Defender of the Faith
By Tony Judt
March 11, 2007
This is a depressing and unpleasant book. To be sure, any story that starts with the rise of fascism and ends with Al Qaeda is unlikely to be uplifting. And Michael Burleigh’s catalog of delusion and violence, much of it in the name of higher causes and transcendent faiths, casts the 20th century in a distinctly unflattering light. But what makes his latest book a truly grim read is the relentlessly mean-spirited tone, together with some of the more troubling interpretations and asides.
The book’s purposes are twofold and clearly stated. Burleigh believes that the pernicious ideologies that shaped our age — Communism and fascism above all — are best understood as political religions. They come complete with narratives of suffering and redemption, and Burleigh writes well about the woolly, messianic religiosity of Nazism in particular. Whether right or left, these political faiths — like the Freemasonry they sometimes resemble — are religion substitutes. This is hardly a new insight — that Communism and fascism were political religions was already clear to Eric Voegelin, Raymond Aron and others in the 1940s, as Burleigh acknowledges. But it bears restatement.
Burleigh’s second, related objective is to redeem modern history from what he characteristically calls the “intellectually dishonest’” Stalin-like attempts “to airbrush Christianity out of the historical record.” Actually he doesn’t mean Christianity but rather the Roman Catholic Church; and this is where the problems begin. Burleigh seems truly to believe that there is a longstanding liberal historians’ conspiracy to ignore or slander “the ‘Catholic Church,’ about which any number of crude and stereotypical prejudices seem to be acceptable among people who spend most of their time denouncing prejudice.” And so he has set out to seek redress.
Thus we are told in copious and gory detail of Republican eviscerations of priests and nuns in the Spanish Civil War but learn next to nothing of violence committed on the Church’s behalf or with its approval. Republican “atrocities” are committed by “anarchists and criminals,” whereas “killings” in Nationalist-dominated areas “were carried out by the responsible authorities.” The notorious Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac of Zagreb, who watched the wartime Ustashe regime murder 350,000 Serbs and an estimated 30,000 Jews, gets a free pass.
Burleigh acknowledges that Munich’s Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber praised Hitler’s “statesmanly breadth of vision,” but he admonishes Faulhaber’s critics for failing to acknowledge that he then requested an “amnesty” for concentration camp inmates.
Fully one-third of “Sacred Causes” is devoted to the Nazi era and to a defense of the Church, Pope Pius XII in particular, against charges (“the cruder — Soviet-inspired — ‘black legend,’ ” in Burleigh’s words) — that the Vatican failed to oppose Nazism and was thus at least passively complicit in the Holocaust. In Burleigh’s reading, Pius can do almost no wrong. Indeed, according to Burleigh, he was simply too subtle to be appreciated today, in “this age of the resonant sound bite and ubiquitous rent-a-moralists.” To be sure, Burleigh concedes that Pius’s “punctilious adherence” to “outward neutrality” eventually “would lessen his capacity to play a prophetic role in the war,” though he goes on to quote approvingly Pius’s own justification for silence, in December 1942: “The Pope cannot speak. If he spoke, things would be worse.” (Worse? By December 1942? How?)
Others might argue that Pius’s silences greatly facilitated the work of extermination in those countries where the Roman Catholic Church exercised social and moral authority and where its own representatives actively collaborated in mass murder. Burleigh anticipates this objection with a characteristic sneer: “Only people with no understanding of how the Catholic Church operates can hold the Vatican responsible for fanatic elements in its own lower clergy.” Perhaps. But Burleigh himself invokes the hierarchical, centralized authority of Catholicism and the Vatican when explaining why so many German Catholics, unlike Protestants, were immune to the charms of Hitler. He wants it both ways.
After the war, according to Burleigh, the ambiguities disappear. In Poland, for example, “the process of distancing churches from anti-Judaism ... which had commenced in the interwar period, became absolute after the Nazis’ charnel houses were fully exposed.” That is utter nonsense. In the wake of the July 1946 Kielce pogrom, Cardinal Augustus Hlond, Primate of Poland, declared, as Burleigh acknowledges, that “the Jews occupying leading positions in Poland in state life are to a large extent responsible for the deterioration of these good relations” between Jews and Catholics. His colleague Bishop Bieniek of Upper Silesia stated that Jews really had taken blood from a Christian child, the ostensible reason for the massacre. In the wake of these events, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, the British ambassador to Poland, cabled to London: “I fear that the Polish clergy are fundamentally anti-Semitic.” Burleigh, briefly alluding to Hlond’s views, calls them “infelicities.”
My source for these citations is the work of Jan Gross, whose studies are absent from Burleigh’s bibliography but very well known in Poland and beyond. Lech Walesa (one of Burleigh’s heroes) dismissed “Neighbors,” Gross’s influential study, published in 2001, of a wartime massacre of Jews by their Polish neighbors: “Gross,” Walesa told a radio audience in Poland, “is a mediocre writer ... a Jew who tries to make money.” That a founder of Solidarity might harbor such prejudices is the sort of complexity that finds no place in this book. In Burleigh’s universe, everything is either black or white (or, as it were, red). Historians with whom he disagrees — from Saul Friedländer to “people like Deak” (Istvan Deak, the Central European historian) — are guilty of “inadequacies,” are “tendentious” or “fashionable”; their arguments “Soviet-inspired” or worse. Overwhelmingly they are “tenured radicals” indulging in “academic left-liberal nostalgia” for past illusions.
Animosity toward his professional colleagues saturates Michael Burleigh’s book and does it a crippling disservice. He sacrifices coherence and credibility for the pleasure of settling scores with others whose visibility he palpably begrudges. Like a relentless rhetorical Muzak, Burleigh’s ressentiment intrudes upon the text and renders the book inaudible. The author is perfectly entitled to his cultural irritations: Europe since the death of Pius XII (1958), for Burleigh, has become “a post-Christian desert”; “Sneering at the ambivalences of authority has become habitual since the 1960s”; European “public culture is dominated by sneering secularists,” etc. As it happens I share his distaste for the meretricious values of Tony Blair and friends. But Burleigh’s frustrations grow tedious: he has no self-control. In his world, tenured radicals of the baby-boom generation aren’t just “zealously tending various sacrosanct liberal pieties”; they also apparently display “vampiric interest in female students,” their moral compass permanently adrift thanks — in Burleigh’s overheated imagination — to the “sexually voracious young women” who roamed the ’60s. Magari.
Some of Burleigh’s bilious obsessions, then, are funny. Others are downright disagreeable. His targets range from Pastor Martin Niemöller (“incarcerated, none too onerously, in Sachsenhausen concentration camp”) to “the gleaming domes of Europe’s proliferating mosques” and Tariq Ramadan (“a known Al Qaeda apologist”); from the “Zapatero socialist regime”(!) in Spain to “New York intellectuals” and their “prodigious wordage.” And there is more than a hint of something truly nasty in his five-page rant against the “greedy and mean-spirited” Irish, or those historians (unnamed, but perhaps Jewish?) who are silent about Protestant backing for Nazism because “conservative Protestant Christians are stalwart supporters of Israel.” Politico-religious zealotry is a timely topic, but anyone seeking a dispassionate account of it should look elsewhere. “Sacred Causes” is an ugly instance of its own subject matter.