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Cold War politics and the world’s churches

Cold War politics and the world’s churches

From left: Arpád Welker, Antti Laine, Juha Meriläinen, Matti Peiponen and Aila Lauha at the WCC Espace Archives in Geneva.

04 September 2013

The Archives of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva have provided both research materials and a space for public consideration of “the ecumenical movement and Cold War politics”.

At a panel discussion on 4 September in the new “Espace Archives” conference area, five scholars related to the University of Helsinki faculty of theology and the Central European University (Budapest) surveyed a variety of topics related to religious institutions during the Cold War.

“We do not ignore the theological character of ecumenical work,” explained Professor Aila Lauha, director of a University of Helsinki study on Churches and the Cold War, “but we are interested in the political context, too. We analyse churches’ activities from their historical aspect, as well as the effects of those activities on societies and individuals.”

In the past ten years, more than 30 masters’ and doctoral theses in theology have been written for the Helsinki faculty on topics related to the research project.

Matti Peiponen, a former WCC staff member, has published his dissertation, Ecumenical Action in World Politics: The creation of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA), 1945-1949. As a member of the panel, he described ways in which Cold War realities affected the early years of the CCIA, yet he concluded that its work reflected ideals and commitments that had been present in the ecumenical movement decades before that.

Juha Meriläinen described the work of European reconstruction immediately following World War II that was undertaken by ecumenical actors including the WCC and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). In significant ways, he said, this served as a precursor to the Marshall Plan and, in the face of a perceived communist threat, won most of its funding from churches in the United States.

Peiponen and Meriläinen currently are collaborating on a book about religion in the early years of the Cold War.

Antti Laine, a doctoral candidate at Helsinki, spoke of his research concerning the WCC Programme to Combat Racism (PCR) and “the burning issue of racism”, especially in the apartheid system of South Africa. His thesis “will look at reception,” focusing on how churches in Finland and the United Kingdom responded to PCR during the 1970s and 1980s.

Arpád Welker of Budapest, the only non-Finnish panelist, described his attempts to gather biographical data on Zoltán Káldy (1919-1987), a leader of the Hungarian Lutheran Church, founding member of the Christian Peace Conference and, ultimately, president of the LWF. In recent years, it has been discovered that from 1958 to at least 1971 Káldy reported on his activities regularly to the Hungarian State Security Services. This revelation has resulted in controversy within the Hungarian churches and bitter recriminations.

Welker asks whether Káldy was a “communist spy, or charismatic church leader?” It is difficult to find an answer, as people close to him destroyed documents they described as “too confidential” for public scrutiny. Reading the 1,200 pages of reports in the State Security Services archives, Welker concludes that Káldy may have begun explaining himself to authorities “as part of his personal policy of openness with everyone”, but “he soon found that he was being used, and trapped at the same time.”

The scholars on the panel expressed their appreciation for the Geneva archives of the WCC and the LWF, to which they were indebted, and they offered their thanks to the archivists and related staff.

WCC archivist Hans von Ruette expressed his hope that the panel discussion may “help create what will become a tradition of public events” in the new Espace Archives, “a compact and suitable space for our work.”

WCC Library and Archives