More Cautionary Horror Shows


Michael Burleigh is a brilliant historian whose history of the clash between religion and politics should not be missed.

With the release of Sacred Causes , Michael Burleigh completes his two-volume history of the political religions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Together with Earthly Powers , published last year, this second volume constitutes an indispensable study of the horrors men get up to when they put themselves at the center of their own God-defying religions. Winston Churchill was certainly not the most religious of men, but even he recognized that those "non-God religions, Nazism and Communism . . . are as alike as two peas. Tweedledum and Tweedledee were violently contrasted compared with them. You leave out God and you substitute the devil."  

Showing how the totalitarian regimes of Italy, Spain, Germany, and Russia, as well as the terrorist organizations of Sinn Fein and Al Qaeda, used religion to advance their political ends, Burleigh conducts his reader through an infernal labyrinth of violence and megalomania, the principles of which the Russian philosopher Semyon Frank presciently outlined before the October Revolution of 1917: "The great love of mankind of the future gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction."  In these man-made religions, Frank perceived, the revolutionary is a nihilistic monk, who "shuns reality, avoids the world, and lives outside genuine, historical, everyday life, in a world of phantoms, daydreams and pious faith . . .  . The content of the faith is an idolatry founded on religious unbelief, of earthly material contentment . . . . A handful of monks, alien to and contemptuous of the world, declare war on the world . . . to gratify its earthly material needs." This is the essential pathology that animates all of Burleigh's political religions.

If the despots in Burleigh's period were busy appropriating religion, what were religions proper doing? During and after the Great War, Burleigh shows, Pope Benedict XV marshaled Vatican resources to alleviate the suffering of prisoners of war. The Opera dei Prigionieri dealt with 600,000 pieces of correspondence inquiring after captives. By January 1917, the Vatican took custody of 26,000 sick prisoners of war and arranged for them to recuperate in Swiss sanatoria. All told, the Vatican spent 82 million lire on humanitarian relief. By 1922, this largesse had so depleted Vatican coffers that they dwindled to the USD equivalent of $19,000. Only the generosity of North American Catholics staved off papal bankruptcy in the 1920s.

Burleigh also details the opposition that Popes Pius XI and Pius XII voiced to the dictators. As Pius XI wrote, the totalitarian claim that the individual owed the state total allegiance, whether in the domestic or the spiritual realm, was "a manifest absurdity in the theoretical order, and would be a monstrosity were its realization to be attempted in practice." The libels that the KGB cooked up to discredit these two admirable popes in the eyes of their Eastern European satellites gained new life in the books of John Cornwall, but Burleigh refutes them with the help of the pioneering research of David Dalin, Rudolf Morsey, and Konrad Repgen.

Few would disagree with Burleigh that Hitler's "sallies into theological matters" were tantamount to "the musings of a saloon-bar bore." Yet the Fuhrer was shrewd enough to recognize that "the Catholic Church has but one desire, and that is to see us destroyed." Hitler no doubt gathered this from many brave Catholic clerics, including the archbishop of Mainz, who defied the Nazi storm troopers by reaffirming that "the Christian moral law is universal and valid for all times and races, so there is a gross error in requiring that the Christian faith be suited to the moral sentiments of the Germanic race" -- a stricture reminiscent of Frank Borkenau's observation that National Socialism was a kind of pinchbeck Judaism, with Hitler as Abraham and the Aryan Germans as the Chosen People.

Winston Churchill was certainly not the most religious of men, but even he recognized that those "non-God religions, Nazism and Communism . . . are as alike as two peas. Tweedledum and Tweedledee were violently contrasted compared with them. You leave out God and you substitute the devil."  

But Hitler would also have seen the Church's opposition to National Socialism in the encyclical that Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, composed for Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), which, as Burleigh shows, was "an immensely astute critique of everything that Nazism stood for . . . [and] anticipated virtually all the themes that scholars of Nazism, especially in continental Europe are currently pursuing." Pacelli had no illusions about the Nazis or their spiritual pretensions. "Whoever does not wish to be a Christian," he wrote, "ought at least to renounce the desire to enrich the vocabulary of unbelief with the heritage of Christian ideas." 

Even before he became pope, Pacelli's opposition to Hitler was well-known. After a three-hour meeting with Pacelli in Berlin in 1937, U.S. Consul Alfred W. Klieforth reported that Pacelli "opposed unilaterally every compromise with National Socialism. He regarded Hitler not only as an untrustworthy scoundrel but a fundamentally wicked person. He did not believe Hitler capable of moderation, in spite of appearances, and he fully supported the German bishops in their anti-Nazi stand."  Once pope, Pacelli even acted as an intermediary for a plot to assassinate Hitler, planned by German generals, including Ludwig Beck (which, however, Lord Halifax failed to exploit).

Burleigh shows that Pius XII was right to eschew outright condemnation of Hitler's persecution of the Jews, which would only have increased the deportations. Rather than confront Hitler directly, and risk reprisals against Catholics and Jews, Pius chose a more oblique approach, which freed him to continue to save life behind the scenes. At his insistence, Church-owned buildings throughout Western and Eastern Europe hid tens of thousands of Jews who would otherwise have been sent to the death camps. Armchair moralists who enjoy the benefit of 60 years' hindsight should take into consideration something Pius's colleague Cardinal Faulhaber once said: "With the Concordat we were hanged; without the Concordat, we were hanged, drawn and quartered." In that impossible situation, Pius worked wonders.

The British chief rabbi Hertz acknowledged this when he told cardinal Hinsley, "Jews throughout the world will revere the Pope's noble memory as a feared champion of righteousness against the powers of irreligion, racialism and inhumanity." Rome's chief rabbi Israel Zolli also acknowledged this when he took the baptismal name of Eugenio before converting to Christianity in February 1945. Even Albert Einstein recognized that "only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler's campaign for suppressing the truth. I had never any special interest in the Church before, but now I feel a great admiration because the Church alone has had the courage and persistence to stand for intellectual truth and moral freedom. I am forced thus to confess, that what I once despised, I now praise unreservedly."  That stand was only made possible by Pius XII's adroit diplomacy.

So why do so many still contend that Pius was "Hitler's Pope"? Burleigh does not mince his words: "Making use of the Holocaust as the biggest moral club to use against the Church, simply because one does not like its policies on abortion, contraception, homosexual priests or the Middle East is as obscene as any attempt to exploit the deaths of six million European Jews for political purposes." What Burleigh omits to mention is that those who call for the so-called rights of abortion, contraception, euthanasia, and homosexuality are themselves adherents of a new Ersatzreligion , which is as opposed to the Roman Catholic Faith as any of the other gimcrack faiths that made the 19th and the 20th centuries such cautionary horror shows.

Michael Burleigh is a brilliant historian whose history of the clash between religion and politics should not be missed. All people of good faith will find his analysis of the tragic past instructive and will welcome his encouraging conclusion: "that clearly identifying a problem takes one halfway to its resolution."



Edward Short. "More Cautionary Horror Shows." (January 18, 2008).

Reprinted with permission of

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Edward Short is at work on a forthcoming book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries, which will be published by Continuum.

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