October 21, 2014

The Theological Roots of Nazism and Stalinism

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Ideology, writes Alain Besancon in “A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah” is:

…a doctrine that, in exchange for conversion, promise a temporal salvation that claims to conform to a cosmic order whose
evolution has been scientifically deciphered and requires political practice aimed at radically transforming society.

The definition captures in a nutshell Nazism and Communism’s chief aim: the radical transformation of culture through a radical break with history and values, all the while presenting the ideology as the next evolutionary step in a march of progress. The definition has theological implications, but until now the theological dimension of perhaps the most brutal century of Western history has been only marginally explored.

Besancon changes that. He compares Nazism to Communism, particularly their inner logic and structure, frames them in a cultural context (Germany and Russia mostly with small and insightful forays into Chinese Communism among others), and examines in great detail the transcendent claims they sought to supplant in their appeals to ethnic purity and/or pseudo-scientific claims (there is a lot of the myth of progress evident here).

Two historical questions occupy much of Bensancon’s analysis: what motivated the destruction of Judaism as a religion and race; why such relentless and brutal persecution of Christian believers in Russia? Further on Bensancon asks (which will provoke the debate about his book): is the slaughter of 6 million Jews (alongside the 7 million non-Jews) in Nazi Germany of a different character than the slaughter of 30-60 million Russians and others in Communist Russia? Bensancon argues yes, but is careful to point out that the distinction is not one of the nature of the suffering (one must speak of the suffering of others with great discernment; only fools walk this ground without caution), but the nature — the evil character — of these ideologies particularly in terms of the new culture they wanted to create.

Read it if you want to understand the broader currents that shaped the world in the last century.

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