MOST of us Indians have very little idea of the close relationship between religion and politics in Europe, including the United Kingdom and Ireland. Many think the European nations are “secular” and their people, law-abiding. That they are neither secular nor are their people law-abiding just doesn’t enter our minds. Partly because the great news agencies like Reuters or Associated Press, the Agence France Presse and the Deutsche Presse Agentur do not always publicise the evil in their respective countries. They would rather focus their attention on the supposed evil doing in India as news.
Now Michael Burleigh has written a book that exposes European countries as few books published in recent years have. It should be read by our secularists and breast-beating intellectuals who consider it fashionable to damn Hindus, even if only to promote their self-image as liberals. The author of this book is a leading western historian. And, one may add, an objective one. He has dared to tell the story of a chaotic post-First World War landscape in Europe in which religion played a large-and far too often destructive-part that should be the shame of humanity. All the many bloody regimes and movements of the century are here exposed to their skin, and most deservedly so. And they include the regimes of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, dictatorial Spain and sectarian ridden Ireland, to name a few.
According to the author “although there were Christian democrats… in later-war Europe most Catholoc politics was conservative and subject to gravitational pull towards authoritarianism and anti-Parliamentary Right”. In the circumstances what Burleigh says about the Holy Office that it had issued ” a general appeal to nuncios and bishops calling for conferences and courses at which Nazi doctrines would be confounded, sounds surprising. Inasmuch as there was a strong Church, in some countries like Spain there was also a strong anti-Church Republican force which didn’t hesitate to murder the clergy. In the twenties, throughout Republican-controlled territory in Spain, priests and religious-minded people were subjected to brutalities, “some characterised by a hestial drunken savagery”. Some clergy had their cars stuffed with rosary heads until their eardrums burst or had their ears cut off by their tormentors before being murdered”.
The clergy on their part had their own way of dealing with Marxists. Once, when some 107 of them were captured, they were taken to a convent that was being used as a prison and forty five of them were machine-gunned. It was not a matter of Catholics versus Marxists. There was a war between Catholics and Protestants, especially in Ireland and the way they treated each other would bring tears of joy in ben Laden’s eyes. Forget the inhuman killing of over five million Jews in Germany under the Nazi regime. Burleigh says that “while Protestants voted for Nazis in greater number than Catholics, the latter were not immune to general disillusionment with the Weimar Republic which manifested itself in the fashion for authoritarian solutions… in the heady realm of political thought”.
The story of Northern Ireland is sickening. In the North, Protestants enjoyed the lion’s share of jobs in ‘their’ territory. Protestant businesses and householders enjoyed an in-built advantage over poorer Catholics who “lived check-by-jowl in tenements”. Proportional representation was banished and those Catholics who paid no taxes were disenfranchised!
Think of Poland, where both the Nazis and the Communists sought to extirpate Christianity, with “the Nazis attempting to reduce the Poles to helotry”. Six million Poles, half of them Christian and half Jews, were killed. At 220 wartimes deaths per thousand, proportionately this was a far greater loss to Poland than to any other nation in the second world war” says Burleigh. Russia was another story that our CPM cadres in West Bengal and Kerala would do well to remember. On the eve of the Bolshevik coup d’etat, the Orthodox Church claimed a hundred million adherants, two hundred thousand priests and monks, 75,000 churches and chapels, over 1,100 monasteries… not to speak of thousands of hospitals. Within a few years, the churches were ‘desolated’ (just as Spanish Jesuits did with temples in Goa), many of the clergy were imprisoned or shot… And how was it in France?
In October 1940, a year after World War Two started and the Vichy government came into power, the first Statute of the Jews excluded Jews from the higher civil service, teaching, the media and the Arts. Quotas were set for Jews in the learned professions. Exceptional professors could apply for exemptions, but only ten out of 125 university professors who did so, received them. One has to read this book to know what man can do for man. The Church itself was in a crisis. In the sixties, religious vocations plummeted. In 1963, some 167 priests opted for the secular life in Spain. By 1965 that number had reached 1,189 and then an all-time high of 3,700 four years later.
Even today the situation in Europe is not much better. Burleigh does not record it but in many European nunneries, Indian nuns are not strangers. In Central and Latin America, home of half the world’s billion Catholics and where Brazil and Mexico have the two largest national churches, the privileged Christians were “not hesitant in defending their interests in a brutal manner, through kidnapping, torture and murder, sometimes aided and abetted by the CIA. Thing were bad all over and to the point that in 1980, a speaker at the Anglican General Synod lamented that young people were going to India “in search, rather than to the parish church…. to find enlightenment and joy”.
This is a book which our intellectuals and secularists must read if only to know what whatever sins-and they are many-India has committed (and one can ask Mayavati for details), it remains, as always, a civilized country, far, far greater than any other in the world, if not for anything else, because Hinduism is an all-embracing religion that permits every individual the unchallengeable right to find his own path towards salvation.
Leader of Muslim countries, as Burleigh notes, trying to hold the ring against radical Islamism faced regular assassination bids. In Algeria, an estimated 150,000 people had been killed in a fratricidal religious war. Burleigh provides a fascinating account of what happened in Europe after 9/11. All that makes reading this informative book a most rewarding experience.
At one point Burleigh says: “The idea of fusing extreme racist nationalism with Christianity was not new”. Who, then, can blame Pakistan for fusing similar nationalism with Islam? It seems there is so much in common between Islamic and European countries that many people miss.
(HarperCollins Publishers, 77-85, Fulham Palace Road, Hammersmith, London W68JB)