A Review of Michael Burleigh’s “Earthly Powers”

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The Catholic Church, to which Burleigh is clearly partial, was best placed to combat the new religion of nationalism. It was, after all, a supranational corporation, a successor to the Roman empire, laying claim to a universal and timeless truth. Despite their reputation as grim reactionaries, the 19th-century popes had a better appreciation of the moral limits of state power than most liberals. Article 39 of Pius IX’s much-derided 1864 Syllabus of Errors denounces the doctrine that “the State, as being the origin and source of all rights, is endowed with a certain right not circumscribed by any limits”. His successor, Leo XIII, spoke presciently of the “idolatry of the State”. During the First World War, the Vatican remained scrupulously neutral, striving where it could to hasten the end of what it regarded as “the collective suicide of a great Christian civilisation”.

…The fate of the Protestant churches was, if anything, still more pitiful. Lacking the cosmopolitan scope of their Catholic counterpart, they did not even aspire to impartiality in inter-national affairs, but surrendered gleefully to the prejudices of the tribe. “This is a Holy War,” preached the Bishop of London in 1914. “We are on the side of Christianity against the anti-Christ.” Kaiser Wilhelm went one further. “Remember that the German people are the chosen of God,” he said in a speech to his troops. “On me, on me as German emperor, the Spirit of God has descended. I am His weapon, His sword and His visor.” Reading this and other pronouncements, one understands the ease with which so many Lutheran clergymen embraced the tenets of National Socialism.

6:52 pm on November 14, 2005