Michael Burleigh: A Scholar Who Dares To Look Terror In The Face





Michael Burleigh is riding a career high. The author of the 2000 bestseller The Third Reich: A New History has just published the last of a gargantuan trilogy of books on religion and politics in Europe since the French revolution. Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes took us up to the war on terror. Now, with Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism, Burleigh comes right up to date. Not that Blood and Rage is only about Islamic fundamentalism. As the 52-year-old former academic tells me when we meet at his home in south London, the new book is about terrorism as a culture — as a way of life, and death.

‘I wrote Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes because I was confronted by the prospect before I left academia of spending the rest of my life writing books on Nazi Germany and the second world war, and this was such a grim prospect for me. In a way 9/11 forced us [all] to think about the wider world.

‘The two religion books are in a sense my trying to look at what I think is a very neglected area of modern European history. Most historians are secular. They think there is just an onward march to universal secularity... The thing about the arrival of radical Islam in our midst is that it’s like a sort of sudden traffic-stop to people who think, “Oh well, we’re all going to get more and more secular and we’ll reduce these people to the same level of accepting all the tenets of liberalism”. And suddenly bang, that hasn’t worked out, that’s not the case. So now we have this terrific problem of how societies which understand themselves as becoming ineluctably more secular and more liberal, how they will deal with people for whom very strong religious belief is part of it.’

But what links terrorist organisations across the decades? Nineteenth-century Fenianism, Russian Nihilism, the Baader-Meinhof brigades?

‘Undemocratic minorities, whether in dem-ocracies or in other systems,’ says Burleigh as he lights another cigarette. ‘Twenty-five members of the Baader-Meinhof group wanted to overthrow German capitalism. Well 25 people is not a great democratic caucus, so therefore they resorted obviously to extreme political violence. I wanted to look at these particular groups in various historical contexts and to look at the mindset of why people join them, how the dynamics of the group operate psychologically — that terrorism can become almost a way of life — and particularly to focus on the thing that everybody seems to slightly neglect, which is that the main thing they do is to kill people... I think it’s quite important to establish that and also maybe to say look, there are some terrorists that you can negotiate with... there are demands you can make which at least might diminish the support they might have within given communities, and there are other people whose objectives are completely insane. I mean, we’re not going to abolish Western civilisation on behalf of the jihadists.’

Few of his cultural-cringing contemporaries would make the point which Burleigh then does: ‘The point of the book is that there has been so much public discussion about what the West did right and did wrong in Iraq and we can all legitimately have arguments about that, but the danger of that is that you move away from the fact that the terrorists are the problem.’...


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