of Western humanitarianism in the postwar period - this project interrogates the documents held in VAA to integrate the missing puzzle piece of papal aid into the picture of the international refugee assistance. It demonstrates the importance of the Vatican’s faith-based humanitarianism and its use of refugees from Eastern Europe in building an anti-communist defensive. At the same time, it shows how refugees navigated the tensions between the power of traditional charities and rapidly modernizing, professionalizing, and Americanizing international aid organizations, which were further complicated by the growing East-West divide.

Aims and Research Questions 

COMREF-VATICAN connects refugee history to histories of faith-based as well as secular humanitarianism and the international history of the Cold War. The central aim of this project is to add nuance to our understanding of Western humanitarianism after World War II. This aim is underscored by three key research questions:

1) How did refugees negotiate their precarious position and seek access to aid and resettlement options navigating between the powerful papal charity and rapidly modernizing international relief organizations, and with what outcomes?

2) How did the self-perception of the Catholic Church as the bulwark against Bolshevism inform its work among the Eastern European refugees?

3) How did the work of PCA and other agencies among refugees shape further Vatican relief efforts in Europe and further afield?

Why does it matter?

COMREF-VATICAN forwards the understanding of the political and cultural making of contemporary Europe at the onset of what is branded “the new Cold War.” In the light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and massive displacement it generated and in times Eastern European countries reckon with Soviet legacies, it answers an urgent need to contextualize and historicize debates around recurring refugee “crises” and the predicted new waves of migration due to climate change and political upheavals. It emphasizes the importance of critically researching the history and legacy of migration, raising public awareness of the links between current refugee policies and experiences and refugee history. It also adds to a more nuanced public debate about refugees as capable, determined, engaged, rather than as pure victims waiting to be helped. It shows how the secular and religious networks of support are entangled into the international politics of relief. Migration and refugee history is an emerging subject area which is gaining currency thanks to its potential for deepening our understanding of current challenges around migration. 

Funded by the European Research Executive Agency (REA) under the Grant Agreement No 101106155.