Michael Burleigh's study of the intersection of politics and religion in the 20th century is a monumental accomplishment. But does he let the Catholic church off too lightly?by Frederic Raphael / April 29, 2007 / Leave a comment
Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to al Qaeda by Michael Burleigh (Harper Press, £25)
The core theme of Sacred Causes, as of its prequel Earthly Powers, is the copiously bloody intersection of politics and religion, bloodiest—as fascism and communism competed to prove—when politics puts on the lineaments of religion. Burleigh’s focus is on Christianity’s relations with politics since the rise of Hitler and Mussolini. The Duce’s domestic stand-off with the Vatican was mimetic: fascism donned the blackshirted vestments of an amoral Catholicism, with Benito as a secular pontiff, unctuous with infallibility and castor oil. Burleigh rides out as the champion of the Catholic church (to which he does not, I guess, belong) against detractors such as Rolf Hochhuth. The latter’s 1963 play The Deputy inaugurated a host of indictments of Pius XII who, as an apt successor to St Peter, kept silent when—as Konrad Adenauer said of the German bishops—he might have made an effective public stand against genocide. The Pope did all he could, his advocates insist, but how much was that?
Relying on documents and never imagining the unscripted ambiguities and furtive winks of humbugs at work, Burleigh also exempts Pius XII from John Cornwell’s charge of conniving with the Nazis at the self-destruction of the German Catholic Centre party, in return for Hitler abstaining from a reprise of Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. If he points the finger at any Christians, it is at Lutheran pastors such as Paul Althaus, who—in Old Testament style—conflated “the history of a people with salvation,” and read Hitler as the Aryan Moses. Odd, in a study of this exhaustiveness, that the ex-seminarist Martin Heidegger does not figure even once in the index. By 1933, Heidegger had become an atheist whose only god was Being, but he hailed the führer, as Hegel had Napoleon (briefly), as Providence on horseback. Which has done more durable damage to Europe: German armies or German philosophers?
Philosophy is scarcely considered here; nor is the truth of religious ideas or the existence of God Himself. Religion for Burleigh is a matter of social and moral structures; its truth counts for less than its social utility. In this he echoes Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the Revolution: “The universal discredit into which all religious beliefs fell at the end of the last [18th] century exercised the…