After World War I, there was indeed a desperate need for resurgence, since many people yearned for national unity and strong leadership due to the devastating effects of the world war. Fascism arose in the setting of a world war, as well as social and political turmoil. The strict rules of the fascist doctrine created a violation of the citizens’ racial and cultural purity to eradicate their weakness and supported violence to achieve political means. During the interwar years, fascist parties and governments in several European countries formed alliances with the Roman Catholic Church, and many Catholics, both personally and collectively, were deeply involved with fascist movements and regimes. Fascism and Catholicism were pulled together by mutual opponents and goals. (Pollard, J. F. (2010) In history, it is possible to recall that Mussolini accepted Catholicism as the state religion. “In 1929, Mussolini and the Secretary of State of the Catholic Church signed the so-called Lateran Pacts, formally reconciling the Church and the Italian State.” With these pacts, the Church recognized the legitimacy of the Fascist government, and agreed to support it. (Cellini, Lecture Notes 3, 2022) Thus we see here the politicization of religion and the sacralization of politics at the same time.
As a result of these, many Christians, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Protestants alike, were drawn to fascist-style ideologies, groups, and governments as a response to and rejection of liberal parliamentary democracy, which was regarded as alien and hostile to the Catholic tradition. (Jackson, P. 2019) However, as the years passed by, the fascist movements began to spread. Especially within the European states, fascism tended to be the primary focus of the state, and instead of Catholicism, became the new dominant religion- a religion that was more political rather than theological. The Church’s vast spiritual empire gave cultural unification to Europe, but it did so without establishing a governmental empire. (Berend)
To begin with, a definition of what a political religion is- is a must. A political religion seeks secular and national identity for the individual and they are certainly opposed to liberal notions of individualism. It strictly emphasized the support of the masses in modern politics in their new authoritarian political system. Unfortunately, the expectation of the fascist eagerness to make people get involved ultimately led the masses to follow the authoritarian regime blindly and go along with everything that the belief acquired them to do.
“In fact, fascism, due to its own totalitarian concept of politics, defined the meaning and ultimate aim as regards the lives of millions of men and women. Consequently, fascism constructed its own system of beliefs, myths and rituals, centered on the sacralization of the state.” (Gentile, 1990). In my opinion, this is exactly what is meant when we state that fascism became the new political religion of the state. I think the totalitarian ideology was adopted by the state to enlarge the institutions of the state, be empowered and be the ultimate supreme ruler above man, above the beliefs of man, theology, and above any other entity whatsoever. “We are dealing with state-worship and deification of the nation, because fascism does not permit discussion or limitations: it wants to be worshiped for its own sake…” (Gentile,1990). In my view, as Sturzo’s statement suggests, the state became the new God that was supposed to be worshiped, opposite to Catholicism, since it is a theology based on the worship of God. Mussolini often used metaphors from the Christian tradition to define his concept of a revolutionary party, calling it the ecclesia of believers and militants. In reality, for Mussolini, socialism had to become more than just a scientific concept: ‘We want to believe in it, we have to believe in it, humanity needs a credo,’ he stated. (Gentile, 1990) Following their coup, Mussolini and the party exploited the notion of fascism as a “national religion” to legitimize their monopoly of power and demonize all political opponents as “enemies of the nation.” (Gentile, 1990) This suggests how Mussolini regarded Catholicism and any other power as an opposition to the state. The fascist party of the state was the new religion itself.
‘Fascists saw themselves as prophets, apostles, and soldiers of a new patriotic religion, born out of the purifying violence of war and consecrated with the blood of the heroes and martyrs who had finally sacrificed themselves to complete the ‘Italian revolution.’Fascists compared themselves to “Christian missionaries” who were “stranded in uncharted territory, among untamed and heathen tribes.” ‘Gentile’ is a term used to describe a group of people who are Salvatore Gatto, a journalist who later became a fascist leader and Deputy Secretary of the National Fascist Party (PNF), declared in 1926 that fascism, like Christianity, was a religion since it offered a creed that transcended commitment to life. ‘Gentile’ is a term used to describe a group of people who believe that Fascism was “much more than a theory” for famous figures in the government such as Giuseppe Bottai. It is a civil and political religion. It is the religion of Italy. In 1932, the fascist youth organ declared, “A good fascist is religious. “We support a fascist mysticism because it has its own martyrs and devotees, and because it positions an entire people around an idea, rendering them humble. (Gentile, 1990) The party also released a form of ‘fascist catechism’ in 1938. Though it lacked a theology, the state had its own morality. “In effect, fascism assumed upon itself the prerogative of determining the meaning and ultimate goal of millions of men and women’s lives due to its own totalitarian vision of politics.” (Gentile, 1990) Consequently, fascism constructed its own system of beliefs, myths and rituals, centered on the sacralization of the state.” (Gentile, 1990). In my opinion, this is exactly what is meant when we state that fascism became the new political religion of the state. I think the totalitarian ideology was adopted by the state to enlarge the institutions of the state, be empowered and be the ultimate supreme ruler above man, above the beliefs of man, theology, and above any other entity whatsoever. “As Don Luigi Sturzo, the leader of the Partito Popolare, warned, fascist doctrine was “deeply pagan and opposed to Catholicism.” We are dealing with state-worship and deification of the nation, because fascism does not permit discussion or limitations: it wants to be worshiped for its own sake.” (Gentile,1990). In my view, the state became the new God that was supposed to be worshiped, very unlike and opposite to Catholicism, since it is a theology based on the worship of God. Benedetto Croce, who was an atheist militant and revolutionary socialist, such as Mussolini, also demonstrated a certain interest in religious phenomena, and defined his conception of revolutionary socialism as being ‘religious’. (Gentile). Mussolini often used metaphors from the Christian tradition to define his concept of a revolutionary party, calling it the ecclesia of believers and militants. In reality, for Mussolini, socialism had to become more than just a scientific concept: ‘We want to believe in it, we have to believe in it, humanity needs a credo,’ he stated. (1990, Gentile)
After the seizure of power, Mussolini and the party made good use of the image of fascism as being a ‘national religion’, in order to legitimize their monopoly of power and destroy all political adversaries as ‘enemies of the nation’. (Gentile, 1990) This suggests how Mussolini regarded Catholicism and any other power as an opposition to the state. The fascist party of the state was the new religion itself.
When we consider the meaning behind this ideology, we see that this new political religion was a myth. Thus, sacrificing yourself for fascism was a kind of martyrdom. “Fascists considered themselves to be the prophets, apostles and soldiers of a new ‘patriotic religion’, which had arisen in the purifying violence of the war, and which had been consecrated with the blood of the heroes and martyrs who had sacrificed themselves finally to achieve the ‘Italian revolution. Fascists compared themselves to ‘Christian missionaries, lost in unexplored regions, amongst wild and pagan tribes.” (Gentile).
In 1926, Salvatore Gatto stated that fascism, like Christianity, was a religion because it provided a belief which transcended attachment to life. (Gentile, 1990). For an eminent figure of the regime such as Giuseppe Bottai, fascism was ‘something more than a doctrine. It is a civil and political religion. It is the religion of Italy. In 1932, the organ of fascist youth proclaimed that ‘a good fascist is religious. We are for fascist mysticism because it has its own martyrs and devotees, and because it positions an entire people around an idea, rendering them humble. (Gentile, 1990) In 1932, Mussolini stated definitively: ‘Fascism is a religious concept of life’. In 1938, the party also published a kind of catechism of the ‘fascist religion’ which, in the form of questions and answers, tried to provide fascists with a ‘simple guide, which is as important for the cultivation of the soul as for normal activities in everyday life’ (Gentile, 1990) Within the state, obedience and devotion to the party are of the utmost importance. It was an ultimate practice of faith which further supports the idea of how fascism was a political religion of its kind. Just like in religion there is obedience to a Deity, in fascism there is obedience to the fascist party. In both cases, obedience is like faithful devotion. On the other hand, we see that populism uses Christianity as a political weapon. The populist leaders’ Christianity is opposed to the Pope’s interpretation of scripture. Unfortunately, a large number of churches in most Central and Eastern European countries are allied with, and often directly serve, autocratic leaders and governments. (Berend, 2022) Thus, we see here that populism may use Christianity as a way to achieve its political aims.
It is clear that when there is a weakness or void, ideology and politics will fill it. Such as communism in the case of Eastern Bloc countries as we have seen in European history, or fascism as we have seen in Central Europe. “With the weakening of religious associational life throughout Europe, an ideological and institutional vacuum has allowed nationalist groups to form and subsume religious discourse as a form of identity politics. These changes quickly altered the landscape of parties because of the Proportional Representation systems most European states espouse.” (Haynes, 2016).
“The Fascist State expresses the will to exercise power and to command. The Roman tradition is embodied in a conception of strength. Imperial power, as understood by the Fascist doctrine, is not only territorial, or military, or commercial; it is also spiritual and ethical. Fascism sees in the imperialistic spirit a manifestation of their vitality. The Fascist doctrine is best suited to the tendencies and feelings of a people which, like the Italian, after lying fallow during centuries of foreign servitude, are now reasserting itself in the world.” (Mussolini, The doctrine of Fascism, 1932 in Cellini, 2022). Therefore, religion and politics were interconnected in the age of totalitarianism and mass politics: the concepts of politicization of religion, political religion and sacralization of politics help us to understand this (Religion and Politics in the 20th Century, Lecture notes, Jacopo Cellini, 2022) An example of Catholic religiousness in the contemporary age was in Italy. “Pope Pius XI defined catholic action as ‘the collaboration of laymen to the hierarchic apostolate of the Church’.” (Moro, 2005). “Catholic Action sometimes acquired a different, political meaning. In September 1948, a few months after the extraordinary Catholic victory at the political elections, the youth organization of Italian Catholic Action invaded Rome. Carlo Carretto, addressed himself to the individuals who were in government ‘only because the Christian spirit of Italy’ had brought them there, and chastised them for pursuing the ‘liberal middle-class economy,’ an economy ‘imbued with ‘terrestrialism,’ the ‘devil’s economy. ‘Carretto, therefore, asked them not to disappoint Catholics and adopt a ‘Christian economy’. A liberal observer noticed that, in Italy, a politically organized Catholicism, equipped with modern techniques of mobilization, had appeared.” (Moro, 2005).
In conclusion, it is clearly evident that fascism rose during the post World War 1 period and with the politicization of catholicism and the sacralization of the fascist doctrine, we see that fascism gained a new dimension so as to become a political religion. The term political religion has a multidimensional meaning when we examine the devotion that was demanded by the fascist order. As a form of totalitarian regime, fascism brought with it its own rules and restrictions which prevailed for a long time in the history of Europe.
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Berend, Against European Integration: The European Union and Its Discontents- Chapter 7.
Berend, “Christian Europe? The use and abuse of Christian values and the populist debate”, Populism and Christianity, 2022.
Cellini, Jacopo. “ Religion and Politics in the 20th Century”, Lecture notes, (EUI), May 2022)
Gentile, Emilio. Fascism as a Political Religion. Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 25, No. 2 / 3, (May-Jun, 1990), pp 229-251. Sage Publications, Ltd. https.//www.jstor.org/stable/260731. retrieved: 08-05-2020.
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