Michael Burleigh: Our heavenly leader, hallowed be thy name

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
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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. These films, he says, "are so lurid, literal and unmeditative". He characterises them as "all bangs and disasters, corpses and horrors", and explains that: "There's no independent imagery of the Nazis in power so the use of footage of these thuggish, brutal people merely perpetuates their mystique."

Earthly Powers, Michael Burleigh's new study of religion and politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War (Sacred Causes, the sequel, continuing to the present century, will be published in 2006) could be seen as his own personal attempt to escape from the clutches of what he calls "the ghastly events in greater Germany 60 years ago". (He grimaces at the thought of where one alternative, commercially advantageous, path might have taken him: "a biography of that squashed gerbil, Heinrich Himmler".) In fact, though, Earthly Powers represents a logical continuation of the earlier work, in its exploration of the ways in which politics and religion intersected in the 150 years before the emergence of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century. Among its starting points are the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, who saw the French Revolution as "a new kind of religion, an incomplete religion, it is true, without God, without ritual, and without life after death, but one which nevertheless... flooded the earth with its soldiers, apostles, and martyrs".

Burleigh is fascinated by the ways in which mankind's atavistic religious longings have been harnessed by different societies, at different times, whether it be the civic cults of the Jacobins during the French Revolution, or the potent churches of 19th-century nationalism, like the movement for Italian unification, whose leaders recognised that "in man, religiosity is something innate, organic". He thought he was working in "a historical backwater" until the events of 9/11 gave the subject of his research "an unanticipated salience". The threat of international Islamic terrorism has made the question of civil religion all the more pertinent and one that Burleigh addresses in his introduction. "Can any nation state survive without a consensus on values that transcend special interests," he asks, "and which are non-negotiable in the sense of 'Here we stand'?" And should an "incipient civil religion ignore the fact that Britain and Europe have been overwhelmingly Christian cultures for the last two millennia, something that surely shapes who they are"? Describing himself as "agnostic" on European Union, Burleigh nevertheless admits to being alternately appalled and bemused by the fact that the draft constitution for Europe in 2004 contained only one reference to religion, and jumped from Thucydides to the Enlightenment with no intermediate section on either the Reformation or Counter-Reformation.

Burleigh could never be accused of having concentrated his historical interests narrowly on one period. Although he made his name as a historian of the Third Reich, Burleigh's early research was about the formation of parliamentary estates in 15th-century Prussia. It was his curiosity about the fascistic activities of some of Germany's leading medieval historians that drew him into working on the racial preoccupations underlying the Nazi regime, which in turn led to his study of the use of euthanasia under the Nazis.

Born in 1955, Michael Burleigh was an only child whose father, a former Wing Commander, died when he was 10. His paternal grandfather, Bennet Burleigh, who fought in the American Civil War, had been a leading Victorian war correspondent, reporting for the Daily Telegraph. Interested in history from childhood, Burleigh remembers the "incredible sense of a lapse of time" which he experienced at Pevensey in Sussex, where his family had a home: "the Norman Castle surrounded by a Roman fortress, its martello towers from a later period, and finally the pillboxes from the Second World War". Although he has taught at Oxford, the London School of Economics, and Cardiff, and has been a Visiting Professor at several American universities including Stanford, it is research, rather than teaching, that has dominated his professional life, and which remains the activity he enjoys most. "The best thing about the LSE," he remembers, "was that I met David Starkey, who also taught there," and a highlight of Burleigh's recent 50th birthday party was the arrival of Starkey, the doyen of television historians, in his chauffeur-driven limousine.

Earthly Powers can only cement Michael Burleigh's reputation as one of the leading historians of our time. It is a brilliantly wide-ranging and profoundly rewarding treatment of the part that religious instinct, far older and more pervasive than any single religion, has played in the history of modern Europe It encompasses the new generation of secular religions, like Comte's Positivism, the religious roots of the Socialist and Communist movements, and the "sacred violence" espoused by the men of terror in late 19th-century Russia. In its final pages, we follow the attempts, in 1917, of the papal nuncio in Munich, Archbishop Pacelli, to influence the peace proposals at the end of the First World War. In Burleigh's next volume, we will encounter Pacelli again, in a new guise, as Pope Pius XII, and watch as the Roman Catholic Church comes face to face with Hitler's totalitarian regime.

'Earthly Powers: Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War' is published by HarperCollins at £25. To buy a copy for £22.50 (free p&p), contact Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897