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Sacred Causes
by Michael Burleigh
HarperCollins, 557 pages, $27.95

One of Britain’s leading and most popular historians, Michael Burleigh made his mark producing award-winning documentaries and books on Nazi euthanasia. In 2000 he published The Third Reich: A New History , which quickly won the Samuel Johnson Prize (one of Britain’s highest literary awards), was translated into fifteen languages, and became an instant classic.

After a five-year sabbatical of research and writing, Burleigh has returned, producing a major two-volume history of church-state relations, from the French Revolution to the present. The first volume of his labors, Earthly Powers, covering the years 1750“1914, provoked a lively discussion (including a strong review by Russell Hittinger in First Things ) about the role of religion as a rival to the secularist states emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Now, its successor, Sacred Causes , follows the theme through the twentieth century, from “the European dictators to al-Qaeda.” Together the two volumes, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes , form a provocative and astonishingly ambitious work, for Burleigh’s goal is to reverse the course of modern historiography, rescuing it from its anti-religious (and often anti-Catholic) bias.

Sacred Causes begins with the crucible of the First World War and the subsequent rise of the modern dictators. Burleigh is achingly familiar with one of academia’s reigning orthodoxies: that Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church, began by laying the groundwork for Hitler and ended by embracing the Nazi cause in an effort to oppose communism and restore order. Sacred Causes marshals an enormous amount of evidence to annihilate this thesis.

As Burleigh demonstrated in Earthly Powers , the great story of modern times is not how the Church allowed itself to be manipulated by the modern state but how the Church stood up”imperfectly, often ineffectively”to that state. At every stage of fascism and Nazism, Burleigh shows, Catholics and Christians, often led by the Vatican, were fighting and condemning the evils they are now blamed for promoting: racism, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.

Burleigh builds a conclusive case that those most responsible for paving the way for Auschwitz were not Christians reading and preaching the gospel but instead were atheists, apostates, and revolutionaries who promoted a “hatred against the Lord and His Christ nourished by groups subversive to any religious and social order,” as the papal encyclical Dilectissima Nobis (1933) put it. Sacred Causes declares: “There are many criticisms one might make of the Catholic Church, but responsibility for the Holocaust is not among them.”

Burleigh is at his best when examining the pontificates of Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII. He documents the Vatican’s early denunciations of Nazi war crimes and the reprisals they provoked, together with Pius’ active support for Jews and the anti-Nazi resistance. “While it was impossible for the Vatican to exert any influence wherever the Nazis held direct sway . . . its interventions [where it could influence events] did delay or postpone the inevitable, with hundreds of thousands of lives saved in the process. The Vatican sought to influence policy in these states, especially if it had capable and dogged nuncios in situ , although these representatives also discovered that where nationalist passions were aroused they could not be sure of even influencing their own clergy.”

Burleigh shows that the Catholic clergy who did collaborate”such as the renegade priests in Croatia and the notorious Monsignor Tiso in Slovakia”acted in spite of, not because of, their religion. Along the way, Burleigh reminds his fellow historians that it was Stalin’s propagandists who initiated the campaign against Pius XII, a fact that has recently been given dramatic confirmation by Ion Mihai Pacepa, the highest-ranking intelligence officer ever to defect from the Soviet bloc.

Yet Burleigh can hardly be called an uncritical apologist of Pius XII. While lashing into anti-papal ideologues who defame Pius, Burleigh acknowledges the legitimate questions raised by his difficult pontificate:

Certainly, Pius XII is not above or beyond criticism regarding what he could or could not have done during the war. One has no investment in “defending” him, except in cases where the criticisms are blatantly unfair or unjust. His attempts to maintain peace were noble, but largely ineffectual. For reasons either of personal character or of professional training as a diplomat, his statements were exceedingly cautious and wrapped up in an involuted language that is difficult for many to understand, especially in this age of the resonant soundbite and ubiquitous rent-a-moralists. A more robust character, like Pius XI or John Paul II, not to speak of medieval popes who took on emperors, might have said more in fewer words. One doubts that it would have had any effect.

A major feature of Burleigh’s book is its unsparing treatment of communism, which he shows was every bit as savage as Nazism. Against those who worry that an emphasis on the evils of communism might take away from the uniqueness of the Nazi Holocaust, Burleigh argues the reverse: In our Holocaust-conscious culture, there is no danger of Nazism getting short shrift; there is, however , a danger of communist atrocities being forgotten or relativized. In fact, a case can be made”and Burleigh makes it well” that one of the reasons communists have murdered far more people than any other political movement (one hundred million and counting, according to the Black Book of Communism ) is precisely because so many have believed that only fascism and racism are worthy of eternal damnation.

Just as he did in Earthly Powers , Burleigh’s new book shows how the over-politicized state, having failed to wipe out Christianity, became insanely jealous of it, eventually trying to appropriate its power and even adopting its rituals and rites to produce new, secularized religions, reproducing in reverse the dogmatism they rejected but without any biblical restraints. His analysis of the Spanish Civil War, which captures the clash between religion and politics, is exceptional. Condemning the brutalities of the Nationalists, Burleigh nonetheless exonerates the great bulk of the Spanish clergy, most of whom were apolitical and who dedicated their lives to the poor. More important, he puts to shame those who would lionize the communist-backed Republicans, whose sacrilegious atrocities “eclipsed those of the Jacobins.”

After his chapters on the modern political religions, Burleigh moves to such postwar topics as the new democracies, the Second Vatican Council, the countercultural 1960s, the “Me decade” of the 1970s, and the rise of the religious right, always offering pungent and informed opinions. He is an unpredictable historian, difficult to classify; he goes wherever the truth leads him. He is liberal enough to call Cardinal Ottaviani a “reactionary” but conservative enough to comment that Rocco Buttiglione”rejected as justice minister for the European Union because of his traditional social beliefs”was subject to a “secularist media witch-hunt.” Throughout his effervescent narrative, playwrights, poets, novelists, and filmmakers pop up, each quoted to make a salient point or to convey some hidden truth about the world. ( Sacred Causes is also enhanced by several dozen striking photographs.)

Not everyone will agree with Burleigh’s judgments. Some, for example, will find his depiction of modern Ireland unduly harsh. Indeed, when Sacred Causes appeared last year in the United Kingdom, The Independent accused Burleigh’s chapter on the “Irish troubles” of harboring an Anglo bias, and the Irish Post complained about its “nasty” tone (though both papers, remarkably, still cited Sacred Causes as one of the best books of the year).

What they were objecting to was Burleigh’s sharp critique of an Irish culture”both at home and abroad ”that romanticized Sinn Fein and the ruthless IRA. After interviewing some former Irish terrorists and seeing the carnage they wrought, Burleigh cannot understand why so many clergymen came to their aid, why so many Irish Americans toasted and financed their activities for years, and why movie scriptwriters continue to mislead the public: “Hollywood contributes its quotient of surreal movies about nobly moody Irish terrorists allegedly facing agonizing moral dilemmas, rather than the reality of intimidating drunks cutting people’s throats . . . . It can depict Irish-American cops as crooked or psychopathic in such movies as L.A. Confidential or Internal Affairs , but realism departs once the movies are about the emerald isle.”

One might answer with a long list of countercharges, beginning with the antics of the Reverend Ian Paisley, the militant Unionist. (Burleigh himself calls Paisley “the religious equivalent of a Trotskyite.”)

But Burleigh correctly sees that the problem is the rationalization of terror. Citing a perceived wrong as justification”rather than recognizing the intrinsically wicked nature of such acts”is exactly what the Islamic Jihadists do. Burleigh reveals an unhealthy, symbiotic relationship between Irish terrorism and certain elements of the Catholic Church (mirroring the left-wing clergy’s indulgence of “liberation theology” in Latin America). He also criticizes the cultural inwardness of contemporary Ireland and laments the awful sex-abuse scandals from which the Irish church has yet to recover.

Burleigh’s frankness about Arab and Islamic culture is refreshing. He speaks openly about “racist and sexist Arabs, aspects of the culture that we know about but rarely mention.” He asks why “no word of condemnation comes from any Arab regime regarding the murder of innocent Iraqis on a daily basis” and points out that “so-called Muslim community leaders . . . have also failed to condemn these killings of fellow Muslims, while finding every ‘contextual’ excuse for global Islamic violence.”

Yet he makes it a point to praise those brave Islamic leaders who, whatever one thinks of their regimes, have assisted the West, even as they face mortal threats from their own local fanatics. He champions the cause of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch politician (now resident in America) who has boldly condemned the oppression within Islamic culture and has been threatened with death because of it.

Unlike many anxious Europeans, Burleigh welcomes the immigration of Muslims to the Continent but believes there need to be certain ground rules for entry”tolerance, for example; acceptance and respect for democratic and republican values; a belief in human rights, especially the basic rights of women”even as he knows these are in short supply. Islam needs to undergo serious reforms, and it needs to be encouraged to do so by our leaders. Burleigh thus excoriates academics, politicians, and prelates who facilitate local militant imams, whose segregationist mindset”not to mention their carnal thirst for violence”provides the perfect breeding ground for terrorists.

Examining the future, Sacred Causes is sober about international terrorism (the subject of Burleigh’s next book) and the other challenges facing civilization. But Burleigh believes they can be met”with a renewed religious mindset sparked by what he calls “the John Paul II generation.” Unlike most European pundits, Burleigh is decisively pro-Christian and pro-American. He has taught in America, loves the land, and was recently named a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Indeed, he understands the country better than many American academics do and has some illuminating comments to make about American religion: “Although the European media chooses to ignore it, the US has an extraordinary range of religious public intellectuals . . . . By contrast, although Europe has such outstanding figures as Leszek Kolakowski, Hans Maier and Josef Ratzinger, its public culture is dominated by sneering secularists, who set the tone for the rest of the population and can make light work of the average bishop rolled out to confound them, especially in the case of Anglican bishops who share so much liberal common ground. Much of the European liberal elite regard religious people as if they come from Mars.”

Because so many Americans still embrace their religious heritage, the Scottish philosopher John Haldane recently stated that the fate of Christendom”or what remains of it”rests with the United States. Reading Sacred Causes , one suspects Burleigh might agree, though with an important caveat: Recognizing the Christian stirrings outside the United States, Burleigh wouldn’t quite say “America alone” but “America in the lead,” with its allies hopefully following suit. As grave as the situation now appears, a good number of religiously minded people are waking up to the realities and dangers we face. Hence, the striking last sentence of Sacred Causes : “On the whole, I conclude this book as an optimist, although certainly not of the Panglossian variety, since the increasingly sharp definition of what is at stake is itself surely part of the solution.”

The Tablet of London recently cited Burleigh as one of the top Roman Catholic intellectuals in Britain, but his influence extends well beyond the United Kingdom. With his ability to see the past clearly and look to the future bravely, strengthened by a sense of faith, Michael Burleigh is truly a historian for our time.

William Doino Jr. writes for Inside the Vatican and is a contributor to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII.