SACRED CAUSES by Michael Burleigh


The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror
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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’être 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 their forty 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.

Pub Date: March 1st, 2007
ISBN: 0-06-058095-X
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2006


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