Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror

by Michael Burleigh

Beginning with the chaotic post-World War I landscape, in which religious belief was one way of reordering a world knocked off its axis, Sacred Causes is a penetrating critique of how religion has often been camouflaged by politics. All the bloody regimes and movements of the twentieth century are masterfully captured here, from Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany… See more details below


Beginning with the chaotic post-World War I landscape, in which religious belief was one way of reordering a world knocked off its axis, Sacred Causes is a penetrating critique of how religion has often been camouflaged by politics. All the bloody regimes and movements of the twentieth century are masterfully captured here, from Stalin's Soviet Union, Hitler's Germany, Mussolini's Italy, and Franco's Spain through to the modern scourge of terrorism. Eloquently and persuasively combining an authoritative survey of history with a timely reminder of the dangers of radical secularism, Burleigh asks why no one foresaw the religious implications of massive Third World immigration, and he deftly investigates what are now driving calls for a civic religion to counter the terrorist threats that have so shocked the West.

About the Author:
Michael Burleigh is the author of Earthly Powers and The Third Reich, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. He is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a frequent contributor to The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In a dazzling display of erudition, British historian Burleigh completes his two-volume chronicle of the interaction between religion and politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the present. The first book, Earthly Powers(2006), took the story to World War I, concentrating on the battle for and against secularization in the 19th century, while this installment carries the story to the present. Though best known for his books on Germany, including the prize-winning The Third Reich(2001), Burleigh's remarkable breadth of knowledge is manifest in his trenchant analysis of the role of religion in a number of European countries and the Soviet Union. He thoroughly reviews totalitarian attacks on religion and its misuse by Nazis, Fascists and Communists. Burleigh's opinions are forceful, especially when he condemns a prevalent "fantasy view" of Ireland that is blind to the "gangsters of the Provisional IRA" who are responsible for "bullying, intimidating and killing others." He colorfully criticizes "politicians in Western democracies [who] treat high office as pigs regard their troughs." Burleigh also upbraids critics of Pius XII, claiming that the controversial pope actually did a good deal to save and shelter Jews during the Holocaust. Use of odd words such as "erastianism" and "soteriological" detract from what is otherwise a rewarding example of intellectual history. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Foreign Affairs
With great erudition and an eye for strange characters who offerspiritual revelation with a political tinge, Burleigh takes up the story of religion in international (although mainly European) politics where his previous book, Earthly Powers, left off. This provides a fascinating analysis of the interaction of the church with the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. He is not the first to consider communism, fascism, and Nazism as political religions, but he makes that case with style, demonstrating how the propagandists knowingly picked up on religious symbols and themes. More controversially, Burleigh mounts a vigorous defense of the Catholic Church's role in World War II, arguing that it mitigated some of the worst effects of the Holocaust. He also deplores the loss of religious conviction in the West. Secular liberalism, in his view, has been surprised and confused by the religious turn in contemporary international politics -- and, as a result, is now struggling to cope with radical Islam.
Kirkus Reviews
Mix monotheisms and mammon, and you have an unholy mess-and the present age. So the reader might conclude after touring British historian Burleigh's continuation of the project begun in Earthly Powers (2006): to "write a coherent history of modern Europe primarily organized around issues of mind and spirit rather than the merely material." World War I brought psychic trauma that saw Europe and America reviving the deity while at the same time religion was losing its force; afterward, in an era of revolution and totalitarianism, many churches became partnered with the authoritarian state, driving liberals and libertarians further away. The less tolerant states made secular religions of themselves; thus Burleigh entertains the notion that a future archaeologist might one day conclude that early-20th-century Europe "witnessed a regression to the age of megaliths and funerary barrows before it succumbed to a more general primitive fury." Atheists became members of the sanctified Bolshevik church, Lutheran pastors became priests of Nazism, Catholic leaders became complicit in crimes against humanity, even as the totalitarian regimes set about on a thorough program of "de-Christianization and massacres"; the first half of the century was a strange time indeed. The second half saw further strange bedfellowing, as with the rise of the European Christian Democratic parties, "whose sole raison d'etre was to occupy and hang on to power at any price." Burleigh casts a cold eye on all these regrettable goings-on, heating up when he arrives at the 1960s, whereon he fulminates about the general going to hell of Western civilization as "chippy girls like Cilla Black, Lulu, and Twiggy set forth on theirforty years of stardom." The turn in mood seems fitting, though, for Burleigh closes with an unhappy consideration of the current clash of civilizations and what he suggests is an official European habit of conceding whenever tasked by aggrieved religious minorities. Of a piece with Paul Johnson's Modern Times and other conservative-tending intellectual histories.
The Wall Street Journal
“A fascinating chronicle.”
The American Conservative
“Burleigh has a talent, reminiscent of Paul Johnson, for digging up long-forgotten historical episodes.”
The Economist
“A clever, honest and often funny analysis of the confrontation throughout the 20th century between religion and politics.”
The Financial Times
“Wonderful. . . . Sacred Causes is a challenging history book with the power to scandalise its readers.”
Amanda Foreman
“Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes is one of the most important books of the decade.”
Adam Kirsch
“It is a tribute to Mr. Burleigh’s intellectual passion that . . . he manages to challenge and enlighten.”
Tony Judt
“Michael Burleigh writes well about the woolly, messianic religiosity of Nazism in particular.”
Max Hastings
“Impressive. . . . Burleigh’s book deserves the widest possible readership.”
Noel Malcolm
“Compelling. . . . For all his acerbity, this author remains a humane presence throughout his book.”
Dominic Sandbrook
“A magnificent history of the 20th century. . . . A terrifically entertaining book.”
Rod Liddle
“History is rarely rendered in such thrilling breadth, with such wit or with such terrible topicality.”
Simon Heffer
“Burleigh’s book is epic in its range…refreshingly unjudgemental. . . . This brilliant book proves that history has no end.”
Simon Sebag Montefiore
“Beautifully written, fearlessly outspoken, full of superb portraits of heroes and monsters, Sacred Causes is an exuberant tour-de-force.”
Alex Butterworth
“Burleigh’s study of secular hubris may well be judged to be the most significant work of history published this decade.”
John Gray
“Sacred Causes is most useful where it uncovers the hidden roots of 20th-century totalitarianism.”
JG Ballard
“Brilliant. . . . A powerful indictment of our uneasy times.”

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.31(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.

Read an Excerpt

Sacred Causes

The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror
By Michael Burleigh

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Michael Burleigh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780060580957

Chapter One

'Distress of Nations and Perplexity':
Europe after the Great War

I 'have you news of my boy jack?'

Some future archaeologist, should all written records vanish, may speculate that early-twentieth-century Europe witnessed a regression to the age of megaliths and funerary barrows before it succumbed to a more general primitive fury. The extent of this commemorative enterprise can be gauged from the fact that each of France's 35,000 communes erected a war memorial, mainly between 1919 and 1924, as did most of the parish churches, with a special chapel, plaque or stained-glass window dedicated to local representatives of the two million French war dead.1 Such memorials proliferated across the continent and beyond, with memorial arches, cenotaphs, obelisks, ossuaries and crosses, and plinths peopled by eyeless poilus and tommies in bronze or stone. At Douaumont, Hartmanwillersdorf or Lorette, imposing memorials marked these vast necropolises for the dead. The continent's culture was more generally permeated by the loss of nine million men in a conflict that had become maniacal in its relentless destructiveness. There were a furthertwenty-eight million wounded and millions too who had experienced captivity. The dead left three million widows, not including women they might have married, and, on one calculation, six million fatherless children, not to speak of tens of millions of grieving parents and grandparents, for the war burned its way up and down the generations with heedless ferocity. Total war also struck directly at civilians, whether in the form of burned villages, reprisal shootings and the sinking of merchant ships, or as naval blockades gradually decimated entire populations through calculated starvation.

Myriad individual griefs welled into a greater sense of public loss, in some quarters sentimentalised as a culturally significant 'lost generation'—although plenty of butcher's boys and postmen were 'lost' as well as minor painters and poets. The querulous homosexual Oxford don A. L. Rowse remembered an encounter from his schooldays during the unveiling of a war memorial:

A little man came up to me and started talking in a rambling way about his son who was killed. I think the poor fellow was for the moment carried away with sorrow. He said 'Sidney Herbert—Sidney Herbert—you know they called him Sidney Herbert, but really he was called Sidney Hubert: he was my boy. He was killed in the War—yes: I thought you would like to know.' And he went on like that till I dared not stay any longer with him.2

Rudyard Kipling lost his son John, a subaltern in the Irish Guards, at the battle of Loos in 1915. John's (or 'Jack's') body was never found; it was presumed to have disappeared during a German bombardment, along with half of the British war dead, whose bodies remained unrecovered. Kipling wrote 'My boy Jack' to express his desolation:

'Have you news of my boy Jack?'
Not this tide.
'When d'you think that he'll come back?'
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide . . .
'Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?'
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind—
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Possessed even in old age of indefatigable energy, fuelled by implacable hatreds not exclusively exhausted by the Germans, Kipling became a leading member of the Imperial War Graves Commission, overseeing the creation of decorous cemeteries and memorials to John and his kind. They include the Tyne Cot Memorial, where twenty-one-year-old Lieutenant James Emil Burleigh MC of the 12th Battalion Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders is remembered 'with honour', while my other uncle, Lieutenant Robert Burleigh, twenty-three years old, of the Royal Flying Corps, lies in Knightsbridge Cemetery at Mesnil-Martinsart. For others the war left no mortal remains to bury.

Powerful emotions once accompanied monuments experienced nowadays in a blur of traffic—such as the Artillery memorial in London's busy Marble Arch or the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Others are too modest to attract a second glance unless one consciously seeks them out, or they have disappeared into the uncertainty that eventually disperses the material effects of even the most scrupulous. For years after the war, reminders of this colossal tragedy lay in drawers or were displayed on mantelpieces and sideboards: photographs of sons, brothers, husbands, uncles in uniform; bundles of letters and field postcards; civilian clothes and juvenilia, augmented by fragments of the soldier's life—perhaps a ring, wristwatch or lucky charm that had brought no luck—if relatives were so fortunate.

The final British war memorial was unveiled in July 1939 at the seaside resort of Mumbles in Wales, the last summer before Europe's civil war resumed on a larger scale. Memorials included simple stone markers in obscure villages; plaques in Oxford college chapels and public schools (at Repton alone 355 alumni had perished) or on the walls of metropolitan stations, recalling 19,000 dead railwaymen; and last, but not least, the two and a half thousand cemeteries that transformed French hectares into permanent corners of England and its dominions.3

Memorialising the dead evolved from practices that initially accompanied armies of the willing. In Britain, rolls of honour, recording the names of pre-1916 volunteers, mutated into lists of the dead, whose names appeared on separate tablets, or proliferated below an ominous black line separating them from men still alive. Primitive street shrines were created in the East End of London, often at the prompting of the same Anglo-Catholic clergy who had introduced settlements into those dismal areas. These were simple affairs of names, illustrative kitsch clipped from the newspapers, and arrangements of wilting flowers, to which more puritanically minded clerics would object at their peril, for the shrines protected men at the front. Permanent memorials, intended to focus mass bereavement, superseded these impromptu shrines, although resort to spiritualists, to which modern technologies had given an enormous fillip since the late nineteenth century, suggests a reluctance to accept that the dead were beyond human contact regardless of disapproval by the Church of England.


Excerpted from Sacred Causes by Michael Burleigh Copyright © 2007 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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