Books: Our Heavenly Leader, Hallowed Be Thy Name ; the French Revolution Was a New Kind of Religion, One without God: Historian Michael Burleigh Won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 'The Third Reich' " but Still Thinks We're All Too Fixated on the Nazis. Mark Bostridge Meets Him to Discuss His Latest Work, an Examination of the Way Politics Has Co-Opted Religion to Create Poisonous Creeds
Bostridge, Mark, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
When Michael Burleigh's 1,000-page history of The Third Reich was published five years ago, his fellow historian Niall Ferguson " a member of a profession not easily given to backslapping compliments " called it 'the product of authentic historical genius'. The Third Reich went on to win the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction, was translated into 15 languages ('even Estonian', Burleigh notes), and to date has sold over 250,000 copies. Yet both Burleigh and his publishers were taken unawares by the book's runaway success. For a start, Burleigh's treatment of the Nazi regime refused to cater for what he has described as 'the decadent appetite for the lurid, which is regrettably part of contemporary interest in the subject'. If anything, he says now, he was conscious of 'trying to undermine readers' interest in the subject'.
Instead, based on the archival research he'd been pursuing for more than a decade, and on his reading of the massive literature generated by Nazi Germany (over 55,000 titles for the subject of one chapter alone), the book set out to view Nazism as a form of political religion. This wasn't a novel approach. A number of contemporaries had viewed Hitler as a fanatical preacher, some going so far as to compare him to the Anabaptist sectarians who spread terror in parts of 16th-century Germany. Furthermore, the idea of Nazism as a secularised religion, emerging after the apocalypse of the First World War, which intensified pseudo-religious strains in politics, has a distinguished intellectual lineage.
One of Michael Burleigh's heroes, and a decisive influence on his writing, is the political scientist Eric Voegelin, who fled his academic post in Vienna on the eve of the Anschluss, and whose book, The Political Religions, makes what is for Burleigh the 'crucial distinction': between 'world-transcendent' and 'world-immanent' religions. According to Voegelin, the first 'world-immanent' religion was introduced in Ancient Egypt in about 1,376BC under the Pharaoh Amenhotep IV who, adopting the name Akhenaton, declared himself the son of the sun god Aton. Voegelin's book ends with a depiction of Adolf Hitler as Akhenaton modernised, a 'sun-lit 'Fuhrer' bursting through the clouds over Greater Germany'. Burleigh's own seminal work on the Third Reich shows how an 'emphatically this-worldly' political religion caricatured fundamental patterns of religious belief, and creating a congregation of the faithful and 'a specific social order', sanctified by Providence. Anyone opposing this belief was not simply in error, but fit for extinction.
Burleigh has been vocal lately in his criticism of what he regards as Britain's unhealthy obsession with the Nazis. He is quick to point out that this obsession is equally prevalent in Germany ('just open any copy of Der Spiegel or Die Zeit'), and earlier this year he criticised the resurgence of 'the old brown gang' in Downfall, Oliver Hirschbiegel's film of Hitler's last days, as evidence of the continuing addiction. However, he commends the German school curriculum for its broad historical range, allowing German children to acquire a balanced understanding 'of the complex European history that has produced us all'. This is in stark contrast to the emphasis on the Nazi era found in history teaching in British schools, which Burleigh has described as 'peculiarly appealing to an adolescent mindset attracted to the kitschy glamour of swastikas and jackboots'. Despite having made a distinguished contribution of his own to television coverage of the Nazis " Selling Murder, a Channel Four film about the 'snuff movies' made by Nazi 'euthanasacrats', won him the British Film Institute's Award for Archival Achievement " Burleigh lays much of the blame for our national obsession at the door of the BBC, which has produced a string of documentary films about the Nazis, to the exclusion of other major themes from European history. …