Reading Michael Burleigh

Tuesday, July 28, AD 2009

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.

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6 Responses to Reading Michael Burleigh

  • 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.

    http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Sacred-monsters-3924

    Here is a link to his blog.

    http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/michael-burleigh

    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.

  • 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.

  • Thanks you for sharing your thoughts on this. I too enjoy Burleigh’s work, also enjoying his frequent contributions to Standpoint (http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/michael-burleigh). Also, for any who enjoy the Hoover Institution’s presentations (many of which are available to download, for instance, through iTunes), Burleigh somewhat recently gave a great speech there, definitely worth checking out.

  • 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.

  • Sounds interesting. I’ll have to look at these.

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