Europeans with similar sensibilities towards spirit and the world lived in a very different world. They confronted a liberalism that for the most part no longer spoke the language of human rights. After the French Revolution, for various reasons good and bad, European liberals had narrowed their appeal to the bourgeoisie and the new industrialists. Much of Europe remained rural, conservative, religious, and wedded to the old aristocracy even as the new working class eventually allied with various socialist movements. The socialists generally shared the nature-is-nothing-but-resources outlook of the industrialists.
European conservatives were disproportionately hospitable to the romantic critiques of the new industrial mentality. Of these men and women, some were traditionally Christian, and often Catholic. Others had accepted the Enlightenment critique of the ancien regime, but believed that order and hierarchy were necessary to prevent chaos. Here is where the later fateful seeds that distinguished European conservatism from fascists and Nazis were planted. While one saw itself as traditional and the other as revolutionary, both hated liberalism and extolled hierarchy and authority.
It was within these broad anti-liberal groups that the romantic critiques of the new industrial and liberal orders rising in Europe were most avidly accepted. While the conservatives employed conservative Christian frameworks, those who were no longer Christian often blamed Christianity for the evils of the modern world, especially its egalitarianism. Many of them cultivated an interest in Pagan traditions as an alternative. (Here I would disagree with the European secular right and give far more credit to classical civilization than to Christian, but that's another argument.)
The evidence I have encountered suggests these people were not practicing Pagans in our sense; they were cultural Pagans as an alternative to a Christianity they considered decadent and soft. They certainly were not Goddess-oriented, for those qualities were the opposite of the "manly virility" praised by the European right and their political fascist wing.
Pagans then and now
So how do we differ from the so-called "Paganism" of some European right-wingers between WWI and WWII?
- We come to it out of liberal culture, a culture the European right regarded as too soft and feminine to survive.
- Consequently, we are vastly more receptive to the Divine Feminine than were the European Pagans I have so far read about, who generally regarded themselves as manly critics of an overly feminine (!?) society.
- Our Paganism is primarily religious in focus, whereas the Europeans of that time saw what they did in primarily cultural terms.
These are very important differences indeed. They dominate despite an overlap in elements of their and our critique of secular modernity and a common use of the term "Pagan," albeit with different meanings. In a sense, I see most of them as appropriating the term Pagan as a tool in their attack on liberal modernity rather than as a description of their religious beliefs.
Today, this issue is not entirely past history. Elements of this European cultural focus remain within some European Pagan circles, and I am curious as to how they will work out. For example, Lithuania was the last Euro-Pagan culture to be crushed by Christian military might. It retains a strong Pagan cultural identity, and while under Soviet occupation many Lithuanians held fast to that identity. Lithuanians I know have told me most, but hardly all, Pagans there are Pagan for cultural reasons rather than religious or spiritual ones. If my argument is correct both we and they can benefit from increased contact. By example (and not by lecture), we can offer an alternative to the most reactionary political implications of their courageously maintained Pagan identities. They in turn can help us find ways of increasing the breadth and richness of Pagan culture in America. That sounds like win/win to me.
But most importantly, if this argument is valid, it helps us all appreciate the best parts of our heritage even while seeking to live more harmonious and peaceful lives ourselves.