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 greatest influence on the whole of our revolution… Nothing did more to give its features that terrible expression we have seen.” As Joseph Epstein points out, in his recent, trim biography, Tocqueville had earlier remarked, in Democracy in America, “despotism can do without faith, but liberty cannot.” It is a pretty phrase, but it remains difficult to have “faith” without the accretions of myth and metaphysics which, in their turn, lend sanctity to tyrants. Burleigh would have us believe that the Inquisition, for obvious instance, was less cruel than legend supposes; and for good measure he attributes its excesses to the mundane instigation of the Spanish crown.
The seriousness of Burleigh’s fat texts is monumental, their command of facts and sources intimidating: Burleigh contrives to be incidentally informative even about the expulsion of the Jesuits from Paraguay, although he is (to my mind) unduly respectful of Graham Greene’s view of Mexico, where the Catholic church had a long association with political oppression. For the rest, Burleigh rarely stumbles, though he does use “tyro” to mean a master of his trade (the OED defines it as a beginner), and claims that Prime Minister José María Aznar was “president” of Spain and that national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was US “secretary of state.” In general, he keeps a didactically straight face, though he can flare into spasms of outrage, not least when it comes to Northern Ireland, where—unlike our political masters—he is under no obligation to make fudge. He gleefully demystifies the “squalid little conflict” in Ulster, which, he says, “anticipated the sinister surrender of power to so-called ‘moderate’ community leaders… evident in the responses of European leaders to the much wider threat of Islamic radicalism.” He derides the “sustained outdoor relief” of Northern Ireland’s middle class and the huge expenditure on “the wretched province [where] every second cousin of a terrorist gets a public sector job.”
Burleigh’s abiding faith is less in the Christian God, and His mercy, than in a certain idea of Christendom. The evolution of the west was the fruit of a fortuitous double helix: religious and secular powers twisted around, challenged and compounded each other’s ideas. Reason (it is nice to think) ministered to both sides. The first world war unhinged the balance. It was less the draconian treaty of Versailles than Germany’s paroxysms of defeated rage that made the interwar period a concatenation of gangsters and bad faith, with oracular wags such as the winsome George Bernard Shaw ironising on the sidelines and making eugenics an excuse for murder. Millions of dead paid the price of the new, secular creeds. “Never again” was followed by Pol Pot, the gulag, Rwanda and who knows what all else.
Neo-populism still flinches from seeing that mature democracy has to involve more than regular plebiscites in which the enemies of pluralism can vote (as they surely will) for its abolition in favour of theocratic—perhaps devolved—tyranny. The fracture of Britain into tribal communities, with self-appointed kapos whom our rulers grace with commanding powers, is a revision of bien pensant appeasement, hybridised with the old imperial policy which preferred to treat with native princes, potentates and muftis who could keep their people in order.
If Burleigh has spasms of optimism, they are based on the good sense of “ordinary people”—that vessel, crewed by the silent majority, of down-to-earth common sense; although Christopher R Browning’s Ordinary Men showed how a random parcel of just such Germans were easily recruited to mass murder. Our own happier breed, Burleigh would like to believe (wouldn’t we all?), “are not ready to tolerate indefinitely those who wish to eradicate homosexuals, reduce women to second-class citizens, or openly call for the murder of Danish cartoonists, Dutch politicians or Jews and Israelis, activities that may be acceptable in Saudi Arabia or Iran, but which are not all right here.” That’s telling them—if they’re listening.
“Here” is an interesting term in Burleigh’s usage. Britain, I take it, is being contrasted with the world at large. Burleigh’s missionary high-mindedness is a mutation of religious zealotry. Meanwhile, the state-schooled British make no effort to learn foreign languages, can rarely count without a calculator and borrow money as a way of getting out of debt. Burleigh comes out vigorously against “discredited multiculturalism,” although—give discredit where discredit is due—it is premature to write its obituary when the man who signs himself everywhere “Mayor of London” offers a pulpit to any mountebank who will undermine the values to which Burleigh craves return.
One of the many merits of Burleigh’s encyclopedic researches is the recovery of men such as Christoph Bry, who died young in 1926, but had the prescience even then to finger Hitler as a holy roller-cum-provincial prima donna, possessed by spiritualised monomania. When the renowned Pastor Martin Niemöller spoke out, somewhat, in 1935, it was largely against the Nazification of his church. Nothing inhibited him from reminding his smart congregation in Dahlem that “the Jews have caused the crucifixion of God’s Christ,” and as a result “drag with them the fearsome burden [of] the unforgiven blood-guilt of their fathers.” Does this mythic mise-au-point somewhat undermine Burleigh’s claim that the genocidal Nazis were unsponsored by the long logic of Christian exclusiveness and the dangerous doctrine of a universal “solution” to the fears and wishes of man?
The incidental merit of Greco-Roman polytheism lay in the absence of aggressive proselytising (and a measure of comedy in the depiction of the gods). By contrast, the Epicureans—who proclaimed the distant indifference of whatever Gods there might be—were prototypical of apparatchiks so keen to purge humanity of superstition that they anathematised anyone who questioned the party line. The notations of beliefs, secular or religious, run parallel; it needs only a new set of shiny points and the train of human credulity can switch glibly from one track to the other, or back again. Burleigh has examined the past and the present; there remains the future, which has always been the bright, seemingly untarnished and unlimited domain of hopes, religious or political. Modern man’s immodesty raises the question, does the future still have a future? We shall see, or not.