Reading Michael Burleigh

Despite a semester overseas in England and mandatory schooling in the subject, it is to my great regret that I neglected to pay much attention to European history in college. What I did study a decade ago I’ve barely retained — something I’ve been compensating for in years since, by way of a 45 minute subway commute that provides just enough time to get a few chapters in.

The British historian Michael Burleigh is one whose work I’ve discovered recently and have benefited greatly from reading. Earlier this year I finished Earthly Powers (“The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War”) and am now working through the sequel: Sacred Causes (“The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror”). Both volumes are fascinating studies of European history, through the prism of church-state relations and the myriad attempts of each to assume the role of the other.

According to Burleigh himself the inspiration for the two-volume project came as an extension of his research into National Socialism:

When his agent suggested he write a definitive book on the Third Reich, Burleigh initially refused, believing there were enough definitive books on the Nazis already, and that everything that could be said had been.

All that changed with a single thought: what if you were to explain the Nazi phenomenon, not so much a political ideology, but as a surrogate religion, wrapped up in stylised and sentimental rituals?

This eventually developed into the bestselling The Third Reich: A New History, and from there it was a comparatively easy leap to explore the role of religion in a much wider context throughout history in Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes.

Moreover, Burleigh’s work was in specific reaction to the rash of historians who deliberately minimize or downplayed religion’s role in contemporary events (William Doino, Jr. explains in an interview with the author):

Among those Burleigh finds wanting in this regard are the Marxists Eric Hobsbawm and Tony Judt. Hobsbawm, a veteran Stalinist ideologue, carries a reputation far outweighing his talent, and is intensely hostile toward people of faith. When the Canadian cultural critic Michael Ignatieff asked Hobsbawm, on British television, whether 20 million deaths would have been justified if the proposed Communist utopia had been created as a consequence, Hobsbawm replied, without hesitation, “Yes.” More recently, the British émigré Tony Judt, now teaching in America, published “Postwar: A History of Europe,” which gives John Paul II almost no credit for helping defeat Soviet Communism, and ending the Cold War. But as Burleigh noted, even the secular Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis hails John Paul II’s contributions in his new history, Cold War.

The latter volume, Sacred Causes, is particularly helpful in appraising the role of the Catholic Church. As John Jay Hughes notes (National Review):

In July 1933 the Vatican, always more comfortable with dictatorships than with democracies, helped Hitler consolidate his power by throwing overboard the Catholic Center party, which had defended the rights of German Catholics since 1870, in order to conclude a Concordat with Nazi Germany, thus becoming the first international power to recognize Germany’s new Führer. In Italy the Church welcomed Mussolini’s racial laws. The Church’s centuries old anti-Judaism furnished justification and encouragement for Nazi anti-Semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust. Welcoming Hitler’s crusade against Soviet Communism, the wartime pope, Pius XII, remained silent in the face of Hitler’s Final Solution, thus meriting the title of “Hitler’s Pope,” the man co-responsible for the death of six million Jews. … Michael Burleigh shows what serious students of twentieth century history have long known: every one of these widely believed assertions is false.

Burleigh however, is not so much inclined to engage in a Catholic apologetic of Pius XII as simply to let the facts speak for themselves. Considerable light is shed on the various charges concerning Pius XII, but equally so on truly miserable excuses for Catholics: renegade Franciscans like Miroslav Filipovi?, “gone native” as military chaplains to the Ustashe and committing brutal atrocities against the Serbs, or the priest-turned-Nazi-puppet Jozef Tiso of Slovakia (of whom Msgr. Tardini lamented: “Everyone knows that the Holy See cannot bring Hitler to heel. But who will understand that we cannot control a priest?”).

(Tangential note: the latter, unfortunately, is heralded even today by right-wing fascists and Catholic bishops alike: on April 18, 2008, the Archbishop of Trnava, Ján Sokol, celebrated a requiem mass for Tiso, on the 61st anniversary of his execution as a traitor).

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One thing I like about Burleigh’s style is that, similar to Paul Johnson (another British historian I enjoy), he has little reservations about inserting his own, at times caustic, editorial voice.

By way of example, the following observation may evoke a laugh of recognition to those familiar with “The History Channel” in its earlier years on cable):

Eric Voeglin published a short but Olympan essay entitled The Political Religions. Nothing could be further removed from the shelves filled with swastika-adorned ‘mob literature’ on the Nazis that people consume nowadays along with endless trashy television programmes devoted to the phenomenon made by people who are unaware that they are debasing our culture by recycling the Nazi’s own propaganda, intercut with less than illuminating reflections from sundry geriatric parties too young at the time to have exerted real power or influence. Indeed, … Voegelin said that many historians of Nazism were the problem, rather than the solution, in the sense that, blind to the possibility of its recurrence, they focused on trivia or unwittingly reproduced its own self-dramatising teleology for modern audiences, almost reinfecting future generations with the virus.

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Burleigh’s work gives a vivid illustration to the phrase “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.” It is replete with examples of what happens when humanity, warring with and abandoning religion, seek after a secular substitute. At the same time, I find it to be an affirmation of a passage from Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth, that:

The struggle for the freedom of the Church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.

In closing, I recommend Michael Burleigh’s interview with Inside The Vatican, in which he takes note of the present crisis (“religious extremism and terrorism in all its monstrous forms, weapons of mass destruction; the culture of death, beginning with unrestricted abortion-on-demand and ending in easy euthanasia; continuing war, genocide, disease, famine, persecution…horror is all around us”) and asserts the Church’s unique capacity to respond:

The Church’s teaching about the dignity of human life, at every stage of its existence; its insistence on objective truth and the four last things–death, judgment, heaven and hell; its opposition to militarism yet rejection of outright pacifism in a dangerous world; its belief in the compatibility of faith and reason-all of these facts, said Burleigh, place the Roman Catholic Church in a unique and pivotal position to make a real difference. Despite the recent scandals in the Church, and what he calls a “pathological anti-Catholicism” attempting to exploit them, the time is right for the Church of Rome to act: “No other religious body has the strength, the respect and the authority to influence the world for the better.”


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Christopher Blosser

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  1. Christopher, Burleigh is one of my favorites of the current crop of historians. His recent book Blood and Rage on terrorism is must reading. Here is a link to a review by Andrew Stuttaford.


    Here is a link to his blog.


    Burleigh is immune to the problem that afflicts most historians today, a tone deafness when it comes to religion. Burleigh understands that much of politics since 1914 really cannot be understood unless we realize that a fair amount of it, especially in the totalitarian states, was a search for substitute religions.

  2. Burleigh is generally excellent. But I have one quibble with him – he seems to have a blind spot where the Irish are concerned. In “Sacred Causes,” he is not just very hard on the IRA (they are entirely fair game in my book), but on the Irish people and culture as a whole. I do not have a drop of Irish blood and I thought he was being unfair. Paul Johnson, who wrote a short history of Ireland, is much more evenhanded.

  3. I too found his take on Ireland a little odd. His chapters on Spain and Ireland in this century certainly seem to contradict the assertions of some that a focus on moral issues is particularly Protestant or Calvinist, since ultra-Catholic governments also engaged in such practices. I found both Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes very interesting, and I wish they could have been longer – there was nothing on secularization in Scandinavia, which I thought would have made for an interesting comparison with Britain.

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