Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War


In this masterful, stylish, and authoritative book, Michael Burleigh gives us an epic history of the battles over religion in modern Europe, examining the complex and often lethal ways in which politics and religion have interacted and influenced each other over the last two centuries. From the French Revolution to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, Earthly Powers is a uniquely powerful portrait of one of the great tensions of modern history - one that continues to be played out on the world ...
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In this masterful, stylish, and authoritative book, Michael Burleigh gives us an epic history of the battles over religion in modern Europe, examining the complex and often lethal ways in which politics and religion have interacted and influenced each other over the last two centuries. From the French Revolution to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, Earthly Powers is a uniquely powerful portrait of one of the great tensions of modern history - one that continues to be played out on the world stage today.
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Editorial Reviews

Mark Lilla
… even in the United States we are witnessing the instrumentalization of religion by those who evidently care less about our souls, or even their own, than about reversing the flow of American history since the "apocalypse" of the 60's. Michael Burleigh's book shows how difficult it was for Europe to cope with both these challenges as recently as the 19th century. It is no easier for us today.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Given the continuing discussion of religious values and secular ideals in American life (most recently in "the war on Christmas"), as well as the international crises brought by the perversion of faith into political ideology and of politics into religious fanaticism, this first in a two-volume work is most timely. In a masterful survey of European history, British historian Burleigh (The Third Reich) demonstrates that religion and politics are rarely directly opposed, but instead influence, shape and feed off each other in complex ways. Thus, the violent secularist ideologies of Jacobinism, communism and Nazism, he says, were actually surrogate religions that worshipped nation, class and race, while some 19th-century churches involved themselves in the radical politics engendered by industrialization and dispensed with the belief in a literal Hell and Day of Judgment. Burleigh's lengthy introduction is perhaps not the best place to start (with, for example, a discussion of the phrase "immanentizing of the eschaton"), but readers who persist will find this a fascinating, enjoyable and beautifully written book, whose planned sequel, on the tumultuous religious-political conflicts of the 20th century, should be eagerly anticipated. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Religion and politics are constantly in the news, and this timely book examines their relationship in 19th-century Europe. Historian Burleigh (The Third Reich: A New History) focuses on the philosophical ideas embedded in the interplay between religion and politics. Although his efforts make for fascinating intellectual history and a good overview, the subject requires more commentary on the why and not just on the how. For example, there is no explanation regarding why the Communists of 1848 followed religious constructs for their ideas on a secular state, which would have led to a fuller story. Burleigh, who is writing for an academic audience, is occasionally awkward, often discussing the political history first and leaving the religious aspects for the end. This raises questions along the way that could have been answered much earlier. Yet his sources are a good mix of secondary and primary material, and the bibliography will be helpful for beginning researchers. Recommended for academic libraries.-Bryan Craig, Ursuline Coll., Pepper Pike, OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British historian Burleigh (The Third Reich, 2000) examines the rise of "the religion of politics," a cultural shift that gathered force in the late-18th century and paved the way for the omnipotent-state ideologies of the 20th. In this first of a projected two-volume study of totalitarianism, the author observes that "talk of civil religions," whether Americanism or Germanism or other -isms of present and past, "coincides with periods of intense crisis." He traces one virulent strain to the 17th-century Italian cleric Tommaso Campanella, who imagined a proto-totalitarian state called Solaria, complete with its own official cult. The themes Campanella advanced "acquired renewed urgency when Europe was convulsed by the French Revolution," declares Burleigh; indeed, the regimes of the Jacobins and the Directorate constituted the first efforts to forge a modern totalitarian society, very much like the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. Integral to the rise of the new cults of nationalism and statism was the diminution of the power of the established church. The requirement of the French Revolutionary government in 1791 that clerics in the National Assembly swear an oath of loyalty to the state was the first shot, and state and church were thereafter at war throughout Europe. Paradoxically, as Burleigh notes, many of the civic-religion ideologies, particularly socialism, drew on conventional religious notions: Social Catholicism and British socialism alike were "inextricably bound up in religious dissent." The lure of nationalism and mass social movements cloaked in pseudo-religious rhetoric was attractive to many, and by the beginning of the 20th century, it was perfectly natural forcontending nations to claim that God was on their side-and for the regular clergy to put themselves at the service of states that would soon become totalitarian, having "adopted many of the outward forms of Europe's old religion."A provocative reconsideration of early modern European history.
The Observer
“Remarkable…. There is a furious energy at work here…. The sheer volume of information presented is startling and thrilling.”
The New Yorker
“As an intellectual history, the book is digressive but compelling.”
Chicago Tribune
“Earthly Powers should be required reading for anyone who understands that religion and politics can never be divorced.”
National Review
“A vivid portrait. . . perfect for a tale that has many extremists but few heroes.”
The Independent
“Earthly Powers can only cement Michael Burleigh’s reputation as one of the leading historians of our time.”
The Economist
“A vast range of material is handled in a deft, readable way.”
Paul Johnson
“Thoughtful and highly original. Earthly Powers steers a new path through the well-trodden ground of modern European history.”
Niall Ferguson
“With effervescent prose, Burleigh chronicles the rise of the ‘terrible simplifications’ of the secular age with a Dostoevskian intensity.”
Jay Winik
“Michael Burleigh is one of England’s finest historians and Earthly Powers is a wonderful and illuminating achievement.”
Noel Malcolm
“This is a hugely informative and stimulating book, by one of the most original historians of the modern age.
Joseph Frank
“This is history on a grand scale, but a history that illuminates the present as well as the past.”
Diarmaid MacCulloch
“A substantial and sardonic study…. A powerful summary of an age in which western Europe found its old faith incoherent.”
Graham Robb
“A refreshingly complicated history…. Burleigh covers a huge amount of ground, from Ireland to Greece and Russia.”
Andrew Roberts
“A hugely ambitious intellectual undertaking, but one that succeeds magnificently…. The author is clearly at the height of his powers.”
Daniel Johnson
“Everyone who reads Earthly Powers…will be grateful that Burleigh has put religion back into the history of European politics.”
Mark Lilla
“Burleigh does a marvelous job profiling colorful characters while still managing to convey the historical importance of their ideas.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060580933
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Burleigh is the author of Earthly Powers, Sacred Causes, and The Third Reich: A New History, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction. He is married and lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Earthly Powers

The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War
By Michael Burleigh

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Michael Burleigh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060580933

Chapter One

Age of Reason, Age of Faith

I eldest daughter of the church

We begin with the illusory stability of a Church with venerable roots but whose spiritual dynamism arguably lay in the past too. Since the time of St Louis (1226-70) French kings have been 'the most Christian', a term extended to France itself. Since the reign of Philip the Fair (1285-1314), France was known as 'the eldest daughter of the Church' and the French as God's chosen people. The Church and the French monarchy were linked in a hierarchy that reached down from God in His heavenly kingdom. Throne and altar were inseparable, with senior clerics omnipresent at solemn public occasions well into the French Revolution.1

Higher clergy dominated the coronation ceremonies at Rheims. On the afternoon of 10 June 1774, Louis XVI attended vespers to prepare him for the following day's long proceedings. The cathedral had already filled at four in the morning for ceremonies that commenced at six a.m. Louis took several oaths, silently praying as he carefully emphasised each word in Latin. He promised to protect the Church and to extirpate heretics, dipping his voice for this part since it did not accord with the sentiments of the late eighteenth century. The regalia were blessed and Louis was girded with the sword of Charlemagne, with which he was obliged to protect the Church, widows and orphans. He prostrated himself on a square of violet velvet, while the litanies of the saints were said over him. Kneeling before the aged archbishop la Roche-Aymon, Louis was anointed with six unctions, his gloves and ring were blessed, and he was handed Charlemagne's sceptre. He could touch people for scrofula, which he did a few days later.

The coronation proper was attended by the massed peerage. As the crown was held just above Louis XVI's head, the archbishop proclaimed: 'May God crown you with the crown of glory and of justice . . . and you will come to the everlasting crown.' Sitting on his throne in his new blue robe with the fleur-de-lis, Louis was now the 'rex christianissimus', the most Christian King of the Church's 'eldest daughter' of France. The doors were opened to enable the people to see the new king. Birds were released and trumpets blew as the archbishop declaimed: 'Vivat rex in aeternum.' The ceremonies finished with a mass and the Te Deum.2

Clergy were very visible in eighteenth-century France, especially in the towns. To take one not untypical example, there were twelve hundred in Toulouse, a city of about fifty-three thousand people. In Angers, one in sixty of its thirty-four thousand inhabitants were clerics, not counting seminarians and the like. Clerics participated in all major public occasions, singing Te Deums to celebrate a royal birth or military victory; they interceded with God to avert man-made and natural disasters. Chaplains accompanied the fleets on dangerous voyages and administered the last rites to soldiers dying on the battlefields. Dedicated religious orders negotiated with pirates and Islamic rulers who had enslaved Christian captives. Unfortunates condemned to death received sacramental consolation even if they did not want it. Since we have been effectively deafened by ambient noise it is easy to forget that this was a sensitive auditory culture. The peal of church bells marked sacred days, invasions, fires and storms.3 The feasts of the Church gave the year articulation and meaning. The French clergy were not like Lutheran pastors in Frederick the Great's Prussia, who had become little more than state officials, but they had various quasi-governmental functions.4 In the countryside, priests relayed government pronouncements after the Sunday sermon, often literally interpreting the high French of officialdom into the low patois (or foreign languages such as German or Spanish) spoken by their parishioners. Priests recorded the most rudimentary information on the lives of the king's subjects. Religious orders virtually controlled education, with many future revolutionaries indebted to Jesuit or Oratorian schoolmasters for their easy Latinity and knowledge of the politics of Roman antiquity.

The clergy were responsible for setting the moral tone in society in general, with these functional merits of religion being blindingly obvious even to sceptics such as Voltaire. There was virtual unanimity on the need for Hell to stop the servants stealing the spoons: anyone who cast doubt on the reality of eternal torment was certain to experience it.5 The clergy tried to enforce Sunday as a day of rest and prayer and the Lenten fast, fighting back the pernicious influence of village tavern-keepers who offered men rival consolations. They denounced games of chance, loose women and rotten literature. They had to walk a fine line between curbing practices that made the Church look ridiculous to smart opinion in an age so concerned with reconciling reason and revelation, and alienating their flocks by outlawing customs which made abstract belief meaningful and tangible to them.

Historians have made various attempts to test the depth of religious conviction, an exercise as precise as encountering warm and chilly areas while swimming in an ocean. There seems to have been an increase in bastards born to servants, judging by the numbers of foundlings left outside the church doors. This was probably more indicative of rising grain prices than what these servants believed. Likewise, more and more couples resorted to contraception, but this may have reflected an upward valuation of children. The diminution in testamentary demand for masses for the repose of one's soul may speak to changes in how people regarded their own deaths, with the Church failing to convince them of the imminence of hellfire. It has been equally well argued that, urban sophisticates apart, most people may have had a more intelligent and personal comprehension of their faith than at any time since the Middle Age.6

The clerical Estate was self-administering and self-taxing. Its 130,000 members were exempt from taxation, instead voting 'free gifts', amounting to up to 12 per cent of their revenues, at its five-yearly General Assemblies to . . .


Excerpted from Earthly Powers by Michael Burleigh Copyright © 2006 by Michael Burleigh. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Age of reason, age of faith 23
2 The church and the revolution 48
3 Puritans thinking they are Spartans run amok in eighteenth-century Paris 67
4 The alliance of throne and altar in restoration Europe 112
5 Chosen peoples : political messianism and nationalism 144
6 Century of faiths 199
7 New men and sacred violence in late-nineteenth-century Russia 276
8 Rendering unto Caesar : church versus state, state versus church 311
9 The churches and industrial society 365
10 Apocalypse 1914 425
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