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by Daniel J. Mahoney
Michael Burleigh, a distinguished English historian, is the author of a remarkable trilogy on the “political religions” that have been the scourge of late modernity. In his authoritative The Third Reich: A New History (2000)1 Burleigh studied Nazi Germany as a form of totalitarian society.
In doing so, he rehabilitated the category of “political religion” as the indispensable interpretive framework for deciphering the National Socialist enigma. That book provides a detailed account of the “moral breakdowns and transformations of an advanced industrial society,” one where Hitler’s “rage against the world was capable of infinite generalization.” Burleigh eloquently locates the atavistic modernism at the heart of National Socialism: Nazi ideology offered redemption from a national ontological crisis, to which it was attracted like a predatory shark to blood. . . . It lacked Communism’s deferred, but dialectically assured, ‘happy ending,’ and was haunted by and suffused with apocalyptic imaginings and beliefs which were self-consciously pagan and primitive. Although it paradoxically claimed to speak the language of applied reason . . . Nazism had one foot in the dark, irrational world of Teutonic myth. (TTR, 12)
In the Introduction to The Third Reich and again in the later volumes of his trilogy, Burleigh expresses his fundamental debts to earlier anti-totalitarian thinkers including Eric Voegelin, Raymond Aron, and Waldemar Gurian. They were among the first to confront this strange phenomenon of “political religion” in its hypermodernist manifestations. With their help, Burleigh explores what the early twentieth- century Italian Catholic statesman and political thinker Luigi Sturzo called the “abusive exploitation of the human religious sentiment” by the totalitarian ideologies of our time. Burleigh’s eloquently written books are informed by impressive erudition and by deep moral seriousness, but he is not a philosophic historian in the manner of those such as Alain Besançon and Martin Malia who have delved deeply into the intellectual origins and the elusive “pseudo-reality” posited by totalitarian ideology.2 He is, instead, an anti-totalitarian historian of evident theistic and Christian conviction.
Burleigh shows how National Socialism was founded on an almost unimaginable demonic willfulness, with a monstrous disregard for “charity, reason, and skepticism.” Like its frère-ennemi Bolshevism, Nazism aimed to create a “New Man” who in this case intensified the evils of the “old Adam” and who, as with Bolshevism, would discard the moral limits that are integral to any modicum of decency and civilized human existence. In Burleigh’s capacious view, the Holocaust “does not exhaust everything there is to say about National Socialism.” But this crime that cried out to heaven was indeed the horrific logical consequence of a fevered social doctrine that reduced man to a “beast of prey” and that rejected any superintending principle above the human will.