Michael Burleigh

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Michael Burleigh (born 3 April 1955) is an English author and historian whose primary focus is on Nazi Germany and related subjects. He has also been active in bringing history to television.


  • It's nonsense to talk about the war on Islamic terrorism as a clash of civilisations. The distinction is between civilisation and chaos. Whatever people may claim - and the desire to cut through the political processes can be very powerful - there is never any justification for violence.
    • As quoted in “Michael Burleigh: The reluctant guru,” John Crace, The Guardian, March 10, 2008 [1]
  • It's no coincidence that most terrorists are males aged between 18 and 30. One terrorist from the 1960s recently said, 'we half-read a whole lot of theories that we fully understood' - and the same probably applies to Islamic terrorists today. Few have any background in religion, and most are ignorant of Islam. They've just ingested it as slogans, either from the internet or radical clerics, and attached it to some grievance about the persecution of Muslims in other parts of the world.
    • As quoted in “Michael Burleigh: The reluctant guru,” John Crace, The Guardian, March 10, 2008
  • Between 1939 and 1945 the Nazis systematically murdered as many as 200,000 mentally ill or physically disabled people whom they stigmatised as 'life unworthy of life'. This covert and complex series of operations was known as the ‘euthanasia programme.’
    • Death and Deliverance 'Euthanasia' in Germany, c.1900 to 1945,Cambridge University Press, 1994, p. i
  • Within a remarkable short time totalitarian rule had been reimposed on half a continent using a combination of force and fraud. . . Although they were subjected to relentless assault from state-sponsored atheism, the Christian Churches remained the only licensed sanctuaries from the prevailing world of brutality and lies. Appropriately enough . . . they played an important role in the overthrow of Communism forty years later.
    • Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics from the Great War to the War on Terror, New York: Harper Collins (2007), p. 344

The Third Reich: A New History (2000)


New York, NY, Hill and Wang, 2000

  • The advent of Bolshevik, Fascist and National Socialist regimes in Russia and Europe successively between 1917 and 1933 led some contemporary intellectuals to wonder whether their own terminology adequately conveyed the scope of these regimes’ pretentions or the horrors they were responsible for. Of course, many intellectuals did not view them as horrors at all, but rather collateral costs of supposedly bright future.
    • p. 4
  • Marxist socialism also had dark nooks and crannies where Jews were regarded as money-mad capitalists or as an ‘obsolete’ people who refused to join the onward march of secular progress towards a moneyless society. Anarchists also suffered from this contagion,…
    • p. 94
  • Nazi ideology offered redemption from a national ontological crisis, to which it was attracted like a predatory shark to blood.
    • p. 12
  • Power was briefly seized by the Communists, who proclaimed a Bavarian Soviet Republic. Their leader, Eugen Levine, received the blessing of Lenin, who characteristically wished to know how many bourgeois hostages had been taken. A ‘classist’ tone was soon apparent. Milk shortages were rationalized with the argument: ‘What does it matter? . . . Most of it goes to the children of the bourgeoisie anyway. We are not interested in keeping them alive. No harm if they die – they’d only grow into enemies of the proletariat.’
    • p. 40
  • Roman Catholic priests in Germany were enjoined to shun National Socialism, and the Nazis did not get from them the clerical endorsement they often enjoyed in Protestant areas. Only a handful of priests supported Nazism, mostly malcontents or naifs, like Abbot Schachleiter, who argued that ‘if the Catholics do not co-operated with the NSDAP, there is a danger that National Socialism will become a purely Protestant movement.’
    • p. 70
  • In northern and western Germany, dynamic leaders such as Gregor Strasser and the Elberfeld journalist Joseph Goebbels wanted to concentrate on breaking into the urban socialist vote… These men espoused a Prussian socialism. Whereas Hitler had recently vented his animosity towards Russia, they regarded it ‘as the socialist nationalist state for which consciously or unconsciously the younger generation in all countries long.’
    • p. 103
  • Nazi infiltration of interest groups and also the creation of parallel organizations, which gave the impression of a party listening attentively to particular grievances. It also reflected a totalitarian aspiration, in the sense that Nazis believed that no area of life was to remain unpolitical, and a very modern view that an aggregation of interests would facilitate an eventual political takeover.
    • p.105
  • By 1930, Nazi students had a majority in the unions of nine universities; by 1931 they had seized control of the national Deutsche Studentenschaft
    • p. 106
  • The National Socialists not only joined the Communists in denouncing Social Democratic bosses, but also practiced egalitarianism, unlike bourgeois parties. One should not underestimate the extent to which working-class people bitterly resented being treated as infantile inferiors by the middle and upper classes.
    • p. 134
  • The Nazis offered a combination of economic nationalism with unorthodox anti-cyclical measures to stimulate employment.
    • p. 135
  • The Social Democrats were adamant that they did not want ‘a deformed socialism that creates a mass prison’: ‘we want to liberate, not oppress.’ The Stalinised Communists, since 1929 committed to their ‘social fascists’ line, were convinced that the ‘Nazis and Social Democrats stand on the foundation of capitalist private property and were slaves of capital and enemies of the workers… According to the Stalinist view that the most insidious enemy were immediately to the left – which had Stalin’s ( NKVD) imposing discipline on Trotskyites with a bullet to the head – leftist Social Democrats were the most dangerous of the ‘social fascists.’
    • p. 136
  • The Enabling Law permitted the government to pass budgets and promulgate laws, including those altering the constitution, for four years without parliamentary approval. In democracies, constitutional amendments are especially solemn moments; here they were easier than changing the traffic regulations. None of the guarantees Hitler extended to the Churches or the judiciary in his address to the Reichstag amounted to a hill of beans.
    • pp. 154-155
  • For, despite its egalitarian rhetoric, Nazi Germany eschewed the doctrine of aggressive class war, whatever revolutionist animosities lingered, against the limp bourgeoisie in general.
    • p.161
  • If faith and hope were integral to National Socialism, so too, surprisingly enough, was charity. This ceased to be an uncomplicated reflection of human altruism, still less something individuals do discreetly for the good of their souls, or to reap tax exemptions and titles. Instead, it became a favoured means of mobilising communal sentimentality, that most underrated, but quintessential, characteristic of Nazi Germany.
    • p. 219
  • Workers were encouraged to overcome a trades union mentality – Ley’s Germany Labor Front (DAF) rapidly ceased to describe itself as such – and to think in terms of a ‘socialism’ transcending mere bread and butter issues. In a departure from labourist economism, the Nazis recognized the workers’ need for respect, and the pride they took at their work, their skill, their tools, and the products of their labour, attitudes already evident in the modern technological sectors, such as aircraft or optical manufacturing. This lends plausibility to the idea that they were embarked on a revolution in consciousness, changing the way people perceived the world, rather than its material circumstances.
    • p. 248
  • Apparently inspired by the tidy coalmines of the Netherlands, the ‘Beauty of Labour’ section of the Labor Front tackled physical surroundings, providing improved air, light and space; decent canteens and washing facilities, and exteriors designed to make factories less forbidding. Employers with scruffy premises were warned and then stigmatized by inspectors. Each campaign was conducted under a slogan such as ‘Clean people in a clean plant’ or ‘Struggle against noise.’ Holistic talk of factory communities and of the whole man replaced over-emphasis upon the more limited question of enhancing worker productivity.
    • p. 249
  • The Labor Front’s leisure arm, ‘Strength through Joy’ (KdF) was heavily influenced by the ideas of the apostate Belgian socialist Hendrik de Man, who sought to fuse Marx and Freud , and the practice of such firms as Siemens in Berlin.
    • p. 249
  • The Nazis despised Christianity for its Judaic roots, effeminacy, otherworldliness and universality… Forgiveness was not for resentful haters, nor compassion of much use to people who wanted to stamp the weak into the ground. In a word, Christianity was a ‘soul-malady.’ Many Nazis were also viscerally anti-clerical, up to and including resisting the emergence of a quasi-clerical caste in their own ranks. One would have to visit the Reformation or the extremes of liberal anti-clericalism in the modern era to find anything analogous to their vicious and vulgar attacks on priests.
    • p. 255
  • Whatever Christianity’s ambivalences and antagonisms towards the Jews, its core concerns with compassion and humility were anathema to a politics of racial egotism, and worship of brutality and strength. These ‘aspects’ of Christianity would have to be expunged. In Nazi eyes, Christianity was ‘foreign’ and ‘unnatural’, or what has been described as the Jews’ ‘posthumous poison’, a notion that Nazis picked up from Nietzsche.
    • p. 256
  • Christianity regarded all earthly existence as transient, while the Nazi thought in terms of rendering life eternal through a sort of biological Great Chain of Being. The individual was nothing, but the racial collective would endure through the aeons.
    • p. 256
  • Just as the SS was the most implacable in its persecution of racially unwanted, so it single-mindedly pursued the goal of integrating all Germans on the basis of racial equality. Himmler sincerely meant it when he warned his German SS men to behave respectfully towards their foreign racial comrades.
    • p. 430
  • Many of history’s murderers have staked out the moral high ground, killing for love of confession or country, or in the name of social equality.
    • p. 659
  • The major faultline running through the left wing of the working class, for by no means all workers came under the rubric, was hostility between the Communists and Social Democrats. Between 1928 and 1934 the Communist Party (KPD) adhered to an inflationary use of the term ‘fascism’ to describe not only the Nazis, but also the previous chancellors and the ‘social fascists’ of the ( SPD)
    • p. 665

Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror (2006)


New York: NY, HarperCollins Publishers, 2007

  • Although Christianity was an integral aspect of many early socialist movements – and in Britain remains so to this day – in general the Churches arranged themselves on the side of conservatism, partly as a result of their traumatic experience at the hands of democratic mobs in revolutionary France and elsewhere. This alliance of throne and altar duly broke down as the temporal power of the Churches was challenged by the nation states which vied for ultimate human loyalties.
    • p. xii
  • Historically, of course, as has been pointed out by such thinkers as Marcel Gauchet and George Weigel Christianity had much to do with the notion of the autonomous, sacrosanct individual, with the preservation of a sphere beyond the state that anticipated civil society, with the notion of elected leadership, and with holding rulers accountable to higher powers.
    • p. xv
  • In 1920 the British philosopher Bertrand Russell spent five weeks in Bolshevik Russia as a member of a Labour Party delegation. The group hoped to discover a promised land, breaking into spontaneous choruses of the Internationale and Red Flag on spying the first Red banners across the border. After twenty-four hours Russell realized that there was not much to sing about.
    • p. 38
  • On the eve of the Bolshevik coup d'état, the Orthodox Church claimed a hundred million adherents, two hundred thousand priests and monks, seventy-five thousand churches and chapels, over eleven hundred monasteries, thirty-seven thousand primary schools, fifty-seven seminaries and four university-level academies, not to speak of thousands of hospitals, old people’s homes and orphanages. Within a few years, the intuitional structures were swept away, the churches were desolated, vandalized or put to secular use. Many of the clergy were imprisoned or shot; appropriately enough the first concentration camp of the gulag was opened in a monastery in Artic regions.
    • p. 40
  • In the place of democracy, Fascism offered a militarised hierarchy, and the abolition of any distinction between the political and the private, the essential totalitarian aspiration, albeit like most aspirations rarely totally realized. Possession of a PNF card became the key to advancement in virtually every walk of life from inspecting fish to awarding literary prizes; the meaning and value of an individual life was weighed in terms of how it advanced the greatness of the state, a form of state-worship that such Catholic opponents as Luigi Sturzo dubbed ‘statolatria’.
    • p. 58
  • The Austrian Catholic newspaper Volkswohl even parodied life in a future Nazi state in a manner that seems extraordinarily prescient. Every newborn baby’s hereditary history would be checked by a Racial-Hygienic Institute; the unfit or sickly would be sterilised or killed; dedicated ‘Aryan’ Catholics would be persecuted: ‘The demonic cries out from this movement; masses of the tempted go to their doom under the Satan’s sun. If we Catholics want to save ourselves, then I can never be in a pact with these forces.’
    • p. 170
  • Some of the most eminent Catholic theologians, such as Engelbert Krebs, Wilhelm Neuss, Karl Rahner and Romano Guardini, lost their university teaching posts under the Nazis. Krebs not only published articles reflecting his positive view of Judaism, but was denounced in August 1934 for saying at a private gathering in his brother’s house, “We are being governed by robbers, murderers and criminals’ a remark that resulted in several years of harassment, the loss of his job, a trial and imprisonment.
    • p.176
  • In Poland, which was crucified between two thieves, both the Communists and the Nazis sought to extirpate Christianity, although only the Nazis attempted to reduce the Poles to helotry in the remnants of their former state. White Europeans were treated ‘like the blacks in the colonies’, as the metropolitan of Lwów put it. Six million Poles were killed, half of them Christians, half of them Jews.
    • p. 216
  • A persuasive way of understanding the collapse of Communism in Europe and the Soviet Union is to think of nineteenth- or twentieth-century slum clearance. For in many respects the Soviet Empire was a slum of continental proportions. Beyond the grotesque architectural assertions of an alien ideology, public housing – almost all housing – consisted of anomic and primitive concrete barracks where the smells of cabbage, damp and low-grade tobacco combined. Rivers and lakes were polluted by chemicals, with the Pleisse river in East Germany alternately turning first red then yellow.
    • p. 415
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