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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

This article interprets the genealogy of the concept of ‘political religion’ in Holocaust research from the fundamental division between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ understandings of traditional religions. It argues that ‘political religion’ is understood as ‘sacred’ and unique when associated with Nazism, whilst its application to European fascism more generally has had a character of understanding religion as comparative and measureable from a ‘profane’ set of criteria. Yet, in light of research on Nazi ideology and fascist collaboration in the Holocaust, which effectively imply an interaction between Nazi and fascist agencies, the article finds that ‘political religion’ needs a re-theorization that can accommodate for the integration between the sacred and the profane.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

‘The total dissonance between the apocalypse that was and the normality that is makes adequate representation elusive, because the human imagination stumbles when faced with the fundamental contradiction of apocalypse within normality’ (Friedlander 1993, p. 51). Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander's words describe the Holocaust and the uniqueness of the scope of violence, which for Friedlander was not only unprecedented in history, but posed a unique problem to the writing and representation of history. In this vein, Friedlander illustrated what he saw as the impossibility of historicizing the Holocaust: the impossibility of integrating the event within the conventional framework of modern European history. This historicization as such was, according to Friedlander, stumbling upon the clash between apocalypse and normality; between, on the one hand, the unique and ‘sacred’ that was National Socialism and its crimes, and the uncanny normality and profaneness of traditional history-writing, on the other. The Nazis, in Friedlander's view, crossed a ‘theoretical outer limit’, which unhinged their crimes from the ‘normality’ of conventional historical methodology (Friedlander 1993, pp. 82–83).

Described as an ‘integrated history of the Holocaust’, Friedlander's Years of Extermination (2007) presented a different account of the event, and the perpetrators. It was a history of the Holocaust different from conventional historical knowledge in the sense that it was written with the methodological imperative of ‘not eliminating or domesticating that initial sense of disbelief’ (Kansteiner 2009, p. 48). The centre-stage was unconventionally given to the victims' testimonies rather than documents from the perpetrators' archives as to illustrate precisely that ‘human imagination’ which stumbled against the apocalyptic drive of the perpetrators. Whilst Years of Extermination marked a historiographical paradigm in this sense, scholars did raise a concern: what about the clash of ‘human imagination’ and apocalypse in the worlds of the perpetrators? (Confino 2009, p. 203 and Bergen 2010, p. 297). The fear of simultaneously demonising the perpetrators in the process of humanising the victims was a dilemma that Friedlander was most certainly aware of. Therefore, his attempt to maintain a sense of disbelief also in the understanding of the perpetrators was to describe a clash between a ‘redemptive anti-Semitism’—a peculiarly German, and sacred, drive of the Nazi leadership—and the complicity of Western European societies that formed a web of collaboration across the continent (Friedlander 1997, pp. 73–112). Yet, whilst Nazi policies are described as a fusion of mystical racism and a ‘decidedly religious vision’ of Aryan Christianity that shaped this German redemptive anti-Semitism, Friedlander devotes less space to the rationale behind European collaboration. The latter is presented soberly as an empirically measurable entity that implicitly underscores how National Socialism transgressed this conventional and comparative framework.

In other words, Friedlander's portrayal of the Nazi ‘political religion’ broadened the spectre of Holocaust perpetrators in the way it fused the worlds of the profane collaborators with sacred fantasies of a Nazi apocalyptic mission. But it did not tackle the issue of demonisation: To avoid presenting the Nazi perpetrators as supernatural zealots, a theorization of the human and profane mechanisms behind the project of collaboration only becomes fruitful in the light of a closer look at what exactly it was that made up the sacred ‘political religion’ of the Nazi project itself. This essay is a discussion of the possibility of theorising ‘political religion’ in a way that accommodates both the ‘profane’ human and the ‘sacred’ apocalypse in the perpetrators' deeds. It departs from the division of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ laid out in Friedlander's work where the sacred, incomprehensive ‘political religion’ of National Socialism stands in stark contrast to the profaneness of European complicity that despite fascist agencies remains bleak in comparison.

Yet, considering that the concept of ‘political religion’ has been used in analyses of both fascist movements and National Socialism, this essay argues firstly that there is a division between ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’ understandings of the concept, which, secondly, has worked to consolidate them as two opposing camps in the understanding of religion as such. Throughout the present study, the focus thus lies on the concept's double application: firstly, on the ‘sacred’ National Socialism, and secondly, on the ‘profound’ fascism. It will be argued that ‘political religion’ tends to be drawn either towards the mystification that comes with the sacred and incomprehensible labels or the simplification of the concept when used as a comparative profane tool in describing the external similarities between traditional religion and ‘political religion’. In that sense, ‘political religion’, to use Friedlander's terminology, inhabits both ‘apocalypse’ and ‘normality’, and the concept thus stands at a theoretical crossroad between the sacred National Socialism and the profane phenomena of fascist collaboration. Translated into the field of Holocaust Studies, it will be clarified throughout this essay that we are speaking of a concept that on the one hand aims deep into the minds of single individual perpetrators and their sacred fantasies, impossible to represent historically. On the other hand, to follow a more ‘profane’ path, ‘political religion’ also represents a scientific, comparative scholarly tradition with a sense of normality that is bound to clash with the sacred dimensions often attributed to the Holocaust.

I

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

The deep division between ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’ representations of the Holocaust crumbled in the face of a series of events that marked the decade of the 1990s. Beyond the killing fields in the ‘Wild East’, the opening of former Soviet archives had revealed a continent-wide scale of Holocaust collaboration, reaching from Oslo in the west to Kiev in the east, that prompted the ‘reworking of the past’ also within Western European nation-states (Stauber 2011). This historiographical development of ‘Europeanising’ the Holocaust perpetrator is reflected in the contrasts between two works on Holocaust perpetrators published between 1996 and 2011: The latter is Christopher Hale's Hitler's Willing Foreign Executioners: Europe's Dirty Secret with a title that explicitly worked to challenge the main argument in Daniel J. Goldhagen's debated publication from 1997, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Goldhagen's history of the ‘ordinary Germans’ implied a sacred dimension to German National Socialism where ordinary Germans were infected by a uniquely German brand of ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’ that nurtured a particularly barbaric and German Holocaust perpetrator (Goldhagen 1997; Moses 1998). In contrast, Hale's emphasis on ‘wiling’ collaborators revealed a barbarism and fanaticism that crossed cultural and geopolitical borders beyond Nazi state power—but within Europe. The collaborators were indeed Hitler's helpers, but their help was not the result of blind bureaucratic practice or totalitarian coercion but of their own beliefs (Hale 2011). In other words, the zealous Nazi perpetrator had company in the no less willing or convinced European collaborator.

The binary positions between fascism and National Socialism have been tackled similarly to the traditional division between European collaborator and Nazi perpetrator. In this integrationist spirit, Aristotle Kallis' work on fascist collaboration in the Holocaust is a European story of the ‘eliminationist mindset’ behind the murder of the European Jews. In his notion of a ‘fascist agency’, Kallis aims to illustrate ‘an emerging sense of an international fascist loyalty centred on the idea of a NS-led crusade for the regeneration of Europe’ (Kallis 2009, p. 13). Moreover, he describes an ‘almost metaphysical allegiance’ that ‘integrated a plethora of parallel eliminationist agencies and projects from across the continent into a single history-making crusade [the Holocaust]’ (Kallis 2009, p. 209). What thus appears as an almost sacred and supernatural fusion of National Socialist and fascist agency takes Kallis' work one step closer towards the integration of the sacred and the profane approaches to the perpetrators' motivations.

It is against this backdrop that we must situate the theoretical crux of ‘political religion’. The double application of ‘political religion’ to both fascist and Nazi agencies does indicate a possible way of integrating the Holocaust into the framework of European political violence. However, it would also mean incorporating a mundane and comparative approach to the relationship between Nazi and collaborationist agencies. In other words, precisely the approach that Friedlander objected to in his striving to maintain the sense of uniqueness in which National Socialism transcends the realm of ‘normal’ history.

II

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

‘Political religion’ is a concept that heavily depends on the user's particular understanding of religion as such. In 1917, the theologian and historian Rudolf Otto published Das Heilige (The Sacred), which sought to illustrate the varieties of religious experience into the realm of the irrational. Otto meant that for the believer, God ‘was not an idea, an abstract notion, a mere moral allegory. It was a terrible power, manifested in the divine wrath […] It is like nothing human or cosmic’(Eliade 1959, pp. 9–10). This description of Otto's piece is found in Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane written 40 years later. Eliade's work departed from Otto's point on how traditional religions comprised of, and were thus the result of, the beliefs that arose from individual experiences. Otto's claim that these religious individual experiences were fundamentally different from the ‘natural realities’ and beyond human comprehensiveness was central yet modified in Eliade's subsequent argument; for Eliade, this distinction had quasi-universality, and thus he came to signal the proper rationalisation of the division between the sacred and the profane (Eliade 1959).

With this traditional distinction of religious theory in mind, we can begin to see how it shaped the concept of ‘political religion’. Originally, it developed as an intellectual response to the rise of fanatic mass politics across the political spectrum in inter-war Europe including fascism, National Socialism and communism (Stone 2012). In 1952, Waldemar Gurian reflected upon three decades of unprecedented political violence arguing that ‘we observe today an astonishing spectacle […] The totalitarian movements, which have arisen since World War I, are fundamentally religious movements’(Gurian 1952, p. 3). Because of the broad platform for comparison that ‘political religion’ assumed, the individual approaches among contemporary intellectuals varied widely: Some resisted the rise of National Socialism on more conventional ‘political’ grounds, such as the theories on totalitarianism put forward by Frederick Voigt, Franz Borkenau and Sigmund Neumann (Voigt 1938; Borkenau 1940; Neumann 1942) whilst others argued from the point of ‘religion’, as Gurian and Adolf Keller who more explicitly pointed to the movements as secular, non-Christian by-products of modernity (Gurian 1952; Keller 1934). Their approaches nevertheless merged in a shared emphasis on the relationship between uncompromising state power and the rise of pseudo-religious belief systems in an era of mass politics.

Common for these elaborations on ‘political religion’ were also the intellectual references to Emile Durkheim's understanding of religion. For the sociologist Durkheim, religion was a social phenomenon, ‘a set of shared beliefs’ and in that sense different from Otto's individual and existential approach. Because Durkheim understood religion as a product of society, it was not sacred or supernaturally inspired. Instead, its mundane character allowed for the study of religion to be comparative (Durkheim 1912). From this Durkheimian perspective, concepts of ‘sacred religion’, ‘civil religion’ and ‘political religion’ flourished in inter-war Europe, because when religion was understood as a social phenomenon, it also transgressed outside its divine realm. For observers, the messianic leadership of the new political movements, their apocalyptic rhetoric and the fanatical crowds surrounding them became sources of comparison under the symbolically accessible umbrella-term ‘political religion’.

The Durkheimian analysis of religion is known within political religion theory as the functionalist school, and it is most prominently associated with the French sociologist and philosopher Raymond Aron whose notion of a ‘secular religion’ was based on his wider analysis of the reasons behind the success of totalitarian regimes. (Aron 1955) Similar to the contemporary intellectuals listed above, Aron primarily approached the sacred aura of Nazism from the angle of its function for the regime and thus took a bird's-eye view of the mechanisms behind the leaders and their followers in totalitarian regimes. Hence, ‘political religion’ was seen in a functionalist sense to be a political construction and a direct imitation of Christianity for purposes of domination.

The collective emphasis at the core of the functionalist understandings of ‘political religion’ gives it a ‘profane’ character when compared to the second strand of thinkers on ‘political religion’—the phenomenologist school. Emerging from the German-born political theorist Eric Voegelin's work on ‘political religion’ in the late 1930s, phenomenological approaches to ‘political religion’ are different from the functionalist in the sense that their underlying philosophy is the absolute opposite from Durkheim's religious philosophy. Voegelin's Die Politischen Religionen (2000) adopted a theory on religion similar to Otto, and he regarded William James as his main intellectual inspiration (James 1902; Sandoz 1981). James' psychological approach to religion distinguished radically between the individual ‘religious experience’ and ‘external’ religion and was in this sense radically different from the ‘profane’ and external focus of the functionalist school. Voegelin's distinctively phenomenologist take on ‘political religion’ thus stemmed from his focus on the individual experience of Nazi extremism:

The state of the deed is not the victory, but the deed itself; the pain inflicted upon the enemy is to be resumed to the soul of the perpetrator […]The inner experience of being an active element in breaking down resistance […] of mythical self-dissolution and communion with the world up to the point of relaxation in bloodlust. (Voegelin 1939, p. 69)

Voegelin's approach is similarly to Friedlander's aim of maintaining a sense of disbelief, sketching a National Socialist ‘political religion’, which eluded definition: His understanding of religion prompted a definition of ‘political religion’ as a sacred, individual and thus intrinsically unique religious experience of National Socialism in each perpetrator.

III

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

The ideological turn in perpetrator research in the 1990s was, if understood through the isolated micro-history of ‘political religion’-theory, also a phenomenological turn. The subsequent demise of structuralist theory was properly manifested through the rise of a new explanatory paradigm that challenged Hannah Arendt's ‘banality’-figure of Adolf Eichmann being stuck in the totalitarian machinery (Arendt 1963). The ideological turn presented an image of the new Holocaust perpetrator that was closer to Daniel Goldhagen's willing warrior, a unique individual with agency and belief. In this vein, ‘political religion’ came to symbolise the agency of the masses—a grass-roots perspective and a ‘humanised’ alternative to Cold War-theories on totalitarianism (Lawson 2010, pp. 154–192). The focus on the identity of the perpetrators also revealed the complexity at a new level. In Neil Gregor's words, the turn to micro-history also meant that these small stories were to challenge the hegemony of historical metanarratives. With the assumption that ‘it was all much more complicated than that’ (Gregor 2005, p. 2), new perpetrator studies are situated in the intersection of the ‘big history’ of the Holocaust with its well-documented chronology, the deportations, the racial laws, the propaganda and the epistemological abyss of tracing individual motivation.

The phenomenological approach to ‘political religion’ fits very well in this academic imperative. Complex and elusive to grasp, scholars like Michael Burleigh who applied ‘political religion’ directly to the question of perpetrators' motivations emphasise ‘the deeper metaphysical context, which shaped these appalling actions at the highest level’ (Burleigh 2000, p. 14). Michael Ley furthermore describes the Nazi project of extermination as a manifestation of homogenous acts of killing where Nazism understood as a political religion portrays the Holocaust not as an event of ‘social, economic or mass psychological nature, but one with a religious theoretical background’ (Ley 2002, p. 166). To explain the fact that the Holocaust was actively implemented by hundreds of thousands of individuals and thus not a sudden realisation of some abstract shared structures of Nazi and Christian thinking, Ley brings in the individual perpetrators and their motivations with reference to Voegelin's phenomenology: For Hitler's supporters, redemption came through annihilation and the fantasy of destruction; the murder of the Jews was a ‘holy deed’ (Ley 2002, pp. 167–169).

Indeed, the debate around ‘political religion’ in Holocaust studies has been one of the most extensive in the last decade of research on Nazi perpetrators, all related to the methodological issue of maintaining the disbelief that surrounds the Holocaust and avoiding a simplification of the enquiry into the motivations of the perpetrators. On the one hand, Burleigh stressed the way ‘political religion’ stood in stark contrast to old images of the perpetrator as ‘less than fully human […] degraded into instruments of ideology and radically divorced from the plenitude of human spiritual destiny’ (Burleigh 2000, p. 21). On the other, Gregor has argued that the concept ‘shoehorns into a crude single mould a social, political and ideological movement whose essential characteristic was in its incredible heterogeneity’ (Gregor 2005, p. 13). Similarly, Holocaust historian Hans Mommsen objects to the theory since it ‘attributes an ideological stringency and coherence to it [National Socialism] that it—a merely simulative movement in every way—did not possess’ (Mommsen 2007, p. 161).

The arguments for and against ‘political religion’ are thus all linked to a scholarly resistance to explanatory coherence. Those who use ‘political religion’ with respect to the Holocaust find the phenomenological approach to be less rigid and less prone to explanatory reductionism when compared to the functionalist school. In this vein, the phenomenologist direction is seen as an improvement of structuralist ‘political religion’-theories that in a Durkheimian spirit engaged in more immanent and profane types of external comparisons. By way of contrast, Voegelin's phenomenological legacy is clear as Klaus Vondung—a former student of Voegelin—acknowledged the risk of making causal simplifications by providing ‘a linkage between Hitler's apocalyptic worldview and the beliefs of Eichmann and other organisers of the Holocaust down to the perpetrators in the concentration camps’ (Vondung 2005, p. 93). Nevertheless, Vondung maintained that it was to a ‘high degree plausible’ that Hitler's ‘article of faith’ motivated the perpetrators (Vondung 2005, p. 93) and further claimed the National Socialist political religion to be ‘the only plausible explanation of the holocaust’ (Vondung 2005, p. 87).

From a more empirical angle, Michael Wildt's study of the leading members of the Reichsicherheitshauptsamt (RSHA)—described by Wildt as the ‘genocidal core’ of the Nazi regime—also incorporates Voegelin's ‘political religion’ into the analysis of the perpetrators' motivations as he finds ‘political religion’ to be heuristically fruitful in order to approach Nazi belief. This approach, however, depends on acknowledging the aspect of belief, rather than focusing on religious exteriors, such as rituals and symbols (Wildt 2005, p. 334). What Wildt, and more theoretically, Vondung and Ley arrive at is an argument that the phenomenological dimension of ‘political religion’ alone is necessary when applied to Nazi perpetrators. Vondung's argument that ‘behind the form there was faith’ further illuminates the wider trend in which it is the ‘sacred’ core rather than ‘profane’ exteriors of the Nazi ‘political religion’ that has attracted Holocaust scholars to ‘political religion’ (Vondung 2005, p. 89).

IV

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

In theories on fascism since the 1990s, ‘political religion’ has moved from dominating functionalist approaches to arriving close to Holocaust historians' phenomenologist view on ‘political religion’. Describing how ‘fascist religion placed itself alongside traditional religion, and tried to syncretize it within its own sphere of values as an ally in the subjection of the masses to the state’, the work of the pioneering scholar on fascism and ‘political religion’ Emilio Gentile is an example of how the fascist-Nazi dichotomy is transgressed through the very concept of ‘political religion’. It displays, on the one hand, a focus on the external, ‘profane’ characteristics of ‘political religion’ (Gentile 1990, p. 230). On the other, and in more phenomenological terms, Gentile maintains that ‘what unified fascists was not a doctrine but an attitude, an experience of faith’ (Gentile 1990, p. 234). Besides, Gentile later modified his functionalist approach by further emphasising its linkage to ‘fascist culture’ as ‘not at all metaphoric […] political religion is certainly an ideology, but, we could say, an ideology with an extra ingredient, which makes it qualitatively different from other political ideologies (Gentile 2004, p. 36).

Gentile's own clarification of his concept of ‘political religion’ should be seen in conjunction with Roger Griffin's definition of the religious dimensions of fascism. In promoting a distinctively phenomenologist understanding of ‘political religion’, his emphasis on the ‘experience of faith’ takes a central position as Griffin relates the concept to his wider call for a more ‘humanised’ field of fascist studies (Griffin 2002, p. 39). By introducing the term ‘palingenetic ultranationalism’, Griffin finds the value of ‘political religion’ in its capacity to stand as a conceptual expression of the existential myth of national re-birth that drove the fascist regimes. In that sense, ‘political religion’ is not a metaphor, nor is it an ideal-typical abstraction, but an umbrella-term for the heterogeneity of expressions that encompass a primordial human need for a sense of belonging (Griffin 2007, pp. 271–275). For Griffin, it is a heuristic device to illuminate the ‘dynamics of collective belief systems, new religions and the psychology of crowds under modern social conditions’ and therefore ‘political religion’ is a concept that symbolises the kind of academic openness, which is necessary as one approaches the worldview ‘of an individual movement or even a single fascist activist’ (Griffin 2007, p. 47). Beyond the hegemony of structuralist theory, the emphasis on voluntarism and personal motivation has thus brought forward ‘political religion’ as an illustration of the increasing overlap between fascism and National Socialism in the historiography. This overlap stemmed from precisely those academic paradigms that arose in the wake of new perpetrator research in the 1990s; the focus on agency, micro-histories and above all the abundance of empirical evidence that portrayed the ‘ideal-type’ Holocaust perpetrator with a heterogeneous and essentially unorthodox ideological checklist.

V

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

Recent research increasingly portrays the Holocaust with a transgressive dimension that stems from a new understanding of Nazi ideology. Beyond sacred and profane, Eric Kurlander stresses in his work on Nazi relations to Wilhelminian occultism that Nazi ideology ‘incorporated an eclectic array of popular mythologies and contradictory attitudes’ and thus avoided the constraints of occult sectarian doctrines. In this vein, National Socialism was successfully justified within the broader social sphere precisely because of ‘this fungibility, this lack of a clear “political religion”’ (Kurlander 2012, p. 531). Again, Kurlander's critique of ‘political religion’ is informed by pointing to the lack of ideological consistency in National Socialist ideology. The ‘sacred’ aura of its worldview was thus enforced and sustained through intrinsically populist and profane symbols. Therefore, as Kurlander stresses the need to re-think the coherence conventionally assumed in the term ‘sacred’, his argument further illustrates that perhaps also the ‘sacred’ understandings of National Socialism must be questioned for its structuralist dimension.

In a similar manner, the scholar of fascism Federico Finchelstein argues that by virtue of its heterogenic character, it is precisely the broadening of Holocaust research and the ‘Europeanisation’ of the perpetrator that has forced traditional understandings of Nazism to question the coherence assumed in the term ‘ideology’. Moreover, Finchelstein explicitly links these cerebral readings of ideology to the conventional use of ‘political religion’. In pointing to a gap between ‘high theory’ versus the historical realities, he stresses in accordance with contemporary research on Nazi ideology that Nazism shared with fascism an experiential ideology, where no doctrines or dogmas, but pure ‘violence became the ultimate form of theory’ (Finchelstein 2012, pp. 424–425, Confino 2005 and Neumann 2002). Different from the traditional divide between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, Finchelstein further invokes the work of Dominick LaCapra whose arguments on the sacred nature of Nazism incorporate Finchelstein's emphasis on pure violence beyond high theory and sacred preaching. In LaCapra's words: ‘to the extent fascism and especially Nazism arguably have a significant relation to the religious and the sacred, it is, I think, more to a specific form of the immanent sacred’ (LaCapra 2001, pp. 135–36). For LaCapra, the way one can speak of sacred transcendence from a Nazi point of view is the perpetrators' move beyond normative limits. Only in this form of earthly, experiential and transcendence can one apply the notion of a Nazi ‘sacred’.

LaCapra's take on ‘political religion’ is in fact not very different from one of the more perceptive contemporary criticisms of ‘political religion’. David D. Roberts argues similarly to LaCapra that it is time to ‘historicize’ ‘political religion’ as the conception we currently have of ‘religion’ is one of idealism; believing we know so well what religion is (either ‘sacred’ or ‘profane’), ‘political religion’ is the ideal-typical construction that saves us from digging deeper into the real nature of these movements. As Roberts clarifies, ‘because it seems credible, “political religion” truncates the inquiry into the content of belief’ (Roberts 2009, p. 397) and to historicize it would mean to bring ‘political religion’ down to the dirty, much less romantic and more ‘profane’ factors that counterbalance the sacred image of a National Socialist ‘political religion’ (Roberts 2009, p. 405). The need to historicize ‘political religion’ away from religious blueprints of ‘holy worships’ and quick-fix images of Hitler's messianic leadership as a mere replacement of Christian structures is an argument that also comes through in the work of the religious theorist Stanely Stowers. Just as there are idealist conceptions of theological doctrines, Stowers points out an under-theorised factor in the context of ‘political religion’-theory as he argues that the ‘sacred’ phenomenologist school tend to carry a pre-fixed and essentially romantic understanding of religion:

The concept of political religion trades on expressive-symbolist theory with its romantic roots […] The content of religion is said to be an ineffable experience or an incomprehensible pre-rational something or social structure that is then expressed in a uniquely self-referential symbolic form. The result is pure meaning that scholars and specialists are able to detect beneath the external form of language and symbol. (Stowers 2007, p. 12)

A rethinking of the sacred label on ‘political religion’ would effectively mean to theorise ‘political religion’ according to the transgressive dimension of National Socialism where the notion of ‘pure meaning’ is challenged by the iconoclastic violence of the ideology as such. It further allows for the historical diversity that avoids demonising the perpetrators with a sacred blueprint. Stowers identifies this phenomenologist idea that individual religious belief inhibits a ‘pure meaning’—in Burleigh's words ‘existential core’, or for Griffin a ‘palingenetic myth’—as a scholarly practice of maintaining hard boundaries which ultimately enable and preserve both mystifications and simplifications. In order to move away from the romanticism that Roberts and Stowers identified in the use of ‘political religion’, both arguments suggest that the glorification of the phenomenologist ‘existential core’-approach to religion needs to be supplied with comparative and profane interpretations. Because, as Stowers points out, historians and ‘writers do not seem to realise that theories of religion based on the idea of […] phenomenology and on religious experience are almost always religious theories rather than theories of religion.’ (Stowers 2007, p. 20) Therefore, the phenomenologist school of ‘political religion’ runs the risk of being mystified into a semi-religious vision in its own right.

VI

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography

‘Political religion’-theory faces the challenge of moving beyond the binary positions of sacred mystification and profane simplification. Beyond sacred or profane, internal or external, a scholarly consensus has emerged around the argument that the sacred drive ultimately depended on a cluster of what on the outside appeared as immanent and profane factors. Kallis, Finchelstein and more theoretically LaCapra, Roberts and Stowers have shown in consideration of the growing field of research into fascist collaboration that the religious dimension did not lay in the functionalist exteriors of ‘political religion’ such as mass parades and ideological indoctrination. It was neither ‘sacred’ in terms of Ley's grandiose claim that ‘Auschwitz was National Socialism's holy worship’ as a symbol of a set of shared religious fantasies, or that a Nazi gospel of ‘eliminationist’ anti-Semitism moved the perpetrators unanimously. The sacralization of pure violence that preceded the Holocaust apocalypse appears strikingly profane and thus the sacred and the phenomenological ‘political religion’ seem to regain strength only by referring to its conceptual sibling: its banal and profane antithesis.

This article has described that just as Friedlander envisioned the human imagination stumbling at the thought of an ‘apocalypse in normality’, the ‘political religion’ of the Holocaust was one where perhaps the stumbling act itself, between banal violence and its subsequent sacralization, is as close as one can get to a conceptualisation of the Holocaust as sacred. The growing evidence of the transgressive nature of the Nazi genocide also transgresses the boundaries of ‘political religion's’ previous distinctions. It has been the aim of this essay to map out the deeper structures of ‘political religion’ theory where parallels that I have called the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane’ have become increasingly more difficult to separate in light of recent research into fascist Holocaust collaboration. New research describes an immanent banality of violence across fascist and National Socialist camps that fused the apocalyptic drive of the genocide up to the point that these two categories can no longer be viewed as separate in Holocaust research.

Friedlander's ‘apocalypse in normality’ is in many ways a telling description of the genealogy of ‘political religion’ as one between the sacred and the profane and between National Socialism and fascism. Today, however, when Holocaust research points to the gospel of transgression rather than blind confession, an ‘integrated’ theory of ‘political religion’ is missing. Decades of research on Nazi ideology points to something other than doctrinal purity: a transgressive worldview beyond the coherence of conventional political ideologies. Future research needs to incorporate this dimension of National Socialism into its accounts of the sacred. Ironically, because of its anti-structuralist tradition, the phenomenologist emphasis on the sacred was safeguarded from methodological scrutiny to a much higher degree than the functionalist school. Indeed, as Friedlander argued, Nazism crossed the outer limit of conventional historical methodology, and the argument put forward here is that it is precisely for this reason that the Nazi sacred cannot be contained within a traditional understanding of supernatural religious theory. In consideration of the growing research on the spirit of transgression in Nazi ideology, Friedlander's call for maintaining disbelief needs to finally uncover the unorthodoxy and thus the profane ‘paganism’ of the Nazi ‘sacred’.

Works Cited

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography
  • Arendt, Hannah. (1992) [1963]. Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Penguin.
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  • Borkenau, Franz. (1940). The Totalitarian Enemy. London: Faber and Faber.
  • Burleigh, Michael. (2000). National Socialism as a Political Religion, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 1(2), pp. 126.
  • Confino, Alon. (2005). Fantasies about the Jews: Cultural Reflections on the Holocaust, History and Memory, 17(1–2), pp. 296322.
  • Confino, Alon (2009). Narrative Form and Historical Sensation: on Saul Friedlander's The Years of Extermination, History and Theory, 48(3), pp. 199219.
  • Durkheim, Emile. (1965) [1912] Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Joseph W. Swain (trans.). New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Eliade, Mircea. (1959). The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
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Biography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. I
  5. II
  6. III
  7. IV
  8. V
  9. VI
  10. Works Cited
  11. Biography
  • Rebecca Wennberg is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research interests fall generally in the field of Holocaust studies, with a more particular focus on theories on National Socialism as a ‘political religion’ seen in the light of research on Holocaust collaboration. With current research focusing on the discourse on Christianity and National Socialism among Scandinavian SS-men and their subsequent ideological conflicts with the SS, Wennberg started her Ph.D. at Royal Holloway in 2011 under the supervision of Prof. Dan Stone. Her research has been presented at several international conferences in the field of Holocaust research, including the German History Society Annual Conference in 2012 and the forthcoming Future of Holocaust Studies in Southampton July 2013.