Faith in fighting
For much of the post-war era, it was common to write contemporary history as though religion had little influence on human behaviour. As a result, historians missed two of the most important forces at work in society and politics. One was the appropriation of religious discourse and symbols by movements whose leaders understood that secularisation, while it had gone far, left the “religious instinct” untouched. The masses still longed to hear that they were chosen, would be redeemed from suffering, and come to inhabit paradise, even on earth.
The other was the endurance of the churches. Throughout the last century, they struggled to reassert Christianity against the fabricated civil religions of the left and the right that had no grounding in morality, but used purloined ritual to sanctify a crude, frequently murderous utilitarianism.
Michael Burleigh is not the first to point out what has been missed from conventional narratives. He generously acknowledges the insights of Norman Cohn and Eric Voegelin who pioneered the study of messianic movements and “political religion.” But he has made a unique contribution by rewriting the history of the last century with religion at the centre.
Burleigh begins with the spiritual emptiness of Europe after the horrors of the First World War. He does not quite explain why religion ceased to offer solace to people but he does a marvellous job of showing the cranks and charlatans who filled the void it left. Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin all appreciated the value of packaging a secular ideology as a quasi-religion. Mussolini declared that Fascism was “a faith — a religion”. So Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism had their secular saints, holy days, sacred sites, pilgrimages and offered the promise of redemption.
Burleigh acknowledges that the churches sought a working arrangement with these new regimes, but he stoutly defends them against charges of ideological collaboration with the far right. He argues that the Vatican, in particular, was acting defensively. In the USSR, Mexico and later in Spain, Catholic priests and institutions faced annihilation at the hands of Marxists and radical liberals.
Burleigh complains that historians, many of them Jewish, have traduced the Vatican over its relations with the dictators — especially over the response of Pope Pius XII to the genocide against the Jews. He contentiously suggests that the record of Protestantism between 1933 and 1945 has received less critical scrutiny because of the support for Israel by the Christian Right in America.
It is true that German Protestants came closest to melding their faith with totalitarian doctrine under Hitler (and later in the German Democratic Republic). But it should also be pointed out that Protestants began the painful self-examination that led them to avow the Christian roots of antisemitism. The Vatican trailed by 20 years and, some would argue, is still in denial.
Burleigh’s defence of the Vatican’s wartime “silence” is a welcome corrective to Daniel Goldhagen’s hyperbole on the subject, but is it convincing? Why was the Vatican’s neutrality so important for the pursuit of peace between 1939 and 1945, while subsequently it had no compunction about denouncing Communism even at the cost of losing property and influence in the Soviet bloc?
The chapters on the role of religion during the cold war and in the fall of Communism are brisk and absorbing. Burleigh equivocates over whether the churches can recover the moral authority and popularity they then enjoyed. While he expresses a cautious optimism about the new Pope, it is telling that he regards Jonathan Sacks as “the most impressive religious leader in the kingdom”.
Militant Islam: Osama Bin Laden has been chillingly effective in recruiting religiously for a “sacred cause” Photo: AP