The Big Lie
The political Right (inclusive of the “far”, “extreme”, and/or “radical” Right) has always been overwhelmingly Christian. And it is simply a matter of historical fact that there is far more evidence for the participation of Jews and atheists in right-wing politics (up to and including fascism itself) than there is evidence for the participation of Pagans.
Nevertheless a constant stream of books, articles and websites have appeared since the mid 1980’s claiming that not only did Nazism (and fascism generally) have its roots in 19th and early 20th century ideas about reviving ancient Pagan religions, but that a significant portion of the contemporary (that is, since the 1960’s) Pagan revival is due to the activities of Nazi Pagans who are still among us.
Below is a collection of illustrative quotes from some of the more notable proponents of the claim that Paganism was behind the rise of Nazism and Fascism in the 20’s and 30’s, and that Nazis and Nazism are behind the modern revival of Paganism since the 1960’s:
The Nazis were ultimately determined to replace the Christian heritage of Europe with something that reflected their pagan past.
[Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, from a talk to the New York Open Center, April, 1997]
Indeed, the old gods were hardly alien to the architects of the Third Reich. A fascinating if eccentric literature has grown up around the mystical endeavors of leading figures of the Nazi party, of which the revival of Germanic Paganism was but one manifestation.
[Jeffrey Kaplan, Radical Religion in America, p. 15]
I don’t think you should compare what is happening today with the 1920s or 1930s in Germany and the rest of Europe, as many do. You need to go back a decade or two earlier and look at what happened at that time in continental Europe. There was a very similar kind of [Pagan] revival going on then, a reaction against the spread of rationalism, the notion that God was dead.
You had the reintroduction of magic, a rise in interest in alternative religions that looked east, like theosophy and anthroposophy. There was a revival of paganism. And you had nudism and all these alternative health therapies. All of a sudden, the pre-Christian traditions of Europe came into vogue again.
With all of this, you had the rise of nationalist romanticism and racial mysticism and occultism and the whole return of the medieval, chivalric sort of thing. All of the philosophers who are so popular today among racist neo-Pagans were popular then. At the time, there were all these small, small proto-fascist groups that nobody really took seriously. They were too small, too dysfunctional and fragmented, and they engaged in constant warfare among themselves.
It was really hard to see that it all could eventually be turned into something as powerful as Italian fascism and German national socialism. But out of that scene eventually arose movements that gained power and threw Europe into a devastating war and created the Holocaust.
[Mattias Gardell, interview with SPLC Intelligence Report, 2001]
Neo-paganists today try to present themselves as an alternative to the Christian Church, with numerous sects all over the USA and Europe. However, the roots of the movement are not so pure as some members assume, because they point back to Nazi Germany…. It is not by coincidence that the Nazis used a (neo)-pagan symbol, the swastika, adopted shortly after the First World War, since this points back to their ‘occult roots’.
[Wolfgang Behringer, Witches and Witch-hunts: A Global History, p. 233]
It is fair to say, therefore, that in Germany as well as France neo-paganism was and is the heart of fascism and the New Right.
[Karla Poewe, New Religions and the Nazis, p. 172]
Taken together, the books, articles, speeches, interviews and websites expressing the views of Goodrick-Clarke, Kaplan, Gardell, Behringer, Poewe, u.s.w., all add up to a very clear example of the phenomenon known as the Big Lie:
All this was inspired by the principle–which is quite true within itself–that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
[Adolf Hitler , Mein Kampf, vol. I, ch. X]
A previous series on “Nazis & Christians & Pagans” has already appeared in this blog. This new series on “Religion, Racism, and the Right” will be more broadly focused on the modern evolution of “left” and “right” politics, and how the issues of race and religion fit into “modern” (that is, since 16th century or so) politics.
Telling Left from Right
The terms “Right” and “Left” in political jargon originate from the French Revolution. Those who sat on the Right side of the National Constituent Assembly in 1789 were the supporters of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the Church, while those who sat on the Left ranged from well-heeled, Church-going, moderate “royalist democrats” to those whose opinions are well summarized in Peter Weiss’ stirring lyrics to Marat/Sade:
Four years after the revolution
and the old king’s execution,
Four years after remember how
those courtiers took their final bow.
String up every aristocrat!
Out with the priests and let them live on their fat!
Margaret Jacob, in her essay “The Enlightenment Critique of Christianity” (Chapter 14 in the anthology Enlightenment, Reawakening and Revolution, 1660-1815), writes that the second half of the 18th century can be characterized as a time when a “new linkage was established between and among three elements: the sexually free, the philosophically heterodox, and opposition politics, either with republican tendencies or overtly republican.” As will be seen below, what Jacob means by “philosophical heterodoxy” means, in particular, any break with and/or criticism of Christianity. Surely this linkage of sexual freedom, religious heresy, and opposition politics is one of the things that made the Enlightenment such a (literally!) revolutionary period of western history.
It is of no little significance that the modern Pagan revival coincides with another such period (two centuries later!) in which these three elements were once again “linked”. In fact today there is some danger of supposing that sexual freedom, a rejection of Christianity, and egalitarian opposition politics always go together just naturally and automatically. But as Jacob reminds us there were still (in the second half of the 18th century, just as there are today) “[o]lder, stoical forms of freethinking or heterodoxy, often quite repressive or moralizing on matters sexual …. and there were still plenty of staightlaced republicans. Of course, one could also be a mindless libertine, practice sexual license, try to be pious … and have nothing but adoration for kings and courtiers. Indeed courts had long been associated with just such libertines.” [p. 278]
Jacob then goes on to elaborate more on the character of these “three elements”:
But the eighteenth century invented a new cultural style of heterodoxy, one that fused illicit passion with non-Christian philosophy and republican politcs. While the affect of the heterodox free-liver would change markedly from 1700 to 1790 — in the process move away from the rough masculinity of the rake and the showmanship of the courtier — nevertheless the free-living, free-thinking radical came into being several decades before the more extreme Romantics like Lord Byron made him, or her, famous. Early in the century, Toland’s circle, particularly his contentinental associations with the coterie around Eugene of Savoy, had the scent of the libertine, the heterodox, and the republican about it; in the 1760’s, there was Wilkes and his cronies, and then in the 1790’s we have the life of Mary Wollstonecraft. She combined free living, republicanism and her version of deism; by the children she bore out of wedlock, she managed to shock even upstanding republicans.
Jacob speaks very broadly of a generalized “discontent with authority” but she also emphasizes the specific importance of the decline of Christianity: “the process by which Christianity lost its lustre and its clergy fell from the highest pedestal has to be factored into that central political transformation into the modern age. The possibility to think outside of any reference to Christian doctrine made an appearance in the second half of the seventeenth century, in a movement some historians have characterized as the radical enlightenment.” [p. 280]
In the decades following the French Revolution, the Left in Continental Europe (things developed somewhat differently in both Britain and the US) became the political home of all those who generally supported the overthrow of monarchies and the replacement of these with democracy, as well as women’s equality, religious freedom and individual liberty generally. The Right, on the other hand, supported the monarchies that continued to reign in most of Europe and dreamed of their restoration when and where they were done away with, while supporting limitations on suffrage, maintenance of the status quo for women (with very few or no political or other rights), and perpetuating Christianity as the dominant religion of society and as the officially sanctioned and tangibly supported religion of the State.
Ancient Paganism & the Enlightenment
When the French executed their King, Louis XVI, they were following in the footsteps of the ancient Athenians, who built statues glorifying the tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton, and even worshipped them as demigods, and also of the Romans, who threw off the shackles of monarchism and instituted a Republic in the 6th century BC, and publicly murdered their first would-be Emperor five centuries later.
The Pagan Greeks and Romans gave us both the concepts and the words for “democracy”, “republic” and even “constitution.” They also developed ideas of equality (isonomia) and free speech (parrhesia) that directly contribute to our modern understanding of these concepts. We can even find strong voices for women’s equality among the ancient Pagans, such as that of the great Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus (and many others).
Like the Renaissance before it, the Enlightenment self-consciously emulated the Pagan past. In fact, “classical” sources provided the direct inspiration for all three of the “elements” identified by Jacob (above): sexual freedom, religious freedom and political freedom.
Peter Gay even went so far as to title volume one of his two volume history of the Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Paganism (but it must be stated clearly that Gay’s comprehension of both ancient and modern Paganism, as well as his whole analysis of the Enlightenment, are all hopelessly muddled and essentially worthless except to those who make a study of the pathological idiocies of modern scholarship). But while there is nothing new about pointing out the obvious influence of classical learning on both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, it is often under-appreciated just how direct an influence Pagan antiquity had on the egalitarian “opposition” politics of the Enlightenment.
One of the most famous treatises on the subject of freedom of speech was written well before the French Revolution. John Milton opposed the law enacted by the British Parliament in 1643 that imposed strict censorship on all printed materials. In 1644 Milton illegally published an “unlicensed” critique of censorship in open defiance of the new law.
Milton titled his pamphlet Areopagitica, which was taken from the title of a speech delivered by the Athenian orator Isocrates in the 5th century BC. He also prefaced the opening of the essay with a quote from Euripides’ play The Suppliants. The whole of Areopagitica is filled with classical, that is, Pagan, references. It is also filled with many Biblical references, to be sure. The point being that Milton did not find the scriptures of his own religion sufficient (and those familiar with Milton’s other, heavily classicizing writings, will not be surprised by this) to support this most passionately held and deeply personal of his beliefs:
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.“
[John Milton, Areopagitica]
In addition to Isocrates and Euripides, already mentioned, Pagans “invoked”, as it were, by Milton in this one pamphlet include: Homer, Vergil, Cicero, Plato, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Tacitus, Apuleius, Ovid, Horace, Livy, Lucilius, Catullus, Lucretius, Menander, Plautus, Lucius Scipio, Thales, Lycurgus, Epicurus, etc.
From the Renaissance (of which Milton is one of the major English representatives) through the Enlightenment what today we see as “progress” toward what today we think of as “modern” ideas and values (liberty, democracy, equality, etc), was in reality directly inspired by ancient Paganism. That is, what was “progressive” with respect to Medieval Christendom was in fact “reactionary” with respect to ancient Pagandom.
It was undoubtedly the great thinkers of the ancient Pagan world who provided their counterparts of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment with the wherewithal “to think outside of any reference to Christian doctrine.” To invoke yet another ancient polytheistic worthy, it was classical Paganism that furnished Wollstonecraft, et al, with “a place to stand” as they applied the lever of Reason to remove the obstacle of Christianity.