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Seattle Catholic
A Journal of Catholic News and Views
12 Apr 2006

Earthly Powers
The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe, from the French Revolution to the Great War
Michael Burleigh (Harper Collins, 2005)

reviewed by Walter M. Hudson

Earthly Powers

Traditionally-minded Catholics need to have a good appreciation and understanding, not just of recent history, such as that of Vatican Council II and its aftermath, but of events and circumstances that long predate the last half-century. A new book by Michael Burleigh helps provide needed perspective and context. Burleigh is a distinguished British historian who has previously written a well-received and comprehensive history of the Third Reich. In his latest book, Earthly Powers, he goes back to the nineteenth century — more specifically, the period that runs from the French Revolution's outbreak in 1789 to the First World War — in order to uncover the origins of such nationalist extremism. His work is an intellectual history in the best sense, neither polemic nor apologia. It is challenging but accessible, in the way the best English intellectual history (such as Christopher Dawson's) is, and in the way so much of the continental (and especially German) variety is not. And though he sympathizes and at times even praises Catholic leaders and thinkers during the era, he writes of the inevitable complications of history, and no one escapes scrutiny or criticism.

Earthly Powers is a "history of European secularization" that nonetheless reveals how that secularized world retained its religious impulses. Burleigh's book thus gives the lie to the Marxist historians who, for so long, dismissed religion as a mere epiphenomenon. Rather, Burleigh's history more resembles those of Dawson (whom Burleigh admiringly quotes at the beginning of the book). It was Dawson who compellingly made the case that the religious impulse in man was deep, ineradicable, and fundamentally necessary to his existence as a human being.

Again and again throughout the book, Burleigh shows us how rhetoric, symbols, and signs were emplaced during the nineteenth century to foster nation- and state-worship. He reveals how the discourse of the French Revolution was filled to the brim with religious terminology — "Words like catechism, credo, fanatical, gospel, martyr, missionary, propaganda, sacrament, sermon, zealot, were transferred from a religious to a political context." (81) He shows us that the manifesto of the "Young Italy" movement of Mazzini in the first half of the nineteenth century was "saturated with words like apostolate, belief, creed, crusade, enthusiasm, faith, incarnation, martyrs, mission, purification, regeneration, religion, sacred, sacrifice, salvation…" (188) This effort to transform Europe into a continent of nation worshippers in the words of Burleigh "rivaled Europe's conversion to Christianity" in its ambition and scope: "[N]ationalists adapted religious exemplars, ranging from secular catechisms to images of St. Joan of Arc, or sought to invest secular historical events and personalities, such as Garibaldi, with a vicarious sacredness that would have made the man himself whirr in his grave." (145)

Burleigh also excavates the messianic and religious impulse of Marxism, something that has long embarrassed Marxist historians. Indeed early Communists sought to "claim an identical etymological root between Communism and communion[!]" (244) Early Communist journals showing pictures of Christ crushing the serpent of individual 'egoism' beneath His feet. It was only later that Marx and Engels excised this overt religious language from the seminal texts of Communism ("manifesto" for example replacing more religious sounding terms such as "principles' or even 'catechism'). As Burleigh puts it:

It is relatively easy to transpose some of the key terms from the Judaeo-Christian heritage to Marxism: 'consciousness' (soul), 'comrades' (faithful), 'capitalist' (sinner), 'devil' (counter-revolutionary), 'proletariat' (chosen people) and 'classless society' (paradise)." (250)

Communism, as well as nationalism, was a new "creed" requiring fervor and devotion.

The God of Revolution

How did this secularization (or better put, the creation of these "secular religions") come about? Burleigh begins in the pre-Revolutionary France of Louis XVI. He portrays the Catholic Church during the period as imperfect, but by no means venal or corrupt. The priests lived simply and worked hard to provide for the faithful; the bishops were, for the most part, competent administrators; the nuns worked tirelessly to care for the sick. Furthermore, the enormous effort following Trent to educate the faithful had largely worked: most had an intelligent awareness of their faith. France in the eighteenth century was a deeply religious nation, with the faith interwoven into every part of French life and state government.

Yet, in so intertwining itself with the state, the Church ran an enormous risk. And the result was Gallicanism — which meant that in essential elements, the Church was dictated to by the king on matters that should have been its province only. If the pre-Revolutionary Church in France was compromised, this was hardly unusual in Enlightenment Europe. The popes of the era were deeply beholden to the crowns of Europe, who often told the Pope what to do and whom to appoint to high clerical office.

In France, intrigues and competitions among Jesuits, Jansenists, and philosophes weakened the Church. The Jesuits were viewed as amoral and unpatriotic, the Jansenists near-heretical and seditious, and the philosophes cynical and contemptuous of Catholicism. But the historical plot remained complicated. As Burleigh notes, clerics avidly read the philosophes, Jesuits wrote approvingly of Diderot's Encylopedia, and the "most Catholic King," Louis XVI, read Montesquieu and Voltaire while imprisoned awaiting his trial and subsequent execution.

A compromised and weakened Church existed at the dawn of the French Revolution and was prey for those who sought its total destruction. But in the tumultuous period that followed, there was no casting off the shackles of religious faith. Rather, the Revolutionaries adopted a new faith. Burleigh points out that Talleyrand celebrated the mass on the "Altar of the Fatherland" on the Champs de Mars. Indeed, most clerics actually went along with various nationalized religious festivals. Thousands of clergy married (the so-called Constitutional Clergy); many simply gave up their vocations altogether, instead joining the Army. Priests (using language eerily similar to religious who laicized following Vatican II) abandoned the Church for France. In the words of one abjuring cleric: "Now that the state of priesthood contravenes the happiness of the people, and hinders the progress of the Revolution, I abdicate from it and throw myself into the arms of society." (66)

Yet the Revolution was not necessarily embraced by the poor and middling, who sought to keep their ancient faith. Burleigh minces no words in describing the "genocide" that the Revolutionaries inflicted on the Vendée and elsewhere, noting that a third of the population of the Vendée was exterminated, roughly equivalent to Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. Pace Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm who tended to downplay the Terror as modest, Burleigh shows the incarnadine festival as it really was: "While the guillotine fell so frenziedly that the execution site became a health hazard, the terrorists … [used] cannonfire to gun down large batches of prisoners, with swordsmen finishing off those left half dead by rounds of grapeshot." (99)

Restoration, the Emergence of Nationalism, and the Triumph of the State

In large part due to lay faithful who remained loyal to the traditional ways, Catholicism survived — and even revived mightily during the Restoration period (1815-1848), when elites attempted to revive so-called "throne and altar" Catholicism.

Unfortunately, this reaction had its own dangers, and helped to foster the near-sanctification of the state. Thus, one French bishop stated that his flock needed to obey "whomever derives his sovereign power from above, however evil his motives, whatever his religious beliefs, whatever the abuses, apparent or real, of his government, and however impious and tyrannical the laws he enacts in order to pervert you." (116)

Throne and altar Catholicism of Restoration Europe thus held its own insidious temptations. Steering the Petrine barque between the Scylla of "throne and altar" entanglement and hyper-nationalism as well as the Charybdis of Lammenais liberalism was a great challenge of the nineteenth century popes. One result was Pius IX's thunderous denunciation of liberalism in 1864's Syllabus of Errors. One can argue about its significance and usefulness (Burleigh clearly thinks it was overreaching and ultimately counterproductive), but what is often forgotten is that Pius also denounced in article 39 of the Syllabus the notion that 'the State, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits." (317) In this sense, Pius IX was no reactionary at all, but a far-seeing visionary who discerned the pattern of the remainder of the century, as well as the next.

This denunciation was often ignored in the nineteenth century as nationalist movements sought to simultaneously create new nation-states at the expense of the Church. In Germany, the first literally named 'culture war,' Bismarck's Kulturkampf, was seen by the Church as a struggle for civilization. In France in the same way following, public spaces began to fill with republican symbolism after the fall of Napoleon III and the formation of the Third Republic.

In both countries, anti-Catholic campaigns somewhat abated after Leo XIII assumed the papacy. However, intervening events in France, to include the disastrous Dreyfus affair (which, as Burleigh notes, was far more the fault of the French Army than the Church) led to ultimate defeat — the 1905 Separation Law that forever removed the Church as a significant force in French political life. In Germany, even after the Kulturkampf essentially ended (as at best a draw for Bismarck), the idol of nationalism remained more powerful than ever, manifested in Prussian militarism and dreams of German power. On the eve of war in 1914, the Caesaro-Papism of Emperor Wilhelm II (he was in fact supreme bishop of the Prussian Lutheran Church) reached dizzying heights. "Sectarian" religion was subordinated to the German state as it mobilized for war.

As one pastor in Hanover stated, "When the day of mobilization had fully come, there were Germans all together in unity — villagers and city dwellers, conservatives and freethinkers, Social Democrats and Alsatians, [Hanoverian] Guelphs and Poles, Protestants and Catholics. Then suddenly there occurred a rushing from heaven. Like a powerful wind it swept away all party strife and fraternal bickering…and the Kaiser gave this unanimity the most appropriate expression: 'I see no more parties. I see only Germans." (439)

And so in the Second Reich, the apotheosis of the nation-state was complete, with Christian faith relegated to simply one in a laundry list of factions, parties, and provinces. Europe lurched head-long into the first catastrophe of the twentieth century, with much worse to follow.

Burleigh's erudition can seem at times prolix, for the book swarms with ideas, events, and people. Perhaps as a result, while Burleigh takes pains to present the tangled threads of history, even he slips into simple caricature from time to time. I strongly demur, for example, when he writes that 'modernism' was more or less a battle by Pius X against reconciliation with "democracy and science," or that Pius X's anti-Modernist campaign was "proto-Stalinist." (432) Modernism was more insidious and about much more than simply a conflict with "democracy and science," and Modernism predated Pius X's reign by many years (Leo XIII, whom Burleigh rightly admires, also feared it but delayed in taking action against it. Pius X did not.)

Nonetheless, Burleigh has written an important and challenging work of history. Earthly Powers ends with Benedict XV and a young Vatican diplomat named Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, vainly attempting to broker a peace in a continent seemingly driven insane by nationalist frenzy and unprecedented battlefield carnage. Benedict's proposals were overwhelmingly rejected by the Allies on the grounds that the proposal excessively favored the Germans. The Allies themselves would help set the conditions for an even greater catastrophe that would ultimately engulf the world and kill tens of millions of innocent people, though that goes beyond the scope of this book. In fact, there will be a succeeding volume to Earthly Powers in which Burleigh will link the themes here to "totalitarian political religions and beyond." (xi) Needless to say, if it as erudite and provocative as this work, it will be a worthy successor.



1 Michael Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History (New York, 2001).
2 Hobsbawm notes, for example, that when compared to the massacres of the Paris Commune in 1871, "[the Terror's] mass killings were relatively modest, 17,000 official executions in fourteen months." Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution (New York, 2d Ed. 1996), p. 68
3 For a fairer appreciation of Pius X's stance towards Modernism (as well as his personal charity towards Modernists themselves), see Yves Chiron, St. Pius X: Restorer of the Church, (Kansas City, 2002), especially ch. 8, The Struggle Against Modernism."
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