March 02, 2020

Will Pius XII's archives shed light on origins of Vatican Ostpolitik?

By Andrea Gagliarducci
Pope Pius XII - credit Vatican News
Pope Pius XII - credit Vatican News

The opening of the archives on Pius XII’s pontificate could show that the Vatican's so-called Ostpolitik began much earlier than previously thought.

Vatican Ostpolitik was a Vatican diplomatic policy of rapprochement to the countries on the Soviet bloc. A long-standing diplomat and Secretary of State during the first decade of John Paul II’s pontificate, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli initiated his brand of Ostpolitik on September 15, 1964, when – in his capacity as Vatican vice foreign minister, a post then named Undersecretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs – he went to Budapest to sign an agreement with the Hungarian government.

It was the first of a series of agreements between the Holy See and the Communist regimes in the East.

The dialogue had started in 1961, and some historians even say that the Ostpolitik began with talks that took place in 1958. Pius XII had initiated an exchange toward the Soviet Union already in 1946-1947. 

Johann Ickx, head of the archives of the Second Section of the Secretariat of State, shed light on this possibility in a paper published in the book, The Church of Silence and Pontifical Diplomacy 1945 – 1965, curated by the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. 

Ickx based his report on known sources, and in particular on a book published by Sandor Tohotom Nagy, a former Jesuit who was involved in the talks with the Soviet Union between 1946 and 1948. Nagy later fled to Argentina, left the Jesuit order and the priesthood, married, and joined the Freemasonry. In 1963, he wrote his memoir, Jesuitas y masones, and also an open letter to Pope Paul VI.

Fr. Nagy’s mission must be framed in the post-Second World War scenario, and in particular, in the situation that followed the Yalta conference to discuss the post-war order.

Jesuits have been among the most active participants in the dialogue with the Soviet Union. The position of the society of Jesus passed from a hard line against Communism to the possibility of entertaining some sort of dialogue with the Communist countries.

Ickx also analyzed the papers archived in the Jesuits’ General Curia. These papers are not open for consultation yet, but were published in an essay on Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty by Margit Balogh. There are 25 discrete reports, mostly written by three Hungarian Jesuits: the aforementioned Sandor Töhötöm Nagy, Josef Janosi, and Istvan Borbely. Balogh focused on the information disseminated by Nagy in his autobiography.

In the book Jesuitas y masones, Nagy reports on five trips he took to Rome between 1945 and 1946, and his actions as a Vatican mediator with the Soviet Hungarians.

The first trip takes place from Apr. 1945 to Aug. 1945. During the journey, Nagy writes a report for Fr. Norbert de Boynes, general vicar of the Jesuits. The report is later sent to Pius XII. Nagy is summoned by Fr. Leiber, Pius XII's secretary, to discuss the report. Fr. Leiber also says that the Holy See will financially support the Hungarian KALOT youth movement.

Nagy also has a meeting with the nuncio Angelo Rotta, who was the last Holy See representative in Hungary shuttering of the nunciature, and Monsignor Silvio Sericano. Msgr. Sericano and Nagy have a conversation about the appointment of bishops in Hungary, especially about the selection of the Primate of Hungary. The see of Esztergom - Budapest is then vacant.

Following the meeting, Nagy writes a lengthy report on sixteen possible candidates for the position of the Primate of Hungary, including Mindszenty, who would later selected for the post. 

On Aug. 4, 1945, Pius XII receives Nagy in a private audience for about one hour.

During the meeting, Nagy reports the issue of the relations between the Soviets and the Holy See. According to Nagy, Pius XII says, “The Church would be available to grant some concessions if Russians were going to take some positive step.”

Pius XII’s words are the anticipation of the so-called policy of the modus vivendi, which was later nicknamed by Cardinal Casaroli as modus non moriendi: literally, “a way of not dying.” The modus vivendi that was at the basis of the Vatican Ostpolitik is in essence an appeasement policy of the Church aimed at creating conditions amenable to the Church’s continued life and operation in countries opposed to religion.

When Nagy returns to Hungary after that first trip, he holds many meetings. He also meets with then-Bishop Mindszenty. Nagy has the mistaken impression that Mindszenty backs the modus vivendi option. When Mindszenty is later appointed Primate of Hungary, Mindszenty interprets his role not only or even primarily from a political perspective, but from a “constitutional” perspective: he thinks of the Primate’s office as that of a prince.

Many times, Nagy reports about Mindszenty’s lack of prudence. Nagy also mentions that also Pius XII and the then sostituto to the Secretariat of State, Giovambattista Montini (later Pope Paul VI) has the same consideration of Mindszenty.

Nagy’s second trip to Rome takes place between October and November 1945.

During his stay, he meets with monsignor Domenico Tardini, secretary of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs. Nagy and Tardini talk about the issue of the large estates owned by the Church in Hungary.

The Holy See believes that large ecclesiastical estates cannot be defended in the current situation. Msgr. Tardini also adds that “Mindszenty is looking for an old way, looking for the support of the aristocrats and not of the people.” Msgr. Tardini also noted that the Slavic people are going to be there for a long time, and Russia is considered the next and most crucial mission territory.

Nagy later asks Fr. Leiber about the mission in Russia. Fr. Leiber explains to him that the Vatican “has no confidence in the conversion of bolshevism, but rather trusts in a conversion of the Soviet people.” During another conversation, Fr. Leiber says, “Moscow did not take steps, while we let Moscow know that we are available to entertain relations.” The Vatican messages pass through Ankara and the United States.

During his second stay in Rome, Nagy also meets with Giovambattista Montini, who reassures him that the Holy See is seeking relations with the Soviet Union.

Ickx recalls that the Soviets promised Nagy, “If he was able to return from Rome [with] a positive declaration from the Vatican, ambassador Puskin might have worked to set up a confidential talk in Moscow.”

Nagy’s third trip to Rome takes place between February and March 1946.

Nagy is supposed to take part in the consistory that created Mindszenty a cardinal, but he arrives too late. He succeeds, however, in meeting with Pius XII, who gives Nagy a written procurement to initiate the negotiations with the Russians.

The procurement reads that Fr. Nagy “can present to his ‘contractors’ the certainty that the Holy See is available to begin a full consultation with the Moscow government, if this last wishes so, as it was agreed during the years of the war.”

With this procurement in his pocket and a diplomatic passport, Nagy gets back to Budapest. There he meets with Ostjukin, the head of the NKVD section, that is the Soviet secret services. Ostjukin was the NKVD officer responsible for central Europe.

Nagy tells him about the Holy See’s willingness to have diplomatic ties. Ostjukin replies that the Holy See shows hostility, especially since the Cardinal Mindszenty is “all in all on terms of enmity with us.”

Nagy explains that the Holy See does not determine the political opinion of a Cardinal. Nagy also asks to reopen the nunciature in Budapest to show the Soviet Union’s new attitude toward religion. Ostjukin takes time and adjourns the issue to the competent bodies in Moscow.

After this dialogue, Nagy is more prudent in acting in Hungary. The divergence of views with Mindszenty grows ever more substantial. On June 24, 1946, Nagy sends a document to Cardinal Mindsznety to explain the modus vivendi model, which could not be further from the Cardinal’s view of things.

Nagy goes a fourth time to Rome from July 1946 to August 1946.

The main topics of his conversations are the modus vivendi, the position of the KALOT movement, and the role of Cardinal Mindsznety.

He drafts a “Report on the internal struggles of the Hungarian Catholicism (until July 10, 1946, included)”. In that report, Nagy also highlights some aspects of Mindszenty’s character, which could impede or endanger the lives of the faithful and of priests. In particular, Nagy laments that the nunciature to Hungary could not be reopened because of Mindszenty's positions. 

In particular, Ickx underscores the chapter on Modus Vivendi Tactics. In that chapter, Nagy explains, “Those who want to make room for life, do so because they are ready for martyrdom, and want to save from martyrdom the whole nation with all the means.”

Nagy says, “Compared with a death sentence, life prison is preferable,” and concludes, “today, the wise man is not the one who can stay angry with Russians. He can become for a certain time a national hero, but nothing more. The wise man is who can bring the Russians on his side.”

Nagy concludes that the modus vivendi is not a negotiation of principles, nor can it be considered as fraternizing with the communist. It is instead a "tolerable vicinity."

When Nagy returns to Budapest, he finds an awkward situation, since, after the assassination of a Soviet official, the KALOT movement has been abolished.

Nagy does not give up. He tries to re-establish KALOT and also asks Ostjukin to reopen the nunciature, to counterbalance the abolishment of Kalot. Ostjukin rejects the possibility of opening the nunciature, as Mindszenty would consider it “his victory.”

Nagy leaves for his last trip to Rome at the end of 1947 and will stay there until January 1948.

The climate in the Vatican is changed; the modus vivendi is not considered an option anymore. Nagy does not even succeed in having an audience with the Pope. Nagy cannot return to Hungary, and so, under orders from his superiors, he leaves for Argentina on Jan. 4, 1947. It seems that Pius XII is never informed of this decision.

Ickx says that Nagy’s memoirs shed light on the fact that the notion of the modus vivendi applied to the countries on the other side of the iron curtain was already “articulated and explained in 1946.”

Based on these facts, there are according to Ickx, “valid reasons to backdate the Ostpolitik,” as well as for considering that “the beginning of Ostpolitik in 1961 represented a turning point for the Communists, rather than for the Holy See.”

Ickx also rejects the possibility that the modus vivendi was pursued only by Jesuits simply because the papers are in the Jesuits’ curial archive. Still, “it is also true that those documents are drafted to inform the Secretariat of State.”

Ickx stresses that “the considerable number of documents, 25, make one think that behind the Jesuits’ activity, there was the plan to develop a political project.”

Ickx also adds that “the insistence on connecting the modus vivendi to the opening of the nunciature and the contrast with Cardinal Mindszenty” shows that the Jesuits were working following the Secretariat of State.

Another clue is given by one of the procurement letters Fr. Leiber gave to Nagy.

The letter reads: “The Holy See is always available to entertain relations with the Moscow government. [Nagy] can communicate with the Russians involved in the issue. After what happened and is still happening daily, it is a difficult challenge for the Holy See to trust the good intentions of the counterpart. If instead the government of Moscow wished to reach out and dialogue with the Holy See, the Holy See is available to that in any way, as it did in times of war. This is what Pius XII thinks.”

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.