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on 4 March 2017
This is a wonderfully detailed account of the interaction between religion and politics between the French Revolution (1789 onwards) and the First World War. Be aware, however, that it does not always focus on the conflict between religion and politics, recognising, in a fair and balanced way, the negative and sometimes wicked behaviour of atheist movements as well as the positive effects of both religion and atheism
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on 14 March 2006
Michael Burleigh has written a fine history of religion in Europe from the horrors of th French Revolution to those of the trenches of the first World War and its influence on politics, particularly the rise of nationalism.
He writes well and with great breadth of learning. You need to have a dictionary to hand. He is no bland academic pretending to an objective neutrality. He is scathingly critical of received Marxist views of history.
He concentrates on the big players, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and Italy. Presumably he sees these as the significant participants. This I believe leads to one glaring omission, The Netherlands, and the Protestants there who gave the best critique of the Enligtenment and the revolution it produced. Groen van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper are never mentioned. Their Anti-Revolutionary Party whose ground breaking alliance with the Catholics led to Kuyper becoming Prime Minister is ignored. Yet the influence of Kuyper continues today beyong his home country. By contrast Burleigh tells us about many people seemingly forgotten by all.
One final minor quibble. Describing English dissenters as going form being sects to churches sounds to me like Anglican prejudice unless the author thinks that sects grow into churches when they enlarge.
But this is a superb history to impove one's understanding of European history.
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VINE VOICEon 17 December 2008
This book, together with Burleigh's "Sacred Causes; Religion and Politics From the European Dictators to Al Quaeda", should be read both as narrative history and as a corrective to the atheistic tradition of Marx - and more recently - Hitchins et.al. which seeks to blame religion for man's inhumanity to man.

It was the eighteenth century "Enlightenment" and the "Age of Reason" which created the murderous regimes of the French Revolution (to which Russian Marxists looked for guidance and example). Reason was a vital watchword in the suppression of opposition, real and imagined, culminating in the extermination of the Vendee (an example of early modern ethnic cleansing) which embarrasses French Governments even to this day. Neither age, nor sex, were spared in the savage killing that characterised the overthrow of the French Monarchy and the Church.

According to Rousseau man was born free and was everywhere in chains. The Revolution he helped beget produced death and disaster in the name of Reason and Liberty. Those who sought to replace traditional institutions came up with discredited alternatives, Marxism, Communism, Saint Simonism, Phrenology, Positivism, Nationalism and Darwinism which poisoned - and still poison - more minds than religion.

Burleigh develops the theory that traditional religion was replaced by secular religion but never quite explores the common political and moral factors involved in both. In the final analysis those who were given power exercised it in much the same brutal way, whatever their political, religious or social persuasion. The common factor is humankind, not the formal institutions to which they belong or doctrines they proclaim. The murderous history of "Earthly Powers" is attributable to humankind itself which sought self gratification through the extermination of others. Today it expresses itself in much the same way as it did 200 years ago.

Burleigh also misunderstands that religion and politics do not intersect, especially in European history. The formal conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity turned a minority persecuted sect into a state religion in which membership became more important than belief. By the Eighteenth century politics and religion in Europe were inextricably interlinked so that attacking the Church was attacking another aspect of the State itself.

There is a sense of irony in that as the nineteenth century wore on churches throughout Europe became sensitive to social issues which expressed itself in missions to the working classes for whom secularisation had produced social darwinism, selfishness and racism. In France and other continental countries it produced rabid anti-semitism and anti-clericalism, neither of which can be regarded as enlightened or products of reason. European Liberalism spawned as much prejudice as the Church it reviled, although Liberals professed to know better.

Ultimately it was politics which triumphed. One set of rulers replaced another, wallowing in power, moving from one extreme to another. The Alliance of Throne and State was replaced by an Alliance of State and Bourgeoisie against religion using "sacred violence" as an excuse for political failure. As Madame Roland said on her way to the guillotine, "Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name." Michael Burleigh's book is a salutary reminder of the history some people would rather forget.
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on 5 July 2007
Burleigh's main thesis is that the human desire to create a utopia here on earth, often religiously-tinged knowingly or otherwise, can unleash ferocious violence and suffering. This argument is not terribly original. In the 1950s, both Czeslaw Milosz (in 'The Captive Mind') and Albert Camus (in 'The Rebel') drew attention to the religious trappings of Communism. Nevertheless, Burleigh brings the empiricism of the historian to bear on the topic, and does so admirably. The main exemplar of secular religion explored in the book is that of French Revolution. Only two of the book's ten chapters deal with the Revolution, but ideas born in the cauldron of this seminal event, especially the secular utopian impulse, reoccurred throughout the following century and more, and therefore inform Burleigh's discussion of the period up to the Great War.
Burleigh does not provide a detailed history of the revolution. Rather, he traces the relationship between the French Catholic Church and the ever more radical revolutionaries in the period from the Estates General to the Reign of Terror. Seeing religion as an obstacle to the enlightenment of man, the revolutionaries aimed at its eradication in the long term and it's domestication in the short term. This, however, did not stop the new establishment using religiously-tinged vocabulary, motifs, art and public spectacles in an attempt to inculcate loyalty to the regime amongst the ordinary French populace. `What is Baptism?' enquired the imaginary interlocutor in a handbook aimed at fostering revolutionary enthusiasm in the young. `It is the regeneration of the French begun on 14 July 1789, and soon supported by the entire French nation,' came the reply. `What is Communion?' `It is the association proposed of all peoples by the French Republic henceforth to form on earth only one family of brothers who no longer recognize or worship any idol or tyrant' (p. 82). Robespierre's wish list of the moral principles that should inform the new Republic, with its unstated belief in the malleability of human nature, anticipates the `New Man' of Soviet propaganda: `In our country we want to substitute ethics for egotism, integrity for honour, principles for habits, duties for protocol, the empire of reason for the tyranny of changing taste...'(p. 91). Yet, when, in 1793 the Catholic inhabitants of the Vendée region, eschewing the revolution's secular religion of liberty, equality and fraternity, rose in rebellion against the increasingly heavy exactions of Paris, the revolutionary forces descended on the region to wage a virtual holy war on the heretics. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by guillotine, cannon fire and mass drowning, in what Burleigh refers to as a `holocaust'. It was a `difficult' mission, in the words of one commander, one that demanded the ordinary soldier renounce `all the affections which nature and gentle habits have made dear to his heart' (p. 99). But somebody had to do it.
Burleigh's sympathy for organized religion is obvious. He sees it as a repository of wisdom that helped people to cope with the complexity of life. He adopts a fairly indulgent attitude towards the autocratic nature of the Church and its actions, while being quite censorious of those `liberals' (that great bogey!) who laboured for the separation of Church and State. The total laicization of elementary teaching in 1880s France, he writes, `signified the end of a venerable tradition based on the unity of religion, knowledge and moral instruction, with the attendant danger that `God', `nation', `society', `morality' and so forth would be taught as mutually exclusive entities with no sense in which they might be used to blunt one another's harder edges' (p. 346). Contrary to simple-minded rationalists who equate religion with superstition, Burleigh writes that `Christian monotheism...separated God from the world and hence encouraged man to make it intelligible' (p. 326). He also draws attention to the `palaeo-liberal religious origins of many essential limitations on secular power that the modern world has inherited from much earlier clashes of Church and state' (p. 326).
Other topics covered in the book include the secular religions of nationalism and socialism, the alliance of throne and alter in Restoration Europe, the attempts of religiously motivated people to soften the malign effects of industrial capitalism, deracinated intellectuals and purifying terrorism in late 19th century Russia, and the attitude of various religious towards the outbreak of war in 1914. Burleigh is amusing on the utopian fantasies of such intellectuals as Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte and Charles Fourier (seas of lemonade, anyone?), although the totalitarian tinges to their Positivist fantasies are quite frightening. The book does get a little tedious as Burleigh flits between Britain, France and Germany and back again, detailing the ebb and flow of Church-State relations in the mid- to late- 19th century. Nevertheless, it's a good book. As a personification of the totalitarian mindset Burleigh quotes Shigalov from Dostoyevsky's 'The Possessed': `I am perplexed by my own date and my conclusion is a direct contradiction of the original idea with which I start,' observes Shigalov. `Starting from unlimited freedom, I arrive at unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that there can be no solution of the social problem but mine' (p. 295).
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on 18 August 2007
Michael Burleig is a historian of some re-known and brings his undoubted abilities in the creation of this book. His central theses
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