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“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion” - Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood
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Article Index
“The Abusive Exploitation of the Human Religious Sentiment”: Michael Burleigh as Historian of “Political Religion”
The Church and the New Barbarism
The Theory and Practice of Political Religion
Burleigh’s Project
The Totalitarian Political Religions
The Church Between Liberalism and Totalitarianism
Today’s World: Islam and Secular Europe
Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood
Aron’s Faith Without Illusions
All Pages

Paying Tribute to Those Who Understood

In all the volumes of his trilogy Burleigh pays tribute to a series of thinkers “who saw clearly . . . what these movements and regimes were,” who understood without equivocation their pretenses to change reality, their psychological commonalities, and their support for the most hyperbolic violence. The fact that Burleigh provides nearly identical tributes in all three books suggests not only the extent of his debt to the insights of these thinkers but also the sad fact that these wise and humane theorist-witnesses are largely unknown or ignored in “mainstream” intellectual quarters today. It is an indictment of the academy that apologists for European totalitarianism such as the Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukacs or the French “existentialist” Jean-Paul Sartre remain prominent in our intellectual life while those who truly illuminated the tragedies of the age are cast into obscurity by the gatekeepers of intellectual prestige. Waldemar Gurian (1902–54) is a particularly important influence on Burleigh.

This Russian Jewish convert to Catholicism came with his mother to Germany in 1912 and fl ed the country in 1934 when it became apparent that he was being targeted by the Nazi regime. The author of an incisive critique of Communist theory and practice (Bolshevism: Theory and Practice [1932]), he was a scourge of Brown and Red totalitarianism alike. From his Swiss exile in 1936 he published the massive Hitler and the Christians, warning Christians that the Nazis would do their best to promote their racialist doctrines under the more palatable guise of a restoration of the spirit of Christian Germany against the alleged perfidies of the Jews. Burleigh rightly credits Gurian with “the most important analysis of Nazi Germany from a Catholic point of view.” Gurian went on to become the founder of the Review of Politics at Notre Dame, where he brought the penetrating thought of the best European writers (including Eric Voegelin, Jacques Maritain, Leo Strauss, and Hannah Arendt) to bear on “the crisis of our time.”

Burleigh is also deeply indebted to the various efforts of Eric Voegelin (1901–85) to come to terms with totalitarianism. Recognizing that “his thought is immensely complicated,” he nonetheless locates “one powerful moral consideration that drove it.” This is an aversion, in Voegelin’s own words, to the ideological “swindlers” who gained a “pseudo-identity through asserting one’s power,” through participating in or justifying mass murder. Burleigh highlights Voegelin’s critique of Nazi “racial science” as well as his affirmation, simultaneously moral and scientific, of “the fundamental commonalities between human beings across reaches of time.” Like Voegelin, Burleigh appreciates that “[e]vil (is) a palpable actor in the world” and that the “demoralization” of social science leaves scholars “emasculated” before “evil, immoral, and unethical political ideologies.”

Last Updated on Friday, 09 October 2009 13:00