Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War
By Michael Burleigh
576pp | HarperCollins | ISBN: 0-060-58093-3 | 2005 | £25 / US$29.95

The author, an historian whose previous research has largely centred on Germany before and during the Third Reich, had initially intended this work to include recent, notorious “political religions”. This would have traced the concept from the French Revolution to its 19th and 20th century progeny: Communism, Fascism and National Socialism; the regimes of Lenin and Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. However, the huge amount of material this would have involved prompted Burleigh to end this volume at the Great War; a projected second volume will deal with later developments.

The French Revolution, signalling the collapse of the ancien regime and the power of the Catholic Church in France, is an obvious starting point for such an historical investigation, and the author builds a detailed case for the disturbing “religious” aspects of Jacobinism. In successive legislative steps, between 1789 and 1793 the National Assembly dismantled the elaborate structure of the Church and laicised the state, so that by 1794 only 150 of France’s 40,000 pre-revolutionary parishes were still able to celebrate Mass. Yet old habits of mind die hard; as Burleigh comments ironically: “Eighteen centuries did not disappear from men’s characters just by declaring it to be Year II.”  The cathedral of Notre Dame was changed to the “Temple of Reason” and the Festival of the Unity and Indivisibility of the Republic of 1793 was devised with all the ludicrous pomp the Jacobins could devise. More significantly, the language adopted by the Revolution was, in the author’s words, “saturated with religious terminology: words like ‘catechism’, ‘credo’, ‘gospel’, ‘martyr’, ‘missionary’, ‘sacrament’, ‘sermon’”.

David's A Jacobin writer with some historical understanding wrote at the time: “How was the Christian religion established? By the preaching of the apostles of the Gospel. How can we firmly establish the Constitution? By the mission of the apostles of liberty and equality.” The genius of the revolutionary artist, Jacques-Louis David, was harnessed to the revolutionary cause; in his most famous painting on the death of Marat – illustrated in this book along with other potent images that show a graphic alignment between religious and political iconography. He managed to turn the fanatical Jacobin into a Christ-like martyr. Artists are a revealing barometer of the cultural forces behind political events; David challenged his fellow painters: “Woe to the artists whose spirit will not be inflamed when embraced by such powerful causes!”

After the Revolution came Napoleon, a pragmatist of protean capacity. Having no religion himself except for the worship of power, nevertheless he instinctively recognised its importance in peoples’ lives: “It was by making myself a Catholic that I won the war in the Vendée, by making myself a Moslem that I established myself in Egypt… If I were to govern a nation of Jews, I would rebuild the Temple of Solomon,” he cynically observed – an early example of multiculturalism. After Napoleon, Burleigh provides a comprehensive account of how the different European countries re-established themselves following the trauma of the Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. It was recognised that “religion restored seemed a compelling alternative to reason rampant, since the logic of the latter seemed to have culminated in the Terror”. Church and state were in alliance as the foundation of legitimate authority; as Edmund Burke, the great Irish political philosopher, stated: “We know and, what is better, we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society…”

Hitler as Joan of Arc During the 19th century, nationalism — and the unifications of Germany and Italy — began to take on a powerful religious coloration. Where state religion was seen to reflect the (moribund) establishment, nationalism captured the hearts and minds of men. As Talleyrand observed, the unification of Germany was the “nationalists’ cry, their doctrine, their religion”. Hegel opined that “Man must… venerate the state as a secular deity.” Spain and Ireland invented secular “catechisms” and Garibaldi wrote his own “Ten Commandments” beginning with “1. I am Giuseppe Garibaldi your General. 2. Thou shalt not be a soldier of the General’s in vain.” As the century progressed Marx, for whom religion was “the opium of the people”, transposed Judaeo-Christian terms in the “doctrine” of Marxism: the “soul” became “consciousness”, the “faithful” became “comrades”, “sinners” became “capitalists”, “paradise” became “the classless society”, “the chosen people” became the “proletariat” and the “devil” became “counter-revolutionaries”. Jacobin fanaticism and pseudo-religious zeal had returned in a compelling new form.

Hitler as John the Baptist Burleigh cites many well-known thinkers in his survey: Raymond Aron, Machiavelli, Joseph de Maistre, Auguste Comte as well as Catholics such as Cardinal Manning, Christopher Dawson and Pope Leo XIII, among others. He presents an enormous amount of evidence to show the complex interweave between the apparently ineradicable religious instinct of mankind and the manner in which it can be adapted or metamorphosed into a political creed. However, he does not reflect more deeply on why the religious instinct appears innate and draw appropriate conclusions. He is sympathetic to good Christians, such as the great Victorian social reformer Lord Shaftesbury, and laments the present decline in civic culture that was so obvious a feature of 19th century Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. The violence of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks is clearly abhorrent to him. But without a doctrine of original sin or the need for redemption, he is unable to place events in a wider context. For him the historical landscape is a level playing field. Although he quotes Eric Voegelin’s remark (against the Nazis) that “Resistance against a satanical substance that is not only morally but also religiously evil can only be derived from an equally strong, religiously good force. One cannot fight a satanical force with morality and humanity alone”, for Burleigh this is simply thought “expressed in theological terms”, nothing more.

His scholarship is formidable and his research impeccable, yet the common reader is left in puzzlement. In his social encyclical, Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II observes: “The theological dimension is needed both for interpreting and for solving present day problems in human society”. What this weighty volume lacks is this deeper interpretation. After all, the prophetic G.K.Chesterton once said that when men cease to believe in God, they will believe anything. The author demonstrates this most satisfactorily – but did we not know this already? I would suggest that Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, with its brilliant description of the good and evil men caught up in the French Revolution, offers surer moral signposts to guide the general reader. It is also hard to read through Burleigh’s opaque and contorted style; he has a weakness for ugly neologisms such as “scientistic” and “biologistic”. Perhaps the second volume, which will investigate “the sinister movements that tapped into more atavistic levels of the human psyche”, will go beyond this study, which threatens to sink beneath the weight of its learning.

Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.