Faith in fight­ing

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS/ - DAVID CE­SARANI

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

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