François Desset: On The Decipherment Of Linear Elamite Writing

We are so greatly pleased to present this interview with Dr. François Desset, who recently accomplished a remarkable scholarly feat – he deciphered an ancient and elusive writing system that used in Bronze Age Iran.

Dr. Desset is a French archaeologist, who earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne. His primary interest is Bronze Age Near Eastern Archaeology (ca. 3500-1500 BC), particularly in Iran, where he has lived for the most part since 2014, working at the University of Tehran, as well as with the French research team, Archéorient (Centre national de la recherche scientifique). He has conducted numerous excavations, especially in South-Eastern Iran, at sites pertaining to the Jiroft civilisation. Another interest of his is in Iranian writing systems.

In this latter field, along with four collaborators, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Mathieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello and Gianni Marchesi, he has recently been able to decipher the long-elusive Linear Elamite writing system. At present, some 95% of the signs can be read. This is a monumental achievement, comparable to Champollion’s decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing and Ventris’ decoding of Linear B.

This interview, on behalf of the Postil, is conducted by Robert M. Kerr, who heads Inarah, the institute for the study of early Islam.


Robert Kerr (RK): How did you first get interest in Linear Elamite writing?

François Desset.

François Desset (FD): During my first excavation in Jiroft (South-Eastern Iran), in 2006, four tablets with a “very weird” geometric writing system were discovered. My curiosity in undeciphered ancient Iranian writing systems, such as this geometric one, linear and proto-Elamite script, was sparked. This inspired me to write a book on the subject. At this time, most colleagues preferred to keep their distance from this material as it was still undeciphered.

RK: So, a healthy curiosity of the unknown took an un-relinquishing hold of you. As we both know, even deciphered writing systems of lesser-known languages, such as the language isolate, Sumerian, still pose considerable difficulties. Undeciphered writing systems, on the other hand, tend to deter serious scholars and attract dreamers, as for example with Linear A. Your approach, much like that of Champollion and Ventris was logical and systematic, leaving no room for wild speculations.

FD: Indeed. For me the turning point was the realisation that the proto-Elamite (as the early phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) and the linear Elamite (as the late phase of the proto-Iranian writing system) must be one and the same writing system, but at two different, chronologically distinct periods. Between the two is a middle proto-Iranian script, which, however, is still not well known. Crucial for me was that I was able to gain access to a collection of inscribed silver vessels (kunanki) in London (the Mahboubian collection) from which I could make exact copies. As pointed out by Gelb many years ago, the first step in decipherment, is to establish precise copies of the texts themselves.

François Desset with columns from Iranian Baluchistan.

RK: Certainly, without autopsy, you know nothing. Drawings in my experience are often detrimental to reading such texts.

FD: Initially, in my case, when I started in 2006, I only had photographic access to one side of the objects, the silver vessels; thus, I had only one half of the inscription. It was only in 2015, after considerable efforts, when I was granted access to the artefacts themselves that I was able to start to make progress. Two years later, I was able to present my first readings.

RK: Access to the written objects is the sine qua non of any philological endeavour. However, successful decipherments, yours being no exception, pursue in their analysis a three-pronged approach: Is the language previously known? Are personal names known? Are there bilingual texts?

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Y. Mahboubian collection.

For the first point, the key for the later decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs was the conclusion by Athanasius Kircher, a Renaissance polymath at the Collegium Romanum, that Coptic must be the last phase of the Egyptian language. Although he was unable to decipher the hieroglyphs themselves, this realisation was later crucial for Champollion.

We see this too with Ventris, who concluded that the language of the Linear B tablets must be a form of Greek, and Knozorov’s decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphs. As per your second point, personal names, the realisation that such must be contained in cartouches was essential for Champollion’s work on the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone of course is triscriptural (hieroglyphs, demotic, both forms of Egyptian writing) and Greek and bilingual (Egyptian and Greek).

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

FD: With linear Elamite we do not have bilingual texts stricto sensu. We only have “partial bilingualism;” that is texts recorded in different languages and containing. e.g., the same anthroponyms, titles, etc. So, for example, those referring to the Susian king Puzur-Sušinak (2150-2100 BC), which display a cuneiform inscription recording an Akkadian text, and a Linear Elamite writing one, recording what we could prove as being an Elamite (or Hatamtite) language text. The texts themselves, although they share the same onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects.

Distribution of writing systems in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BC Near East, showing the locations of the cuneiform (in red), Indus (in green), LE (in yellow) and geometric (in white) texts.

The texts themselves, although they share only the onomasticon and titles, deal however with different subjects. Then, we also have what one might term “biscriptualism;” that is, two objects with the same text (in the same language), though written in two different writing systems.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 1. National Museum of Iran.

This was the jackpot – the same Elamite or Hatamtite text written on one artefact in cuneiform, and on the other in Linear Elamite. This is a classic knowledge-driven decipherment based on our capability to make connections between Cuneiform and Linear Elamite scripts inscriptions recording the same Hatamtite (or Elamite) language text.

Linear Elamite inscription on the so-called Marv Dasht vessel 2. National Museum of Iran.

RK: An excellent point, especially in this day and age when many seek to replace knowledge with technology.

FD: Certainly. I wish in this regard to emphasise that I have been asked a lot about computers, statistical data, etc. All hogwash! Knowledge, especially cultural knowledge and of the languages used at the time, some luck, and most important perseverance were essential.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

RD: Often today, computers are employed to avoid thinking, as an ersatz for genius – information nowadays often is mistakenly equated with knowledge. Technology is no substitute for ingenuity, the feat of you and your team is a true intellectual achievement. Here, with regard to the first criterium, previous knowledge of the language, you were sailing somewhat on uncharted waters.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

FD: Not entirely. We had Hatamtite (Elamite) proper nouns recorded in cuneiform. Without that, we would have been unable to make any significant advancements. The language though, like Sumerian, is a language isolate (i.e., has no known cognates). We know now, after decipherment, that cuneiform is rather unsuited to render the Hatamite language.

Proto-Elamite tablets of Susa (CDLI). Louvre Museum.

So, for example, the name of the 14th century BC king rendered in cuneiform as Untaš-Napiriša is rather to be rendered Ontaš-Napireša, because we now have a graphic rendering in Linear Elamite closer to contemporary phonetic reality, i.e., how it was pronounced. This writing system is well adapted to the morphophonology of Hatamtite, much more so than (the au fond logographic) cuneiform.

na-pi-(r)-re-sha

We have now also made considerable progress towards understanding the phonology of the language. I have the impression that Linear Elamite is in a way more “advanced” than cuneiform since it provides a more precise rendition of phonemes.

Curiously enough though, many scholars thought that the silver vessels bearing the inscriptions were forgeries. After their publication in 2004, nobody seemed interested in these objects. I thought I must have missed something.

RK: There was of course in the 1990s the famous “heist” of supposedly Achaemenid metalwork in New York, which turned out to be modern forgeries.

FD: We must always be careful with objects which are not unearthed in the course of official, professional excavations. Metal in the Middle East, a scarce, hence mostly imported commodity, was nearly always recycled. We usually only find such objects in graves. My suspicion is that the Mahboubian artefacts may come from graves dated around 2000-1900 BC.

RK: Looted artefacts lack archaeological context and hence are of limited scientific value. And they aid in the dissemination of forgeries. In your case, your decipherment has shown that the objects must be authentic. Could you now briefly explain to us the distribution of writing systems on the ancient Iranian plateau.

FD: I am proposing a new history of writing in the Near East. Things in this regard have now become a lot simpler. Until 2018, I thought that we had proto-Elamite, Linear-Elamite and this geometric writing system only attested in Jiroft. Then I came to the conclusion that the first two must be one and the same writing system. Their different appearance is due to chronological development. My thinking now is that in this region, “Iran” (archaeologically speaking), there was only one ancient writing system which appeared around 3000 BC. It was used, based on the names of the kings attested until about 1880 BC. These I divide roughly into three distinguishable phases.

The first phase, traditionally known as proto-Elamite, I term Early proto-Iranian writing; these appear to be mostly administrative tablets, found on eight sites, primarily in Susa during the French excavations at the end of the 19th/early 20th centuries, on the Iranian plateau. They are datable to circa 3300-3000/2900 BC. Although these texts are hitherto undeciphered, now that we have deciphered what I call Linear Elamite (Late proto-Iranian writing phase), we will be able to work backwards (as was done with cuneiform).

Then, we have the Middle proto-Iranian writing phase, about which we have only sparse information, and which probably should be dated in between, ca. 3000/2900-2300 BC.

Then comes what has been conventionally known as Linear Elamite, Late proto-Iranian writing (phase III), that which we have deciphered and is more or less datable to 2300-1880 BC. For this last stage, the present corpus is not large, with currently some 43 inscriptions, found in Southern Iran, in Susa, in Fars and in Kerman province (Shahdad and Jiroft). Thereafter, this (proto-Iranian) writing system falls into disuse around 1880 BC.

I believe that there were two reasons for this: first, in the early 2nd millennium BC, there was a large-scale urban collapse in Eastern Iran, in what is now Kerman Province; all the cities, Jiroft, Shahdād (Khabīs), etc. were abandoned – but this was not limited to the Eastern Iranian plateau; this was also, for example, when the Indus Civilisation came to an end. Second, in South-Western Iran in this period, in Susiana and Fars, Mesopotamian cuneiform was adopted by Hatamtite speakers.

RK: Often with urban collapse, writing systems, whose primary function is administrative, fall into disuse. We see this elsewhere, for example at the end of the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean. Could you now briefly walk us through your decipherment of Linear Elamite?

FD: By being able to access the artefacts in the Mahboubian collection, I was able to distinguish specific, repeated sequences of characters which were likely to be names. Of special note was a sequence of four tokens, which I thought in all likelihood must render the name of a king. The first sign, /ši/, had been previously identified in 1905 by a German scholar, Bork; the third and fourth signs were identical. Thus, I just needed to find the name of a king whose first syllable was Ši- and which ended in two identical syllables and who ruled in the early 2nd millennium BC. The names of the Elamite kings are known (e.g., from cuneiform sources). And there was only one king to whom these criteria applied, namely Šilhaha (20th century BC). This was the key. It gave me the phonetic value of two further signs, from which I could proceed.

ši-l-ha-ha

RK: I do not wish to diminish your intellectual achievement in any way, but could one say, that what aided you vis-a-vis previous scholars such as Hinz and Merigi’s brilliant and painstaking work, was that you had a larger corpus?

FD: Indeed, access to the Mahboubian collection was essential; in this regard I was quite fortunate.

RK: It was indeed your perseverance, gaining access to the collection while others showed no interest. This is an essential trait, especially for epigraphists.

FD: Yes, especially since the writing system itself is not as complicated as for example cuneiform.

RK: Yes, and with regard to writing systems, we must never forget that orthography and phonology are two related though quite distinct manifestations of language.

FD: Of course, language sound is not visual language/graphemic rendering. So, for example, there are logographic writing systems, such as Chinese characters (Hànzì), which do not record sound.

RK: And, as for example speakers of English and/or French know, how you write something is not how it is pronounced. These are two related, yet entirely different phenomena. We see that the advantage of the alphabet is that we can graphically produce words with a limited character-set, which then are read “hieroglyphically;” we recognise the word shape. Children and language learners have difficulties until they are able to master word shapes (cf., with smartphones, Chinese is written phonetically using the Latin alphabet, whereupon the user selects the correct character).

FD: Yes, speaking and writing serve two different goals.

RK: Moving on then, can you provide us with a brief overview of the Linear Elamite texts that you have deciphered.

FD: At present, we have a corpus of some 43 texts, which is not really a lot. We can roughly divide these into seven different corpora, periodically and geographically speaking. The first, the best preserved, longest, and the most important genre is votive or dedicatory royal inscriptions; those of Puzur-Sušinak (cf. supra) from Susa (2150-2100 BC). A second corpus in this genre is represented by the somewhat more recent texts on silver vessels of the late Simaški/early Sukkalmah dynasty (2000-1880 BC), by Eparti II and his probable son, Šilhaha (cf. supra).

e-pa-r-ti

On the silver vessels we can also glean two important conjugated verbs, “I made” and “I gave;” e.g.: I am … the King of Hatamti, I made … and I gave (scil. presented this object to deity x). We only have one text containing historiographical data, a campaign by Puzur-Insušinak previously known from cuneiform sources. We do, however, have important data pertaining to anthroponyms and the names of their gods which were previously unknown. Also, because as elsewhere in the ancient world, names had an apparent meaning, i.e., they are grammatically analysable and hence supplement our knowledge of the language. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between a simple sentence and a “sentence name.”

Graphic rendering of the Persian Gulf type seal with Linear Elamite inscription V.

Now that we can read some 95% of the Linear Elamite signs, the challenge with which we are faced is the translation – as mentioned, distinguishing names from sentences, but also due to our limited knowledge of Hatamtite/Elamite grammar and lexicon. The latter especially, since we can now read the texts, we are continually encountering previously unknown lexemes and grammatical forms.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription Z. Mahboubian collection

RK: These are the problems which one faces when reading a linguistic isolate. As we mentioned, Champollion had Coptic to work with, Ventris, Greek. And there are very few bilingual texts involving a Hatamtite/Elamite version, including most notably the much more recent royal Achaemenid trilingual texts (Old Persian, Akkadian and Hatamtite/Elamite). I read many years ago the works of David McAlpin, who proposed a relationship with Dravidian languages. This has not been widely accepted, and hard to prove due to the chronological distance between the recording of the two posited groups.

FD: Indeed, this is a very unlikely proposition. To the best of our knowledge, it would seem that Hatamtite/Elamite remains, for now, a language isolate. Of course, no language can be a real isolate; it is just due to the data available to us. A lot changes over the course of three millennia. I choose, however, to leave this for what it is. I am not a historical linguist.

Kunanki silver vessel with Linear Elamite inscription K’. Mahboubian collection.

It is however possible that Hatamtite/Elamite was spoken up to the tenth/eleventh century AD. Indeed, Persian geographers, writing in Arabic, make mention of a language (Khuzi) spoken in Khuzestan, which would seem to have been a late form of Elamite or preferably Hatamtite.

The so-called “Table au lion,” with LE (text A) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

Here I wish to make a brief note on the terminology. I am a fervent advocate of using “Hatamtite” as a glossonym, based on the auto-toponym Hatamti found in Linear Elamite texts themselves. “Elam” is a Mesopotamian allo-toponym which can roughly be translated as “Eastern Highlands.” Hatamti was probably the most important designation for the political structure of the Iranian Plateau during the third millennium BC.

RK: Your point is well taken. When the Louvre has its displays rewritten accordingly you will know that you have won. Let us return to your point on proto-Iranian writing, that this is one system with three (chronologically distinct) manifestations (One might compare the decipherment of the Shang Dynasty ‘oracle bones’, whose writing system represents the first attested stage of Hànzì). Indeed how many independent writing systems might one expect in one culturally homogenous region?

FD: The idea is not new. In the early twentieth century, it was widely thought that they were related. Thus, I am rather promoting classical ideas. It was only in the 1970s/1980s that what I call proto-Iranian writing Early, Middle and Late phases were viewed as distinct and independent writing systems. Although a general scientific consensus remains in this regard, I believe that I have good reasons to dispute this. So, for example, even a superficial glance at the shapes of the tokens themselves strongly suggests that the Early (Proto-Elamite) and Late (Linear Elamite) phases (the Middle phase is still poorly documented) are one and the same writing system.

Broken boulder with LE (text B) text of Puzur-Sušinak, found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

I have now started to work on the most ancient texts, the Early phase, using the phonetic values of tokens from the Late phase or Linear Elamite. It is still early days, but I can unequivocally state that there is a continuity.

RK: I do believe that you are on the right track and look forward to the completion of this work very much. Let us now turn to the implications of your decipherment and your thoughts about the origins of writing in the Ancient Near East, especially your suggestion that the earliest cuneiform writing and Early proto-Iranian (or Proto-Elamite) writing are contemporary, i.e., sister scripts. The communis opinio states that cuneiform is the mother of all writing systems. You posit a chronological and a logical argument.

FD: Yes, I have published extensively on this. Firstly, in my 2012 monograph, usually ignored by the academic world, and again in 2016, which received slightly more interest. This discussion is however completely unrelated to the decipherment of Linear Elamite.

However, I want to use the attention which the decipherment has attracted to promote my ideas on the origins of writing. Simply put, Carbon14 datings and the stratigraphy of the respective texts show that both Proto-Cuneiform in Mesopotamia and Proto-Elamite in Iran are contemporary. Conventional wisdom dates the Uruk (proto-cuneiform) texts to 3300-3200 BC. If we accept such, we must note that proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) texts found in the1970s in the Iranian site of Tal-e Malyan were C14 dated to precisely the same period. From the point of view of pure chronology, based on the current data, both are consequently contemporary..

Goddess statue with LE (text I) and cuneiform texts of Puzur-Sušinak found in Susa. Louvre Museum.

As for my second argument, logic, let me note that if proto-Elamite (or Early Proto-Iranian) was a daughter script of cuneiform, then it should manifest numerous shared elements or borrowings. However, both differ for roughly 95% of the time. There is only 5% which is shared, especially, the numeral signs and systems employed and several logograms or sign-objects. Both of these, however, can also be found in the “numerical tablets” which are somewhat older, ca. 3500-3000 BC and are attested from Syria to Iran. It is clear that both proto-Elamite/ Early Proto-Iranian writing and proto-cuneiform share a common ancestor, namely, these numerical tablets. Thus, they are sister scripts.

Although I have been criticised for this thesis, my evidence is solid. I would of course be willing to reconsider should an excavation in the South of Iraq produce proto-cuneiform tablets which can be unequivocally dated to circa 3500 BC or earlier. Mine is the most parsimonious explanation with the data currently available.

RK: One must not forget that these “numerical tablets” do not render a language. They display logographs which are language independent and numerals.

FD: earliest writing systems were not very related to (a specific) language. We also see that they were only employed in specific domains, mainly accounting. This can be done without rendering specific linguistic information.

RK: Furthermore, if one accepts the theory of Schmandt-Besserat, that writing emerged from the use of symbolic tokens, “tags,” clay envelopes which only then became tablets, then the origins of writing are logographic. The latter, especially in light of their distribution, both chronological and geographical, could well be the precursor to both writing systems.

FD: With regard to her theories, we must be cautious. So, there is the discussion about the simple tokens dating back to the sixth and seventh millennia BC, which I do not view as the precursors to writing. The complex tokens on the other hand, which date to the fourth millennium BC, along with the clay envelopes, may well be the precursor to writing stricto sensu.

RK: The envelopes are convincing because they were used into the early second millennium BC. Thus, the evidence for a common ancestor for both proto-Iranian and cuneiform Mesopotamian writing is very credible.

FD: When I refer to the common ancestor, I mean the “numerical tablets” and not the complex tokens. The former have been found throughout the Middle East, from Syria to Iran, and date to the mid fourth millennium BC. It should also be noted that these tablets did not immediately fall into disuse after the invention of writing, and continued to be used for accounting and administration alongside the writing systems.

Detail of the so-called Marv Dasht vessel. National Museum of Iran.

RK: (Complex) Bureaucracies tend by their nature to be conservative, and these served the required purpose well. Can we turn now to the nature of the proto-Iranian writing system itself?

FD: Here we must proceed with caution. We must not conflate the Early proto-Iranian phase (proto-Elamite; late fourth millennium BC) with the Late proto-Iranian phase (Linear Elamite; late third/early second millennium BC). Let us discuss the latter first. Until 2018 – put yourself in my position at that time – what other writing systems were present? Mesopotamia, Egypt and Indus. Let us ignore the latter, it is still undeciphered.

Focusing on Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see that they are mixed writing systems, employing both logograms and phonograms. Initially, I was convinced that this would also apply to Linear Elamite, and tried to identify these in the texts. I slowly however came to the realisation, confirmed, now that we can read some 95% of the graphemes, that this writing system was purely phonetic, using both syllabic and graphemes rendering one phoneme, without any logograms – it is an alpha-syllabary. It is thus the most ancient, purely phonetic writing system known to us. This is spectacular!

I believe that the Hatamtites were strongly attached to phonetic writing. So, for example, when they later abandoned proto-Iranian writing in favour of Mesopotamian cuneiform (cf., supra), they initially rejected the logograms and the logographic values of the characters. This has been known for a long time. Previously though, many scholars claimed that this was due to the Hatamites poor grasp of the essentials of cuneiform writing and its logograms; they were only able to use it at its basic, phonetic, level. We now know that this is not the case. The Hatamtites had a long tradition of phonetic writing, and kept this when they adopted another, scil. cuneiform.

They wrote cuneiform just as they wrote Linear Elamite. Later in the second millennium BC, logograms began to re-appear – here we see the influence of Mesopotamian scribal habits.

Late Proto-Iranian or Linear Elamite works on the principle of a phonetic grid with vocalic and consonantal values. It is perfectly logical. I could even use it to write French. Due to this, it works with quite a limited number of signs, especially when compared to cuneiform and hieroglyphs. Excluding some variants, we have about eighty characters. It is my impression, at present, that the Early Phase had not yet reached this degree of abstract rationalisation.

I am now trying to use our knowledge of the Later Phase to read the Early Phase texts, starting with the proper nouns, i.e., anthroponyms and theonyms. In these texts, we have longish sequences of characters, which do not seem to render numeric data, and which I suspect render onomastic information, which are often theophoric sentence names that undergo little innovation. My impression is that in the Early Phase (Proto-Elamite tablets), we have a hybrid system employed to record proper nouns, both logograms and phonograms.

Semantic structure of a Proto-Elamite tablet found in Susa using the decimal system. Some of the sequences in red may record anthroponyms.

My aim is to read the syllabically written parts of the personal names, and then try to deduce the value of the logograms. All in all, the corpus of tablets belonging to the Early Proto-Iranian Phase amounts to about 1700, mainly found in Susa and now in the Louvre – but also throughout the Iranian Plateau, with a more wide-spread distribution than in the Latest Phase. We have a good knowledge of the Susian onomasticon from the late 3rd millennium BC (i.e., written in cuneiform).

Using both the Late Proto-Iranian/Linear Elamite deciphered signs and the onomastic data available for the inhabitants of Susa in the cuneiform sources could lead to some progress in understanding the names recorded in the Proto-Elamite tablets. This is on the assumption that naming practices did not change dramatically during the third millennium BC. Of this though we can be fairly certain; so, for example, there is little change between ca 2300 and 1500 BC.

RK: This is certainly a good starting point. Just for the sake of clarity, in your Early proto-Iranian Phase, we find no cuneiform influence. The fact that it is a mixed logographic-syllabic system is what one would expect in the initial stage; this cannot be considered external influence. However, if the Early proto-Iranian writing was a daughter script of cuneiform, one would expect borrowings, since writing systems cannot be entirely separated from the language(s) which they rendered. So, the use of Sumerian logograms in Akkadian, and the use of Akkadograms in Hittite, etc. The borrowing of writing systems presupposes bilingualism in both the donor language and the target language. Cf., the historical influence of Latin in languages that use the Latin alphabet. When there is no bilingualism, it is the idea of writing that is borrowed, not the writing system itself (cf., e.g., Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary).

FD: Yes, as we discussed previously, the commonalities are largely restricted to the numerical signs and systems employed. Both Mesopotamian cuneiform and proto-Iranian inherited these from a common predecessor. The absence of Mesopotamian cuneiform influences supports both being contemporary and does away with the notion of cuneiform primacy, for which there is no evidence.

RK: I think that you have made a strong argument that proto-Iranian writing and Mesopotamian cuneiform are sister writing systems with a common ancestor, the numerical tablets. And again, my congratulations on your brilliant achievement in deciphering Linear Elamite – we eagerly await the publication of your findings. We also look forward to the progress of you and your team on proto-Elamite. Many thanks for your time.


The Necessity Of Opposition

Under communism, the political system in which I spent the first four decades of my life, there was no political opposition. This statement requires a short explanation. After WWII ended and Poland found herself under a de-facto Soviet occupation, there were anti-communist soldiers who continued their struggle for independence. During the entire communist period, occasional protests broke out against the regime’s economic policy, censorship, religious persecution etc. When the system became less brutal over time, there appeared small groups whom Western journalists called “the dissidents” and who protested against the regime and demanded its democratization. At one point, a powerful Solidarity Union emerged but soon was crushed by martial law imposed in 1983.

There was, of course, the Catholic Church, which in my country was and had been for a long time a place of refuge, a carrier of historical and cultural continuity, and a source of spiritual life for the believers and non-believers. But within the system, as the communist constitution constructed it, there was no place for the official opposition. This does not mean there was only one political party. Obviously, the communist party had a constitutionally inscribed “leading role.” But there were other parties, for instance, the Peasants’ Party, but they were not the opposition to the communists, rather their allies or, to be more precise, their satellites.

The communists had a justification for such a political construction. The argument was as follows. The communist revolution made a historical change. Poland was on the road to a system where there would be no exploitation, and everyone would receive everything according to his needs. The Communist Party leads the way to a better world. Who needs the opposition? Everyone who accepts communism and wants to work for a better communist world is welcome. The opposition to this process would be absurd and dangerous: absurd because the process, as Marx et al. had proved, is inevitable, and dangerous because it would mean turning us back to the world of exploitation, inequalities, injustice, colonialism, racism, imperialism, class struggle, etc.

Many people accepted this argument, not on its merits, but because challenging it was risky. One could lose one’s job, be imprisoned, or suffer other unpleasant consequences. When a larger group challenged this, as the Solidarity Union did, it became even riskier for the entire country because the communists always had the last word – the Soviet tanks.

Living in a society with no opposition was a peculiar experience. For one thing, it was extremely boring: a monotonous repetition of the same phrases and slogans, which did not serve communication, or if it did, it was in a limited way. The purpose of the political language was mostly ritualistic. The language was a major tool in performing collective rituals whose aim was to build cohesion in the society and close it, both politically and mentally, within one ideological framework.

Another feature of the system was an omnipresent sense of the enemy. The official ideology and its rituals were telling us that the nation is more and more united by and attracted to communist ideas. Still, at the same time, we had to be more and more aware of the enemies who wanted to destroy this harmony and plotted against our communist fatherland. I remember a teacher warning the high-school students before they went to a West-European country that they could become a possible object of the foreign intelligence agents. She advised them not to answer any questions regarding their school or families. And the teacher’s behavior was not considered extravagant.

One of the joys of being a dissident or joining a non-communist movement, such as the Solidarity Union, was that one could have access to a different language and talk to people who did not treat language as a repetitive ritual but as a tool of communication. Also, the problem of the enemies disappeared or rather was reversed. It was now the communists that were the enemies. Apart from them, the world did not look threatening.

At that time, it never occurred to me that the Western world may produce a society and a state of mind where the opposition as a permanent constituent of political and social life may disappear or become unwelcome. The assumption of my confidence in the vibrant state of the Western world was that its societies were pluralistic, that is, that the Left, the Right and the Center continued to be in a dynamic equilibrium, not only politically, but also culturally; that is, that they have grown out of and cherish different traditions, have different sensibilities, use a slightly different language and employ a different cultural idiom. But the assumption turned out false.

The danger of homogeneity has been looming over Europe and America for several centuries. The inherent tendencies of the Western world – egalitarianism, democratization, spectacular progress of technology, internationalization of the economy, the weakening of boundaries and measures – could not but lead to homogenization. All these processes had to undermine social diversity and were bound to make the societies more and more alike. This might be a paradox: the more accessible the world we live in, the more homogeneous it becomes. In other words, the larger it becomes, the smaller it is.

The problem of the opposition is a tricky one. On the one hand, the existence of opposition indicates that a large part of the society is represented, that it may influence its development, and that its voice contributes to a better grasp of the problems with which every society has to grapple. On the other hand, when the division between the government and the opposition is too big, it may not only destabilize the system but may prompt one of the conflicting sides to eliminate the other, not necessarily physically, but to marginalize them – intimidate, impose severe legal restrictions targeting them, and ostracize them, etc. – so that they practically disappear as a political and cultural opponent. This will generate the same results as a society without opposition – the destruction of language and an excessive sense of the enemy.

The communists, in their logic, were right in undertaking a crack-down on the Solidarity Union because there was no way these two sides could find some modus vivendi and modus operandi. The differences were too basic, and the objectives – sharply contradictory. Therefore, the communists found it necessary to present the Solidarity Union as an enemy and obliterate the language and symbols the Union used and equipped the Poles with.

How does this apply to a current situation? Suppose my diagnosis is correct and the Western world is sliding into deeper homogeneity, being reflected in the ideological proximity of the major political forces. In that case, it means we nowadays face a similar problem and should expect similar consequences. The political Left has dictated the agenda for the Western world: Socialists, Liberals, neo-Communists, Greens. The erstwhile conservative parties such as Christian Democrats have capitulated and have either incorporated the Left’s main points into their program or decided not to oppose and remain non-committal (which, in practical terms, is also a capitulation).

Today’s Left may differ from the Left of old in particular objectives and policies, but the frame of mind is similar: it aims at a radical restructuring of the society. Economic experiments of the old Left fizzled out, so there is no nationalization of industry and agriculture; no five-year plans are being considered. But the restructuring is equally radical: the Leftist governments, organizations, and movements have started waging war against a family based on the union of two sexes and in favor of multiple “gender” configurations; against the nation-state and in favor of what they call a multicultural society; against religion in the public square and in favor of radical secularization; against nationalisms and in favor of a united Europe; and in favor of a green world with zero-emission; in favor of ideological purity in art and education; against all forms of thoughtcrimes in history, literature, etc.

These and other items of this program meet with no opposition, that is, no legitimate opposition; those who question them are the dissidents, freaks, fascists, populists, and notorious troublemakers. This sweeping program of recycling our societies has been accepted by a tacit consensus of all major and not-so-major forces and institutions in the entire Western world. Why should there be any opposition, given that everybody who is somebody is in favor? The program leads to a better world without discrimination (who can object to this?), with harmonious coexistence of races, genders, and what-not (likewise), with a clean green environment (fantastic), with people’s minds freed from harmful stereotypes and prejudices (as above), with brotherly relations among groups (at last), etc. The opposition would only harm what looks like a beginning of a new promising stage in human history, superseding all previous ones in grandeur, justice, and human flourishing.

When the then president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, spoke in the European Parliament several years ago and told the MEPs, in rather delicate wording, how important the existence of the opposition was, the deputies felt offended and walked out of the hemicycle. Klaus’s words were considered offensive and foolish. In their opinion, modern European parliamentarianism represents a higher form: no longer a Hobbesian dog-eat-dog world, but consensual, dialogical cooperation of the people of goodwill. And this higher form is being jeopardized by irresponsible national firebrands who want to turn us back to an unpleasant world of partisanship and national egoisms.

Whoever, like myself, remembers the political system without opposition immediately recognizes the entire package, perhaps wrapped differently, with different details, but otherwise quite similar. The degree of linguistic rituals is so high that it almost becomes nauseating. When sometimes I have to spend too much time during the plenary in the Brussels or Strasbourg hemicycle, I feel I desperately need some detoxing to clean my speaking and thinking faculties of the EU gobbledygook.

The behavior of the MEPs confirms the second observation. The Left majority of Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Greens, and (former) Christian Democrats, an alliance that composes about seventy-five or eighty percent of the entire Parliament, looks at a minority with growing hostility. They do not treat these remaining twenty percent of their colleagues as opponents but as enemies that can be bullied, lied to, insulted, and kept in check by a cordon sanitaire. Their views are not legitimate views that can be debated, but absurd opinions that are, on the one hand, inconceivable, and on the other, odious and contemptible.

And the EU is just pars pro toto. In today’s Western world, the list of enemies increased and the number of possible crimes far surpassed those in the communist system. Today one can be accused of racism, sexism, eurocentrism, euroscepticism, homophobia, transphobia, islamophobia, binarism, hate speech, logocentrism, patriarchy, phallocentrism, misogyny, ageism, speciesism, white supremacy, nationalism, illiberalism – and the list tends to grow. Some of the concepts – such as gender – have been particularly fecund in generating enemies: the more genders we have, the more enemies appear as each gender must have its own enemy.

Language has become loaded with these expressions, which are no longer qualified as invectives but have acquired the status of descriptive concepts. No wonder that the language of political exorcism has gained such popularity. One can insult at will in the belief that one describes. “The right-wing nationalist government in Warsaw, known for its homophobic and populist policies fueled primarily by the Catholic bigots, has launched another offensive of hate speech with clear racist undertones against the European values of openness, diversity, and the rule of law.” Perhaps the sentence is slightly exaggerated, but this is roughly what one usually finds in all major media in the Western world, from FAZ to NYT, from CNN to Deutsche Welle. The maxim audiatur et altera pars has been abandoned: there is no altera pars, so there is no point in giving it a hearing. Needless to say, the Poland they depict is not a real Poland.

This monotonous and deafening drumbeating spills over the entire society and penetrates all layers of social life. Among other things, it unleashed verbal and not only verbal aggression against the dissenters, which over the last decade has got out of control. And since the mainstream groups believe themselves to represent the enlightened world in its entirely, the dissidents are, by the same token, an inferior kind of people with inferior minds, and therefore, no foul word is too abusive to give them what they deserve. The fact that those inferior creatures can win elections or receive an important position or award seems not only unacceptable; it is a blasphemy that triggers an impetuous reaction of radical rejection and puts a protester in a state of frenzy. A massive hysteria and furious verbal aggression against president Trump were perhaps the most visible example of this. But such aggression can be directed against a university professor, an athlete, an actor, a priest, if their dissenting voices are heard.

No country is a better place to observe this than Poland. One of the few conservative governments in the Western world found itself outside the mainstream even before the party that composed it succeeded in winning the election. The Polish opposition to this government is, as they called themselves, “total,” which also expresses itself in the language it uses: escalation of insults, threats, wild accusations, physical attacks, all foul words one can think of shouted out loud in the face of those who are believed to be despicable puppets of Jarosław Kaczyński, that dangerous psychopathic despot – as they say – not really different from Hitler cum Stalin. No opposition in my country behaved like this before, not even when the neo-communists won the elections and ruled Poland for one parliamentary term. Whence this wild fury?

The answer is simple. One can easily imagine what goes on in the minds of the enemies of the conservative government. They believe they represent the world at large, and in a way, they do. They represent the real majority – the European Union, Hollywood, the Council of Europe, rock stars, international and national courts, TV celebrities, the United Nations, Ikea, Microsoft, Amazon, Angela Merkel, the new American administration, universities, media, governments, top models, parliaments. It is difficult to find any institution, corporation, or organization in the world that would not support them directly or indirectly. The “total” opposition knows they can do and say anything, and they would get away with it. When one looks at the Polish government from this perspective, it no longer presents itself as a legitimate government having a democratic legitimacy, trying to reform the system that had been inefficient, but as a villainous usurper, cancer on the healthy body of European politics. This is the government that, by its sheer existence, is a slap in the face of the European civilization. It had no right to come into being, and it has no right to exist. Insulting it and subverting it is a service to humanity.

The Polish government and its supporters are not powerful despots. They more resemble a David defending himself against an aggressive Goliath. But the problem is more general, and a reaction to Poland is just a symptom. The crucial question that one has to ask oneself today is whether this Goliath can be stopped and some kind of plurality returns, particularly whether Western conservatism will revive to the degree that it can prevent the Left’s march to a brave new world.


Ryszard Legutko is a philosopher and member of the European Parliament. He is the author of the well-known works, the Demon in Democracy and The Cunning of Freedom, as well as, Society as a Department Store: Critical Reflections on the Liberal State.


The featured image shows David and Goliath, in the Maciejowski Bible, or the Shah Abbas Bible, ca. 13th century.

Listening To Eastern Europe

The difference between the two regions of Europe, Western Europe and Central Europe, is profound. It is less a question of the dross of recent history, of the difference in the tempo of progress, than of two forms of humanism, or if one prefers, two interpretations of European humanism.

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe are indeed authentically European, in the sense that their Greek, Latin and Christian sources are the same as ours. And it is not abusive to claim this affiliation. However, their way of thinking differs from ours. If we want to risk a simple statement to begin with, they are not Cartesians in the same way. The cold and rational clarity of the logico-deductive thought, which seems to be enough for us, seems to them very abrupt. To understand the world, they give importance to the poetic and the spiritual as much as to the rational. The influence of German Romanticism is certainly felt here.

Many consequences follow from this. For example, their cultural vision of the nation, as opposed to ours, which is mainly contractual. And the fact that, in one way or another, depending on the geographical and cultural area, modernity has not blossomed in the same way as it has here. To understand Central Europe, one must appeal not only to the logos and to well-handled Western reason, but also to the abysmal mysteries on which every culture feeds, to the myths and to the symbols that carry their meanings. Thus, Central Europeans often have the impression that Westerners are missing a slot, so to speak, the one that connects to the sacred.

Resistance And Culture

Political oppression naturally gives rise to an uprising and resistance of cultural identity – culture becomes power and names the identity that politics can no longer name. In this process of surviving under totalitarianism, Central European writers come to believe that they are, in the end, the guardians of European culture – for Western Europe has abandoned culture in favor of economic ends alone.

Kundera set the tone in his now classic essay, “A Kidnapped West” (1983). In this work, which succeeded in making the French intelligentsia aware of the fate of Central Europe, he recalled the major role of European culture and thought. He accused the Western part of the continent of having lost the sense of its own cultural identity, of no longer feeling its unity as a cultural unit (but only as a political and economic unit). Kundera was a precursor at that time. The life of the spirit in Central-Eastern Europe plays the role of sentinel and guardian of the temple: “All the great Central-European creations of our century, up to our time, can be understood as a long meditation on the possible end of European humanity.” It is well in this precise point that there emerges the incomprehension from which is woven, for the two Europes, the common life of today.

A Severe Criticism Of The West

Central European writers are severe towards the West. I would like to point out these criticisms, which partly explain, what can be called today, a clash between the two Europes, a quarrel that is well concretized in the emergence of “illiberal democracies” and Western commentaries on this subject.

Indeed, many of the most important authors describe Western economism as the entry into a form of soft totalitarianism – in any case a kind of avatar or twin of communism. Communist totalitarianism and Western economism are the two monstrous faces of modernity – and they look alike.

I only understood later,” writes Milan Kundera, “that communism showed me, in a hyperbolized and caricatured version, the common features of the modern world. The same omnipresent and omnipotent bureaucratization. The class struggle replaced by the arrogance of institutions towards the user. The degradation of artisanal know-how. The imbecilic juvenilia of the official discourse. The vacations organized in herds. The ugliness of the countryside where the traces of the peasant’s hand are disappearing. The uniformity. And, of these common denominators, the worst of all – the disrespect for the individual and for his or her private life.”

For Vaclav Havel, the totalitarian society of the 20th century would represent “a magnifying mirror of modern civilization in its entirety,” “the extreme point,” “the frightening fruit of its expansion”, “a vanguard of the global crisis of this civilization”, a “possible prospective portrait of the Western world”, “the most advanced reef of dehumanized power.”

We can only benefit from meditating on this comparison.


Chantal Delsol is a French philosopher, essayist, novelist and university professor. Her work has been translated into 15 languages. Her essentials include, Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World, Unjust Justice: Against the Tyranny of International Law, and The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century: An Essay On Late Modernity. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


The featured image shows, “Autumn,” by František Dvořák; painted in 1912.

Marc Fumaroli: Between War And Peace

There are men whose very appearance makes them sturdy and dazzling; at times sober, at times flambotant; who say everything and justify everything, like a crusader’s armor or a bishop’s paramour. Marc Fumaroli (1932-2020) was one such man. His attire was always impeccable: three-piece suit from Arnys, club tie, velour jacket. He went with the old buildings, the silks and the tapestries, belonging to the altar as well as the throne. If elegance, the last marker of civilization, was to put forward its man, both a great academic and an eminent man of letters, then it could be none other than he, among the great Frenchmen of our time.

One does not need to be a great soul to see that the world of the university is a cesspool, made up of people who have sacrificed everything to it. If they succeed, it’s because they had an idea once long ago, which they keep recycling for years on end, and rest on comfortable academic laurels. Their bourgeois conformity outweighs their worldliness, and if they dare to think, it is often sideways.

There are however some great names, some beautiful figures, who have understood everything, acquired everything, conquered everything. “Fuma” had the insolent lightness to float in the honors, to hold a bibliography as a work; and this way to be a library addict and to give thanks and account with measure; to arrive at fascinating ideas, the whole formulated by admirable syntheses, handled with panache. His Excellency Fumaroli was of those breed of lords, if I may say so, to which Albert Thibaudet, Julien Benda, Claude-Levi Strauss, Roger Caillois or Paul Valéry belonged; these people of letters with superior intelligence, extensive science, profound erudition, and substantial traits that we lack.

The work of Marc Fumaroli is abundant but concentrated around a beautiful unity: the Europe of letters, ideas and spirit. It would be too long to elaborate it in detail, but let us note the importance that his Eminence gave to the Republic of Letters and the circulation of ideas, from the humanists to the 18th century salon; to this Europe that spoke and wrote in French. In the field of rhetoric, of which he held the chair at the Collège de France, the master was interested in its modern leanings and in the reception of Greek and Roman rhetoric in the Grand Siècle, mastered and studied earlier by Professor Laurent Pernot; hence the remarkable pages devoted to the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.

Above all, Fumaroli was a literary historian who devoted part of his research to the history of the French language, to the institution of the language and to the way in which France became aware of the greatness and the supreme and precious good of its language. Hence the genius of the French language, the lavish allegory, and the Académie française. The notion of taste animated in a particular way the work of this prince of letters, with all its variations, the nuances between the style and the sensitivity. One might see finally, in the twilight, an old man rehearsing the correspondence between the arts, passing from literature to painting, from poetry to sculpture, declaiming his love for Watteau and Fragonard; the last refuge, if it is such, of beauty and elegance.

Fumaroli was of the Right. That is understood. Liberal, he was close to Raymond Aron; conscious of the inequality among men; vindictive towards egalitarianism. The cultural state he never forgave, and yet incisive as a cut of knife on steak he hinted at a theory of the free arts and the freedoms in the most priceless of art, right in front of the sad passions of the sinister Jack Lang, from the cultural to the sewer.

Nationalist and sovereigntist, Fumaroli was hardly any of that. Deducing that custom is better than reform, he was conservative. Reactionary, he conceived the love of the glorious past and of the monarchies of the Ancien Régime, nostalgic of the big and beautiful Europe, of the books, of the thought, of the great names.

His sharp pen, shielded under some corduroy and tweed canvases, could be acidic, even malicious. When a socialist circular sought to impose the feminization of the names of professions in French, he could refrain from irony and brilliant wit: “notairesse (“notaryess”), mairesse (“mayoress”), doctoresse (“doctoress”), chefesse (“chefess”)… rhyme importunately with fesse (butt), borgnesse (“one-eyed woman”) and drôlesse (“hussy”), only very distantly evoking a duchess. Let’s choose between recteuse (“rectoress”), rectrices “rectrix”) and rectale (“rectal”)…”

In the posthumous book just published, Dans ma bibliothèque, la guerre et la paix (In my library, war and peace), Marc Fumaroli expresses once and for all his views and observations about Europe. Like ideas nurtured for decades, this old man in his green suit delivers a fascinating cornucopia, made incredible by the truths that it delivers, all the ideas that are linked. As the author indicates, this book does not follow any method. Rather, it is a ramble, which follows winding paths, forks in the road, deviations.

The book sometimes gives the impression of a messy work, where the author puts down everything he knows, adding reference after reference, one idea after another, giving the feeling sometimes of losing his purpose – war and peace. It must be said that we are far inferior to the master in following him. It is Europe that we hold in our hands; just like that feeling with la Litterature europeenne et le moyen age latin (European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages) of Curtius.

It is not possible to repeat all the ideas put forward in this book by Marc Fumaroli, so numerous are they. But here is its essence – war and peace have been two opposite poles that have built European civilization, a creative and destructive principle, a kind of duet in which one part does not go without the other; but also a duel that feeds, according to the reigns, wars and peace treaties, artistic creation, taste and consciences.

Thus, Fumaroli developed and detailed an entire triptych. The Iliad and the Aeneid are, first of all, founding texts of war and peace. The Greek work resembles a perpetuum mobile of conflicts between lordships, as one finds them in the Italy of the Renaissance, which fed the history of men like a kind of dynamic.

The Trojan war had a moral reason – the unfaithful wife and the deceived husband; but it does not have a political or economic purpose. Menelaus returns with his lady; Agamemnon is murdered; Achilles as well as Ajax are killed; Ulysses struggles to return; and Aeneas has an appointment with his destiny. War does not create vast ensembles; it sanctifies lives and destinies.

As for the Aeneid, it prepares Rome. Aeneas is, before being a pious civilized warrior, a diplomat who prepares the reign to come of Augustus. The Latin work announces the pax romana, based on the need to make war to impose peace, the perpetual peace, that we will find in two times – at the time of the respublica christiana, developed by Augustine in the City of God, and then with the Treaty of Westphalia, following the Thirty Years War.

Fumaroli masterfully devotes a large part of his work to France, mother of ideas, arts and letters, domina of Europe from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century: “Richelieu invented the concept of the European concert. He made the European Republic of Letters admit that the role of conductor was reserved for France.”

Peace and war marked the reign of Louis XIV; and Versailles, as the center of Europe, illustrated, by its opulence and splendor, this opposition. The Hall of Mirrors presented to the world the true power of France – it was France that made war on Spain; and above all it was France that imposed peace on Spain. The disastrous outcome of the War of the Spanish Succession, the libertine regency and the bankruptcy, paved the way for a kingdom less sure of itself, in retreat on the geopolitical level, acquiescing to peace.

War and peace were also embodied in two characters: Bossuet and Fénelon. One was a supporter of a Gallican Church, quick to serve the altar and the throne; the other, a critical observer of power, who made ready, according to the theory of quietism, a desirable pax catholica in Europe at war. This peace was the message delivered by les Aventures de Télémaque (The Adventures of Telemachus), a book of bedside reading and of apprenticeship, for the young dauphin, written by Fénelon.

Only the century of Louis XV was one of weakness – the aristocracy was more and more autistic and did not play its role anymore; the bourgeoisie got ready for the next coup d’état – that of 1789. Finance and technocracy joined forces. War was no longer of any use. It is then that one realizes with Fumaroli, that peace is not a value in itself nor war a moral fault or a misfortune; and that, conversely, a war contributes to glory and peace, and peace leads to weakness and failure.

As well, Fumaroli showed the rise of a royal art. This Louis-Quatorzian art, if not a baroque art, borrowed from papal and Catholic Rome, and is properly Gallican on the one hand, perpetuated by the rocaille, country style of a Watteau until 1740, then formed by Greek and Roman art, marked by the conflict between the Ancients and the Moderns: “[This art] concealed in France the fundamental historical quarrel about the establishment and the legitimacy of the French absolute monarchy, a quarrel whose echoes resounded in the favorable ears of several Jansenist circles of the kingdom. The court of Versailles took sides during the lifetime of Louis XIV for the Ancients, which it endowed in 1701 with an Academy of Inscriptions.”

The Comte de Caylus was a craftsman. This man is both unknown and impressive. An antiquarian, he had, in the sense that the literary gives it, the vibrant passion and the sensitive taste of antiquity; engraver, archaeologist and aesthete, he knew how to give the impulse of antiquity to the taste and the aesthetics of the kingdom.

At first, close to Watteau, whose biography he wrote, he spoke of the complicity of a generation which had altogether been distanced from war and brought closer to the arts of peace: “The tender memory that I keep of Watteau, of the friendship that I had for him, and of the gratitude that I had for him all my life, led me discover, as much as it was possible in him, the subtleties of his art.” Caylus broke with Ovid and was renewed by Homer and Virgil, just as he broke with Watteau, and the shepherds, and the gioia di vivere. With Wickelmann, he shared the feeling of having come too late; therefore, he mourned, nostalgically, for the ancient world. The return to Greek aesthetics implied, if not a rebirth, at least a return to war, to the martial tone and to heroic assurance in the arts.

The last part of this triptych covers the twentieth century and the emergence of nationalism with Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Grossman’s Life and Fate. The liberal and romantic inspiration contrasts with absolutism and royal dynasty. Something deep and visceral accompanies the formation of nation states. Napoleon waged wars of conquest, a “crusade for nothing,” as Léon Daudet would say, in the name of an expansion of an idea, that of French universalism, born of the liberalism of the French Revolution. The nation as an everyday plebiscite, according to Renan, is formed by the adhesion of a people.

All this is summarized by Fumaroli, in these words: “It is not a king who makes war on another king nor an army on another army, but a people against another people.” Here is Europe, determined amidst the emergence of nations and the fall of empires. Modern war compared to the classical, ancient war, shows a qualitative leap.

Fumaroli reminds us that modern war reaches the degree of destruction that is attributed to it by the number of soldiers that it digests and carries, the mass levies that the nations have, the patriotism injected into the consciousness of war that formalizes and freezes the belligerents, the use of materials such as coal and the use of technology. War and Peace is the modern version of an Iliad, where the death of Prince Andre, mowed down by a French bomb shrapnel on the battlefield of Borodino, is the equivalent of the death of Hector under the blows of Achilles in Book XXII. The implacable Fate of Homer is transported into the mystery of the God of Christian love. And Fumaroli takes up the association of peace-corruption and war-salvation for the 19th and 20th centuries.

Life and Fate, as Fumaroli points out, recapitulates the poetry of the two great ancient epics, the Iliad and the Aeneid, divided between the celebration of noble warrior heroes and the curse of battle and its ignoble massacres. Grossman’s novel is torn between goodness, hidden in the description of the mutual relentlessness of the fascist and Soviet evil against the impervious goodness that perseveres beneath the apocalyptic surface of the Final Solution and the Battle of Stalingrad. The madness and mystery of war. Tolstoy’s Homeric heroes are succeeded by two totalitarian democracies. inspired, says Fumaroli, by France of Robespierre’s Terror and by Bonapartist absolutism, “engaging more decisively in mass extermination at home and mass warfare abroad.”

With regard to the last part of the triptych, we can make three observations. First, this Mitterrandian vision of a nationalism that leads to war seems rather stale. The idea that Napoleon is the origin of a degeneration of European consciousness and the father of conflicts between nations, which was good enough to explain the Second World War and totalitarianism, is now somewhat outdated.

Nazism is not, then, the consequence of a nationalist sentiment, of a love of one’s country, of a desire to be at home. It is a German problem in Germany. Nazism, even if it is extreme right-wing, is an idealistic and biological productivism that is strictly German; and it is a mistake to believe that all nationalistic paths lead to it. It is not a nationalism that metastasized but, on the contrary, in the wake of the concert of nations, the expansion of a great European project, of which the Reich would be at the head; a project that rebuffed the old generation of Action Française. such as, Maurras or Bainville, nationalists, and which delighted the Lucien Rebatet, Brasillach or Leon Degrelle, fascists. This literary and intellectual point and this quarrel of generations are both missing

If Europe, finally, is better than nationalisms, and if greater Europe interests us, what is the political purpose of this one? Who leads Europe? Which institutions? Which country? Who has the power? The European Union? This vast joke cannot satisfy us. How can we believe that European technocracy, co-opted, would find the necessary resources to substitute itself for elected monarchs, presidents and ministers, subject to a vote?

Now, there will be no more Fumaroli. Our Cheetah has made his last turn. Going through the whole of his work on war and peace, one can resolutely take up the phrase of Marshal Lyautey, “But they are crazy! A war between Europeans is a civil war.”


Nicolas Kinosky is at the Centres des Analyses des Rhétoriques Religieuses de l’Antiquité. This articles appears through the very kind courtesy La Nef.


The featured image shows, “Portrait of Marc Fumaroli, seated,” by François Legrand; painted in 2014.

A New Historical-Political Debate: Greatness And Miseries Of The Spanish Empire

In recent years we have witnessed a very unusual publishing phenomenon. María Elvira Roca Barea, a high school teacher from Malaga, published in 2016 a historical essay, entitled, Imperiofobia y leyenda negra. Roma, Rusia, Estados Unidos y el Imperio español (Imperphobia and the Black Legend. Rome, Russia, the United States and the Spanish Empire). Despite its title, the book met with great success, ending up selling more than 100,000 copies.

The fact that a book whose subject matter revolves around the Black Legend reached such a number means that people without specific training in the field of history are interested in this topic, and that is precisely where the interest in imperiophobia (“the fear of empire”) lies, not only from a historiographical point of view, but also from a sociological, political or ideological point of view.

History is not a static science, but something that often acts as a pendulum swing that oscillates amidst the topics that generate interest and about which it is written. The fact that historiography does not cease to be a reflection of the concerns and interests of society is a recurring theme in historiographical treatises.

As Gonzalo Pasamar has pointed out as an example of the first steps of Contemporary History, these are inseparable from the political and social changes of the 19th century. In the same way, we see the death and birth of new historiographical trends, in step with the times, as when, from the second half of the 1960s, among the background factors that led to the decline of historicism we can cite the disappearance of the main historians of the generation that developed their careers during the Weimar Republic and Nazism, the student mobilization, or the end of the political hegemony of conservative governments.

In the same way, Charles-Olivier Carbonell surmised that in the 1930s an economic history, oriented more towards exchanges, prices or currency, and not towards the modes or processes of production, as well as a social history that was not limited exclusively to the question of classes, but to that of groups and their form of interaction, such as rural and urban communities, minorities or the marginalized, was constituted.

The Annales school itself is the child of a very specific political and historiographical conjuncture without which neither its genesis nor its consolidation can be understood. It was a period between two world wars, when the process of progressive decline and the end of the historiographical hegemony that had been typical of the Germanic world since about 1870, and which would enter into crisis with the First World War and then with the political rise of the Nazi party, took place.

It is pertinent to frame the publication of Roca Barea’s work within a very specific context, which is related to the image of Spain, both within Spain’s own borders, especially in Catalonia, and at the European level. It is a portrait that has become, if possible, less favorable since the massive Diada of September 11, 2012, the beginning, as Enric Ucelay-Da Cal has pointed out, of the so-called “pro-independence process” that became more radical as the “molt honorabilidad” [“great honor”] of former President Jordi Pujol was called into question, for his undeclared fortune abroad, in what can be understood as an attempt to distract attention, and which has ended with some Catalan politicians convicted by the Supreme Court for the crime of sedition.

In reality, the origin of this situation, at least in the Catalan context, should not be sought from the time Carles Puigdemont was elected president of the Generalitat, nor since the ruling of the Constitutional Court on the Statute of 2010, but from the time Jordi Pujol became president of the Generalitat in 1980, with a mandate that, as is well known, would last until 2003, when he was relieved by the socialist leader, Pasqual Maragall.

The feeling of belonging to a wider community, the Spanish one, seems to have been diluted in Catalonia, a society that shows a great polarization between a countryside with a pro-independence majority and a more cosmopolitan and integrated urban centers. At the same time, the decades-long indifference of the hegemonic Spanish parties, the PP and PSOE, captive to the need for votes that the party dominated by Pujol could provide them, led to a tacit agreement – that some would receive support in Madrid, in exchange for “Pujolism” being imposed in Catalonia without too many obstacles.

As a result, the concept of “Spain” was erased from politically correct language, as if it were a cursed word with Francoist reminiscences, and was replaced by the term the “Spanish State,” which seemed innocuous and neutral. All this was due, to a large extent, to the influence of the media as well as to essential elements in the process of building any nationalism, such as education, language or history, always manipulated from a prism aimed at satisfying nationalist anxieties. It is in these circumstances that Imperiofobia appeared as a kind of counterattack that seeks to vindicate the Spanish past, sometimes considered as a taboo, or perhaps as a counterweight that tries to balance the image of Spain.

Of course, the manipulation of history by nationalism is by no means a new element. J.T. Delos drew attention several decades ago to the national sentiment influenced by Germanic thought, whose peak was experienced in the 20th century and according to which, through the invocation of historical rights, blood and soil, there was belief in the “collective soul, in the dark and instinctive forces that prevail in the life of peoples and in the development of their institutions over the decisions of individual freedom,” thus being closer to nature and the physical conditions of life, and less to rationality, and ultimately oriented towards racism, since the principle of their unity was concentrated around race. Delos felt that, in Germany, the language community provided great arguments for national claims, and the poets seized on this argument from the beginning of the 19th century, while politics turned it into a weapon of war.

During the second half of the 20th century, interest in studying the concepts of nation and nationalism increased notably, which led to the publication of numerous works that made this subject one of the historiographical favorites and on which it is very difficult, given the abundant bibliography that continues to be published today, to undertake a detailed study. Ernest Renan, with his work entitled, What is A Nation? gave the initial indication signal for the defense of linguistic and consensualist theories about the nation.

Contrary to what was advocated by the essentialist theses, which served as theoretical support for the Galicia of Manuel Murguía, the Spain of Modesto Lafuente or the France of Jules Michelet, the nation is not in this case something immutable and eternal, but a reality dependent on external instruments, which make up the nation-state, and internal instruments, mainly language and national education, as analyzed by José Carlos Bermejo. This group of theorists also included Anthony Smith, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, who in 1983 coined the famous term “imagined communities,” in one of his books which marked a turning point in the debate that had been taking place on nationalism in recent decades.

In Spanish history we find several examples that show the need for nations to connect themselves with prestigious ancestors. The authors of the great narrative constructions, Juan de Mariana at the end of the 16th century, or the aforementioned Lafuente in the mid-19th century, emphasized the need to remember, for example, the main heroic deeds of Antiquity, which although they did not end in victory, as in the case of the sieges of Saguntum and Numantia, or in the biographies of Viriatus and Sertorius, were nevertheless heroic episodes. Both their memory and the bravery and courage shown in those resistances against the invader were to be internalized by the students who filled the classrooms in order to create citizens committed to the nation and the patriotic values it defended.

This yearning led in most cases to elaborate racist doctrines whose objective was to define “us” very well, since “we” were pure and uncontaminated by the rest of the races, which in most occasions were considered inferior. The case of the Basque Country is very curious, because during the 16th and 17th centuries the Cantabrians stood out as the first representatives of the Basques, a situation that remained more or less stable until the first decades of the 19th century, when this reference was still hegemonic among its cultural and political elites, when referring to the most remote past of Biscay, Gipuzkoa and Álava.

However, from the 1870s, we witness the emergence of the Iberians as the ancestral referent of the Basques, and by the end of the century, Sabino Arana formulated the first Basque national identity, completely separate and exclusive of the Spanish identity, based, as is well known, on race as the nuclear principle of his doctrine. And all this, as is natural, with the aim that the nation would sink its roots in the oldest and most glorious soils possible; or, in Fernando Wulff‘s expression, would be the depository of the “patriotic essences.”

But, as J.T. Delos observed, the nation is a product of social life and nationalism, that complex mixture of doctrines, political claims and passions. This same author, as Anderson would later do in Imagined Communities, stressed that aspects such as national sentiment are nothing more than manifestations of a collective conscience linked to historical conditions and a given environment, in such a way that the community exists insofar as there is a common state of conscience; that is, the awareness of “us” is given by the belief of forming an original entity that is constituted by opposing third parties, who are usually the enemies that all nationalism needs; and, secondly, by the will to perpetuate common life.

On this path, of which all the elements that make up the nation are part, the nation tries to generate a series of differentiating features that make up the identity of that people, since, as David Lowenthal has pointed out in a classic book, the ability to evoke the past and identify with it, both collectively and personally, offers meaning, purpose and value to our existence.

The Imperiophobia-Imperiophilia Debate

The purpose of Roca Barea’s book is, as she states in the Introduction, “to understand why [black legends] arise, what clichés shape them and how they expand until they become public opinion and a substitute for history.” The book, whose subject matter is one of the most controversial in the history of Spain and on which there is an enormous amount of bibliography, is divided into three parts.

The first, entitled “Empires and Black Legends: The Inseparable Couple”, begins with a review of the origin and meaning of the expression, “black legend,” including authors, such as, Arthur Lévy, Cayetano Soler and Emilia Pardo Bazán, who, according to Roca Barea, was the first author to use the expression, in April 1899 in the Salle Charras, in Paris, to refer to anti-Spanish propaganda. The analysis continues with Julián Juderías, who used the expression “black legend” as a title to his well-known book, in 1914.

However, according to Roca Barea, in recent decades there has been a tendency to deny the existence of the Black Legend. To justify this, she mentions a travel documentary broadcast on Spanish Television eight years ago where, under the theme of the discoveries carried out by the Portuguese, English, Turks or Spaniards in the 15th and 16th centuries, only unedifying facts were mentioned in the case of the latter.

On the other hand, there were a number of authors concerned with concealing, if not denying, that the Black Legend had existed or, in the best of cases, that it disappeared a long time ago. Among them, Henry Kamen and his book, Empire, where the British author defends the idea of Spain as a poor country, stand out. Roca Barea, with a certain ironic tone that she does not abandon throughout her book, concludes that Spain only “became an empire by a stroke of a pen; or, in other words, Spain did not build an empire but, let us say, fell upon it by chance.”

Next, and still within this first part of the book, Roca Barea begins to analyze the respective black legends of Rome, Russia and the United States, leaving the Spanish Empire aside, for the moment, since being the most abused, it will need a much larger space than the rest. Roca Barea states that the racist prejudices that affected the United States and Russia were born in France. The first author responsible for this was Arthur de Gobineau, author of the well-known Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines, when he stated that the mixture that was taking place in the United States would end up provoking “a race without beauty or intelligence,” which would result in “the end of the different races,” and would also put an end to “the clear supremacy of the white race.” Whereas, in the Russian case, the French Enlightenment would be directly responsible; Russia went from being an example worthy of imitation, before the Treaty of Paris, to becoming a historical reality doomed to failure after the signing of the same.

After reviewing the three cases cited, Roca Barea finds a common thread that binds these three examples, which consist of the “mixture of admiration and envy.” In this way, she establishes “a fairly solid model of what we have been calling imperiophobia”. Roca Barea goes on to say that this would be “a particular kind of prejudice of racist etiology that can be defined as the indiscriminate aversion towards the people who become the backbone of an empire.”

She concludes the first part of the book by completing this definition a little more, in order to maintain that imperiophobia is particularized by two basic features. Firstly, that it does not go from a more powerful people against a weaker one, but the other way around. Secondly, by its intellectual immunity, given that, in Roca Barea’s opinion, “it is a prejudice of good tone, that is, it is not considered a prejudice but a completely justified and reasonable opinion,” and even finds “its most perfect accommodation among the literate classes, “which is logical “since it owes to them if not its birth, then certainly its development and spread until it became public opinion.”

The second part of the book, dedicated to the study of imperiophobia against the Spanish Empire, which, in her words, would not differ in essence from the cases previously analyzed, doubles the length of the other chapters because it is the paradigmatic example. Some of the episodes, characters and institutions that have traditionally contributed to forge a certain negative image of Spain that is associated with the Black Legend are touched upon. Thus, she reviews the major highlights, starting with the imperial military expeditions carried out by Charles V in Italy, and continuing with the conflict in the Netherlands during the reign of Philip II; Germany and Protestantism; Great Britain; as well, decisive and controversial episodes such as the Inquisition or the conquest of America and the work of Fray Bartolomé Las Casas, to cite some of the most relevant examples.

The fact that Roca Barea begins the epigraph dedicated to the Netherlands with the anthem of the Netherlands is noteworthy, since it highlights some clichés that are recurrent in the image projected both of the Spanish and the Spanish, as we will see. the image projected both of the Spanish and of what is Spanish, as we will have occasion to see later on. The lyrics read:

O that the Spaniards rape thee,
My Netherlands so sweet,
The thought of that does grip me
Causing my heart to bleed.

This question is interesting because it puts us before the mirror of the foreign vision of Spain and the Spaniards. In this sense, José Varela Ortega has just published a fundamental book. It is about how Spaniards have defined themselves and how they have been seen from the outside in a pendular movement that has oscillated between contempt and exaltation, between misery and exaltation.

Stereotypes, as Varela Ortega points out, although imprecise and inaccurate, have the virtue of being very effective. Vague or unproven assertions are the ideal breeding ground for these types of ideas to be successful. It is not only the merit of those publicists who, from the end of the 15th century to the present day, the period analyzed in this book, have proposed a distorted vision of our history, but also of Spain itself because many Spaniards were incapable of articulating a discourse that would counteract these stereotypes, a discourse that could mix both self-criticism and self-esteem about the image that was being projected from the outside, along the lines that Roca Barea also defends in Imperiofobia.

In fact, Varela Ortega gives an example of the prejudices that would continue to plague Spain, not only from the historical point of view but also from the judicial one, and that would translate into a double yardstick, depending on whether the events took place in Spain or in another country.

According to Varela, it is curious “that the U.S. press pontificates about the little left hand of Spanish politicians,” in a country where not two years ago the Supreme Court “unanimously rejected as unconstitutional a petition for the right to secession, signed by a hundred thousand plus citizens of Texas, who harbored desires and pretensions very similar to those of the Catalan nationalists.” Not to mention the German Constitution, which would expressly prohibit the secession of a federated state, so that the territorial unity of the Republic might remain “inviolable;” or, in other words, a case similar “to the secessionist process [which] would force any government of the Federal Republic to intervene in any land”.

The persistence of certain clichés about the history of Spain is a fact that both Roca Barea and Varela Ortega analyze in their respective texts. If we focus on the profile of Philip II and the Duke of Alba, we will see that their reputation in Europe is far from positive, even today.

Roca Barea mentions that a professor at the University of Ghent, named Lieve Behiels, examined, in the 1980s, textbooks used in Belgian education from 1843 to 1986. Behiels concluded that the Duke of Alba was described in most of them “with negative or very negative adjectives:” nineteen times he was called “cruel” and only five times a positive appellative, “brave,” was applied to him.

In the same vein, José Varela warns that, today, in a recently published and infantile Histoire de la Belgique (History of Belgium), the image presented of Philip II and Alba is that they tried to introduce the Spanish Inquisition in Flanders, an extreme event that is uncertain; and about the duke it is stated that he was “little less than a psychopathic butcher even by [the assessment of] current professional historians, such as Robert Goodwin.” A little further on, Varela argues that the Duke of Alba “came to represent the image of violence and cruelty, associated, from then on, with Spaniards in general,” making the Duke the “bogeyman” of Dutch children to this day.

It is true that both Philip II and the Duke of Alba are true protagonists in the Black Legend. Not in vain, for it was William of Orange who wrote his Apologie in 1581 as a rebuttal to the Edict of Proscription, under Margaret of Parma, which had been made public in August of the previous year, where he was accused of treason, rebellion and disloyalty, with the aim of developing a story or an alibi to justify the crime of lèse majesté that he had carried out against his king, a crime we must not forget was one of the worst that could be committed.

Some of these characters who contributed to the origin and consolidation of the Black Legend have been marked by the taint of treason. Indeed, there were active traitors because they wrote slogans, pamphlets or texts denouncing the alleged abuses perpetrated by Philip II and his administration, such as, William of Orange himself or Antonio Perez and his Relaciones, who perhaps perfectly represents the prototype of the traitor in the history of Spain. However, we also find other traitors who are passive, such as Don Carlos, a young prince who left no testimonies to incriminate his father but was nevertheless used and exploited with the aim of showing the ruthless behavior of his father, the king, and who ended up being associated with the “Demon of the South.”

In the eyes of Spanish historiography, Don Carlos was understood as someone dominated by a lust for power, to the point of wanting to overthrow his father with the help of some Flemish subjects who were very unhappy with the treatment meted out by Philip II; he would end his days without his father’s pardon, in a prison cell at the age of barely twenty. Don Carlos went beyond the limits of history, literature and his time; and proof of this is that Friedrich Schiller was inspired by him to compose his drama, Dom Karlos, Infant von Spanien, and of course Giuseppe Verdi and his work, Don Carlo, which premiered in Paris in March 1867, and which definitively consecrated the image of a despotic and cruel Philip II, even to his own son.

Imperiofobia then turns to two fundamental elements of the Black Legend, the Inquisition and the conquest of America, which are the themes with which Roca Barea closes the second part of the book.

In regards to the Holy Office, Roca Barea devotes herself to demonstrating that from “Frenchified literature to the theater of Martínez de la Rosa,” there has been “what we could call a complete normalization of the myth of the Inquisition in Spain itself within the political-literary world of the 19th century.” Her aim is to demonstrate how that myth was created, and she begins by stating that the identification of the Holy Office “with the Antichrist is already found in some texts from the 1530s; that is, at a surprisingly early date, and not only in Germany.” The procedure, in the author’s opinion, was always the same: “a small part of truth served to raise up a big lie that justified a prejudice of racist etiology that so far refuses to recognize what it really is.”

She then cites some of the testimonies that came to justify this thesis of the myth of the Inquisition. Among the authors she mentions are Reginaldo González Montano, author of the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispaniae Artes, whom she suspects was a Spanish apostate; Francisco de Enzinas, another apostate of Burgos origins, who wrote, with the help of his brothers Jaime and Juan, a Historia de Statu Belgico deque Religione Hispanica, under the name of Franciscus Dryander; or Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who wrote a complete history of the Protestant Church and its martyrs, Catalogus testium veritatis (Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth), dated 1556.

Again, as had happened with the Black Legend, “the myth of the Inquisition passed unshaken to the Enlightenment, and then to Romanticism and liberalism, and from there to the present day.” And not only that, but, in Roca Barea’s opinion, the acceptance of this myth is also influenced by the laziness of Spanish society, incapable of counteracting centuries of insults against the Holy Office.

She cites a report broadcast by La 2 of Televisión Española, entitled “The Inquisition: A Spanish Tragedy,” which was aired on May 22, 2013; also the fact that by typing into Google, “tortures of the Inquisition,” “you will find 171,000 results; and these only in Spanish;” or that in a survey carried out by the Council of Europe in 2009 on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the telescope, among students of the European Union, “30 percent of students think that Galileo was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, 97 percent are convinced that before that, he was tortured” and that almost one hundred percent believe that the phrase, “Eppur si muove” (“and yet it moves”) was in reality said by Galileo.

Authors such as Varela Ortega have called attention to the fact that the Holy Office does not need a special appellation. Therefore, it is revealing that not even in English do they refer to the Inquisition as just the “Inquisition,” but rather the allusion is made through the formula “the Spanish Inquisition,” even though the Spanish Inquisition was by no means the pioneer, although it was the one that obtained the most fame or repercussions.

According to José Martínez Millán, the episcopal Inquisition, administered by local bishops, was born with Lucius III. From 1231, with the bull, Excommunicamus of Gregory IX, it became known as the Papal Inquisition, already subordinated to pontifical power. Even within the borders of the Iberian Peninsula, as García Cárcel wrote in a short article, the Castilian Inquisition had antecedents in Aragon. In the words of Varela Ortega, the polemic could be summarized, not without a certain irony, as follows: “It is already known that it [the Inquisition] is Spanish; that of other countries, does not count (the fact that it came from France and that it acted there until almost the French Revolution hardly anyone knows about or is interested in knowing, outside of the odd expert).”

Roca Barea’s next objective is to list data that demonstrate that the Inquisition was not as savage, bloodthirsty and arbitrary as it has been made out to be, adjectives that, incidentally, respond either to the difficulty that often exists with certain institutions, battles or characters when it comes to distinguishing between reality, myth and prejudice, or directly to ignorance. Perhaps, in the history of Spain, one of the best examples of this sense is offered, as we are seeing, by the Inquisition itself.

Furthermore, she establishes a comparison with the rest of the European countries to prove that their legal system was more severe than that of the Inquisition. As an example, she mentions that studies, such as those of Henningsen and Contreras, bring the number of people condemned to death by the Holy Office, between 1550 and 1700, to a total of 1346, while Henry Kamen‘s estimates amount to 3,000 victims. In contrast, Sir James Stephen calculated that “the number condemned to death in England in three centuries reached the chilling figure of 264,000 people,” adding that some convictions “were for crimes as serious as stealing a sheep.”

This series of clues leads Roca Barea to conclude that, in reality, the Inquisition “was never a shadow power, nor did it have the capacity to control society,” since the inquisitors, in general, “worked under difficult conditions and their work was quite routine and bureaucratic. ” Consequently, the Holy Office is for the author “an icon, and its mental representation belongs more to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth.”

From 1480, the Catholic Monarchs, in possession of the functions they had acquired by virtue of a papal bull signed by Sixtus IV in 1478, appointed Juan de San Martín and Miguel de Morillo as inquisitors, and the first act of faith took place in February 1481, in which six people were killed. This is the beginning of a period that Joseph Pérez defines as one of “terror” and about which Modesto Lafuente declares in his Historia general de España: “It was the first step, product of an error of understanding of the enlightened and kind Isabel, whose consequences she did not foresee, and whose results were to be fatal for Spain.”

A chronicler of the time, Andrés Bernáldez, considered that between 1480 and 1488 “they burned more than seven hundred people, and reconciled more than five thousand and threw them into perpetual prisons, where there were such prisons, where they were kept for four or five years or more.” This is perhaps the harshest period of the Holy Office, although the one chosen by Roca Barea to establish her estimates, on the other hand, begins in 1550, some twenty or thirty years after this brutal stage of the Inquisition took place.

Equally problematic are the figures offered by Sir James Stephen, among other reasons because, first of all, Roca Barea does not indicate in which three centuries these hundreds of thousands of murders were committed. Sir James Stephen, who, let us remember, lived in the 19th century, states in his book, A History of the Criminal Law of England, originally published in 1883, that, if the average number of executions in each county was 20 per year, the total would be 800 per year in the 40 English counties, data that Julián Juderías also cites, following Stephen: “And following the same author with his calculations, he arrives at 264,000 executions in three hundred and thirty years.” Naturally these are unrealistic figures which, moreover, would have us to believe, without evidence, that the intensity was always uniform over more than three centuries. In any case, it is difficult to maintain, as Roca Barea does, that the Inquisition belonged more “to the world of symbolic realities than to that of historical truth,” or that it did not have “the capacity to control society.”

The other extreme that attracts Roca Barea’s attention in the construction and maintenance of the Black Legend is the conquest of America, to which she devotes the final pages of the second part of Imperiofobia. The hypotheses she maintains with respect to the Conquest are similar to those defended for the Holy Office: “In the case of America, the deformations reached such a point that it has been impossible to try to make history without adopting a belligerent defensive attitude.”

Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to bring to light the efforts of the Spanish Empire to provide what was necessary to accommodate life in the Americas. She mentions that between 1500 and 1550 “some twenty-five large hospitals were built in the Indies, in the style of St. Nicholas of Bari, and a much larger number of small hospitals with fewer beds,” to the point that in Lima, she tells us, there was one bed for every 101 inhabitants, which we should not expect in each of the cities of the Americas, although she does think that “this pyramid has a broad base of support, as evidenced by the fact that few of these institutions failed.”

If in the field of health this is just some of the data she brings to bear, in the case of education she offers much more that ranges from the creation of higher education centers, which she estimates at more than twenty, and the number of graduates that came out of them, which she estimates, until independence, at “approximately 150,000… of all colors, castes and mixtures.” Likewise, she does not miss the opportunity to establish a favorable comparison, indicating that one must add “the totality of the universities created by Belgium, England, Germany, France and Italy in the colonial expansion of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to approach the number of Spanish-American universities during the imperial era.”

In relation to the conquest of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, José Varela indicates that, as in all American conquests, it was indispensable to collaborate with other indigenous ethnic groups subjugated by the Aztecs “who forced them to a very demanding regime of tribute and decimated them, imposing on them macabre human sacrifices and systematic and very numerous ritual cannibalism.”

In this sense, Varela Ortega argues that it might even be legitimate to question the term conquest because “in most places there was no conquest at all,” to such an extent that the characteristic feature was “the scarcity of warlike acts and the abundance of negotiations.” In this respect, it cannot be denied that, in the conquest of America, which extended beyond the 16th century, there were new formulas for convivencia or coexistence. However, it is quite a different matter to suggest that the military conquest and political, economic or religious subjugation were not the basic pillars of the process, so it does not seem important to argue that these events did not respond, in effect, to a conquest.

However, the main protagonist in the entire chapter dedicated by Roca Barea to the conquest of America has a name of his own: Fray Bartolomé Las Casas and his Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indias). Roca Barea dismisses this work as an unreliable historical source; she discredits it because simply, “it produces astonishment and pity,” so no one “with a little intellectual serenity or common sense defends a cause, however noble it may be, as the Dominican did.”

To some extent the life of Las Casas, the Spanish religious, was overshadowed by this work, of which there were many negative comments by prominent authors. But what is certain is that Las Casas had a very broad and systematic bibliographical production, covering several volumes, ranging from the political to the religious, passing through the social and the legal.

In fact, the protective legislation passed in 1542 was inspired by the reflections of the friar. To understand the historical transcendence of Las Casas, it is necessary, on the one hand, to take into account all his work and not only the Brevísima, and, on the other hand, to draw attention to the context in which he lived and avoid the great myths that surrounded him and contributed to create a distorted profile of him. In this way, it is possible to reach a broader understanding of his real persona, a task to which Bernat Hernández devoted himself in his most recent biography.

One of the lasting consequences of Las Casas’ book was, in Roca Barea’s view, to have facilitated “the birth of the myth of the indigenous Eden crushed by the evil white man,” arguing that it did not matter “whether the native is anthropophagous or head-shrinking,” but that “his state of nature makes him intrinsically good.” Subsequent translations into English, French or German, along with the famous engravings of Théodor de Bry in which sadistic, bloodthirsty and brutal scenes, such as that of the natives being devoured by dogs, can be seen, helped to spread and sustain the Black Legend.

Throughout the third and last part that integrates Imperiofobia, Roca Barea links, as she did already in the first part, the French Enlightenment with the creation of Hispanophobic prejudices, to the point of affirming that “Hispanophobia in France does not occupy an eccentric and marginal place, but is part of the central body of ideas of the Enlightenment.” She cites in this sense those authors responsible, among whom she highlights, Pierre Bayle, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, the Encyclopédie or the articles published therein by Louis de Jaucourt.

The essential summary drawn from the French cultural environment about the Spanish is, as the author summarizes, the following: “Spain is a country of ignorant and uneducated people; Spain is backward; the Inquisition and, therefore, Catholicism are to blame for the backwardness and uneducatedness of Spain, and in general of any place in contact with it; Spain is not part of civilization.” And again, Roca Barea again draws the comparison with the political, economic and social situation of France at that time, marked by a deficit that it is unable to control, by successive cholera epidemics, by a backward banking system or by the fact that “there is no running water or sanitation in Paris, and it was the most malodorous capital in Europe.”

But the basic idea with which the book ends and which we have already stressed throughout this discussion is the assumption about the Black Legend by the Spaniards themselves, who are responsible, in the final analysis, for not creating a narrative to counteract the accusations and falsehoods heaped on the national past. In the first place, Roca Barea blames Spanish liberalism, saying that all the clichés of Hispanophobia “rejuvenated by the Enlightenment are already assumed with perfect naturalness, as an unappealable and self-evident truth, in El fanatismo” (Fanaticism by Meléndez Valdés).

Regarding Valdés’ book, an author who, according to her, naturally assumes the clichés of the Black Legend, she mentions that during the reigns of Charles III and Charles IV there were four death sentences handed down by the Inquisition, the last one in 1781. A year later, Anna Göldi became the last witch burned by Calvinism, which leads Roca Barea to argue that “the bonfires go out in Europe almost at the same time from coast to coast,” in an attempt to play down the importance of the Spanish case.

According to the scheme proposed by Roca Barea, the relationship of the Spaniards and their elites with the clichés of the Black Legend were structured as follows. During the “golden centuries,” the Spaniards, although aware of the Black Legend, did not take much interest in it, and when they did, it was in a tone of “cheerful contempt.” In the eighteenth century, part of the elites began to take on certain clichés of the Black Legend. And from the middle of the 19th century onwards it became a natural part of Spanish life because society needed these prejudices to explain its own situation and, at the same time, with reasons admitted by all, to evade its responsibility.

In conclusion, Roca Barea suggests the need, on the one hand, to admit that the Black Legend and its consequences are still alive, and, on the other, to create an alternative discourse that combats the inaccuracies and insults perniciously maintained about the history of Spain. As an example of the former, the author delves in the last pages into the cinematographic sphere to note that, in most of the films analyzed, especially those that deal with the prevailing historical themes, the image of a Spain dominated by fanaticism, backwardness, tyranny and cruelty prevails. With respect to the second point, and in the words of the author, the book was written “to help clarify not the past, but the future.”

It is pertinent to mention at this time that with Imperiofobia Roca Barea completes her views of the Black Legend, and which she leaves off in the Enlightenment. The basic thesis she defended in Fracasología. España y sus élites: de los afrancesados a nuestros días (Failurology. Spain and its Elites: From the Frenchification to the Present Day), is made clear in the Introduction when she says, “There is a moment from which a significant part of the Spanish elites assume the discourse of the Black Legend because it is the winning discourse of the eighteenth century.” Under this premise, Roca Barea sets out to follow the path that takes her from the time the Bourbons acceded to the throne down to the present, with the aim of demonstrating that the prejudices associated with the Black Legend still survive in Spanish society.

Continuing her account near the end of Imperiofobia, Roca Barea maintains that it was in the century of the Enlightenment when a series of problems were born that Spain still suffers from today, such as, the rejection and moral condemnation of the Habsburg period, for which the Spanish elites were responsible because of the influence of Frenchification. Of course, and in line with her previous book, the source of the necessary breeding ground for the clichés to survive was France, especially with regard to Spain’s responsibility for the Inquisition and the destruction of the Indies. The Spanish inferiority complex would explain not only why these prejudices were present in the 18th century, but also why, by the 19th century, the intellectual and political elites cared little about the dismemberment of the empire and its eventual decomposition.

The Black Legend is, in the end, and in Roca Barea’s opinion, “the hanger from which hangs northern supremacism,” made possible because “not only has the Roman Church been completely defeated, but also because the Spaniard, the last of the sons of Rome to rule in the West, has been defeated.” The essential conclusion that this whole series of arguments brings forward for Roca Barea, what she wishes to emphasize, is that “from the situation of cultural subordination there is no way out without the assistance of the elites.”

She concludes Fracasología by arguing that the weakening of Spain can be seen in how the Fifth Centenary of the Discovery of America was celebrated and how the Fifth Centenary of Elcano’s and Magellan’s Round the World Tour is being celebrated. If Portugal, “with eight million inhabitants, is in a position to impose its presence on an equal footing in the celebration of a historic event, a milestone in the history of mankind,” that means that “our country has reached a state of extreme weakness,” to the point that “Portugal is right now capable of imposing its will on Spain, which has five times its inhabitants.”

The truth is that the theses defended by Roca Barea have raised debates, if not very heated controversies, which have gone beyond, in something that is rarely seen, the scope of academic discussion. This can be seen very well when in the newspaper El Mundo, in its edition of December 26, 2019, a heterogeneous group formed by journalists, lawyers, writers, academics or university professors signed a manifesto “In defense of Elvira Roca,” whose purpose was to reject the information given by the newspaper El País on December 20, 2019, according to which Imperiofobia gave, in at least about thirty instances of incorrect or even non-existent references. Among the signatories in support of Roca Barea were personalities, such as, Carmen Iglesias, Director of the Royal Academy of History, the playwright Albert Boadella, and the philosopher Fernando Savater.

The response published by El Mundo revealed “an astonishing campaign of public vilification directed at the researcher Elvira Roca Barea,” a harassment that had its origin in the pages “of the newspaper El País, with no holds barred,” but which “was taken up by other media.”

The final paragraph of the manifesto closes by linking it with one of the clearest argumentative lines of Roca Barea’s book, that is, the assumption of the prejudices about the Legend believed by Spaniards themselves, who also do nothing to remedy it – an idea which yet persists, although this time in journalism, since as one reads, “the very article in El País, in its efforts to disavow the book, Imperiofobia, does nothing more than confirm one of the theses that its author defends;” and this is, as we have just pointed out, “the resistance of a part of present-day Spanish intelligentsia to admit the survival of the Black Legend among us.”

However, perhaps the most forceful response to Imperiofobia has been the book by José Luis Villacañas, professor of philosophy at the Complutense University, Imperiofilia y el populismo nacional-católico (Imperiophilia and National-Catholic Populism), which is another history of the Spanish Empire.

There were two motivations, according to Villacañas in the Prologue, which prompted him to write this book. In the first place, because he considers Imperiofobia a “harmful and dangerous” book; and in his opinion, it is “an ideological artifact that has initiated the offensive of a reactionary thinking whose effects we are now clearly observing.” And secondly, because Roca Barea’s book attacks “in an insidious and grotesque way” everything that this author defends in his work, to the point of qualifying what Roca Barea does in her book as “reactionary intellectual populism.”

Imperiofilia is an amendment to the entirety of Roca Barea’s book. For Villacañas, both Imperiofobia and the reception it has received are the reflection of something he defines as follows: “The success of the book reveals the limited cultural demands of certain elites of the country, who, faced with a world they no longer understand nor know how to lead, need a legitimacy that Imperiofobia offers them in a brutal way.”

Thus, in the first part of Imperiofilia, he sets out to dismantle the theoretical scheme on which the work he intends to refute is based, by questioning aspects, such as, the distinction he makes between the “superiors” and the “inferiors,” the relationship between intellectuals and the maintenance of imperiophobia or the use he makes of the term “empire.”

According to Villacañas, the essential point in Roca Barea’s book is when she suggests that in order to analyze such complex phenomena, “the variable is still the difference between Catholics and Protestants;” so that “if you go against a Lutheran empire, then you are neither anti-Semitic nor racist.” On the other hand, “if you go, for example, against the Spanish Empire, which expelled the Jews in tragic conditions and exterminated them as a very ancient peninsular people, then, by a strange rule of three, you are anti-Semitic.” In his opinion, this type of approach meets not only with the approval, but also with the complicity, of “famous film directors, influential journalists and far-sighted editors,” who applaud without hesitation Roca Barea’s hypotheses.

In the second part of Imperiofilia, Villacañas exposes what he considers to be the two fundamental categories that constitute Imperiofobia, following the case studies chosen by Roca Barea: Imperial victims and the victimizers. Within the first group we find Rome, Russia and the United States, while in the second group we find Italy, German Protestants, England and Holland.

Villacañas understands that, in the epigraph dedicated to the imperial victims, Roca Barea’s objective is none other than to defend the idea that the use of the power of empires does not produce a bad conscience, which is why she presents a precursor, Rome, in the process of forming Black Legends. From his point of view, she is only interested in proving Rome’s innocence: “At last the eternal city finds its advocate before history. Now its ghost can rise again and put on the white robe of the innocents of history.”

On the contrary, regarding the victimizers, Villacañas thinks that what Roca Barea wants to demonstrate above all is that Protestant Germany is the true enemy of Spain; or, in other words, the precursor and forger of the Black Legend, an opinion that he does not share, since he believes that the beginning should be placed in the wars of the Netherlands. Furthermore, he does not accept Roca Barea’s interpretation of Luther’s or Calvin’s behavior when he says that the latter, in a period of four years, had fifty-four people burned, alleging that Calvin “may be an unsympathetic character, but to turn him into a pathetic criminal is unfounded.”

Villacañas also says that, in general, Roca Barea’s description of Italy, Germany and England is “superficial and inconsistent,” and adds that in the case of Holland it borders on “delirium.” And, finally, he recalls that the entirety of Imperiofobia is riddled with messages that lead to Catalonia, which is why he wonders if, in reality, there is the possibility that Roca Barea “wants to send the tercios to Brussels, to extradite Puigdemont, or to continue celebrating autos de fe, and force the good people to roar after the inauguration of the inquisitor of the day.”

At the part dedicated to Spain, Villacañas simply dismisses Roca Barea’s argument regarding the Holy Office and the conquest of America. At the heart of the matter is his own deficient methodological apparatus. In relation to the Inquisition, he maintains that the sources most used by the author of Imperiofobia to document her assertions are “comics” or “television documentaries;” or what amounts to the same thing, “the sources of the new populist science.” Again, he insists that it is Roca Barea’s intention to compare the Inquisition with the way the French courts used torture, for example, in order to demonstrate in this way, in a view clearly favorable to the Spanish Inquisition, that it was more regimented.

Villacañas summarizes Roca Barea’s view of the American issue as an attempt to limit everything to a battle between the Catholic world and the Protestant world, which prevents the observation of reality with the necessary clarity to understand it. All of this is clothed by the tendency to use “populist anachronisms,” since anachronism is the method most loved by what he calls “intellectual populists.” From Roca Barea’s treatment of Las Casas, valuable because it can thus be demonstrated that a Spaniard initiated the Black Legend, perhaps making good the idea of that negative community which evolves directly towards a lack of community, and to other aspects, such as, the fact that in America, in the 18th century, “the most audacious theories of the Enlightenment were arriving and being studied,” which he regards simply as exaggerations.

Villacañas devotes the end of the book to two other topics to which Roca Barea does not pay as much attention as to the previous ones: the Enlightenment and liberalism. In both cases Villacañas’ opinion is similar. On the one hand, when analyzing the Enlightenment, he says that Roca Barea “is not interested in the movement of ideas nor in understanding them,” but only in “counting the Catholic embassies that were set on fire by the English and pursuing this cosmic battle of which she is the last champion, the last crusade, the Spanish Joan of Arc.” When time comes to say something about liberalism, she does it to point out that “what interests the author of liberalism itself is the will to put into circulation the concept of Latin America as opposed to that of Hispano-America, which affects the Spanish Empire and constitutes the last sign of imperiophobia.”

Imperiofilia closes by recalling that Roca Barea’s success is based on the need that, in the absence of a Spanish nationalist response to the excesses of Catalan nationalism, there is compensation “in a work that calms many insecurities, generates absolute loyalty and attends to the unhappy conscience of many of those who see themselves endangered as a people.” Imperiofobia, he concludes, is ultimately “a product of Steve Bannon’s factory, mixed with the castizo heart of Gustavo Bueno’s imperial melancholy, used by the founding fathers of the Association in Defense of the Spanish Nation in its inaugural proclamation, and current inspirers of the VOX political party.”

The historiographical debate between María Elvira Roca Barea and José Luis Villacañas is nothing more than a reflection of the polarization suffered by Spanish society at present, since it has also had its manifestation in the media. It is not a question of reiterating here the fundamental role that historical knowledge plays in any democratic society, but of vindicating the need not to trivialize it in order to obtain political, economic or ideological advantages.

This becomes even more pertinent in a society dominated by immediacy, where slow and original thinking seems to be disappearing and history tends to satisfy old longings for grandeur. Otherwise, we will continue to be prisoners of a historical narrative riddled with inaccuracies, which refuses to debate with researchers and specialists and which finds in anachronism its best ally; or perhaps this is just a symbol of our own curse, and therefore we are condemned to be haunted by it throughout our history.


Bruno Padín Portela is a historian, with a Masters in Archaeology and Ancient Sciences and a PhD in History from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published articles in Spanish and has written international reviews analyzing topics related to Spanish historiography, especially the role of traitors in the accounts of the histories of Spain. He is also the author of the book, La traición en la historia de España.


The featured image shows, “The Conquest of Tenochtitlán in 1521,” an anonymous work, painted ca. 17th century.

The Banality Of The Humanities In Spain

Lucian of Samosata says in his treatise, How to Write History, that one can only be a good historian if one can tell the truth; that is, if one wanted to tell it; and if one did not wish to flatter the powerful. That is why many times the great historians have swum against the current; and when the data are systematized and the usual interpretations are dismantled, a history book can seem impertinent. Such was the case of the book by Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain. It is a work based on overwhelming evidence, which puts facts before prejudice and goes against the political and academic clichés in force in Spain, which make the image of the past, which is often offered, an inversion of what the past actually was. An example of this is the book by Jorge Elices Ocón, Respeto o barbarie: el islam ante la Antigüedad. De al-Andalus a DAESH (Respect or barbarism: Islam in the face of Antiquity. From al-Andalus to DAESH), which is a faithful portrait, not of the past, but of the political and academic world of Spain today.

In present-day politics of Spain, ideas, controversies and political debate have almost disappeared. Ideas have been replaced by easy-to-use labels, which lack content and are nothing more than a series of words, which fabricate a world parallel to the real world; and the course of this fabricated world is then followed. This is the world of so-called political correctness. And the natural niche in which its slogans are generated in Spain is the academic world.

It is a world of armchair tolerant people, who pretend to redeem the world with their studies, almost always opportunistic and of low academic level, in which they make anachronistic arguments about tolerance in the past.

Such is the case of J. Elices Ocón, who is a perfect example of politically correct opportunism. His book is a doctoral thesis, which is not a guarantee of academic rigor, which was done under the auspices of a project financed with public money, and which shows that getting public money is not a guarantee of anything either. Elices Ocón establishes a continuity between al-Andalus, that is, the Muslim kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula (and his focus is solely on the 10th century), and Daesh, born in Syria ten centuries later, and not in Cordoba, where an important caliphate existed. If he wanted to talk about intolerance in Hispanic Islam, then he would have to examine how the Umayyads had already implanted religious rigorism and oppressed the Christians, and then deal with the Almoravid and Almohad invasions, which took religious rigorism to extreme limits at that time. But that is of no interest to him. In Islam, as in other religions, the demon of hatred, fanaticism and violence always nests in a corner of the soul, which the author seems to want to incarnate exclusively into Christianity.

To demonstrate respect for classical antiquity in Islam, the author limits himself to collecting scattered data on the reuse of capitals, ashlars, and even sarcophagi used as containers for liquids, without realizing that such reuse was common since antiquity, because it takes a lot of work to carve a pillar, let alone make a capital. To be surprised, as Elices Ocón is, that Muslims appreciated the value of the Hispanic Roman aqueducts and bridges, or that Ibn Khaldun, a Muslim historian who believed that history begins with Mohammed, said that the pyramids of Egypt were built by the men of the past and not by mythological beings, can only be explained by his intention to defend, in a wrong way, that there can also be tolerance in Islam, and to confuse tolerance with common sense. Curiously, he hides the fact that, as can be seen in the book by Darío Fernández-Morera, the Muslims destroyed buildings and churches in order to reuse their materials, for example, in the construction of the mosque of Córdoba.

To the quotations of isolated materials, he adds the knowledge of classical texts. The author hides the fact that in the Hispanic Muslim world no one knew Greek, and that Aristotle was translated from Greek into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic – and by Christian scholars under Muslim rule.

Since Elices Ocón focuses only on the 10th century in Andalusia, he forgets that the Byzantine Empire ended in the 15th century and that it was there that monks preserved classical texts unknown in the West, such as Plato. To maintain that St. Isidore of Seville had less knowledge of the classical world than the supposed Hellenistic scholars of the Caliphate of Cordoba, because Isidore was a Christian, makes no sense. Dioscorides’ book De materia medica, which Elices Ocón cites as an example of interest in the past, was translated into Arabic by a monk sent to Abderraman III by the emperor of Byzantium in order to teach Greek to the slaves in charge of the translation. It was translated for use in medicine, just as Dr. Andrés Laguna would do in the 16th century, when he translated it into Spanish for use as a vademecum. If to this we add that Elices Ocón does not mention that in the Toledo School of translators, promoted by a Christian king, Alfonso X, the translators of Arabic were basically Jews, then we will see how political correctness censors the past and stifles everything.

It is because of political correctness, sold as history and financed by public funds, that it is said that the actions of Daesh can make sense in the context of the struggle against imperialism, citing the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamyan (Afghanistan). It is true that the remains of the past have been destroyed at all times, but it is also true that Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan punishes, for example, apostasy from Islam with 20 years in prison, the burning of the Koran with public execution, by stoning in the case of women, and any public criticism of the religion with 8 years in prison, if there is a trial, or with execution by the free will of whoever is considered the just executioner.

Spanish humanists today live in a glass bubble. They write their books to win merit, which has nothing to do with knowledge, but everything to do with the standards that their colleagues create to evaluate and finance themselves with public money. They ignore much of the established knowledge, such as that collected by Darío Fernández-Morera in his systematic study, because they only work to accumulate a capital of minor publications, often in journals that they control or create. That is why they believe that to quote an author is to do him a favor. That is why, as J. Elices Ocón does, when there is a Greek author, such as the geographer Strabo, who has been studied from different perspectives in Spain and in Europe by numerous authors in different books, instead of referring to this whole tradition of studies, he limits himself to citing a minor article in a medium level journal, authored by a researcher – probably a friend – who will thus increase his capital of citations, within the networks of reciprocity and distribution of quantifiable honors that the humanities have become in Spain.

Are these new humanities, which ignore the value of systematic work, of the study of texts in their original languages, and which ignore the moral responsibility of the historian, described by Lucian, of any use? Well, no. The humanities thus understood serve no purpose, and nothing would be lost if they were no longer financed with public funds, because they contribute practically no new knowledge, nor do they have any capacity to take root in the concerns of citizens.

So increasingly, what readers demand from the humanities is offered to them by novels and all sorts of works of fiction, not by humanists. The new purple-prose humanists know that they are incapable of arousing interest beyond their academic bubble. They ask to be financed by the state – but as they know that their works can only be accepted, not read, in the field of propaganda and political correctness, they proclaim themselves prophets of a new banal world, which they call the “digital humanities” and emphasize the value of history as a resource to promote tourism. But then Medina Azahara, on whose door, by the way, the severed heads of the enemies of the caliph were hung as a lesson and warning to one and all – was also destroyed by the Muslims themselves.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows, “Moors in conversation,” a mural on the ceiling of the Sala de Los Reyes, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain, ca. 1375.

Political Ponerology And The Rise Of Totalitarianism In The West

Seventy years ago, the thankless task of ideological indoctrination in Polish universities fell upon the communist leadership and their approved instructors. The people would learn what was best for them, even if it killed them. Today, by contrast, the students seem perfectly happy to indoctrinate themselves. No government coercion necessary. Things have a way of coming full circle, and then some! “The Legutko Affair,” covered in last month’s issue of The Postil should demonstrate that. But before discussing the present state of affairs, we must return to the past. The time is 1951, just a few years after the imposition of communism. The place: the gothic lecture hall at Jagiellonian University, Professor Legutko’s alma mater.

Previously, students had heard lectures here by scholars like Roman Ingarden, a student of Husserl. But when the students were herded into the hall that year to attend the recently introduced Marxist-Leninist indoctrination lectures, a new man appeared at the lectern, informing them he was to be their new professor. This particular class of students—soon to graduate with degrees in psychology—were about to learn some important lessons about the nature of totalitarianism. In a twisted way, these were actually lessons in psychology, though that certainly was not their professor’s intention.

First of all, the man spoke nonsense unfitting of a university, and the students immediately recognized this—or at least most of them did. Second, he wasn’t even a real professor. The students soon discovered that he had attended high school, but it was unclear if he had ever actually graduated. Third, this new “professor” treated the students with contempt and barely concealed hatred. His tyrannical teaching style mirrored that of the communist party leadership—whom he had to thank for his new, “socially advanced” position.

The students’ encounter with the new professor may not have succeeded in swaying many of them over to communism—communist indoctrination efforts were embarrassingly ineffective—but it was a crash course in the personalities and psychological processes at the heart of the communist system. One of the students in that class, Dr. Andrzej Łobaczewski (1921–2007), who would go on to study the psychology of totalitarianism and write the most important book on the topic, credits that professor as his first instructor in this brutal new reality.

John Connelly has studied this stormy period been in his book, Captive University: The Sovietization of East German, Czech, and Polish Higher Education, 1945–1956. Regarding the template for this ideological takeover established in the USSR, he writes:

“After universities had been emptied of enemies, they had to be filled with ostensible supporters: students from underprivileged social strata who would reward the regime with loyalty for upward social mobility. During the early breakthrough periods in Soviet history, preference was given to students of ‘worker and peasant background’” (p. 3).

The communists instituted a program of what we in the West call affirmative action, actively seeking to enroll students from the “worker-peasant” class, the underprivileged who were numerically underrepresented in the education system. Remedial courses were set up to prepare such students for university. In the Czech lands, for instance, the party had to enforce downward mobility on middle-class aspirants in order to make room for working-class students (a policy that would be familiar to many Asian Americans today). While a success in many regards—worker students performed on par in many subjects, and excelled at others—in a reflection of affirmative action today, many of these students found themselves in over their heads, especially in technical fields, and dropped out at higher than average rates, many suffering nervous breakdowns from the stress.

But quotas must be met. So Polish and East German functionaries solved this problem by simply lowering standards and graduating students early. Predictably, this gave students a sense of power: “at a January 1952 meeting of representatives of Poznan University with Vice-Minister of Education Krassowska, Rector Ajdukiewicz told the audience that there had been cases of ‘improper behavior’ among students who felt that the authorities ‘have no choice but to graduate us, because otherwise they won’t fulfill the plan’” (p. 275). (While this was to the advantage of dissident students, one wonders if these students ever reached the obnoxious levels of entitlement displayed by those of Evergreen State College, Washington, in 2017.)

In a section titled “Professors vs. Professors,” Connelly describes what was perhaps “the most demoralizing experience” for faculty in those early years: the personal and professional attacks by some professors on their colleagues, leading to involuntary leave, early retirement, or dismissal. University administrations “voided the teaching qualifications of professors who had demonstrated a ‘hostile attitude toward the People’s Democratic regime’” and “voted to exclude fellow members who had been identified as politically untrustworthy” (p. 192). Others used this new political climate to “settle old scores.” In East Germany the “practice of voting against one’s colleagues was also widespread”; sometimes professors voted to send a colleague to the state security services for ideologically incorrect remarks, in one case for remarks critical of “distinguished leaders of the working class” (p. 193). The communist system depended on its ability to find examples of thoughtcrime, punish the offenders (whether guilty or not), and thus maintain a modicum of compliance and ideological consensus enforced by terror.

Flash forward to today, seventy years after Dr. Łobaczewski’s experience of political indoctrination at Jagiellonian University and the dawn of the politicization of higher education in Poland. In the summer of 2021, Polish conservative politician Ryszard Legutko, a professor emeritus of philosophy at Jagiellonian, sent a letter to the university rector decrying the creation and operation of an office of “Safety and Equal Treatment” at the school. According to the website of JU, the objectives of the “Department of Security, Safety and Equal Treatment,” are the “coordination of steps to ensure the personal safety and equal treatment of members of the JU community” and “providing support to victims of conduct that is discriminatory in nature or violates their personal safety.” Anyone with a passing familiarity with similar departments of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” in American universities will see the similarities, and the dangers.

The fact is, social justice ideology, with roots in “gender theory,” “critical race theory,” and the ever-growing list of unscientific “studies” departments, is a Trojan horse. On the surface level it promotes “diversity,” but enforces strict ideological conformity; “equity,” but only for its believers; and “inclusion,” but only of those who agree with them. If you have the temerity to disagree with them, you will be found guilt of “discrimination” (i.e., thought crime) and of endangering the “safety” (i.e., hurting the feelings) of “historically marginalized groups.” You will have proven yourself not diverse enough to be included, all in the name of equality or equity. Its logic is Kafkaesque and its morality is Orwellian.

In his letter of protest Legutko correctly noted that “in the last few decades, universities have become a breeding ground for aggressive ideology—censorship, control of language and thought, intimidation of rebellious academics, various compulsory training sessions to raise awareness, disciplinary measures and dismissal from work.” He added: “If we create a structure that is paid for and specially programmed to look for inequalities and discrimination, it is obvious that it will find them quite quickly to prove the reason for its existence, and sooner or later it will take steps that are taken at hundreds of other universities.” All but two of the thirty-plus faculty members of the department of philosophy then penned a response attacking Professor Legutko for his “grotesque” “attacks” on the university. “The Students” (a nameless collective reminiscent of the ubiquitous but mostly imaginary “The People” of communist fame) joined in on the action, responding to Legutko’s “discriminatory actions” and “words that violate the dignity of another human being,” thus demonstrating the truth of his argument. The students, after all, were “raised in a spirit of tolerance and respect for others.” As if that were relevant to Legutko’s concerns.

Łobaczewski, who died in 2007, must be turning in his grave. He warned about this over thirty years ago, but had been hopeful that Poland would escape a repeat of the mass madness that led to the communist revolutions, hostile takeovers, and infiltrations of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, his work remains obscure, and the window of opportunity in which it may have helped stave off disaster may already have passed. So who was Łobaczewski, and how can his ideas help to make sense of the madness we see taking over the Western world today?

The History of Political Ponerology

In the years after the imposition of communism on the countries of Eastern and Central Europe in the late 1940s, a group of scientists—primarily Polish, Hungarian, and Czech—secretly collaborated on a scientific study of the nature of totalitarianism. Blocked from meaningful contact with the West, their work remained secret both from the wider public in their own countries as well as from the outside scientific community.

Before his death in 2007, Andrzej Łobaczewski was the last known living member of this group. His book, Political Ponerology, contains the conclusions he formulated over his decades of experience living and working in communist Poland, and whatever other data he was able to gather from the other members of this group. An expert on psychopathy, he chose to christen their field of study “ponerology”—a synthesis of psychological, psychiatric, sociological, and historical studies on the nature and genesis of evil. Upon his request, two monks of the Benedictine Abbey in the historic Polish village of Tyniec provided the name. Derived from poneros in New Testament Greek, the word suggests an inborn evil with a corrupting influence, a fitting description of psychopathy and its social effects.

Practically all of what we know about this research comes from his book, though hints of it can be found elsewhere. Łobaczewski’s sole contact with the other researchers was through Stefan Szuman (1889–1972), a retired professor who passed along anonymous research summaries to members of the group. The consequences for being discovered were severe; scientists faced arrest, torture, or even “an accident at work,” so strict conspiracy was essential. They safeguarded themselves and their work by adopting the mode of operation learned during the past decade of resistance to Nazi and Soviet occupation. (Łobaczewski himself had been a member of the Home Army.) This way, if any were arrested and tortured, they could not reveal the names and locations of their confederates.

Łobaczewski only shared the names of two Polish professors of the previous generation who were involved in some way in the early stages of this work—Stefan Błachowski (1889–1962) and Kazimierz Dąbrowski (1902–1980). Błachowski apparently died under suspicious circumstances and Łobaczewski speculated that the state police murdered him for his part in the research. Around this time, Dąbrowski emigrated and, unwilling to renounce his Polish citizenship in order to work in the United States, took a position at the University of Alberta in Canada, where he was able to retain dual citizenship.

A close reading of Dąbrowski’s published works in English shows the theoretical roots of what would eventually become ponerology.
Like Łobaczewski, Dąbrowski considered psychopathy to be “the greatest obstacle in development of personality and social groups.” He warned: “The general inability to recognize the psychological type of such individuals causes immense suffering, mass terror, violent oppression, genocide and the decay of civilization… As long as the suggestive [i.e., hypnotic, “spellbinding”] power of the psychopath is not confronted with facts and with moral and practical consequences of his doctrine, entire social groups may succumb to his demagogic appeal” (The Dynamics of Concepts, pp. 40, 47). In one of the first explicit mentions of political psychopathy, he remarked that the extreme of ambition and lust for power and financial gain “is particularly evident in criminal or political psychopathy:”

Methods are developed for spreading dissension between groups (as in the maxim “divide et impera” [divide and rule]). Treason and deceit in politics are given justification and are presented as positive values. Principles of taking advantage of concrete situations are also developed. Political murder, execution of opponents, concentration camps and genocide are the product of political systems at the level of primary integration [i.e., psychopathy].“(Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions, pp. 33, 153)

In a passage decades before its time, Dąbrowski observed that less “successful” psychopaths are to be found in prisons, while successful ones are to be found in positions of power (i.e., “among political and military national leaders, labor union bosses, etc.”). The concept of corporate or “successful” psychopathy only took off in the West in the last couple decades. He cited Hitler and Stalin as two examples of leaders characterized by this “affective retardation,” who both showed a “lack of empathy, emotional cold¬ness, unlimited ruthlessness and craving for power.”

Dąbrowski and Łobaczewski experienced this horror firsthand. In September 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, after which they instituted a regime of terror that resulted in the deaths of an estimated six million Poles. As part of a larger goal of destroying all Polish cultural life, schools were closed and professors were arrested, sent to concentration camps, and some murdered. Psychiatry was outlawed. According to Jason Aronson of Harvard Medical School, the Nazis murdered the majority of practicing psychiatrists. Only 38 survived out of approximately 400 alive before the invasion (preface to Dąbrowski, Positive Disintegration, pp. ix–x). During this tumultuous time, Łobaczewski volunteered as a soldier for the Home Army, the underground Polish resistance organization, and his desire to study psychology grew.

The school that he would later attend, Jagiellonian University, suffered greatly during the war years as part of a general program to exterminate the intellectual elite of the city of Kraków. On November 6, 1939, 138 professors and staff were arrested and sent to concentration camps. They had been told that they were to attend a mandatory lecture on German plans for Polish education. Upon arrival, they were arrested in the lecture hall, along with everyone else present in the building. Thankfully, due to public protest, the majority were released a few months later.

Despite the university having been looted and vandalized by the Nazis, survivors of the operation managed to form an underground university in 1942. (Błachowski taught at one such underground university in Warsaw.) Regular lectures began again in 1945 and it was probably soon after that Łobaczewski began his studies at Jagiellonian, under professor of psychiatry Edward Brzezicki, and met Stefan Szuman, a renowned psychologist who taught there. As mentioned above, Szuman later acted as Łobaczewski’s clearinghouse for secret data and research in later years.

While Jagiellonian and the other Polish universities enjoyed a few years of freedom, this largely ended with the establishment of the Polish Democratic Republic in 1947 and the consolidation of power under Bierut the year after. Poland became a satellite state of the Soviet Union, the Party took control of higher education, medical and psychiatric services were socialized, and clinical psychiatry was completely hollowed out. Thus the “Stalinization” of Polish education and research picked up where Hitler left off. Connelly writes:

“Perhaps because of the strength of the old professoriate there, the breaking down of universities went furthest in Poland. … Restructuring shifted academic resources away from the humanities and social sciences. Previously, one could study philosophy at any university in Poland, save the state university (UMCS) in Lublin. Now, studies in philosophy, psychology, or pedagogy were possible only in Warsaw” (pp. 60–61).

Łobaczewski’s class was thus the last one to be taught by the old psychology professors in Kraków, who were considered “ideologically incorrect” by the powers that be. As Łobaczewski tells it, it was only in their last year of schooling (1951), described above, that they fully felt the reach of the party into university life. This experience of the inhuman “new reality” was to inspire the course of Łobaczewski’s research for the rest of his life, just as the war had inspired his interest in psychology.

Born in 1921, Łobaczewski grew up in a modest manor house in the Subcarpathian Province of Poland, “among old trees, dogs and horses.” He practiced beekeeping, working on the farm during summers. After the war, he graduated from a mechanical high school and earned a living as a builder. During the three decades he spent living under communism after graduating, he worked in general and mental hospitals and as an industrial psychologist in the mining industry. While he was not allowed to pursue a career in academia, the intensified conditions of life in Poland provided ample opportunities to conduct his own research and to improve his skills in clinical diagnosis—skills he found to be essential for coming to terms with this new social reality. He was also able to give psychotherapy to those who suffered the most under such harsh rule.

Soon after the secret research project began in the late 1950s, the group tasked Łobaczewski with researching the various mental disorders contributing to the phenomenon. Originally, he only contributed a small part of the research, focusing mostly on psychopathy. The name of the person responsible for completing the final synthesis was kept secret, but the work never saw the light of day. All of Łobaczewski’s contacts became inoperative in the post-Stalin wave of repression in the early 1960s and he was left only with the data that had already come into his possession. All the rest was lost forever, whether burned or locked in some secret police archive.

Faced with this hopeless situation, he decided to finish the work on his own. Despite his efforts in secrecy, the political authorities came to suspect that he possessed “dangerous” knowledge. One Austrian scientist with whom Łobaczewski had corresponded turned out to be an agent of the secret police, and Łobaczewski was arrested and tortured three times during this period. While working on the first draft of his book in 1968, the locals of the village in which he was working warned him of an imminent secret police raid. Łobaczewski had just enough time to burn the work in his central heating furnace before their arrival. Years later, in 1977, the Roman correspondent for Radio Free Europe, to whom Łobaczewski had spoken about his work, denounced him to the Polish authorities. Given the option of a fourth arrest or “voluntary” exile to the United States, Łobaczewski chose the latter and made his way to the USA. He left the country with practically nothing.

Upon arrival in New York City, the Polish security apparatus utilized their contacts in the city to block Łobaczewski’s access to jobs in his field. In the case of scientists living abroad, the Polish secret police’s modus operandi was to use dupes and “useful idiots,” suggesting certain courses of action to American Communist Party members who then gullibly carried them out. Łobaczewski was thus forced to take a job doing manual labor, writing the final draft of his book in the early hours before work. Having lost most of the statistical data and case studies with his papers, he included only those he could remember and focused primarily on the observations and conclusions based on his and others’ decades of study, as well as a study of literature written by victims of such regimes.

Once the book was completed in 1984 and a suitable translation made into English the following year, he was unable to get it published. The psychology editors told him it was “too political,” and the political editors told him it was “too psychological.” He enlisted the help of his compatriot, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had just previously served as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser and who initially praised the book and promised to help get it published. Unfortunately, after some time spent corresponding, Brzezinski became silent, responding only to the effect that it was a pity it hadn’t worked out. In Łobaczewski’s words, “he strangled the matter.” In the end, a small printing of copies for academics was the only result, and these failed to have any significant influence on academics and reviewers.

Suffering from severely poor health, Łobaczewski returned to Poland in 1990, where he published another book and transcribed the manuscript of Political Ponerology: A Science on the Nature of Evil Adjusted for Political Purposes onto his computer. He eventually sent this copy to the editors of Red Pill Press, who published the book in 2006. His health once more failing, he died just over a year later, in November of 2007.

What Is Ponerology?

In the opening of Chapter V of his book, Dr. Andrew Łobaczewski asks the reader to picture himself in a large, gothic university building: the lecture hall of Jagiellonian University mentioned above. He thus places us, his readers, in his own place, to experience for ourselves what he experienced. He then proceeds to recount the experiences catalyzed by the “new professor,” which would determine and inspire the rest of his personal and professional life, and ultimately, the conclusions contained in his book. His hope is that we will thus learn what he came to learn only after many years of suffering and effort, and possibly avoid a fate similar to that of all those who suffered under one of the worst tyrannies of human history.

It is an apt literary conceit, because within this recollection are all the essential features of his subject: the nature of that phenomenon most often called totalitarianism. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his encounter with the new professor and the effect of that professor on a small percentage of the student body represented a microcosm of the phenomenon then metastasizing in Poland. This phenomenon would go on to characterize the nations within the sphere of the Soviet Union’s influence for the next forty years.

The tyranny of an entire empire played itself out in that lecture hall. The new professor played the role of petty tyrant, a Dolores Umbridge–type figure spewing ideological drivel with the self-certainty of a revolutionary zealot, ruling with an iron fist, and enforcing rules that violated all prior norms of common decency and scientific respectability. The reaction among most students was one of psychological shock. Social and emotional bonds were broken, and the class quickly became polarized along somewhat mysterious lines. Not all students were repulsed by the professor’s personality, boorish behavior, and nonsensical ideas. Some 6% were swayed to his side, aping his manner, adopting his ideology, and turning on their former friends and colleagues. For some this was only temporary, but others joined the Party, becoming petty tyrants themselves. But only ever 6%. There was a natural limit to the number of recruits the professor could fish out of student body.

The odd thing about this new division was that it replicated itself at every social level. Whether in the village or the city, among the rich or poor, religious or atheist, educated or not, the new division sliced straight through all prior social divisions. And for the next forty years, this 6% formed the core of the new leadership, as if they were individual iron filings attracted by the pull of some invisible magnet, the criteria for which bore no resemblance to those which had previously obtained, like talent, merit, virtue, wealth, or experience.

Łobaczewski argues that communism was not just a “different” political or economic system. Those categories cannot adequately explain its inhuman brutality and mendacity. (Nor can they adequately explain the periods of madness that precede such systems coming into being.) Rather, he and his colleagues were convinced that communism represented a “macrosocial pathological phenomenon,” a social disease and a pathologically inverted social system. The Bolsheviks didn’t just take over the Russian Empire; the revolution was not just a coup, as if one political party was violently kicked out and another moved in to take its place, one that just happened to have different policy objectives and plans for the empire. No, there was something fundamentally different about the Bolsheviks that distinguished them from other political groups, something in addition to, and behind, their ideology. In the decades following the revolution, the Soviets proceeded to completely destroy the existing social structure and replace it with something fundamentally new and different. For Łobaczewski, the only thing that came close to providing an adequate description of the nature of this phenomenon was the language of psychology, specifically the field of psychopathology.

The radical restructuring of society during these years—helped along by violent purges at all levels—was in reality an enforced psychological selection process. In a normal and healthy society, social relations and status are governed by certain psychological criteria based on human nature, like talent, competence, and virtue. A computer programmer should be able to program. His boss should be competent. And people in positions of power and influence should have a degree of personal virtue and good character. Those caught up in legitimate scandal—for corruption, breaches of basic morality, and criminal activity—lose their good standing in society. Those who grossly violate basic social norms are penalized, like psychopaths, who make up something like 20% of the American prison population.

No society is perfect in this regard, but on the whole, this is how humanity tends to self-select in ideal conditions, and the degree to which a society’s individuals are well suited to their occupation and social position is a good measure of the health of said society. By necessity this society will be stratified. Some will always be richer than others, smarter, more talented and successful, and there will always be criteria (some more arbitrary than others) for inclusion in the higher classes.

The revolution and its reproduction in Eastern Europe, as a great leveler, destroyed all this. It tore down the previous social strata and their foundations (like merit, education, wealth), and replaced them with deviant psychological criteria. Like a criminal gang in which one must “prove oneself” by participation in violence, the criteria for inclusion in the “new class,” to use Milovan Djilas’ phrase, were distinctly psychopathological. As Gary Saul Morson writes:

“Lenin worked by a principle of anti-empathy, and this approach was to define Soviet ethics. I know of no other society, except those modeled on the one Lenin created, where schoolchildren were taught that mercy, kindness, and pity are vices. After all, these feelings might lead one to hesitate shooting a class enemy or denouncing one’s parents. The word ‘conscience’ went out of use, replaced by ‘consciousness’ (in the sense of Marxist-Leninist ideological consciousness).”

It should come as no surprise that a system that promoted the absence of conscience came to be dominated by those without conscience: psychopaths. In fact, Łobaczewski’s “new professor” wasn’t just an uneducated Communist Party hack. He was also a psychopath.

The science of psychopathy was still in its infancy at the time of the Russian Revolution, and the first scientific works that would go on to shape the course of future research would only be published decades later in 1941 (Cleckley and Karpman). Łobaczewski, lacking access to these and future developments from the West, came to similar conclusions about the subject independently, finding confirmation of his own thinking only after moving to New York.

But he was well prepared for a study of what was happening in the years to come. Jagiellonian at that time boasted a formidable psychology and psychiatry department—until the new political leadership ideologically neutered it (relevant textbooks were soon “memory-holed” and subdisciplines banned). No one educated from that point on had the necessary facts at their disposal, and the totalitarian nature of the new social and political system meant that research not only couldn’t be procured from abroad; it couldn’t be shared within the country without the risk of arrest, torture, or death.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder characterized by a range of interpersonal-affective traits and antisocial behaviors. Psychopaths are manipulative and charming. They’re also ruthless and completely self-centered. They don’t feel emotion the way other people do. They feel no guilt, shame, or fear. They’re the type of person to sell out their own mother, all while convincingly assuring others of what great, loving sons they are. The most widely used assessment tool is Robert D. Hare’s Psychopath Checklist-Revised. Here are its items: glibness/superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, conning/manipulative, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callous/lack of empathy, failure to accept responsibility, need for stimulation, parasitic lifestyle, no realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, poor behavioral controls, early behavioral problems, revoke conditional release, criminal versatility.

In a normal society, a substantial number of psychopaths are in prison or part of the criminal class. Making up an estimated 1% of the general population, researcher Kent Kiehl argues that the vast majority (over 90%) of adult male psychopaths are either in prison or otherwise caught up in the American criminal justice system, e.g., on parole or probation. A substantial number of “successful” psychopaths can be found working for temp agencies. Needless to say, they make for poor employees.

However, the most gifted successful psychopaths—more intelligent and less impulsive than those found in prison—may con their way into positions of influence and prestige (though, as with the gifted generally, they will be outnumbered by their more mediocre counterparts).

Canadian psychologist Robert D. Hare, the world’s leading expert on psychopathy, once remarked that if didn’t study psychopaths in prison, he would do so at the stock exchange. Such “snakes in suits” may be overrepresented in such places, he writes, “on the assumption that psychopathic entrepreneurs and risk-takers tend to gravitate toward financial watering-holes, particularly those that are enormously lucrative and poorly regulated.” Conning comes naturally to psychopaths: even experts with years of experience interacting with them are regularly fooled. Cleckley called this expertise in impression management a “mask of sanity” (also the title of his classic book on the subject).

In communism, by contrast, Łobaczewski found this reality reversed. Practically all of society’s psychopaths integrated into the new system; the number approached 100%. It was their presence and influence that was responsible for alien, brutal, and anti-human nature of totalitarian regimes, their methods, and the surreal quality of the new system. Imagine a system of government where all of these individuals—career criminals, irresponsible freeloaders, incompetent egotists, and savvy manipulators—find themselves in positions of influence within every social institution: at all levels of government, the military, federal and local police, the courts, education, business, factories, homeowners’ associations, youth groups.

A resident of Lijiang, Yunnan, described how this looked in practice during Mao’s revolution: “All the scamps and the village bullies, who had not done a stroke of honest work in their life, suddenly blossomed forth as the accredited members of the Communist Party, and swaggered with special armbands and badges and the peculiar caps … which seemed to be the hallmark of the Chinese Red” (quoted in Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945–1957, p. 197). This process, which took place over decades in China and the USSR, was artificially reproduced in Eastern Europe over the course of about a decade after WWII.

One of the primary questions ponerology seeks to answer is what gives totalitarianism its defining “flavor,” in all its varieties. Though Nazi Germany, the USSR, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia all had important and sometimes profound differences, the similarities were significant enough that political scientists have tended to classify them all as “totalitarian.” But while the classic studies of totalitarianism have important insights, one can’t escape the feeling that they are missing something important, that they haven’t grasped the crux of the matter. It is like trying to focus on an object that remains forever in your peripheral vision—you know it is there, but can’t quite make out the details.

The common factor, according to Łobaczewski, is psychopathy, which shapes the motivations, goals, and practices of the new system (other personality disorders also play a role). Just as a personal encounter with a psychopath can leave one bewildered, terrorized, and demoralized (and broke)—especially when one does not know what exactly one has just experienced—so too does an encounter with psychopathy on the macrosocial level.

Psychopaths see and experience the world differently. They think the world owes them something—or everything—and they have zero qualms about using any and all means necessary to get what they want and keep it, whether terror, torture, murder, or extermination. If conditions don’t permit those means, they’re happy standing over the ruins of your reputation or your career. The type of world they dream about is the one where they’re in charge, not “normies” with their naïve morality, religion, tradition, and virtue. Those are for suckers. They want “freedom,” “liberation,” “equality,” “utopia,” but not in a form any normal reasonable person would imagine.

In the last century, political psychopaths used convenient ideologies like communism, fascism, and Islamism to achieve absolute power in multiple countries—ideologies with wide appeal and enough public support to carry them to the top, often unbeknownst to the naïve true believers caught up in the madness and clearing the way for them. (When the time comes, it is the true believers’ turn to be purged.) Social justice is just such an ideology. This is why it is a Trojan horse. To its critics, it is bad enough on the surface, as the ideologies themselves are simplistic, destructive, and often just plan wrong. But it’s worse than even they imagine. Such ideologies are the means by which social structures are completely destroyed and replaced by pathological caricatures.

While Łobaczewski’s description of this social disease (pathocracy, rule by the diseased) and the role of psychopathy is groundbreaking and essential for understanding totalitarianism, another feature of his work is even more important for Western society to understand at this moment: how pathocracy develops in the first place. Łobaczewski’s own initiation into the mysteries of pathocracy was unwittingly facilitated by the “new professor.” As he writes:

“He spoke with zeal, but there was nothing scientific about it: he failed to distinguish between scientific concepts and popular beliefs. He treated such borderline notions as though they were wisdom that could not be doubted. For ninety minutes each week, he flooded us with naive, presumptuous paralogistics and a pathological view of world and human affairs. We were treated with contempt and poorly controlled hatred. Since scoffing and making jokes could entail dreadful consequences, we had to listen attentively and with the utmost gravity” (Political Ponerology, ch. 5, forthcoming).

Describing the students who fell under the sway of the new professor, he writes: “They gave the impression of possessing some secret knowledge  We had to be careful of what we said to them.” Unfortunately, these descriptions are not far off from what is experienced today by students in university classes across the Western world, first within the various “studies” departments and now increasingly university-wide. The ideology of “social justice” has moved from the unscientific fringes of the academy (like feminist, gender, queer, and race studies) into the mainstream: corporations, media, entertainment, politics, the military. “Diversity, equity, and inclusion” are current ideological buzzwords of the day.

Something is happening in the Western world—something eerily familiar to the events which took their course (with variations) in the various revolutions of the twentieth century, from the Russian Revolution of 1917 to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While seeds of this process can be traced back to weaknesses and contradictions inherent in the philosophies that form the bedrock of our current sociopolitical systems, the intellectual lineage of the current social justice ideology tracks back to the postmodernism and critical theory/New Left of the 1960s and 1970s. In their book, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay describe these ideological “mutations” as follows:

“[T]hese ideas mutated, solidified, and were made politically actionable in a set of new Theories that emerged in the late 1980s and 1990s [“applied postmodernism”].  [B]eginning around 2010, [the second evolution of these ideas] asserted the absolute truth of the postmodern principles and themes [“reified postmodernism”].  This change occurred when scholars and activists combined the existing Theories and Studies into a simple, dogmatic methodology, best known simply as ‘Social Justice scholarship’” (p. 17).

Eastern Europeans living in or visiting the United States experience a troubling sense of déjà vu. Łobaczewski writes about the social climate of the USA during the 1980s: “Grey-haired Europeans living in the U.S. today are struck by the similarity between these phenomena and the ones dominating Europe at the times of their youth [i.e., pre-WWI].”

But whereas Europeans in the 1980s saw conditions in America as similar to turn-of-the-century Europe, today they see America as increasingly totalitarian and resembling life under communist ideology. In his book, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents, journalist Rod Dreher writes: “I spoke with many men and women who had once lived under communism. I asked them  Did they also think that life in America is drifting toward some sort of totalitarianism? They all said yes—often emphatically” (p. xi). The same can be said for Chinese immigrants.

Professor Ryszard Legutko’s 2016 book, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies (originally written in 2012) was one of the first to identify these tendencies in democratic countries. His first inkling came on a visit to the U.S. during the ’70s upon witnessing the “extraordinary meekness and empathy coward communism” among several liberal-democratic friends. These thoughts were renewed in the wake of 1989, when Polish anticommunists were seen as a threat to liberal democracy; and further in the ’90s through his experience working in the European Parliament—“a stifling atmosphere typical of a political monopoly.”

In philosophy professor Zbigniew Janowski’s Homo Americanus: The Rise of Totalitarian Democracy in America, he writes:

“Only few Americans seem to understand that we, here in the United States, are living in a totalitarian reality, or one that is quickly approaching it. Any visitor from a country formerly behind the totalitarian Iron Curtain quickly notices that the lack of freedom in today’s America is, in many respects, greater than what he had experienced under socialism  the behavior of today’s Americans is painfully reminiscent of the old Homo Sovieticus, and even more of the Chinese man of the period of the Cultural Revolution” (pp. 1, 12).

And on the current political climate, Dreher writes:

“In the West today, we are living under decadent, pre-totalitarian conditions. Social atomization, widespread loneliness, the rise of ideology, widespread loss of faith in institutions, and other factors leave society vulnerable to the totalitarian temptation to which both Russia and Germany succumbed in the previous century” (p. 93).

Over the last few years, observers from all parts of the political spectrum have made similar observations about the increasingly totalitarian nature of Western (particularly North American) politics and culture. Several, like Janowski, have been published by The Postil, including sociologist Mathieu Bock-Côté, political scientist Wayne Cristaudo, and humanities professor Paul Gottfried. Others include professor of international relations Angelo Codevilla, political scientist Gordon M. Hahn, mathematician James Lindsay, liberal scholar Michael Rectenwald, and feminist author Naomi Wolf.

What they are seeing is not just the emergence of totalitarianism in the West, though it is certainly that. Whether our future more resembles Huxley’s Brave New World or Orwell’s 1984 remains to be seen. Our gulags may simply be social credit house arrest. Or it may be the case that Huxley must necessarily transform into Orwell. Reading Łobaczewski suggests the latter, unless a society’s social structure, norms, religion, traditions, and institutions are strong enough to repel the assault. Unfortunately, one look at the state of such things in the West doesn’t leave much room for hope.


Harrison Koehli is a collector of obscure ideas, co-host of the MindMatters podcast, and Canadian by birth. He is currently editing a new, revised and expanded edition of Andrew Łobaczewski’s book, Political Ponerology.


The featured image shows the “Allegory of Bad Government,” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti; painted ca. 1338-1340.

Who Really Owns Polish Media?

When the Polish television market was being formed in the 1990s, the concern was to ensure that it would not be dominated from the very beginning by foreign capital, which had a huge advantage over domestic capital, which in turn was only just beginning to be organized. Another concern was that Polish society should not be colonized by foreign capital in the media. It was also important that television stations of national range should not impose on Polish society the point of view – worldview or political preferences of the capital owner.

In other words, the point was that television stations should not have a decisive influence on Polish politics (even in a strictly electoral sense), on the professed values, on the self-esteem of citizens, consumer choice, lifestyle and even aesthetic judgments. The television and radio market was subject to licensing for these reasons as well, but primarily because initially there were not enough frequencies for anyone willing and able to operate in the market. For this reason, there had to be a market regulator, which became the National Broadcasting Council (operating since April 28, 1993, and established under the Broadcasting Act of December 29, 1992).

It was the National Broadcasting Council that granted two nationwide terrestrial broadcasting concessions – to the Polsat Company in 1994 and to TVN in 1997. Both entities were backed by Polish capital. The market regulator had little or no knowledge that important people in both of these entities had links to the Communist secret services, which gave them an advantage, both in terms of raising capital (e.g. from the Foreign Debt Service Fund, which was controlled by the Communist secret services and indeed illegal under international law), and in lobbying for the licenses. While the television market was not dominated by foreign capital in the 1990s, it was influenced by people in the communist apparatus of violence and control of society. They also influenced the program mandates of the stations, including the attitude towards the past. and political sympathies and antipathies resulting precisely from the attitude towards the past.

These problems did not change when foreign capital entered TVN (Polsat remained an entity with Polish capital), because a specific program mandate shaped the TVN audience, and in this way it became a valuable asset. This also determined the zeal and temperature of the actions in defense of TVN, whenever the station was accused of representing the interests of the post-communist forces and the part of the post-Solidarity elite that was in agreement with them. The support of the influential elites and their foreign contacts and influence are also decisive in supporting and defending the interests of TVN even in ownership issues, i.e., when ownership changes violate the provisions of the Broadcasting Act regarding the limitation to 49 percent of capital from outside the European Economic Area.

Regarding the amendment to the Broadcasting Act, and indirectly its effect on the TVN television company, there is a large amount of misinformation and, above all, constant brainwashing of people on an industrial scale.
The legal background is that article 35 of the Polish Broadcasting Act of 29 December 1992 requires that radio and television broadcasting in Poland should be majority owned and controlled by entities from the EEA (European Economic Area). No more than 49 % of the shares of broadcasters in Poland may be owned by entities from outside the EU. Requirements such as this are not unique to Poland, existing, for example, in Austria and France.

The current problem with TVN starts well before today. In 2015, TVN belonged to the ITI Group and the Canal+ Group, who controlled the formal owner, the nominal subsidiary company N-Vision B.V. These two companies (ITI and Canal+) both sold the majority of the shares (52,7%) in the TVN company to the American concern Scripps Networks Interactive for 584 million EUR. On June 16, 2015, Scripps Networks Interactive received approval from the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection to take over the TVN company.

Therefore, on July 1, the ITI Group and the Canal + Group sold all their shares in the nominal holding company N-Vision B.V., which controlled 52.7 % of shares in TVN, to a company called Southbank Media Ltd, registered in London and owned by Scripps Networks Interactive. On August 28, 2015, Scripps, through Southbank Media, purchased more TVN shares from stock exchange investors, increasing its ownership to 98.76%. On September 28, 2015, Scripps bought the remaining TVN shares, becoming one hundred percent owner.

Before Scripps bought 100% of the shares, it asked whether the purchase of TVN was compliant with Polish law, because their lawyers had read the Polish Broadcasting Act and had doubts regarding art. 35. Jan Dworak (chief of Polish Broadcasting Council at the time) hesitated a bit, but decided that it was possible. However, everyone was aware of the possible non-compliance with the Polish law, hence the contract included numerous safeguards in the event of the license being revoked. Safeguards were beneficial primarily to the seller, so that he would not have to pay possible compensation.

On July 31, 2017, Discovery Communications announced that it wanted to buy Scripps Networks Interactive (for $ 14.6 billion). The Polish Office of Competition and Consumer Protection was then ignored, so on February 6, 2018, it was the European Commission that conditionally agreed to this transaction. The condition was to provide operators with the TVN24 and TVN24 BiS signal at a “reasonable price”. On February 26, 2018, the US Department of Justice approved the purchase of Scripps Networks Interactive by Discovery Communications; so, on March 6, 2018, Scripps, and thus also TVN, was acquired. And in this way, and contrary to the law, an entity from outside the European Economic Area has 100 percent shares in a television company operating in Poland.

That is the origin of the current problem. In 2015, either the National Broadcasting Council should not have allowed this transaction; or it should have requested that the parliament amend the Broadcasting Act, because it does not allow any television or radio in Poland to be fully taken over by entities from outside the European Economic Area. Dworak’s Council, however, decided that the takeover was legal and possible.

All the time, TVN is formally owned by the nominal Dutch company with an address at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam – Polish Television Holding B.V. (controlling another paper-only company from Schiphol airport – N-Vision B.V., which owns TVN shares). The nominal company was sold first to Scripps in 2015 and then to Discovery in 2018. The nominal company operates in the European Economic Area, only it is virtual, so in fact 100 percent of TVN shares are owned by a non-EEA group (first Scripps then Discovery), which is inconsistent with the Broadcasting Act of 1992.

It was only in 2021 that the National Broadcasting Council decided that this could not be the case, although the law had been bent for six years. There are many indications that the National Broadcasting Council has reacted only after reports that Discovery is to merge with Warner Media. As a result, a media giant worth 150 billion dollars would be created. Warner of course would like to continue the game started in 2015 and would like to still disregard Polish law. The amendment to the Broadcasting Act halts this situation; and because it is about a lot of money and revenues, a great battle is being fought around it. It is also about whether Poland can pursue an independent policy in the field of media. And this policy is by no means unique in Europe, and Poland is not asking for anything extraordinary. Only the respect of the existing law.

Ownership issues in TVN television are only a fraction of the problems of the Polish media market, which in many segments presents such a high level of concentration that one can speak of hegemony. A high level of concentration in Poland is deemed to exist when a single entity (capital group) reaches a 30 percent share in one of the markets: advertising revenues, revenues from pay-TV fees, TV audience, radio audience or users of online audiovisual services.

Officially, under Polish law, an entity is considered dominant when it achieves a market share of over 40 percent in a given market. Only after exceeding this threshold can the Office of Competition and Consumer Protection block further acquisitions. But in the debate on deconcentration little attention is paid to the fact that dominant broadcasters also have an advantage in the role of advertising brokers. Such as TVN and Polsat, whose advertising bureaus serve not only their thematic channels, but also other media market players. And in their role as ad brokers they often have more influence on the market than as broadcasters.

In the 1990s the Polish media market was widely opened to foreign capital, which later resulted in concentrations exceeding safe levels. This was facilitated by being careless about violations of the law on capital restrictions, e.g., in the television market. As a result, about 70% of the television market in Poland is controlled by foreign broadcasters. The largest shares are held by Americans (controlling half of all TV content), among others Discovery Communications, Viacom, Time Warner, and ITI Neovision (American-French).

In the radio market, foreign companies control about 30% of the market, but radio RMF FM, owned by German Bauer, alone has a 26% share of the audience. On the internet, Onet, owned by German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer, dominates (more than 17 million users); Interia, owned by German Bauer, is third (ca. 13 million users); TVN24, owned by American Discovery, is sixth (ca. 6 million users); and Fakt, owned by German-Swiss Ringier Axel Springer, is ninth (ca. 5.5 million users). Until recently, the websites of Polska Press Group, taken over by PKN Orlen in 2021, were also German.

The press market has been 70-75 percent dominated by foreign capital. The national press is dominated by German capital: 21 percent of titles belong to Bauer Group, 9 percent to Burda Media, 6 percent to Swiss-German Ringier Axel Springer Polska (including Fakt and Newsweek), 5 percent to Swiss Edipresse, 3 percent to Phoenix Press (German capital), 3 percent to Hearst Marquard Publishing (German capital), and 3 percent to Hearst Publishing (German capital) and Hearst Marquard Publishing (Swiss capital); 2% Egmont Polska (Danish capital). In the local press the dominance of foreign capital reaches as much as 95 percent, which significantly decreased after PKN Orlen took over the Polska Press Group, publishing 19 regional dailies and over 100 local weeklies. The publishers of the most popular monthlies and TV magazines are dominated by companies with German capital: Bauer and Burda Media. The remaining color magazines belong to Swiss capital – Edipresse Polska.

In France, no one may own more than 49 percent of the capital or voting rights in a company holding a concession for a national terrestrial television channel, if its audience exceeds 8 percent of the total audience. At the same time, the owner of the concession may not own more than 33 percent of the capital or voting rights in a local or supra-regional station. Foreign capital cannot exceed 20 percent in a company holding a terrestrial radio or television license. No license will be granted to a broadcaster reaching more than 4 million viewers, 30 million listeners, or having a 20% share in the national circulation of newspapers. If the license is not for nationwide coverage, the same entity may have only one license in the same area. No license will be granted to an entity that owns one or more terrestrial digital television stations reaching 4 million people; that owns one or more radio licenses when the program reaches 30 million inhabitants; and that is the publisher of one or more newspapers, if their share of nationwide circulation exceeds 20 percent.

In Germany, competition and concentration in the media market are regulated by the Antitrust Act. Since 1997 there has been no limit on the number of radio and television licenses held in Germany, but there are various de facto regulations between the federal states that impose restrictions. The concentration threshold is 30 percent of viewership or listenership in a specific year for the media owned. A media company that exceeds the 30 percent threshold may sell its shares, limit its market share or make its airtime available to an independent entity. The rule of 10 percent audience share for one program or 20 percent audience share for other programs applies. In individual federal states, restrictions have been placed on so-called cross concentration, i.e., investments by newspaper publishing companies in radio and television.

For example, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a company dominating the newspaper market cannot hold a majority stake in a radio or television broadcaster operating in the same area. Although there are no restrictions on foreign ownership of the media market in Germany, it is in fact a market almost entirely dominated by domestic capital. This is primarily due to tradition and practice. Although entities such as Time Warner, News Corporation, Viacom or Ufa/Canal Plus France operate in the German television market, none of them has exceeded the 1 percent market share threshold.


Stanisław Janecki, is a well-known Polish journalist, columnist, political commentator and television host.


The featured image shows, “The Girl from Zaba,” by Wlastimil Hofman; painted in 1923.

A Letter From The Women Of Afghanistan: “Please Do Not Forget Us!”

An Introduction To The Letter

In February 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement, in which it was agreed that the U.S. and NATO forces would leave Afghanistan, the Taliban would reduce violence, cut ties with Al-Qaeda and engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban have not been committed to any reduction in violence or cutting ties with other terrorist groups in the region, nor have the peace talks resulted in peace. In April 2021, president Biden announced the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan, a decision that made other NATO members also withdraw their forces. The withdrawal of the American and NATO forces is almost complete. This further emboldened the Taliban.

Since April, Afghanistan has seen an alarming rise in conflict and violence, the result of which has been mass displacement, unprecedented civilian casualties, and severe economic damage to the already struggling country. After seizing about half of all the 420 districts, the Taliban advanced towards the city centers, attacking areas near airports. Now, of the 34 city centers, six have fallen to the Taliban. Herat and Kandahar airports have remained closed for several days, making travel from these zones to Kabul impossible.

Previously, Afghan forces had the support of the US and NATO forces. But now they continuously face shortage of water, food, ammunition, and the necessary logistic support they need to carry on the fight against the Taliban. As the Taliban rapidly took over districts and revived their harsh Islamic Sharia, civilians left their homes and moved to the major cities, such as Herat in the west, Kabul in the center and Mazar-e Sharif in the south. The families internally displaced into the big cities are facing a food shortage, as they cannot go back to their original provinces, neither can they continue to live in bigger cities where they have ended up living in the streets and temporary tents.

The UN reported in July a 47 percent increase in civilian casualties in the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020. Women, girls and children are the ones paying the highest price of the ongoing war. The same UN report indicates an 82 percent increase in women casualties in the first six months of 2021. According to the Ministry of Education of Afghanistan, 176 schools have been destroyed in the last few months, depriving more children from getting an education.

In the areas currently captured by the Taliban, the group’s fighters have not only banned women and girls’ access to education, work and health services, but have also subjected women and girls to inhumane and degrading treatment. There are reports by Kabul-based newspapers that in the non-Pashtun areas, Taliban fighters have used sexual violence and jihad-ul Nikah – a phrase apparently used first by ISIS fighters in Iraq— referring to sexual violence and abuse of women and treating them as property and reward for jihad. There are dozens of videos circulating on social media showing the Taliban fighters flogging women in public for not wearing a Burqa and not being accompanied by a male member. Many of the displaced families say the reason for their fleeing their homes is the fear that their female members could be treated in a degrading way by the Taliban or even being taken away by the jihadist fighters. Some feared the Taliban would force their male children to be recruited as Taliban fighters, which is yet another reason thousands of families left their original districts and moved to the cities.

As the situation is getting worse in Afghanistan, a number of women and girls, mostly from or currently based in Herat City, under attack by the Taliban, spoke about their worries and fears when the Taliban return, and what they think the international community could do to protect women and their rights in Afghanistan. To safeguard their identities, the names of those who participated have been changed to pseudonyms.


We are a group of women writing from Herat, a very ancient city, founded by Alexander the Great, and famous for its beauty, its monuments and parks, which will turn into a prison to us. The Taliban control all the districts of our province. They have closed the border with Iran, and so we can escape neither by road nor by air because the airport is closed.

All the cities of our country are besieged by the Taliban who control the rest of the territory. Many people want to escape from the cities, because of the gunfire and the bombardment. But they cannot escape; and [those who came from districts and villages to the cities in search of safety] must now live in the streets and in temporary tents. The people will soon run out of food supply, and the army out of food and ammunition.

In the Taliban-controlled áreas, 176 schools are already closed. The Taliban have prohibited girls’ education, and many of those over 15 have been subjected to forced marriage. The Taliban distribute women as war loot, violate and flog them in public. The boys are forcibly recruited as child-soldiers. This will be the destiny that await us if our city falls into their hands.

Therefore, before our voices go silent and our faces disappear, we want to send you these messages, hiding our real names, so that we not disappear into oblivion forever.

Sara from Bamyan, “I am worried about my three daughters. We have nowhere to go. People say, ‘When the Taliban took the Saighan and Kahmard districts of Bamian, they forcibly entered people’s homes and searched for women’s clothing to find out about the number of females in each home.’ They [the Taliban] have been reported to take women and young girls forcibly with them. I wish rather that my daughter die in a dignified way, than to be taken into the hands of the Taliban.”

Amina, 28, journalist from Herat, who escaped Afghanistan to Europe in 2020, “I am in Europe safe, but with every bad news I am deeply shaken. I cannot sleep, neither can I focus on anything. I am neither alive nor dead. I feel ashamed and useless.”

Roya, 23, student at Herat University, “The only thing the Taliban were remembered for was violence and inhumane treatment of women. Once again, the Taliban are today becoming part of our painful realities of life. The international community needs to realize that if the Taliban are not stopped now, there will come a moment the international community will regret.”

Marjan, 19, student of fine arts, Herat, “Recently, I have read the book, The Last Girl, by Nadia Murad [the Yazidi human rights activist and co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize]. What Nadia has narrated about the horrible crimes committed by ISIS in Iraq is quite similar to the way the Taliban fighters are evolving, particularly the Taliban’s enslaving of women and girls, which the Islamists call, ‘jihad-ul Nikah.’ I think the international community, particularly the US and other free countries who value women rights, should rethink the Taliban and decide between a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and enslavement of around 16 million women and girls, or stopping the terrorist group of the Taliban.”

Elham, 21, student of economics at a private university, Herat “A Taliban return would damage the already poor economy of the country. The Taliban are skilled in committing atrocities, but they don’t know how to run a country. The international community must not leave Afghanistan on its own; the least they should do is put all possible pressure on the Taliban and stop them, before they establish themselves as a state. Because then the world will have to deal with one more terrorist state.”

Tamana Begum, 24, school teacher, Herat, “If the Taliban are not stopped, I fear I might have to take all my dreams with me to the grave. The world must know that Afghan women have not been responsible for conducting any wars, but have always been victims of war, conflict and violence carried out by men.”

Sahar, 26, “With the Taliban advancing towards the cities, and hearing about the group’s degrading treatment of women, I can barely fall asleep. If the terrorist group enters the cities, I fear they might kill a family member, they might flog me in public for wearing sport shoes or for not wearing a burka. I don’t know what to ask the world to do for Afghanistan.”

Safia, 26, Bamyan, “I have been studying for over 16 years. I have the dream of becoming a university professor someday, but a Taliban return would mean I would have to be imprisoned inside the home and die gradually. The world must not ignore the threat the Taliban pose for women.”

Hava, 25, Herat, “I kindly request the decision-makers of the countries who supported Afghanistan in the last two decades, those who value human rights and women rights to watch the documentary ‘Behind the Veil’ [ ] by Saira Shah and think of each of the number of the civilian dead as a human worthy of a life of dignity, just like their own citizens. Then decide what to do with the Taliban. We know the Afghan state is paying the price of its two decades of flexibility with the terrorist group of the Taliban. But think of the many millions of women who have not had any role in waging this meaningless war and violence, but are affected by it the most.”

Angela, 18, high school student, “Every day when I wake up, the first thing I think of is doing my taekwondo exercise to one day represent Afghanistan in the Olympics. Thousands of other girls have similar dreams similar to mine, and I want the world, particularly the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, to imagine a situation in which a group enters his city by force and makes announcements on radio, TV and the internet that from a certain date on, his children cannot go to school, neither can they follow their dreams of becoming someone they want. What would you think would be best thing to do with such a group?”

Khatera, 26, “I am a woman. I am a Hazara. I run a small business. I hold a degree in sociology. Each of what I am is a problem, a sin and a crime according to the Taliban. That is the case with millions of other women. As I have to take care of my old mother and cannot leave Afghanistan, a Taliban takeover would mean the end of all my dreams and plans, and even my life. What I want the international community, and the countries who value women and human rights, is that they rethink everything about Afghanistan and the Taliban. I want the international community to think of the situation in which they say, ‘We could have prevented all these atrocities and crimes perpetuated by the Taliban, but we walked away.”

Fatima, 30, history teacher at a school, Herat, “After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the country experienced a bloody civil war, and when the Taliban took power from 1996-2001, thousands of men were already killed, leaving thousands of women widowed. The Taliban banned work for women. Poverty and hunger forced many women to engage in prostitution under the most inhumane conditions. Those involved in prostitution were arrested and stoned in public spaces, mostly on Fridays in stadiums. I am afraid this history will repeat. I think the Taliban must be stopped before it is too late.”

We are Sara, Amirna, Roya, Marjan, Elham, Tamna begum, Sahar, Safia, Hava, Angela, Khatera, and Fatima.

We are somehow sure that no one can help us – but, please, remember that we too were living once. When we have disappeared into silence, please, reread what remains of our thoughts and out feelings.

Herat, Afghanistan, August, 2021.


The featured image shows an untitled piece by an Afghan woman artist. The name on the painting is illegible. If anyone knows the identity of this piece and its painter, please let us know.

Afghanistan: The Allies’ House Of Cards

The Taliban’s sweeping advance and the collapse of the state of Afghanistan surprised almost everyone, including some military commanders who did not realize that each war is different from all the previous ones and that doctrines in practice can be useless in the face of new realities. The military tends to have a conservative mentality, not only politically, but in their own profession. That is logical, because war is an extreme situation from all points of view; and to be able to face great dangers it is necessary to have the certainty of method to defeat the enemy, or at least not to lose one’s life, and to be able to withdraw at the right moment.

Strategists, and public opinion, which often has a plausible vision of what war is, thanks to good war movies, believe that the core of war is the battle, or the succession of battles. A battle is a confrontation of two armies in a scenario in which victory and defeat are decided. Battles may be in the open field, in a war of tactics, or in the capture of a city. Each battle depends on the number of soldiers in each army, their armament, or firepower (literally, rifles and artillery), but also on who is in charge of the command and the will of the troops not to retreat, to attack the enemy and to take casualties.

After the Second World War, the land-battle model was the confrontation of mobile units, armored or not, maneuvering in coordination with artillery and air forces, which can decide combat at certain moments, destroying armored vehicles, artillery or infantry. The problem is that, as John Keegan rightly pointed out in his book, The Face of Battle, the increase in mobility and firepower has made it almost impossible to conceive of gigantic mechanized confrontations (as was the battle of Kursk in World War II, in which German and Soviet armored vehicles annihilated each other by the thousands) in order to speak of the end of battles.

We conceive the capture of a city in the same way as a battle. In a city like Stalingrad, an army is entrenched, and others attack it with artillery, aviation and infantry. The result is that, first of all, the besieged city becomes a fortress of trenches in its ruins, and its capture is much more difficult. The bombardment of cities during World War II served almost no purpose, neither from the military nor from the economic point of view, as historians and military men have recognized. The Americans and the British invented “massive saturation bombing,” which consisted of drawing a huge area around the city and razing it to the ground like a steamroller. Such bombings serve no purpose, except to destroy indiscriminately and kill civilians, as happened also in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are also wars without battles, without fronts, in which the military doctrine is useless, if it is not revised and the war converted into something else. We are talking about guerrilla warfare, fought almost exclusively by the infantry. General Norman Schwarzkopf, who won the First Gulf War in a series of battles to annihilate the Iraqi army, thanks to his air, artillery and logistical superiority, but who actually lost it, as he himself admits, because he was ordered to save Saddam Hussein and allow the withdrawal of Saddam’s elite units, the Republican Guard, at the last moment, in order not to favor the expansion of Iran, as he states in his biography.

When he came to Vietnam, as an infantry lieutenant colonel, he found a unit lacking in discipline, but one which was excellently armed and provisioned. The standard drink for his soldiers was Coca Cola; they were served ice cream for dessert and drug use was quite widespread and allowed by looking the other way. This was because in Vietnam, one out of three soldiers fought in units that were usually no larger than a company. They were replacement soldiers, 18 or 19 years old, serving for one year, who had neither the solidarity of their comrades nor of their officers. Those who were about to be discharged ridiculed the rookies. Only soldiers who had survived a few battles, as in other wars, tended to survive. In the Battle of the Bulge, the average life of a soldier who had just arrived at the front was less than 14 hours; and the same thing happened in Vietnam with rookie soldiers and officers. A rookie officer did not survive more than two days; and the killing of officers, simulated as a fall in combat, was very frequent in Vietnam, as in other wars.

Schwarzkopf says that he would have liked rather to be in command of the Vietcong. A Vietcong soldier survived in the jungle by carrying a cloth tube full of raw rice that he cooked every day. As he knew how to hunt and fish, he did not need to carry more food. And he had the support of the local population, or he could demand it from them with little effort. And above all, the General points out, he had a cause to defend – his country, and so he could face the horrors of hand-to-hand combat.

The American infantryman, who would spend one or two weeks in the jungle, in a war in which the number of classic battles was minimal, left with a kit weighing about 35 kilos: his rifle, the ten standard magazines that he supplemented with as many in cartridge cases, grenades, food and other supplies needed to survive those days. In addition, as their new weapon, the M-16 failed, the soldiers ended up being allowed to carry weapons of their choice. All this to enter an unknown terrain, inhabited by peasants whom they could not know whether they were hostile or not, and who they had come to defend. This often unsurety often led to many surprises. In an effort not be face such surprises, the Americans resorted to destroying entire villages, or razing them to the ground by requesting air support from their superior officers. In Vietnam, for example, no colonel was killed in combat. and because of all this, the soldiers came to the conclusion that they were fighting a dirty and senseless war, which would end in a resounding defeat.

Something similar has happened in Afghanistan. The military commanders did not get to know the country. They did not encourage the study of local languages, but used interpreters, which can be very dangerous in a country with fourteen ethnic groups, and a country which is also very extensive, more or less the size of Spain, with a very high elevation, and fragmented by large mountains. A country without railroads, highways, navigable rivers and few airports, which meant that entire areas were never penetrated by western troops, because of disinterest or inability.

The occupiers, instead, focused on cities and created static defense systems, from large bases to fortified forward posts. This allowed the movement of militias, such as, the Taliban, through an unknown country. As Afghanistan is an agrarian country based on irrigation, the population is concentrated in the large valleys, or lives scattered in small groups among the mountains. In this scenario there were hardly any battles, and when they took place, as in Tora Bora, the infantry soldiers were Afghans, who had about 80,000 dead, in a war that brought the Taliban more than 84,000 casualties and thousands of prisoners. The western dead did not reach 4000, although there were thousands of wounded and casualties of post-traumatic stress, more than a third, as in Vietnam.

The Allies abused their firepower, especially in the air, which caused, as in other wars, dozens of innocent victims, and undermined the support of the population. For the allies, the war was ruinous, both economically (because they had to import everything) and militarily. They invested 2.2 trillion dollars (the USA alone). But that money generated gigantic flows of corruption among companies, the army and the local government. The local-created army was poorly armed, with light infantry brigades, without tanks in its tank units; and furthermore, it was divided among the zones of the country, creating territorial defense units for each of them, but not a powerful maneuver force.

Under these conditions, when a country that was never controlled, even though it benefited from major improvements in education, health, women’s rights, economy, technology and communications, is corrupted from head to toe, at all levels of the army and the civil service, the house of cards begins to shake. The army intelligence units were infiltrated by the Taliban, whose sympathizers increased among the population. These units believed that they could save themselves by grasping at straws. So, there was no need for big battles. The Taliban could not be annihilated because the Afghan army lacked adequate air and artillery resources.

The Taliban were allowed to take over a rural environment, which the politicians never bothered about. And so, given a decayed government, it was only a matter of waiting for it to fall under its own weight, to give birth to a new rural country, with a minimal state, and one ready to become a colony producing raw materials: lithium, copper, uranium, agricultural and livestock products, at the service of the colonial powers that will take over from the Allies, such as, China, Pakistan, Iran or the new Russia, which will probably recognize the new Afghan state, in the face of impotence, bordering on the ridiculous, of the USA and the European Union.


José Carlos Bermejo Barrera is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain). He has published numerous books in the fields of mythology and religions of classical antiquity and the philosophy of history. Among these are The Limits of Knowledge and the Limits of Science, Historia y Melancolía, El Gran Virus. Ensayo para una pandemia, and most recently, La política como impostura y las tinieblas de la información. He has published numerous works in academic journals, such as History and Theory; Quaderni di Storia, Dialogues d’Histoire Ancienne, Madrider Mitteilungen. He is a regular contributor to the daily press.


The featured image shows an untitled piece by Jahan Ara Rafi, painted in 2013.