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 for contending 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.