Book Review

Heaven is a place on Earth (Pt 1)


Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda
by Michael Burleigh
576pp, Harper Press, £25

This is not a history of Christianity (or indeed of any other religion) but a book which according to it’s author explores the space “where culture, ideas, politics and religious faith meet” As such, it may be the most important history book of the century so far – particularly to Harry’s Place readers. .

Burleigh began the first volume by examining what he calls the “civic religions” beginning with Robespierre’s revolutionary “cult of the supreme being”, an early attempt at what this most catholic of historians (pace Sturzo) calls ‘the abusive exploitation of the human religious sentiment’ for earthly ends. He followed the process through Owen’s factories/monasteries, St Simon’s “utopian” and Marx’s “scientific” versions of socialism and into the inferno which was “Apocalypse 1914”. Burleigh suggests in the process of imagining a utopia at the end of history, 19th century thinkers merely secularised Christian eschatology.

The second volume, “Sacred Causes,” traces the attempts of the “totalitarian” regimes of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini to bring about their respective conceptions of the perfect society, their: “heaven on earth,” and it is this part of the book that I want to deal with today, A second post on the catholic church and Burleigh’s attempts to rescue the reputations of Pope’s of the period, and a third on the Cold war, Northern Ireland and Islamism will follow.

Few would argue that the end of WW1 brought massive social change. Rather than repeat the various historiographies of the subject, Burleigh attempts to use the image of the blank Portland stone of Lutyen’s cenotaph to instill a sense of awe at the inability of anyone to represent such a catastrophe. Rather more originally, he also makes a point (which could perhaps have been developed further) about tactics and social relations changing forever. The war changed everything. No longer, after Verdun, would men obey blindly: Men were ordered and trained to attack in waves, since to duck, weave and zigzag was deemed beyond their limited capabilities and intelligence. The development of the stormtrooper (who could range around battlefields to some extent using his own initiative, or at least act on that of a mere NCO) was, suggests Burleigh, a foretaste of the behaviour of the “steel helmets” and “Freikorps” who dominated the political “street” under the Weimar republic. I’m no expert on the tactics of the eastern front in WW1 but it would surely have been possible to extend this idea to the early days of the Russian revolution when the army shot their officers and voted with their feet ?

As an historian who has spent much of his life writing about the Nazis you would expect Burleigh to be good on Weimar, and he does not disappoint, finding: A messianic mood was abroad in Germany, which invariably took the form of expectations of a leader to redeem the German chosen people from the Egypt of Allied captivity. And Painting a picture of a time when: wandering prophets toured the country prophesying: the end of the world and calling for moral renewal and a new type of man, to create a new type of society before it was too late. Burleigh uncovers long-forgotten sects such as Haeusser’s “Swastika-Communists’ and unearths sources such as Sebastian Haffner who – Writing on the eve of WW2 -recalled the future Fuhrer as among these modern prophets: Whereas Hitler wanted to bring about the thousand-year Reich by the mass murder of all Jews, in Thuringia a certain Lamberty wanted to bring it about by having everyone do folk dancing, singing, and leaping about. One can only wish that the saviour the German people eventually found actually had turned out to be a prototype Michael Flatley…

There is a no holds barred approach to Marxism (and Lenin in particular) in Burleigh’s attempts to portray the totalitarianisms of the early 20th c as “political religions”

If racism was the hidden logic of the extreme right, then it was Marx’s ‘achievement’ to transform the inchoate utopian enthusiasms of early socialism into a hidden religion supported by what passed for science but which was a form of prophecy involving his own chosen people – the industrial proletariat

As the Tsar had been the “little father” to peasants in remote villages (who had the barest idea of the reality of Moscow life) Burleigh suggests it was inevitable that Lenin would slip into the role of father figure to the nation, forgiven in his remote and godlike status, for the cruelties and pettiness of local, more physically real Bolsheviks: Lenin was in a position which the writer finds:

qualitatively little different from the contemporary German insistence that ‘if only the Fuehrer knew’ he would make short work of corrupt or unfeeling petty Party bureaucrats, [which is] in itself an almost classical trope derived from medieval kingship, in which everything maleficent was the work of wicked underlings.

I was previously unaware of Lenin’s admiration for early 17th c Dominican madman Tommaso Campanella, (author of the utopian “scientific” tract City of the Sun) apparently Gorky introduced Lenin to the gist of Campanella’s work on Capri before the First World War. Lenin subsequently wanted the Dominican philosopher’s name to be inscribed on a monument in Moscow (although this, like so many other things in Bolshevik Russia, fell victim to a lack of funds.) There is a sweet irony in Lenin idolising a man who spent his life in and out of the torture chamber before finally reconciling himself to advocating universal Papal monarchy.

Despite Lenin’s dabblings the Soviets were always unfriendly to the Orthodox church (at least until Stalin discovered it’s usefulness after being surprised by his ally in 1941.) By contrast, until 1938 Hitler attempted to control and use the protestant churches to his own ends but always was:

a lazy, dilettantish autodidact rather than a systematic thinker, No one should not strain to discover coherence or consistency in his views on religion or much else. In fact there is something faintly ridiculous about the weight of learning brought to bear in the last six decades on this less than fascinating figure

Hitler’s views on religion were a simplistic mish-mash. He thought for instance, that the Christian heaven housed life’s failures or women of indifferent appearance and faded intellect so it was obviously no place for the leader of the thousand year Reich. Instead:He saw himself on Olympus, surrounded by historical figures of equivalent stature

It was Goebbels, in his quasi-autobiographical novel “Michael” who laid out the actual religious attitudes of those closest to the Fuhrer: It is almost immaterial what we believe in, so long as we believe in something.

The fundamental structure of the Nazi creed was soteriological, a redemptive story of suffering and deliverance, a sentimental journey from misery to glory, from division to mystic unity based on the “blood bond” that linked souls.

After 1938; Hitler lost interest in any traditional conception of religion, leaving Heinrich Himmler to indulge his own cranky interests (which extended to theories about Aryans emerging from beneath global ice shields)

Hitler himself always considered such “new-age” guff to be laughable. But Himmler’s SS were the avantgardistas in seeking to synthesize hyper- bureaucratic rationality with an almost postmodern mix of beliefs ahistorically derived from pagan, Christian and non-European cultures. SS men were “socially chippy, highly ambitious and morally autistic, and above all ‘unbounded’ in what they might do to others to get ahead. They could crop up anywhere, gingering things up with their unique brand of amoral fanaticism.

When these same “super-teutons” found themselves in an occupied and war-torn Eastern Europe where civil norms no longer applied, their mad destructiveness became unbounded.

Of course, you have to buy into the theory that Nazism and Leninism were “secular religions” for all of this to work, and Burleigh is rather weak on, for instance, the iconography of Stalinism, an examination of a book such as Igor Golomstock’s “Totalitarian Art” would have provided the steel nails connecting Uncle Joe’s propaganda to the visual imagery and literature of the orthodox church. However Burleigh has found the most eerily effective Stalinist propaganda poem which, when imagining his portrait staring down on you as you complete your work, functions on a level many times more scary than “Big Brother is watching you”

In the workshops, in the mines
In the Red Army, the kindergarten
He is watching . . .
You look at his portrait and it’s as if he knows Your work – and weighs it
You’ve worked badly – his brows lower
But when you’ve worked well, he smiles in his moustache.

In this first part of his book overall, Burleigh has given us an interesting take on the “totalitarianisms” of the early 20th c, their attitudes to traditional religion, and some of the attitudes that such religious organisations took towards the challenges posed by totalitarianism (although the next part of this series will attempt to cover that in more detail.) Perhaps the final word on the “totalitarianisms” of the early 20th century (not to mention many a blog commenter) can be left to Franz Borkenau:

The essence of these revolutionary creeds is the belief that the final day of salvation has come, that the millennium on this earth is near; that Gods chosen instruments must make an end of all the hierarchies and the refinements of civilization in order to bring it about; and that complete virtue, simplicity, and happiness can be brought about by violence

How relieved we must all be that such violent fanatics no longer exist……