It’s often said that politics and religion don’t mix. Is that because humanity has learned not to mix the two, or because every time we do there’s a problem? What happened in the 20th century that made Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler and Mao appeal as saviors? In Vision’s series Messiahs! Rulers and the Role of Religion, we explored the history of such leaders across centuries and continents. Times of extreme crisis cause people to look for someone to deliver them. If the desperation is great enough, good judgment is too often compromised and individuals who would not otherwise gain broad support rise to power, often with strong religious overtones.
In the following wide-ranging interview conducted in Rome, Vision publisher David Hulme discusses politics and religion—and politics as religion—with Italian author and historian Emilio Gentile.
DH You have written a lot about “the sacralization of politics.” What do you mean by the term?
EG I mean that some secular entity in politics, like “the Fatherland,” “the Race,” “the Revolution,” “the Proletariat,” becomes absolute and requires obedience from people who believe that such an entity is the giver of the meaning of life, for which you should be willing to sacrifice your life. In any nation you sacrifice your life in war to save the country. In this way, the country becomes a secular god.
DH In the context of sacralized politics you’ve also examined the 20th-century phenomenon of totalitarianism and developed a more nuanced definition.
EG Totalitarianism was coined by the anti-Fascists in 1923–24 in order to define the Fascists’ method of politics and the fascist system of power, long before fascism established the single-party dictatorship. So in a sense, totalitarianism is not a goal but a method: a political party pretending to be the only legitimate one to rule a country and destroying all the other parties by violence. When that happens, you are confronting a totalitarian political experiment. That’s why I prefer to say that totalitarianism is an experiment in political domination instead of an accomplished or perfected political regime. So you can say that fascism and Soviet communism used the totalitarian method; Hitler used the totalitarian method. But they were not all moving toward the same goal. It is ridiculous to say that Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler were going to have the same political system and the same goals. They were using the same method to build different political systems, a different type of society and man according to their concept of man, politics and society.
DH What were the precedents for Mussolini’s development of political religion?
EG There was a long tradition in the socialist movements in Europe of sacralizing politics—since the time of utopian socialism. Mussolini was in a sense trained in this tradition. When he became the leader of the Socialist Party in about 1912, he was already talking of a religious essence of socialism and of a new palingenesis, a term widely used by French socialists and revolutionary syndicalists; it means a regeneration of humanity through the classless revolution, the proletarian revolution.
When Mussolini became interventionist in the First World War, he translated this language of religious socialism into religious nationalism. In the creation of fascism, he stressed that it was not a theoretical movement or simply a political movement. It was a movement of regeneration. Regeneration is a key concept in any type of religion and most post-Christian-age religions. It also features in revolutionary politics. It had been very familiar to the political culture in Italy and in Europe since the French Revolution—both on the left and on the right. Socialism was a regeneration of humanity through the proletarian revolution. Nationalism was regeneration of the nation through a national revolution. Mussolini was able to fuse these two concepts of revolution, left and right, and build up a new sense of regeneration through politics, creating the new man. In fascism, of course, it was not the free man but a kind of sacrificial man—sacrificed to the state.
Mussolini’s fascism was the first political movement in Europe to achieve power and consecrate the cult of the leader, the sacralization of politics as a new religion. This was long before Stalin became the charismatic leader of the Soviet Union, which happened only after 1927. So in a sense it was a total novelty that in Europe after the First World War, where the political landscape was still dominated by new democracies, the leader of one of these European states institutionalized a political religion and pretended to be the savior of the nation and the embodiment of the national will. He became a model for other nationalist leaders such as Hitler, who pretended to follow the same path to achieve power and regenerate his own nation.
DH So totalitarianism and regeneration are in a dynamic and evolving relationship?
EG Yes, totalitarianism is an experiment in human regeneration. The problem is, what kind of new man? What kind of regeneration? It’s totally different in fascism, in nazism, in communism, and so on. The battle was the same, but the goal was very different. Fascism and nazism were much closer than other totalitarian movements, while the concept of the New Man in Stalin’s Russia was totally different from the concept of the New Man in Mao’s China.
It is impossible to imagine totalitarianism as a static phenomenon, because the process of regeneration is a long one. You have to fight against human nature, which is not eager to be transformed. And when you deal with millions of people and you want to form a unique type, it’s a long struggle. It always ends in failure, because it is impossible to change human nature through politics. And in this sense, I think that totalitarianism is obliged to be dynamic. There is no end. You can never say of a version of totalitarianism that it has reached its goal, because you have a new generation to transform. You have a new people coming along—new births, new citizens, new danger.
This was an obsession in Stalin’s Russia, in Fascist Italy and in Nazi Germany, as well as in Mao’s China. The idea was that there is always the tendency, even in regenerated people, to become bourgeois or to become lazy or idle or counterrevolutionary. So you have to regenerate them, always through violence. That is the meaning of the purge in Russia, and also the adoption of anti-Semitism in Italy. It was not Hitler who imposed anti-Semitic law on Mussolini; it was Mussolini who thought that the idea of anti-Semitism was a way of pushing Italy toward a more severe attitude toward a foreign people. The Jews were a very small minority, but they were considered to be totally different from Italians. It was a way of trying to build up a new Italian based on hatred for a different people.
DH Early in his political life, Hitler desperately wanted to meet Mussolini and made the comment that if someone like Il Duce emerged in Germany they would fall at his feet in a way they never fell at Mussolini’s feet.
EG At the beginning Mussolini was very skeptical about Hitler; first of all, he was very scared by the idea of Germany as a renewed military power, because it would be a threat to Italy. Mussolini had fought against Austria and Germany during the First World War. Nevertheless, he was fascinated by the idea that his movement was becoming a European movement. When he realized that Hitler was becoming a more popular fascist leader than he was, he tried to emulate Hitler’s success. What was important for Hitler was that Mussolini showed the way to build up a new political system and to achieve power in a new, both revolutionary and parliamentary way; not through upheavals as Hitler had tried in November 1923 and failed, but by mixing terror and parliamentary politics—a new revolutionary method, not in the old style or the Marxist style, but in the fascist style. This meant using any method that would be useful in imposing your will and destroying other political parties. Hitler had a good master and he was a very good pupil.
DH When Mussolini was on the verge of coming to power, he envisaged a new Roman Empire. In 1922, seven months before he was asked to form a government, he said, “Rome is our starting point and our point of reference; it is our symbol or, if you prefer, our myth. We dream of Roman Italy—wise and strong, disciplined and imperial. Much of the immortal spirit of ancient Rome is reborn in Fascism!” This idea of Rome’s rebirth has been repeated over the past 1,500 years. What made his version different?
EG Well, consider first of all that the myth of Rome had been present in Western culture since the Renaissance and even before; think of the Holy Roman Empire of Charles the Great. It was also transferred to the United States. You cannot understand the American tradition without going back to the myth of Rome and ancient Greece. All the American founding fathers were fascinated by the myth of Rome—the republic, of course, not the empire. Neoclassical architecture is an example of the strong presence of the myth of Rome in the modern democratic revolution. It was the same in France. So the myth of Rome is present in Western culture.
Mussolini was totally different, because his idea of Rome was connected to the idea that fascism was a kind of regeneration of the Roman spirit in Italian society and the Italian nation. But the key word in his definition of Rome is myth. I don’t think, as many people say, that Mussolini was really fascinated by the idea of recreating the Roman Empire. This idea is nonsense. Mussolini was not so stupid as to think he would recreate the Roman Empire.
But to use the myth of Rome was very important for two reasons: first, for the Italian population, which 60 years after unification was still made up of very different people. In order to unify these people, the myth of Rome was considered to be very powerful. And second, to use the Catholic tradition as a manifestation of the Roman spirit. Mussolini pretended to use Catholicism as a part of the fascist religion by saying that even Catholicism is a historical manifestation of the Roman spirit. And so in this sense Mussolini tried, not to recreate Rome, but to create a new Rome, a Rome of modern times, by using the myth of Roman greatness.
Comparative analysis of the use of the Roman myth from the American Revolution to the present time is important, because even today, when we talk about Catholicism as a kind of base for European identity, or the re-Christianization of Europe as the pope has said, we are still using the myth of Rome as a kind of common unity of Europeans. This was one of Mussolini’s ideas—to use the myth of Rome to build up a new European civilization dominated by fascism. But Hitler was a player in Europe, and he was against the legacy of Rome (even if Hitler himself was fascinated by the myth of Roman greatness). How could Mussolini build up a new civilization with Hitler, while Hitler and the Nazis wanted to destroy the legacy of Rome in Germany?
DH In Nuremberg there is a partly finished Nazi-era building based on the Colosseum. Hitler planned it as a huge congress hall. Yet you say that he didn’t want to perpetuate the myth of Rome. Do you mean that he didn’t want it in Italian terms or that he didn’t want anything to do with the idea of Rome?
EG It’s about refusing the tradition of Roman law, not the tradition of Roman monumentalism, which fascinated Hitler. He made his first official visit to Rome in 1938. Then he wanted to see the Roman monuments privately. He went into the Colosseum and the Pantheon with a German-Italian archaeologist. In the Colosseum, he asked why Mussolini didn’t rebuild it. Rebuild the Colosseum! When he went into the Pantheon, its huge dome intrigued him. And so in his new Berlin the great Palace of Congress was to be like the Pantheon. Hitler was fascinated by Roman architecture, but not by the Roman tradition of law and the Roman idea of government, which was for Mussolini one of the foundational myths of the new fascist civilization in Europe. You have to remember that the German people were never conquered by Rome. They always fought against the Romans and eventually won.
DH How much did Mussolini’s conception depend on Roman imperial images, symbols, concepts? What about his restoration of Augustus Caesar’s altar, the Ara Pacis?
EG To understand Mussolini’s use of ancient monuments, we have to think about the modernist avant-garde in the beginning of the 20th century and their interest in the use of the past and the primitive. They were fascinated by old images—to use, for instance, African statues or African masks to refine a new, modern style. Mussolini used materials from Roman times, but to build up a new style, to say that all these ancient ruins are now a part of our modern fascist style. So in a sense it was not respecting the ancient monuments, because Fascists destroyed a lot of Roman monuments to build new ones to fascism.
This eclecticism, this syncretism by fascism was typical of a modernist political movement using what was useful from the past, not in order to restore the past as it was but to create a new, modern civilization, which in terms of fascism was totalitarian.
It is very easy to demonstrate that there is no connection between ancient Rome and Fascist Rome. Ancient Rome never was racist, never had single-party rule, and certainly never pretended to be a regenerative movement to unite all Europe under the banner of a single-party ruler. Roman citizens were always under the rule of the emperor, but the emperor was never the leader of a political party and never pretended to be a “pure” Roman or to establish anti-Semitic or racist law.
DH Mussolini’s own religious convictions were really quite muted, it seems. How then do you explain his use of religious symbolism? One of his first acts as national leader was to restore the crucifix to all classrooms.
EG Here a comparison is useful. Mussolini did what Hitler did after 1933. Both said that they were going to defend Catholicism and Christianity because they were considered to be part of a national tradition. And religious tradition is an element to unite people. But of course, both Mussolini and Hitler did not pretend to restore the pure spirit of Gospel. They were not selling God and Christ; they were using Christ and God to establish their own rule. They were very realistic in seeing the church as an important institution, which was not easy to fight; a power to be confronted, but nevertheless a power that should be an ally in the struggle to monopolize power. Mussolini succeeded, but struggle was always present. After the Concordat in 1929, there was a permanent underground struggle between the church and the Fascist regime, which came out at the end of the ’30s when one of the most apologetic church leaders of Mussolini’s time, Cardinal Schuster of Milan, said in a secret speech to the bishops of his church that they were now confronting in Italy a pagan state, a totalitarian state. The Concordat, the cardinal concluded, was totally destroyed.
So the relationship between Mussolini and the Catholic church was not static. The Concordat alone did not define it. It was a permanent confrontation. Mussolini was trying to use Catholicism to impose fascist rule by “fascistizing” Catholicism. And the church tried to Catholicize fascism, but both failed in the end.
DH Is the 20th-century Age of the Dictators really a thing of the past?
EG Obviously the Age of the Dictators, understood as the period between the two world wars and of the Soviet Empire in Western Europe, when dictators were the permanent structure of the political system, has passed. But I don’t think the Age of Dictatorships has passed, because we still have single-party regimes in many African and Asian countries under communist rule.
The Age of the Dictators related to a period when there were two main phenomena. One was a consequence of the First World War; four great old aged empires were destroyed and new democratic and constitutional republics emerged. But after two or three years, most of those republics became dictatorships. In a sense, dictatorship was a kind of answer to the crisis of democracy after the First World War and after the great economic crisis of 1929.
In Europe, at least, we are no more confronted with the danger of dictatorship. There are some people who would become dictators, but I don’t see the condition to transform the present crisis of democracy into a new single-party dictatorship. If there is any dictatorship in the future, perhaps it will be totally new. But it is very difficult to understand how this new dictatorship would be imposed. Perhaps it would have a very democratic face. We would be almost unaware of it. But there will be no single-party regimes. Political parties in Europe, in the Western countries, are no longer able to build up a single-party regime. It would be utterly refused. Perhaps a new dictatorship would be what I call a recitative democracy, a form of democracy without the substance.
DH How do you see the sacralization of politics extending into the 21st century?
EG It’s been present in modern times since the American and French revolutions. We need to distinguish it from any type of politicized religion in old and present times.
In the Egyptian monarchy, the pharaoh was a god, or a son of a god, or embodied the god. In the Roman Empire, after Christianization, the emperor was in a sense consecrated by the church. And the Christian monarchs in Europe were always consecrated by institutional religion. This is not sacralization of politics in the sense that politics has become a religion. It is a politicization of a religion—the use of religion to sanctify monarchs in terms of the traditional gods, or the God of the Bible. In the period after the French and American revolutions, you have the secular entity of the nation. The nation is not a person, nor does the church consecrate it. It is consecrated because it is a new secular entity now conveying the meaning of life. The sacralization of politics is politics becoming religious, independent of the traditional church. It was not the pope who consecrated Hitler as the leader; it was not the pope who consecrated Napoleon (and I mean more than the fact that Napoleon took the crown from the pope and placed it on his own head). The sacralization of politics in modern terms is an autonomous form of religion based on politics, not on traditional church-state religion.
DH But it brings with it the symbols and trappings of religion that people have been used to.
EG This form of political religion, both in Western and Eastern countries, is based on respecting Catholicism or traditional Christianity, as Mussolini and Hitler did. Even considering Stalin and Mao, the common ground, the grammar of political religion, looks like a Bible archetype: chosen people, the Book, the charismatic leader, the Promised Land, and so on. For thousands of centuries, politics has always been influenced and conditioned and defined in terms of religiousness. According to the tradition of Christian and Catholic religion, even in Eastern countries, a lot of scholars define Marxism as a kind of secularization of Christian theology, or Christian theodicy, or Christian providence. So the use of religious language in modern times by politicians is the way to address people in modern language, but using religious metaphor.
DH You’ve spoken of the sacralization of politics with reference to the United States.
EG Yes. Take the dollar bill as a starting point. When you turn it over, you have the national motto, “In God We Trust.” But there is no definition of God in this sentence. Is it the biblical God? Is it the Muslim God? No, it is the god of America.
And then you have the symbol of the Great Seal, the pyramid, God’s eye above the sacred triangle, and two Latin sentences by the Roman poet Virgil: Novus Ordo Seclorum (“a new order of the ages”) and Annuit Coeptis (“He has approved our undertakings”). These are typical of the Roman prophecy of the coming of the savior. The birth of the United States was compared to the birth of Christ. Both were events to save humankind. So these are religious elements, but they are related not to the God of the Bible or the Christian or Muslim God; they are related to the American entity, to the American Nation, to the American Republic.
And then you can also see such symbolism in U.S. monuments. It is very difficult to approach the Lincoln Memorial without having a sense of religiosity, of sacredness surrounding Lincoln in that temple. It’s a clear example of the sacralization of politics, because Lincoln was not a God-sent son, he was a political figure. But the memorial now represents a holy ghost of the savior of the union and the great liberator of slaves. And in a sense, Lincoln is still present as a Greek theologian of the American civil religion, as many U.S. scholars have defined him.
DH You’ve written about President Bush’s version of civil religion in God’s Democracy. What do you expect of President Obama?
EG Most American presidents in times of crisis are expected to be some kind of savior. Abraham Lincoln, Wilson during the First World War, Roosevelt after the 1929 crisis, Eisenhower in the Second World War, Reagan, and so on. American presidents are very different from other presidents in Western democracies and have a kind of religious aura around them. Obama is considered to be one of the saviors of America’s declining image in the world and the crisis in the United States. He is a sort of “born again” American and he is very exceptional, because he is not born in the continental U.S. but in Hawaii and he is the first Afro-American president of the United States. He is a kind of New Man, bringing a new message. He represents a new generation of American ideals. After the failure of Bush’s attempt to build a new city on a hill through the war on terror, I think Obama will still be obliged to fight that war, but in different terms and with different goals. Obama has been presented to the American public as a kind of new Christ to save the new America—not in triumphal terms but with a humble religious attitude, saying, we have to work together to build a city on a hill. Bush would say, we are already the city on the hill, and we are to defend it because we are just, we are good, and the world is against us. So I think in Obama’s case, it is a rejuvenation of civil religion in very different terms.
DH The idea that humanity could succumb to another false messiah of the proportion of Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin is very troubling. Yet it keeps happening. What should we be looking for?
EG As a historian, I am a prophet of the past, not the future. But I do think that we are going into a very long period of crisis because of modernity. I don’t believe in postmodernity; we are still in modernity. Modernity is a period of permanent conflict between the ancient and the new. In modernity you always have the new, and the old “new” becomes the old, and so the conflict is permanent. Then you have the coinciding of globalization, which is an irreversible process, and the need for identity, which is perhaps a human need, moving toward a new kind of nationalism. Added to this you have the resurgence of traditional religion, which is not the sacralization of politics, but a kind of politicization of traditional religion in very extreme terms, as in the case of al-Qaeda’s Islamism using terror as the indispensable method to achieve power and giving it a new kind of divine authority in the world.
I think this is a very dangerous period, because whenever politics is allied, fused or confused with religion to impose a new rule on man’s life, freedom is at stake. They both express human needs. But when politics and religion join forces, there is always a danger to human dignity and human freedom. Today a lot of people think you have to unify politics and religion to save the world. Whenever this happens, you can have lasting peace, but not freedom, not the dignity of human beings. It’s not my prophecy, but my fear for the future, looking at the experience of the past.