Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sacred Causes

Michael Burleigh's book Sacred Causes, the second in a trilogy about the intersection of religion and politic in Europe, focuses on the 20th century, with emphasis on how the totalitarian regimes battled religions. This book will remind readers that Osama Bin Laden didn't introduce religion to modern international politics, he merely drew our attention back to it.

As a historian of Nazi Germany and someone clearly well-read in religious (particularly Catholic) history, Burleigh is at his strongest when he describes the inherently religious nature of totalitarian regimes like those found in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Fascist Italy. These regimes took many of the artifacts of religion including martyrs, holy texts, elite orders, divine leaders, and the belief that a perfect society awaits. A key difference in the religious and totalitarian viewpoint is where the perfect society existed. For the religious it awaited after death. For the political, it could rise here on earth, although it would takes lots of death and suffering to achieve it.

Given the desire to completely replace all individual identity with a state defined identity, it is no surprise that these regimes sought to co-opt or (more frequently) cripple religious groups. Religious groups were able to nibble at Nazi and Fascist evil at the fringes, but they managed to directly confront the weary Soviets and Poles in the early 80s. Against John Cornwell, Burleigh argues that Pope Pius XII's did about all he could given the relatively weak influence of the pre-war Vatican and the willingness of the Nazis to kill just about anyone.

The book feels a bit thinner, and the viewpoint begins to trump the analysis in some of the book's other sections. His chapter on Ireland certainly shows that both sides (of the Northern Irish) committed horrendous acts of murder and atrocity and Burleigh clearly wishes Britain would wash its hands of the place. While in other parts of the book, religion is a force for good, Burleigh does not present it as such here. As a part of the narrative it serves as a way to consider the rising Islamic populations and whether they their enclaves will prove as bloody as the northern part of Ireland. Some readers may be put off by his tone in both of these chapters. To be fair, the Irish and Islamic stories are ongoing, while the Nazi and Communist tales are more clearly in the past.

Perhaps because Burleigh is not afraid to let his opinions and viewpoint be known, his prose is particularly vigorous and engaging. At times he selects the five dollar word where a one dollar word might do, but for the most part he constructs lovely sentences that tend to deal with unlovely subject matter. American readers, used to neutral prose, may be taken aback by Burleigh's strong Tory views, but I found them bracing and found it easier to understand the context from which he was arguing.

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