The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and Tyranny

One of the other articles at the Butterflies and Wheels site that Wakefield has also mentioned as requiring critique and discussion is Christopher Orlet’s attempt to claim that religion, and particularly Christianity, was the cause of the totalitarian dictatorships and murderous tyrannies of the 20th century. The article is entitled ‘Lessons of Atheist Dictatorships, and it is at http://www.butterfliesandwheels.com/articleprint.php?num=298’

Orlet’s article is basically an attempt to rebut the accusation by Christian and other religious apologists that atheist regimes have committed more and greater atrocities than Christians and members of other religions. Orlet instead argues that Christianity and other religions have also supported murderous tyrannies. He further argues that when atheist regimes have committed massacres and other atrocities, it was for purely political reasons, rather than because they were atheists. The attempt by Christian apologists to blame the horrific atrocities committed by Fascist, Nazi, Communist and agrarian utopian regimes on atheism ‘shows only a sad and unwitting lack of scholarship’.

Orlet notes the support given by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to Fascist regimes in Europe, including Italy, Croatia, Romania, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Austria and Slovakia. He states that the Papacy viewed Hitler as defending Europe against Communism, and did not comment or condemn the Holocaust because the Nazis were useful attacking the Red Army. After the War, senior Vatican clergyman with Fascist sympathies, such as Bishop Alois Hudal, who was a supporter of Hitler and friend of Pope Pius XII, arranged for the escape of Nazi war criminals to South America. Other leading members of the Vatican also arranged for the Fascist dictator of Croatia, Ante Pavelic, who was responsible for the organised massacre of Serbs and other nations in the former Yugoslavia, to flee to Peron’s Argentina. Ortel further claims that, with the exception of Hitler, the vast majority of the Nazis were devout Roman Catholics, like the infamous ‘butcher of Lyons’, Klaus Barbie. Ortel also quotes the various references Hitler made to God in his speeches. He does, however, consider that Hitler was a Pagan, rather than a Christian.

Ortel then goes on to state that when atheist regimes did commit their atrocities, it was because of their political ideologies, rather than because of their atheism. He states that Marx believed that religion, although originally harmless, was now an ideological instrument of the ruling class, but would eventually disappear after the working class had gained power. He notes that the French Revolutionaries had similar views on the way religion was used by the ruling class to support their power and subordinate their peoples. He discusses the attempt of the French Revolutionaries to abolish Christianity, and replace it with a cult of the Goddess of Pure Reason, and the Terror and anticlerical massacres that saw 200 priests put to death. Orlet considers that they were executed, not because the regime was atheist, but because Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church was associated with the oppression of the Ancien Regime which the Revolutionaries had overthrown. He states that Stalin committed his atrocities, including the artificial famine in the Ukraine, which was intended to destroy Ukrainian nationalism, not because of his atheism, but because he wished to establish and fulfil the Communist programme of mass nationalisations and the collectivisation of agriculture.

He also states that until the 20th century, the leaders of most nations would have been religious. This did not prevent them from committing horrific atrocities, such as those committed by the Mongols in China, Hungary and Russia. He states that the Armenia massacres committed by the Turks in the 1920s was committed as a jihad, and also states that the genocide in Rwanda was also partly the result of religious motivations, and the various churches either did not attempt to stop, or actively participated in the atrocities. He also states that Mao Tse Tung attacked Christianity as part of a wider campaign against traditional influences in Chinese society, including Buddhism and Taoism. Orlet also states that Pol Pot gained his ideas about the suppression of personality and total allegiance to a cause from the time he spent in a Buddhist monastery. His murderous ideology, however, was the result of the Marxism he learned in Paris and by the agricultural society of the non-Buddhist Khmers. ‘It was an anti-Western, anti-urban and pro-nativist ideology that defined the Khmer Rouge, not atheism, which was but one aspect.’

Ortel ends his article by comparing the attitudes towards religion in Poland and Albania. In Poland, the Roman Catholic Church remained separate from the state after its partition by Prussia, Austria and Russia, and so enjoyed the support of the Polish people, and acted to defend them against the oppression of both the Nazis and then the Communists. In Albania, however, before the Communist revolution the country was ruled by a Moslem ruling class who possessed vast estates and governmental powers in the administrative system of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, religion was extremely unpopular, and the Communist authorities officially abolished it after they seized power. He therefore concludes that America is a profoundly religious country because of the separation of Church and state, and that the attempts by the Religious Right to unite the two would destroy the popularity of religion in the US.

Now let’s examine his arguments.

It is indeed true, and disgusting and horrific, that a number of Fascist regimes across Europe enjoyed the active support of the various churches. There were a number of reasons for this. After the French Revolution and its attack on Christianity and the Church, the Roman Catholic Church became extremely hostile to democracy and preferred to support traditional, autocratic monarchies, which would support the traditional social order and the Church. After the Unification of Italy by Garibaldi, the Church was also strongly opposed to the new Italian state because of the incorporation of Rome and the Papal States, with the exception of the Vatican, by the Nationalist forces. While few of the founders of the Italian state were atheists, most were anticlerical and successive governments after the Unification launched various campaigns against the Church. Many convents and monasteries were closed, and there were attempts to limit or outlaw the immense influence members of the clergy could play in education and the political beliefs of lay Italians. One of the reasons why the Papacy eventually supported Mussolini’s dictatorship and signed the Lateran Accords recognising both the Italian state and the Fascist regime was that the Fascists, in their turn, promised to support the Church in contrast to the opposition of parts of the traditional Italian state.

Many of the Fascist regimes in central Europe – in Germany, Austria and Hungary – arose as part of a reaction to the Communist revolution that spread throughout these countries in 1919, and which was only suppressed through extreme Right-wing paramilitary groups, such as the Freikorps in Germany and the Heimwehr in Austria. Religion was an integral part of these societies, which felt themselves threatened both by militant Communism and the development of modern, mass industrial society. Many of the Fascist regimes, such as those in Hungary and Romania, viewed the religious beliefs of their peoples as one of their defining characteristics, and so attempted to promote these religious beliefs and their various churches. In some of these countries, Fascism received widespread support due to the perceived failure of democracy. In Italy, for example, effective government of the country was prevented by the existence of various factions and parties, none of which had a sufficient majority to govern unaided and most of them refused to co-operate with each other in forming an administration. The Liberal Party, for example, which had previously been the leading Italian political party, was split into four different factions around four leading politicians all competing for power. In Bulgaria in the 1930s, the political scene was similarly one of increasing fragmentation as parties split and refused to co-operate with each other in the government of the country. The result was that leading politicians and public figures in these nations supported Fascism as a way of governing their countries effectively, while democracy has only produced political stagnation and controversy.

One of the political parties Ortel states supported the Fascists was in fact divided in its support for the regime. The Italian Populist Party – PPI – was founded as a Christian, Roman Catholic political alternative to socialism by an Italian layman, Don Luigi Sturzo, who had received permission to do so from Cardinal Pietro Gasparri. It supported democratic, secular reform, the defence of the family, the creation and protection of small, independent farms, the right to form unions, local government, women’s suffrage, the independence of the Church, proportional representation and the League of Nations. Although the party entered Mussolini’s cabinent in 1923, Sturzo himself was profoundly hostile to Fascism. The Vatican forced Sturzo to resign as the party secretary in 1923. During the 1924 elections, the Popolari were frequently the victims of Fascist violence, and leading anti-Fascists, such as Don Giovanni Minzoni, were murdered. Minzoni was a Roman Catholic clergyman, who had been elected as archpriest of San Niccolo in 1916, and served as military chaplain in the First World War. After the War he returned to that part of Italy, and devoted himself to political activism, setting up Roman Catholic co-operatives and trade unions. He supported the Roman Catholic daily paper, Il Popolo, and was also active in the Roman Catholic youth organisations. He founded a local branch of the Roman Catholic youth organisation, the Associazione degli Esploratori Cattolici, which aroused the vehement hostility of the Fascists. The Vatican supported the Fascists against the Populists because it considered them too radical, particularly as they were not under the control of the bishops. Sturzo was forced to leave Italy in 1924, and his successor, Alcide de Gasperi, resigned in 1925. The party was suppressed in 1926 by the Fascists after the promulgation of the Exceptional Decrees.

As for Fascism itself, this was a mixture of various, and frequently contradictory ideas and movements. The Fascists were essentially extreme nationalists, and took their ideas from both the extreme Right and extreme Left. Mussolini had been a radical Socialist, although he later joined the extreme Right in opposition to socialism, liberalism and democracy. Initially Mussolini kept the Fascist programme vague, in order to gain the support of the different sections of Italian society, and Fascist ideology regarded morality and ideology itself as relative and subject to change as the occasion demanded. Although he allied the Fascists with the Church, many Fascists remained strongly anticlerical and the Roman Catholic Church strongly disapproved of the non-Christian elements in Fascism, such as the Fascist calendar that dated everything from the year of the Fascist revolution, when Mussolini gained power.

Similarly, while the Nazis also had the support of parts of the Church, they were also hostile to Christianity. Alfred Rosenberg, one of the leaders of the Nazi party, wrote The Myth of the 20th Century, which was so strongly antichristian that Hitler was forced to withdraw it and apologize. Hitler did indeed attempt to present himself as a pious German defending Christianity against Communism, but the Nazis themselves attempted to control and suppress the churches. Hitler himself hoped that Christianity would eventually disappear, and his hostility to Christianity was certainly not confined only to him.

As for the Roman Catholic Church, in 1937 Pope Pius XI published the encyclical, Mit Brennender Sorge – ‘With Burning Anxiety’ denouncing Nazi racism. Up until 1933 in various parts of Germany members of the Roman Catholic Church had been forbidden to join the Nazi party, and the Nazis were similarly prohibited in participating in Roman Catholic ceremonies, such as funerals. Although hostile to Nazism, Pius XI signed a concordat with the Nazis as part of an attempt to gain recognition for the Roman Catholic Church in Germany and other European nations, such as Poland and Romania, that been continuing since 1922. While there were many senior members of the clergy who did support Nazism, the Church was largely afraid of a new struggle with the German authorities and the possibility of overt persecution. Pope Pius XII made a number of speeches, which, although not specifically mentioning Nazism, were certainly viewed as criticisms of that regime. In a 1939 speech he discussed the ‘law of human solidarity and charity that is dictated and imposed … by our common origin and by the equality of rational nature in all men, regardless of the people to which they belong.’ The New York Times reported the speech under the headline ‘Pope Condemns Dictators, Treaty Violators, Racism; Urges Restoration of Poland’. He made a similar speech intended for the Poles in 1943, and in his encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi. In 1942 his expressed his sympathy for those ‘persons, who, through no fault of their own and by single fact of their nationality or race, have been condemned to death or for progressive extinction’. This infuriated Mussolini and the Nazis viewed it as an attack on them on behalf of the Jews. Pius XII’s closest official amongst the German clergy was the anti-Nazi Cardinal Konrad von Preysing, and the Pope himself agreed to act as an intermediary with the West on behalf of a group of German generals who planned on assassinating Hitler in 1939. During the War, he opened the Vatican to give refuge to 5,000 Jews. When the Nazis attempted a round-up of Jews in Rome in 1943, Pius XII protested and it was halted. The papal nuncio in Bucharest openly protested in August and September 1942 against the deportation of Jews from Romania. He also granted money to the Jewish rescue organisation, DELASEM, and supported the work of Father Anton Weber to assist Jews to escape Europe and Father Pierre-Marie Benoit, who aided French Jews to escape to North Africa.

Moreover, although Pius XII hated Communism, he nevertheless did not view the Nazi campaign against the USSR as a Crusade, according to the Roman Catholic historian, Pierre Blet. When the Italian ambassador to the Vatican attempted to gain official Roman Catholic encouragement for the war against the Soviet Union, the secretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs rejected his request, stating that ‘the swastika is not the cross of a crusade.’ The Pope never explicitly attacked Nazism or called Roman Catholics in Nazi-occupied territories to resist it, because he feared losing what little influence the Roman Catholic Church had with the Fascist authorities and the possibility of the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. While the Allies would have preferred the Pope to have explicitly denounced Nazism and Fascism, they understood why he didn’t.

As for the French Revolutionaries’ campaigns against Christianity, although they hated Christianity and the Church because of its position within the ancien regime, as part of what they considered to be a feudal and oppressive social order, Deist and atheist criticisms of organised religion and specifically Christianity appeared in France long before the Revolution. One of the most influential of the late 18th century atheist works was D’Holbach’s Le Systeme de la Nature of 1770. There were a group of atheist writers actively challenging and attacking religion at this time, including Boulanger, Naigeon, Charles Francois Dupuis, Sylvain Marechal and Jerome Lalande, amongst others. Naigeon was the successor to Diderot and the author Recueil Philosophique ou Melanges de Pieces sur la Religion et la Morale of 1770, which collected a number of previous attacks on religion. D’Holbach, however, was probably the most prominent of the French atheist writers. He hated religion, not just because he, like the other atheists, considered it oppressive, but because he also considered it to be false, and so demanded the destruction of Christian civilisation because it was constructed on such a false view of the world. Now it’s probably true that many of the French Revolutionaries who attempted to abolish Christianity were motivated because of their hatred of the French Church’s part in the oppressive feudal regime of pre-Revolutionary France. Nevertheless, French atheists also attacked religion and demanded its destruction, and that of the Christian civilisation that was based on it, because they felt that religion was wrong and by its very nature oppressive.

Similarly, it is also true that the Communists committed their atrocities from a desire to establish a Communist social and economic order, rather than simple atheism. Nevertheless, they were atheists, who attempted to explain and reform human society on the basis of philosophical materialism. Communism was considered to provide an objective, scientific explanation of the economic forces that influenced and defined the forms of human society and culture, in contrast to other views and models of society, and humanity’s progress from feudalism to bourgeois democracy and then eventually to Communism was considered as occurring according to objective, scientific sociological laws. Thus, while Marx considered that eventually religion would wither away as true Communism was established, rather than be forcibly abolished through revolutionary action, nevertheless atheism was indeed a profound part of Communist ideology. It is therefore true that while the Communists attacked the Russian Orthodox Church, and then the others religious faiths because they viewed them as part of an oppressive and exploitative social system. However, they also considered religion itself to be profoundly wrong, and that society could only be reformed through the construction of a social and economic system based on what they considered to be the principles of scientific law, which was held to be opposed to religion and its influence.

As for Mao Tse Tung and his campaign against religion, it is indeed true that he attacked not only Christianity, but also Taoism and Buddhism. Furthermore, in traditional Chinese religion, the Emperor possessed a strongly religious role, as he was responsible for performing a number of rituals and sacrifices so that the gods would grant his kingdom peace, harmony and prosperity. Now while the important place of the emperor as the intermediary between Earth and the gods in Chinese religion might explain why the Chinese Communists were so hostile to religion, because of the way it formed part of a traditional, oppressive social order, this does not alter the fact that they actively campaigned against religion as a whole as part of an attempt to create a Communist society based on Mao’s own interpretation of Marxism. Similarly, even if Christianity was only one of a number of religions, which the Communists in China and elsewhere attempted to destroy, nevertheless it still remains that the Communists attempted to destroy religion using force and violence. Orlet considers that Pol Pot learned about the suppression of personality and the breaking of personal ties, which became integral parts of his own revolutionary beliefs, at the Wat Botum Vaddei Buddhist monastery, rather than in the pages of Das Kapital. However, absolute dedication to the cause of the Revolution had been a feature of the Russian Revolutionary tradition since Chernyshev in the 19th century, and was stressed by Lenin himself, who incorporated it into Soviet Communism. Thus while Pol Pot adopted this aspect of Buddhist practice, it seems likely he used it as part of a revolutionary ideology and worldview based on important elements of revolutionary Communism. How Communist the Khmer Rouge actually were, is a matter of debate. One book on that horrific part of Cambodia’s history reviewed a few years ago in the Financial Times concluded that they did not possess a coherent ideology, and that the sheer corrupt pursuit of personal power and wealth amongst the ruling elite, including expensive consumer items, such as western motorcycles, was an important part of the personal motives of its leadership alongside any ideological notions. Nevertheless, the sheer brutality of the regime demonstrates that its leaders had rejected traditional religious values such as compassion and respect for human life in the belief that they could create a totally new society. This aspect of the Khmer Rouge certainly places them in the modern tradition of political activism that began with the French Revolution and its belief that a new, rational society could be created through the use of force directed against those who were perceived as enemies of the state.

Now the Armenian Massacres were indeed carried out as a jihad, a ‘Day of the Sword’, which affected other eastern Christian communities in what is now Iraq and Iran. However, while there certainly were religious elements involved in the genocide, it was part of a wider situation of nationalist violence with the Turkish Empire as previously subordinate nations in the Balkans and the Caucasus attempted to gain their freedom. Traditional Islam does not distinguish between the religious sphere and that of the state, and so, when the subject Christian peoples of the Ottoman Empire rebelled, there was certainly a religious element in the military response by the Turkish authorities to suppress them. However, contemporary historians of the Balkans have suggested that the violence involved in the various Balkan wars was the product of nationalism, rather than religious causes, and the massacres of the Armenians and the other Christian communities in the Middle East would also appear to be a product of extreme nationalism. There are passages in the Qu’ran that explicitly prohibit the killing of women, children and non-combatants in war, and so the destruction of entire communities and peoples in Armenian Massacres was in direct opposition to Shariah law.

As for the religious and political system in Albania, while the country was indeed ruled by Muslim Turkish feudal lords, who owned vast estates across the country on which most of the population worked as peasants, about 2/3 of the population generally was Muslim, so that the majority of the Albanian population shared their religion. This does not, however, mean that the feudal landlords necessarily were responsible for the enforcement of the law. Although they were responsible for the government of the country as a whole and the administration of their estates, the feudal lords were not necessarily responsible for maintaining the legal system. This was under the control of the qadis, judges appointed by the state. However, the ulema, the Muslim clergy, tended to distrust the state and did not wish to become involved with it, as they view the state as founded on oppression and its funds raised through extortion. Thus, while some of the Communists’ attempt to abolish religion in Albania may have been based on their hatred of a feudal system, in which power was held by a Muslim aristocracy, part of Albanian Muslim society was strongly opposed to the state because of what it considered to be its essentially oppressive nature. Thus the Communist campaign against religion in Albania appears to have been part of the general Communist attempt to destroy it, rather than necessarily reflecting popular attitudes to the religious aspects of Albanian politics and society.

Regarding the involvement of the churches in the Rwandan genocide, while this is disgusting and shameful, like their support for the Fascist regimes. However, their involvement was the result of human weakness and the power of personal, tribal and corporate motives over the demands of Our Lord to protect the weak and powerless against brutality and atrocity.

Now I do think that Orlet is probably correct in that part of the continuing popularity of Roman Catholicism in Poland may have been due to the Church’s role in defending and protecting them after the country was divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria, during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War and then under Communism. It is also possible that America remains a religious nation because the separation of Church and State has prevented religion from becoming unpopular due to its involvement as a formal aspect of the state. Much of the American political system is based on Christian principles, developed by radical Protestants during the British Civil War and the Commonwealth during the 17th century. Indeed, historians consider that one of the major factors in the development of democracy in America was the Great Awakening, when ordinary people challenged the colonial authorities and the position of the established Church and founding their own churches and religious organisations to look after their spiritual needs, rather than simply accepting the spiritual leadership of the existing hierarchy. This became part of the general tradition of American political democracy by encouraging and establishing the right of the people to decide issues for themselves, rather than simply submit to the traditional, British aristocratic social order. As for the separation of Church and State, this was based on the ideas of the 17th century Puritan minister, Richard Baxter, who argued for it in his book, The Bloudy Tenant of Persecution and demanded freedom of conscience during the Civil War in Britain. He based his arguments for religious freedom and toleration on Scripture, and believed that when governments interfered in religion, they acted against it and became oppressive. Thus, America may be a religious country because much of American democracy is based on Puritan, Christian religious principles.

Thus, although the Church and religions generally have supported oppressive and murderous regimes, this has frequently been through secular concerns and motives, often against the tenets of the religions themselves. In some instances, however, members of the Church have acted to oppose tyranny and oppression in ways that the article has not recognised. Moreover, while atheist regimes have largely campaigned against religion because of the strong role it played in oppressive political and social systems, these regimes have also campaigned against religion because they also believed it was false and so should be destroyed. While atheist dictators and tyrants committed their crimes in order to create a new society, rather than simply from their atheist beliefs, nevertheless they believed that they acted according to objective scientific, societal laws in an ideology that explained the structure of society and demanded the abolition of religion as a false ideology. Furthermore, these atheist regimes were part of the tradition of revolutionary activism that began with the French Revolution in their belief that a new, rational society could be constructed through the use of force and violence. America may remain a religious country because of the separation of Church from State, but much of the American political system, including democracy, is based on 17th century Christian principles.

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5 Responses to “The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and Tyranny”

  1. Topics about Religion » The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and Tyranny Says:

    […] A Riot of Kisses added an interesting post today on The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and TyrannyHere’s a small reading…mentioned as requiring critique and discussion is Christopher Orlet’s attempt to claim that religion, and particularly Christianity, was the… […]

  2. Topics about Peace » Archive » The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and Tyranny Says:

    […] Kiwiblog added an interesting post today on The Religious Origins of Totalitarianism and TyrannyHere’s a small readingOne of the other articles at the Butterflies and Wheels site that Wakefield has also mentioned as requiring critique and discussion is Christopher […]

  3. Feyd Says:

    good stuff Beast.
    In Albania, wasnt some of the killings done in the name of atheis; Hoxha was very open about his aggressive athesit intentions, even declaring Albania officialy atheist?

    IMO the decisive issue is not how killings were justified, but the raw evidence that over 50% of known atheist leaders carry out atrocities against their own people, whereas for religious leaders the percentage is less than 1. Fro the benefit of your readers, Vox Day has the analyses for this in his book The Irrational Atheist, available as a free download.

  4. Feyd Says:

    Also have you heard about the latest debate between atheist no 3 Christopher Hitchens and the mighty Dr William Lane Craig? Even atheists are admiting Hitchens totally got his ass handed to him.

    Here’s an account of the debate by a Christian.

    http://douggeivett.wordpress.com/2009/04/05/william-lane-craig-vs-christopher-hitchens-first-report/

  5. Beastrabban Says:

    Hi Feyd, thanks for the comments and the link. I’d heard that Craig beat Hitchens, so it’s great to have a link to a good account of the event.

    I didn’t know that Enver Hoxha openly stated that he committed his persecution of religion in the name of atheism, so thanks, too, for that piece of information. As for Vox Day’s discussion of the comparative statistics for genocides and other atrocities committed by atheist and theist regimes, I got the impression that his knowledge of military history is very thorough, and that he very effectively destroys the atheist claims about this very thorough in his book, The Irrational Atheist .

    In fact I noticed a problem with Orlet’s claim about the numbers murdered by Stalin in the above article. Orlet mentions Stalin’s artificial famine in the Ukraine as an example of a Communist genocide. Now this isn’t really remarkable, as Stalin did indeed want to destroy Ukrainian nationalism. However, treating the famine in isolation could give the impression that it was only one such incident during Stalin’s period in power. In fact, the Ukrainian famine was one of a number of campaigns against various nationalities in the former Soviet Union by Stalin, intended to subordinate or destroy them. This included the mass deportation of entire nations, such as the Ingush, who were forcibly removed from their land in the Caucasus in 1944, and the Cossacks, amongst a number of other peoples to central asia. It’s been estimated that as many as 30 million people were killed during Stalin’s terror, though as proper records were not kept, the figure could be much higher, perhaps 45 million or above. In this instance, the number of people murdered by an atheist regime is far more than the nine million people killed during the Ukrainian famine, horrific though this number is by itself.

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