GLGW seminar: Claire Morelon

Our second GLGW seminar took place on Thursday 5 February at TORCH, with an introduction to Catholics during the First World War by Claire Morelon, Junior Research Fellow at The Queen’s College, Oxford. Claire’s talk was based on her postdoctoral research, which investigates new ways of researching the war in Austria Hungary from a religious point of view.

Austria-Hungary was an old empire, having been established in 1867. There is evidence of bilingualism and overlaps between nationalities. Documents record people speaking only one main language; however, it did not account for whether people spoke different languages at home. The war years were crucial for increasing our understanding of what was happening in the region. They give insight into the traditional Austro-Hungary Empire, raising the questions:
Why is the narrative of nationalism so powerful?
What did Austria-Hungary look like during the war?

The nationalists were very powerful during the prewar period, and the Catholic Church played a prominent role in society, with 90% of the population declaring as Catholic in the 1910 census. What did this mean, though? Were some people nominal Catholics? The Czech national narrative is very informative here, but is not that satisfying, as it does not account for new forms of devotion that were coming in.

With the outbreak of the First World War, the government suspended citizen rights. This was followed by a wave of persecution, with a hunt for agitators, among them intelligentsia and priests. It was the priests, in particular, who were accused of insurrection and treason. How did the church respond to this? The literature concentrates on military activity; however, the influence of Catholicism demonstrates that it goes beyond this. The church in Austria was in a privileged position, with local Catholic groups supporting war action and providing support for war widows etc. Further examples of Catholic solidarity include the help given to Polish Catholics through exchanges and also the help given to refugees at a parish level.

The alliance between the Catholics and nationalists was complex. The state was supposedly in alliance with the church, but it turned against individual members of the clergy. Similarly, there were contradictions in the use of religious icons. Instead of being part of religious rituals, patron saints were turned towards the support for independence. There was also the question of whether religion could help bridge language barriers. It has been suggested that there was a lack of communication, but memos suggest that this was not really the case and, as with the lack of knowledge about how many languages people spoke, the situation was far more complex than at first it appeared.

Claire then turned to religious practice in wartime. Did the war see a revival of religion? It appears that the church provided a refuge, but could it help hardship on the home front? Research demonstrates that Catholic charities were important in that they provided a means of support. Similarly, documents show that religious belief was maintained, despite the difficulties of war and the relationship with the state. When it was suggested that church bells be melted down for the war effort, communities preferred other objects to be melted down instead, so demonstrating the level of faith that still existed. Bells had a social as well as religious function; they formed a means of attachment for people. Bells should have been requisitioned for the war effort, and the state tried to justify this action, but the clergy and the people claimed that their bells were special and should not be taken away. Was there an element of ritualisation in the handing over of the bells? There was in Germany, as it was about the mourning of the local community.

In Claire’s view, some communities were Catholic first, and nationalists second, so they were neither German nor Czech, but Catholic first. However, the alliance with the German Reich constrained conversion to Catholicism and postwar there was a wave of anti Catholicism, which amounted to hatred.