Review of Michael Burleigh, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror (New York: HarperCollins, 2007). xviii + 557 pp. $27.95.
Democracy’s inevitable triumph over autocracy quickly turned out to be one of the First World War’s many delusions. Already by the 1920s President Woodrow Wilson and the Allies seemed to have made the world safe not for democracy but for totalitarianism. In 1924, the distinguished Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero warned that “future historians and philosophers will encounter a pretty puzzle when they seek to understand how the war for liberty managed to inoculate Europe, and perhaps America to a certain extent, with the dictatorial virus.” “Yet the fact is evident,” the antifascist historian continued. “For certain minds, today, dictatorship is not a political doctrine; it is a religious faith.”
Dictatorship as religious faith has dominated the recent scholarship of British historian Michael Burleigh. In his authoritative Third Reich (2000), Burleigh diagnosed the spiritual pathology of Nazism. Then in Earthly Powers (2005) he provided wider context for Europe’s political gnosticism by reaching back to the French Revolution and following the story through World War I. Now, in Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, Burleigh enters the dark inner world of totalitarian political religions, interpreting them to a large degree as variations on the Jacobin effort to supplant Christianity. “The plot,” he amply demonstrates, “had largely been scripted in Paris in 1789.”
In order to analyze political religions in their twentieth- and now twenty-first-century manifestations, Burleigh relies on the interpretive framework provided by the German political philosopher Eric Voegelin, French sociologist Raymond Aron, British journalist Frederick Voigt, and other observers of the West’s descent into madness in the 1930s, all of whom were distressed by totalitarianism’s immanentization of the sacred and eternal. Italian fascism, German Nazism, and Russian bolshevism all promised a kingdom very much of “this world” to replace the hope of the transcendent world to come. Burleigh builds on a helpful distinction made by a Catholic journal in the 1930s between a “substitute for religion” and a “substitute religion.” Totalitarianism became an ersatz faith for many millions of people. It did more than fill the spiritual void left by a supposedly secularizing civilization. Totalitarian regimes carried farther the determination of nation-states in the nineteenth century to become the locus of man’s primary allegiance. Worship did not go away in the secular age. The nation-state redirected veneration to itself for its own intramundane ends. These regimes were not atheistic. Their gods were themselves—“strange gods,” Burleigh writes, that emerged as “alternative objects of religious devotion.” Mussolini made this point emphatically in 1926: “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 labouring masses of the Italian people.”
Fascism, Nazism, and bolshevism transposed the language, symbolism, and promises of Christianity into their own perverted cult. The regimes built on these religions offered political saints and martyrs, substitute heretics and infidels, new rituals, liturgies and catechisms, new symbols for veneration (especially flags), and above all new sacred stories of redemption. While Jesus insisted in his testimony before Pontius Pilate that his kingdom was “not of this world,” the political religions insisted that salvation would be achieved within this earthly realm—and soon. Armed with an alternative soteriology, eschatology, and ecclesiology, the political religions offered alienated human beings redemption from the frustration of living between the times, happiness through Promethean mastery over nature, and identity in a new community, not necessarily universal (consider hypernationalist fascism), but still a substitute church. These regimes waged gnostic warfare that transferred the battle between good and evil from the human heart to the external world. The totalitarian worldview, Burleigh writes, “was essentially Manichean, dividing the world into good and evil, light and darkness, old and new, a view which led to the demonisation of their enemies, especially heretics within their own party.”