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Abstract

This article surveys the historical literature on totalitarianism and ‘political religion’ since 1990 that has little in common with the Cold War interpretation of the personalised and total rule of Hitler and Stalin. Inspired by cultural history, researchers have instead revived ‘political religion’ theory as an analytical tool to explain the popular appeal and the success of totalitarian movements. Against the background of some general considerations and controversies about the applicability of ‘political religion’ theory to such diverse phenomena as Fascist Italy, anti-clerical National Socialism and anti-religious Soviet Communism, this survey evaluates recent scholarship on the sacralisation of the language and rites of totalitarian movements and the effects this had on their success as well as their willingness to use excessive violence against their political opponents. The author argues that the revived ‘political religion’ theory can offer a useful multi-dimensional access to the workings of totalitarian movements as long as it does not abandon a historical and political context. The article closes with a glance at Islamic fundamentalism and the ‘war on terror’ of the United States and their allies, a conflict that is increasingly associated with a new totalitarianism and politicised religion.