Sacred Causes

Sacred Causes By Michael BurleighHardcover:576 pp | Harper Press | 2006 | ISBN 0007195745  | £25

This volume is Michael Burleigh’s sequel to his Earthly Powers (2005). The former book explored the relationship between politics and religion from the French Revolution up to the Great War. Here the author turns his attention to the same theme from the European dictators to Al Quaeda. It is a large brief, prefaced by quotations from TS Eliot, John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’, Conrad’s The Secret Agent and John Paul II (“Be not afraid”).
The eclectic nature of these quotations reflects the author’s fascination with “the mind and spirit” of modern man. A distinguished historian who has taught at Oxford, LSE and Stanford, Burleigh’s scholarly interest in Hitler’s Germany has broadened into a study of the “pseudo-religious pathologies” of Bolshevism and Fascism as well as Nazism.
His analysis of the Weimar Republic, with its hyper-inflation, material and moral chaos and apocalyptic climate is masterly, inviting the retrospective if reluctant conclusion that a false prophet such as Hitler would inevitably have thrived in such an unstable society. For those who wonder how he came to power, the answer lies here. In 1924 a Franciscan, Erhard Schlund, wrote that there were many people “who preferred Wotan to Christ” and in 1926 Hermann Hesse commented on a “burning resurgence of longings for the divine”.
While Germany was disintegrating, the Bolsheviks in Russia were systematically destroying the Orthodox religion. Burleigh shows that like the French revolutionaries the Communists then invented their own ersatz religious rites to replace Christianity. At the same time, in Italy Mussolini was proclaiming that “Fascism is not only a party; it is…a faith…a religion that is conquering the labouring masses of the Italian people.”  Its sinister authoritarian nature reminds Burleigh of Signorelli’s famous painting of the Antichrist in Orvieto Cathedral – though it must be said that Hitler played the part of a perverted “messiah” rather more consistently than Mussolini. Stalin, too, deliberately fostered a personality cult, to focus the deep-rooted longing for a father figure and saviour among the Russian people. George Orwell’s memorable slogan, “Big Brother is watching you”, brilliantly conveys the combination of neediness and fear behind such a figure.
The strongest part of the book remains the author’s insights about his familiar territory: Germany before and during the Second World War. Citing the work of the German-Jewish philologist, Victor Klemperer, he demonstrates the Nazis’ cynical hold over the popular histrionic imagination; as Goebbels remarked, “It is almost immaterial what we believe in as long as we believe in something.” For him and for millions of Germans, Hitler articulated the “catechism of a new political credo” which provided meaning and a goal for those caught up in the shifting political winds of the decadent Weimar Republic. Although, as Burleigh notes, Hitler’s sallies into theological matters were strictly “the musings of a saloon-bar bore”, he had the uncanny knack of tapping into the atavistic yearnings of his listeners and encapsulating them in his bombastic posturing.
Burleigh includes an impressive dossier of the writings of Hitler’s German critics, the few commentators and intellectuals who understood the magnitude of what was happening. These include Waldemar Gurian, a Jewish convert, Eric Voegelin, who managed to escape to America and who clearly saw that National Socialism and Communism were “secular, temporal attempts to recreate a religious community to assuage mankind’s spiritual needs”, and Franz Borkenau.
Of particular interest in this volume is his chapter on the Churches’ response to the Fascist dictators. Here he clearly demonstrates that the Catholic Church emerged somewhat more creditably than the Protestant churches. Rabbi David Dalin’s recent study, refuting the slurs on Pius XII, is cited in the bibliography and provides a part of the author’s painstaking defence of the diplomatic roles of both Pius XI and Pius XII. Burleigh makes it clear that he is not biased in the Church’s favour. He allows the documentation to speak for itself, concluding that “there is not the slightest evidence to support the idea that Pius XII was ‘Hitler’s Pope’." He notes that whenever criticism of Pius XII has been refuted, “the battle line is shifted elsewhere by those critics who have a fundamental animus against the Catholic Church.” Such people, he points out, find stereotypical prejudices against the Church quite acceptable while “spending most of their time denouncing prejudice.”
In a survey of Eastern Europe during the Cold War, the personalities of Cardinals Stepinac of Jugoslavia, Mindzenty of Hungary and Wyszynski of Poland are also examined in a positive light, while in the dreary Communist landscape of Ulbricht’s East Germany the Catholic Church is shown as refusing to compromise its core values in the face of constant intimidation.
What are the reasons for Burleigh’s evident attraction for a faith he does not share? One answer is that he is a cultured European, baffled and angry at the European Union’s attempts to ignore the enormous contribution that Christianity has made to the development of Europe. Another is that as an historian he is innately conservative, aware that “progress” often means a brutal reversal of the humane values he espouses. A third reason is his intellectual rejection of a Darwinian/Dawkins template of human nature and his contempt for New Age followers; he accurately places them among the leisured white middle classes. A final reason is his fear of the moral chaos of the modern world, which he describes as a “grim spectacle”. In contrast, the Church’s “authoritarian and centralised nature” and her rock-like adherence to unchanging beliefs elicits his approval. As is to be expected, Burleigh does not fully understand the nature of the institution that he admires. For instance, he thinks that John XXIII summoned the Second Vatican Council to “bring the Church into greater conformity with modern times.” He also describes Graham Greene as a “Catholic author”, when in fact he is an author who plays with Catholic themes.
The latter part of the book, an examination of post-war Britain from the 1960s onwards, lacks the focus of the earlier part. The author joins his voice to the chorus of disapproval of modern society, but this is a predictable position among intellectuals nowadays and the target is too easy. As a member of the intelligentsia Burleigh is deeply uncomfortable with the liberal democratic society of which he is a part. He is clear-sighted enough to see that it is not working, but he lacks a coherent vision to be truly prophetic.
 In this he differs from two other analysts of contemporary society, the philosopher of conservatism, Roger Scruton, and the scholar of the Enlightenment and its aftermath, Philip Trower. Scruton’s book, A Political Philosophy (2006) is an elegy for the values that have shaped of the English-speaking peoples and an eloquent plea for their return; Trower’s book, The Catholic Church and the Counter-Faith (2006) traces the collapse of these values to the Enlightenment and its intellectual ramifications, and faces squarely the dilemma we face today, asking “How do you govern a nation where the majority of the citizens are at least practical atheists?”
Burleigh does not know how to raise these questions. He would like the Churches to speak to “thinking people within the vast pool of cultural Christians”; one wonders if he is obliquely referring to himself. Conscious of the flaws in multiculturalism, he proposes that “imams learn to speak European languages and are educated in Western values vis a vis homosexuals and women.” This is vague and unsatisfactory, betraying ignorance both of Islam and the Christian West. Paradoxically, he professes to be optimistic about the future of Europe – despite detailing many reasons why it might well not survive. His book remains a fascinating chronicle of modern man’s political dogmas but ultimately it lacks depth. Its author needs to develop a profounder vision of man and society before he starts to pontificate.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.


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