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The Cross Still Stands

Michael Burleigh's magisterial study of the clash of religion and politics over the last century.

By 7.30.07

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This review appears in the June 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror
by Michael Burleigh
(HarperCollins, 557 pages, $27.95)

IF YOU WANTED TO SUMMARIZE the history of the West, you could do worse than say it's the story of the conflict between Church and State. That was true in Rome, true in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, true in the Protestant (and kingly and princely) revolt against the pope, true in the period of the French Revolution, true in the secularizing regimes of the 19th century (and in Bismarck's Kulturkampf), and certainly true in the 20th century, which is the taking off point for historian Michael Burleigh's Sacred Causes, a breathtaking examination of how the age of the dictators was an age of political religion trying to exterminate the real thing -- and how the real thing, one would almost say miraculously, not only survived but was crucial to bringing down its longest-lived oppressor, the Soviet Union.

Burleigh covered the period from the French Revolution to the Great War in his previous book, the highly acclaimed Earthly Powers. Sacred Causes is just as powerful -- written as it is by a professor spilling over with erudition, entertaining arcana, magisterial summary judgments, and sarcastic asides, in a style that is both rococo and shot full of adrenalin. It has the additional fillip of closing with the battle we're in now: the clash of militant Islam versus the West.

But first things first, and first things here are what Burleigh deems "the political manifestations of what could be called mass spiritual need in deranged times" -- those times being the years following the First World War. And the focus, in this period, is not on Britain, but on the Continent. Europe (particularly Germany and Italy) found itself awash with prophets, preaching new gospels, some truly bizarre, others that seem less so only because we know they succeeded.

A Franciscan friar writing from Germany in 1924 remarked that the "war of Christianity against Teutonic paganism" had never ended, "the battle continued as a guerrilla war in the souls and the beliefs and religious customs... and there were always men who preferred Wotan to Christ. Today it seems as though this century-old skirmish will again become an open battle."

So it did. The battle raged across Europe, with different gods competing for different countries. In Italy, Benito Mussolini, author of that famous pre-Richard Dawkins tract, God Does Not Exist, explicitly stated that "Fascism is not only a party, it is a regime, it is not only a regime, but a faith, it is not only a faith, but a religion that is conquering the laboring masses of the Italian people."

The masses were important, for not only was this the age of the dictators, it was the age of the masses. It is a backhanded tribute to the Italians that the fervently anti-clerical Mussolini felt he could not effectively rule them without some measure of concession to the Church. No matter how swept up the masses might be by the fascist religion, many of them still wanted their Masses as well. So he cut a deal with the Catholic Church, just as Napoleon Bonaparte did in his time for similar reasons. In both cases, it was an uncomfortable relationship -- one wielding a gun, the other wielding moral rebukes -- that ended with the flight of the dictator.

In Germany, things were different. Germany was predominantly Protestant, with a long anti-Catholic tradition, not only with Luther, but with Bismarck's Kulturkampf, and, as Burleigh points out, while German Catholics "had been as patriotic as the next man in the recent war, some, ignoring the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire and the role of Protestant Britain and the US, regarded the victory of, inter alia, France, Belgium and Italy as a delayed triumph of Catholicism over the Lutheran Reformation."

Catholics felt much more at home in the Weimar Republic than did German Protestants. Not only, perhaps, because of the Catholic tendency to laissez les bon temps rouler, but because they had Catholic parties to vote for. Protestants found themselves not only stripped of state preference in the Republic, but felt politically homeless, until, Burleigh notes, "the Nazis successfully presented themselves as the sword of an awakening semi-religious German spirit."

Hitler, liberal Christians will be interested to know, was not only an animal-loving, non-smoking, vegetarian, artist, and former member of the homeless community, but was "indulgent towards Protestantism, especially in its theologically liberal and socially conscious varieties." Because Protestants were much more interested than Catholics in keeping up with "science" and "progress," they proved much more amenable to ideas about eugenics and "orders of creation" (in one version of liberal Protestant theology). While Catholics were tutored in natural law (from which there were no national exemptions), were members of a universal, cosmopolitan Church that transcended borders, and were beholden to an authoritarian (and authoritative) pope in Rome (who had explicitly condemned eugenics and "the pagan worship of the state"), German Protestants had for Hitler the advantage of not shying away from national destiny. They had been catechized in the idea of a German church for the German people. When Protestant pastors dissented from the Nazification of their churches, they did so on the grounds that such a merger of people and religion amounted to a hateful -- wait for it -- Zionism.

BURLEIGH IS AN EXPERT on Nazi Germany, and, for this reader at least, the rise and beliefs of the National Socialists make for much more compelling and horrifying reading than do the dread and bloody ideologues of Soviet Russia, whose crimes are also recounted here. It is the difference between a Satanic power on the march and a group of thuggish theoreticians (recognizable on many college campuses today) who at last can take academic politics to the level of mass extermination they'd always wanted. They can order mock trials, extracting truly pathetic confessions. ("Yes, comrades, I know it is ridiculous, and it means nothing to me, but I was married in a church, I confess, but I agreed to the church comedy only because of my wife," is an abbreviated paraphrase of one such confession.) And they can mock religion -- through the Bolshevik League of Militant Godless and other "people's" organizations -- to their progressive hearts' content, which, being the sort of people they are, means unearthing the holy dead to prove that even saints' bodies decay, detonating cathedrals into ruins, and imprisoning or killing clergy as appropriate to rid the world of superstition.

Nazis and Communists had a liking for other progressive ideas that continue to have currency. For instance, the Nazis tried to replace Christmas with a Yule Festival (Winterval anyone?), while the Soviets preferred a fully fledged anti-Christmas with mockeries of Christianity and religion in general that would not be out of place in San Francisco, many modern art galleries, or perhaps a Dan Brown novel.

Like many leftists today, too, they had a comparative soft spot for Islam. The Nazis' anti-Semitism never incorporated the Arabs, and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was a keen ally in the cause of Jewish extermination, wishing only that it could be accelerated. Similarly, while the Bolsheviks happily trashed churches and synagogues, they thought it wise to leave mosques well enough alone. (Though they did include effigies of Mohammed in their bonfires of religion; perhaps they could be confident that no Muslims would actually be present during these celebrations.)

Much of the book, inevitably, covers the Second World War and the fate of the churches behind the Iron Curtain. In the course of doing so, Burleigh convincingly refutes and dismisses with contempt the calumnies heaped on Pope Pius XII; highlights how Polish Catholicism (and Pope John Paul II) effectively undermined the Soviet empire; and covers the waterfront of every European country from Portugal to Franco's Spain to Czechoslovakia to the nether reaches of Eastern Europe, with some definite surprises along the way (including how even in East Germany, the most successfully secularized of the Eastern bloc states, churches were the focal point for defeating Communism).

But much though they dominate the story, Nazis, fascists, and Communists are not the whole of Burleigh's tale. There is an invigorating section on Cold War church politics in the West, a welcome reminder of when three German-speaking, and veteran anti-fascist Catholics -- Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, and Robert Schuman -- reconstructed Continental Europe on lines that rejected "alien" Prussianism (which was now locked up in Communist East Germany, incorporating, as Adenauer pointed out, the historically least Christianized areas) and the "oriental" Kremlin.

Adenauer, de Gasperi, and Schuman were not only ardent Catholics but profoundly pro-American, to the disgust of the European Left (and the disgust of some Protestants, including leftist pastors like Karl Barth and Martin Niemoeller, who disliked both their religion and their pro-Americanism).

But the Catholic Church wholeheartedly supported this pro-American tilt, as well as endorsing German rearmament, military conscription (with one Cardinal stating that "conscientious objection to military service is not compatible with Christian teaching"), and deployment of nuclear weapons to counter to the Soviet threat. The Europe the Church supported in the 1950s is the Europe George W. Bush no doubt wishes he had today.

BURLEIGH CLOSES HIS BOOK with the radical Muslim death cult that now threatens the West, and ties that threat to Britain's experience with the IRA (the Troubles are given their chapter as well). As he writes,

We are horribly wrong in imagining that Northern Ireland is some atavistic throwback to the religious wars of the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Its model of the state surrendering "communities" to the tender mercies of their so-called leaders may presage the future, except it will involve minorities who worship another God. The gloomy spires of Fermanagh and Tyrone will continue to haunt us...but they may well be outnumbered by the gleaming domes of Europe's proliferating mosques, in areas from which the state has quietly retreated.
From all the wreckage, Burleigh emerges a cautious optimist. The West remains at war with itself, with secularists apparently still keener on attacking Christianity than facing up to the threat of militant Islam. Nevertheless, many politicians -- and certainly many Europeans -- are alive to the threat, and so in particular, notes Burleigh, is the Catholic Church, the faith (honored or not) of the majority of Europeans.

Burleigh, a Briton, does not end on this note, but I will because it is addressed to us: "Those Americans who disparage what they see as an emerging 'Eurabia' might bear a thought for the many Europeans who not only dread that prospect but are doing their best to avert it, sometimes risking their lives." We can hope that Burleigh's book, published to high praise in England, is a sign of Europe's looming recovery.

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About the Author
H. W. Crocker III is a bestselling author. His most recent book is The Yanks Are Coming! A Military History of the United States in World War I (Regnery).