The Sacrifice For Civilization: A Conversation With Wayne Cristaudo

This month, we are highly honored to have a conversation with Professor Wayne Cristaudo, philosopher, author, and educator, who has published over a dozen books. He speaks with Dr. Zbigniew Janowski about the predominance, in the West, of idea-brokers, metaphysical rebels and triumph of ideational narratives over life itself. Professor Cristaudo aptly points to the great malaise of the West – its fervent addiction to bad ideas.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with something that my Canadian colleague said to me when I arrived to teach in Canada—in Halifax—20 years ago. “We are Americans without being arrogant and British without being boastful.” Having never been to Canada before, I was under the impression that Canada is very much like the US.

Then I discovered – or at least what I discovered in Nova Scotia, which is very patriotic, somewhat provincial and certainly less cosmopolitan than the rest of the country – that they value their British roots, which defines their national identity. Most of my colleagues were educated at Cambridge, are Anglican, the system of education – tutorials – is much more like in the UK than in America, the city looks like small British towns, and Canadian flags used to hang on many houses, probably to stress their “independence” from the US. In this part of Canada, Britishness is still, or used to be 20 years ago, part of their identity.

As an Australian, someone from a former British colony, can you say that Australians feel like my Canadian colleague?

Wayne Cristaudo (WC): When speaking of Australians, the same kind of cleavages that are occurring elsewhere in the West between tertiary educated elites and more traditionally minded people, plus demographic changes due to immigration, make it hard to generalize.

David Goodhart in his The Road to Somewhere – largely an attempt to explain Brexit, but also the election of Donald Trump – speaks of two classes today: the “Anywheres,” – i.e. those who are largely free to work and live anywhere and whose sense of identity is bound up with their global opportunities and their own “progressive” values; and the “Somewheres,” those whose location and sense of place and national heritage matters, as they see their localities and values undergoing radical transformations.

This later group also sees itself as having lost the cultural and economic wars. My friend Bob Catley, in response to Goodhart, added that this is something of a misnomer, as the “somewheres” are now the “nowheres;” that is, their world is being destroyed daily.

In Australia, I think those who strongly identify with Britain are now in a minority, as the number of immigrants from non-British backgrounds has risen dramatically in the last few decades. When there was a referendum on Australia becoming a republic some 20 years back, the republican model was rejected. But this was not because of love for the “old mother country,” but because the majority did not like the proposed model that had come out of a publicly funded (ostensibly) representative “elite” forum.

Nevertheless, it is true that Australians would probably rather lose to anyone (New Zealand not included) besides England in any sporting event. We are, though, a deeply fractured society and so appeals to unity tend to ring hollow – as hollow as our terrible national anthem which almost no one can sing through to its bitter end. Like most other Western countries, Australian identity is secondary to some other feature when it comes to political disputation.

ZJ: Canada is part of the Commonwealth, just like Australia. On the Canadian dollar one can see a beautiful image of the British Queen. On the other side of the Canadian dollar, we find a loon. I used to tell my liberally-minded Canadian friends, jokingly, don’t think of seceding from the Crown. Why – they would ask? Because you will have to replace the Queen with another loon, a bear, or a bird.

Australians have the Queen, too, and a kangaroo. This sounds facetious, to be sure, but it touches on the problem of national identity. Cultural identity cannot be rooted in nature. Even Thoreau, who lived in the wilderness and praised nature, was a cultured man, who loved the Classics. In his Walden there is a beautiful chapter on education, in which he urges Americans to read the Greeks.

Do you see any similarities in the cultural and political predicament between Canada and Australia relative to your attachment to the British Crown? Or does the geography of Canada (as a U.S. neighbour) and yours – a continent – and different history (no Royalists [or, United Empire Loyalists] who fled to Canada after the 1776 rebellion) make a difference? For one, you do not seem to feel the same pressure that Canadians do to be more “American,” and thus, having your cultural affinities imposed on you.

WC: While I really have no idea if French Canadians feel any particular cultural connection with Britain, Australia does not have the American neighbour syndrome. As for being free to choose our identity, I think that while Australian tertiary educated people are frequently anti-USA – the USA being seen as the imperialist country which creates wars wherever it goes – it seems to me that the same class of people, especially those who are Australian ideas-brokers, take up every liberal-progressive position that is pushed by, and invariably formulated by, US ideas-brokers in the same professions. That is, our academicians, journalists, teachers, et. al. can be relied upon to repeat and vociferously defend any idea that has gained narrative traction amongst progressives in the US. Ultimately this should not be surprising.

Any collective is a collective because of the stories and experiences it shares. The U.S.-led globalisation of stories through Hollywood, Netflix etc., and the normative appeals that are characteristic of those stories, plays a huge part in how people now understand themselves. So, I don’t really see identity as a matter of choosing or not choosing, but as what people identify with, and presume. And what is occurring is that where narratives are shared and replicated, as part of daily social reproduction, common ways of talking, similar presumptions, expectations, habits (i.e., similar features of identification) are formed.

For example, the elite in Australia see Donald Trump in exactly the same way as the readers of the “New York Times” or humanities students in elite universities in the USA. At the same time, the people who voted for Brexit and the people who voted for Donald Trump have a great deal in common because they have experienced a very similar kind of loss with respect to their more traditionally based social and economic place in the world.

Interestingly, though, early nationalist theorists such as Herder held that the nation was commensurate with a more tolerant and (dare I use this term) enlightened and cosmopolitan world. Membership of a nation meant that one could connect with others through initially bonding around shared stories, experiences, sentiments, tastes, loyalties and commitments, and only after that would one be in a position to form further bonds of solidarity with others. The older notion of nationhood takes for granted that members of a nation are very different in the roles they must play and the sacrifices they must make. So, a nation bonds the different into a greater unity.

The contemporary anti-nationalist, on the other hand, sees identities as based on the will, and the body itself based on the will (sexual/gender fluidity, for example); and what really matters – indeed the only thing that matters – is that the principle of emancipation is adhered to.

Conversely, one has a stake in the future because one can demonstrate that one is of the oppressed and hence a contributor to the great emancipation. Of course, this is the triumph of the abstract – there is absolutely no need to understand people as complex characters in order to think like this. And indeed, most people I know who think like this are completely lacking in psychological acumen, historical and genuine cultural sensitivity.

ZJ: When I taught in Canada, part of the program was WWI poetry. I vividly remember teaching a poem by Wilfred Owen, which I would like to quote here: It is a poem you know: “Dulce et Decorum Est:”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. -
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The poem is very timely in a perverse way. We live in times when nationalism is under attack, thought of as evil; patriotism is ridiculed; globalism is the new faith – but it is a faith of someone who is attached neither to his country, his religion, his civilization, or his culture. In fact, it is a faith of someone who has neither fatherland nor culture. All kinds of semi-ideologies, like climate-change, vegetarianism, etc., have become an ersatz for cultural identification.

The last line of the poem seems to ridicule or question the idea that goes back to the Romans and the Greeks.

When I taught this poem in 2001, the Canadian students were somewhat divided about the idea, about it being a lie to die for one’s country. However, one student – whose parents I knew rather well, a very old Nova Scotian family – blurted out: “I have no intention of going to war and dying for American IBM or the Canadian Postal Service; we had Royal Post and now we have a big nothing that does not even deliver mail on time.”

I thought it was an interesting answer. It expresses a deep human sentiment – the need to be attached to national symbols, country. Even death has cultural ramifications. People want to have a reason to die; they do not want to die as cogs in some global machinery – needlessly, senselessly. What is your take on it? Are Australians similarly minded, or are they going to go to war to die for Starbucks, and dying for Starbucks or Amazon is the new truth, whereas pro patria mori to gain glory is “The old Lie?”

WC: I think my last answer anticipated this question somewhat. So, let me leap ahead again and address what I think is the really important aspect of your question. As you have gathered, I am not at all comfortable trying to speak about Australian-ness as if I were somehow a representative of it, or as if it were some sort of essence. Its meaning is very loose and mutable. And, as far as I can tell, in so far as it exists today, I think it is largely limited to the “somewheres,” though the “anywheres” might support their one national team in sports such as cricket, rugby, soccer, the Olympics, etc.

The following example is pertinent. Recently, a Christian rugby player (one of the few star players in our national team) lost his contract because he tweeted that liars, adulterers, drunkards, homosexuals and others were going to Hell and he called for them to repent. He had violated some ethical code that the sponsors (Qantas) had dreamed up. Of course, it was not the adulterers, liars, drunkards who were offended, but the gay lobby group. The country was deeply divided – and the irony was delicious.

Most of the “anywheres” wanted him sacked because what he said was “hateful,” yet few of them actually believe in “Hell;” most of those who supported him were “somewheres,” and many were not Christians, but simply did not like a corporation having so much power, and they also don’t like the idea of their jobs being reliant upon not being allowed to express their opinions.

The “anywheres” present themselves as defenders of the minorities and marginalized, which means they put gays, “people of colour” (so all non-whites can be treated as oppressed), and Muslims all in the same box. I very much doubt that if the rugby player had been Muslim, he would have lost his contract. It would have gone into the “too hard to deal with” basket.

The globalist or elite understanding of identity requires simplifications which fit the larger narration of their idea of a better world, and that is somehow (inanely) supposed to bring together (non-European, and non-Christian) traditions and culture with modern sexual freedom and gender (now non-binary) roles. But the more archaic understanding of identity was based upon more primordial aspects of collective suffering and sacrifice, founding and forming.

The ancients knew that life is sacrificial – and the ritual of sacrifice is a figurative display of one of the most primordial truths of human existence – collective life requires of people that they yield something of themselves to the collective, and each member plays a role – those roles are not equal, of course. How could they be?

Equality is abstract; our original divisions of labour are driven by real problems not abstract ones – someone must grow the food, someone must stop others from making raids, someone must pray that the gods support us, someone must judge and so forth. Each kind of sacrifice has a specific value, and pay-off – warriors have weapons and extract from the food supply, but they risk their lives; food producers have security but are vulnerable. Life is not a geometrical puzzle composed of equal parts.

ZJ: So are you saying that the pre-modern understanding of the sacrificial dimension of social life has been replaced by a more abstract understanding that makes life more manageable?

WC: Exactly. The abstract nature of modern appeals goes hand in hand with an approach to social life generating leaders/elites who have to justify their authority: they are moral paragons who know all that needs to be known, and they will “save” us all by educating us to think just like them. But who wants to sacrifice themselves for a world that is part Brave New World (sex/ drugs/ infantile distractions and self-absorption) and 1984 (complete conformity down to what one thinks or thought twenty years ago)?

The world that is supposed to be totally emancipated will become the most slavish society ever; and the irony is that it will do so largely because the modern elite have no understanding of the sacrificial nature of existence – for our contemporary ruling class, sacrifice always means oppression.

The archaic and pre-Westphalian “people” or nation was a collective formed across generations, in which roles enabled different groups to operate upon, and open up, different “fronts” of the real: it identified with a certain history and destiny, and hence is as apposite as it is for tribes, cities or empires.. The nation in this sense is a source of collective sustenance; and as such it commands sacrificial service. To be sure, because something is held together by its sacrifices does not mean that those sacrifices may not be in vain, nor that there was never cruelty, or “oppression.”

Let me also tie this together with the point you make about what the young may be willing to die for – not, say, Starbucks, or a bank. We know that humans are quite ready to throw their lives away for something they believe in. And as I said, people generally seem to need to serve something higher than themselves. For a lot of people today it is climate – and there is a faith in the earth as our mother; and if we but treat her well she will treat us well.

This is a good illustration of the polytheistic nature of the modern – but this is all concealed because we use what Vico identified as demotic, rather than poetic language. And hence we make issues around climate a matter of “science,” reinforced by ideology and mechanisms of political authority.

So, the way I see it is that it is the spiritual hunger that is driving the various progressive/utopian narratives – and these are, in turn, shored up institutionally and economically, so that those who learn the narratives and share the spirit will become the priests, and their narratives become the prayers that the rest of us are meant to live and swear by.

But those whose economic agency and social existence is not at all nourished by this god, and this priest-class, look back to what has provided nourishment from the past – and that is the more traditional forms of communal solidarity: family, workplace, church, and the nation. But, sadly, for them and perhaps for us all, the fracture is so great that I do not think repair is possible.

ZJ: Let me ask you a related question about death. Albert Camus wrote the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which opens with a strange idea: There is one, and only one, philosophical problem – that is, suicide. I was always puzzled by it. Here is someone in the middle of the 20th-century, who claims that the entire effort of Western civilization was pointless unless it addressed this one question. Accordingly, only a few thinkers would qualify to do philosophy in this sense: Pascal, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, particularly his Dream of a Ridiculous Man. None of them, let’s note, figure in history of philosophy books.

Camus goes on to say that the question is whether it makes sense to go on living. In other words—Does life make sense? And he answers by saying that there are only two ways, of which the Don Quixote way is the only solution. What he means by it is that we have to invent sense. I like the Don Quixote metaphor. What happens in the novel is that Don Quixote wants to revive chivalry, an ancient, medieval way of life. He fights with windmills, glorifies a woman from low background by elevating her, in his imagination, to the status of a lady. Everybody is laughing, thinking that he has lost his mind, and to indulge him in his insanity; everybody plays the game. However, as they play the game, they get caught up in living in his world – the world of imagination.

One way of applying it to Camus is that only by elevating our status as human beings through imagination which creates values. Can we elevate ourselves without thinking about dying a senseless death? Do you think that what I said can be translated into contemporary social or political categories of national culture, patriotism, of defending oneself against the onslaught of globalist ideology, which leaves people helpless and contemplating death because they see nothing to live for? The suicide rate in the US went up 30 per cent or so in the last 10 years, and it is highest among young people.

WC: I love Camus – and it was very wise of him to make suicide a central issue, though the importance of collective suicide is something, I think, he addresses in The Rebel, a book I admire even more than the Myth of Sisyphus because it provides one of the most important diagnoses of the rise of totalitarian philosophies and politics.

At the heart of the book is the idea of metaphysical or cosmic rebellion, which I think is his greatest idea. Metaphysical rebellion is the defiance of life itself that involves resorting to absolutist abstract ends such as freedom, equality, justice, identity (the Nazis) which can never be actualized but which pull us ever further into violence and murder.

Camus compares this with rebels who make a pact to improve their specific lot and know that sacrifice and murder will be part of the deal – but in the knowledge of what they are doing, they bond together around the limit of their pursuit for overthrowing a specific group of people who are doing very specific acts of injustice. This is very different from someone saying that an entire system is unjust and that one must destroy the system/totality and replace it with a new one based upon perfect principles.

Metaphysical rebels – which is what the modern intelligentsia largely are – do not own up to their murderous incitements or deeds, and they find their absolution in the perfection of their ends which exist in such stark opposition to the world that they make.

I think it is also pertinent to your observation about Don Quixote. Cervantes is another great critic of modernity, who sees essential features of it and hence consequences for the modernization of humanity at the moment of modernity’s birth. His imagined world has a depth of meaning that the mundane world has lost – and it has lost it because it has sapped the inner resources of the imagination by constraining them in such a way that they are either directed to technique or technology, or entertainment and art.

Nietzsche saw the problem of nihilism, but he thought he could manufacture a myth that would make life for the strong worth living (“the eternal recurrence”). I think this is another symptom of the insane hybris of modern thinkers who think their scanty and threadbare ideas – their little bit of learning suffices to make a world (again, Descartes springs to mind, with the World being the title of his posthumously published magnum opus, though he limited himself to the natural world).

It would be a very good thing if people stopped revering intellectuals and operated from the basis that none of us know very much. One reason I like monotheism is that it accepts our need to divinize and serve, but also restricts it to one power. I am astounded, for example, by how little Marx and Nietzsche knew, compared, say, to Herder, who seems to have never stopped finding out stuff – not that I know that much, but my point is that none know that much compared to the infinite quantity of what there is to know.

ZJ: Since you mentioned Descartes, the question arises – his mechanical model of the world and man, his nature, whose operations can be explained in scientific terms, does not make room for values?

WC: Modern myths are really “make believe” and they are predicated upon conscious decisions. I think pre-modern myths work exactly in the opposite way, which is why pre-modern myths are so fecund and modern ones so narrow and limited in their social appeal. This also relates to the other part of your question about national culture and globalism. National culture was a name after it was a fact, or rather an amalgam of practices, commitments, processes, appeals, symbols etc. long before there was such a thing as “nationalism.”

Thus, it was that when nationalism became a coherent ideology, it required retrieving a past and its symbols as powers for intensifying the solidarity that was already there in a particular collective formation – people felt part of something before they gave a name to what they were doing and had been done. The nation was actual before there was nationalism; nationalism, though, was invoked to overthrow powers that could be identified as serving other national or imperial interests. (Of course, the modern nation and modern nationalism also introduced novel political elements which were part of the great transfer of power between political elites).

Typically today academics see something like the nation as a confirmation of their belief that societies are constructed – the presumption being that they can create/ construct the kind of society they want. I think they confuse what it is they are doing and want to achieve with what other people before them have done. They focus upon intention, and completely miss the vast array of world-making that simply happens and is neither conscious nor intended.

ZJ: Once, in our private conversation, you mentioned Allan Bloom’s book, The Closing of the American Mind. The Great Books Program, of which Bloom was a great defender goes back a hundred years. if I am not mistaken, Harvard University Press or the University of Chicago Press were the first to introduce a set of readings – books – that every American should read. The Great Books Program became a standard of education in the US.

Bloom’s Closing started a furious debate over Western civilization in the States. Even Jesse Jackson, not known for his learning of Western Classics, said, “hi, hi, ho, ho Western Culture’s got to go.” It’s gone. The consequence – serious education disappeared from American college campuses, which became a mecca of cultural barbarism.

Here are a few questions. What kept Americans together, what formed national glue, was the reading of Great Books—the European Classics, which kept them close to Europe in the 20th-century.

What kept, or still keeps Australians (culturally) together? How did you ensure the sense of European identity in Australia?

WC: Let me first say something about Great Books in general, their importance and Bloom, then the US and lastly Australia.

I have taught the great books ever since I started academic life. One course that I taught for many years at the University of Adelaide had the title, “Great Ideas of Western Civilization;” another “Great Ideas in Literary Texts.” (Though the problems that have come to light with Australian universities wanting to stop, or undermine, the attempt to introduce courses in Western Civilization by the Paul Ramsey Foundation, indicates that, in many campuses, I might not be able to run courses with such titles today).

The reason I taught these books is that for a book to be considered great, it has to have had a great impact. The greatest, say, the Bible, the Koran or the Iliad have been people/nation-forming. The next greatest have been human-type forming. And finally, less impactful, but still important, the genre or subject forming or developing. Socrates and Plato formed a new human-type (the philosopher). Of course, the Pre-Socratics are their precursors in this project. Aristotle does not do that, but he certainly improves and contributes to philosophical ideas in a “great” way: One simply cannot talk about the Middle Ages without talking about the Medieval university and scholasticism – and as soon as one talks of them, one must speak of Aristotle. For Aquinas, Aristotle was simply referred to as “the philosopher.”

A great book is not just a matter of quality. This is where I think Harold Bloom got it wildly wrong and why his book on the Western Canon ends up as a list that exponentially increases because there are more and more people writing and a lot of it is very good. In some cases, the literary quality of a great book may have nothing to do with its greatness. Goethe’s Faust is a great book in its depiction of the modern predicament. But as a work of literature it is terrible – poorly cobbled together (over a life-time), haphazard, and containing episodes of very uneven quality, ding-dong poetry, etc. But none of that matters. To be greatly crafted and even imagined does not mean a work is canonical.

While Harold Bloom makes too much of literary qualities when it comes to great or canonical works, Alan Bloom makes another kind of mistake – though he is so much better than most of his critics who were just ideologues. Alan Bloom (in this he is just like his teacher, Leo Strauss) treats the great books on the basis of their perennial character. Like Strauss, he detests relativism and historicism. I don’t want to go into the grain of the arguments concerning historicism. And as for relativism, I think it is just a very unhelpful word, and I am suspicious of the way that disputes, where the details matter, become cordoned off into an “-ism.”

But what Alan Bloom and Strauss (to those who read German, this pairing of teacher and student is pretty amusing) tend to do is make of their student homo perennial as well as the book. So, once they start engaging with Plato or Machiavelli or Rousseau, you also find yourself caught up in the American constitution as well as arguments that ultimately require you to give yourself over to how Alan Bloom or Strauss see the world, which is ostensibly very reasonable, and which ostensibly owes so much to Plato or whoever. All sense of “growth,” of collective engagement and lessons that transpire over time and across the ages, that arise from very different kinds of circumstances and ways of world-making is simply brushed aside as “historicism.”

I don’t like this at all, because I think their students are usually very weak in their ability to enter more closely into other worlds and deal with problems that are not their problems, but which if they took seriously might considerably broaden their horizons, and their imagination and their capacity for empathy as well as their appreciation of human and collective nature and development. I have always found Straussians somewhat like Marxists. Girard tends to attract similar types: they all think what they know is essentially what they need to know.

So, Great Books – yes, great. But their point – for readers of today – is not merely to draw us into one person’s take on the real – no matter how brilliant. Rather such works serve as entrances into worlds far beyond what we think we know. They are revelations, founding acts of creation, as well as entrances into the creation of a new “world.” And one must realize how much contestation is going on within them, and how they are an opening to a great array of circumstances and problems and points of view, and they do not spare us our own tribulations and need for resourcefulness. There is no human master whose feet we can sit at while supping forever off their words. Life is one great trial after another.

ZJ: How does it relate to Australia, your sense of identity, and can one claim, as Americans did, that identity can come from reading certain books?

WC: As for the US and Australia and great books, as far as I know, the curriculum in the Arts and Humanities in Australia (up until the 1980s and 1990s) generally included works that would also be considered great. At the same time, I think already in the 1920s and 1930s, a scientistic spirit had entered into the university as behaviourism, and positivism took hold of the social sciences. Philosophy was beginning to focus upon problem-solving and moving away from a knowledge of the history of its subject.

But it was really the 1960s politicization of the curricula that led to the disciplines and their founding/core texts (great books) undergoing such a transformation that the minds of the students who entered them were left in tatters, only glued together by ideology. The same process, more or less, happened in Australia.

I think the identity that was cultivated had far less to do with universities, which were for the relatively few, and far more to do with schools and churches, and also clubs and associations. Here the Bible mattered a lot. As for Plato or Rousseau, etc., not that much. I suspect, but am happy to be corrected on this, that Montesquieu and Locke mattered far more for the historic moment in which Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Hamilton et. al played their part (and because they are founders, their ideas and reading really matters) than in times when the creation, diffusion and variety of ideas and practices are implicated in events that don’t have overly much to do with humanities subjects in universities.

Indeed, my criticism of Alan Bloom and Strauss is apposite here, in trying to figure out the values and collective decisions that were important in the U.S. and Australia. In the second half of the nineteenth century, or much of the twentieth century, I would not be primarily looking to universities, certainly not primarily to the study of Plato, Hegel, etc. when thinking about the US or Australia but to larger events and more variegated narratives, and the insights of journalists, writers, clerics and other well read cultural figures: the cultural unity was not primarily philosophical because it was not an ideational/ ideological fabrication. The importance of the Bible I just mentioned confirms the point I wish to make: the Bible is not a book of “ideas” – indeed it confounds rational explications of human behaviour or ethics. It is a book of stories, events, mysteries, relationships, trials and failures, broken and kept promises, sin and redemption. It is a story, a love story between the Lord and His “servants,” told across many ages, involving many people and events – not a philosophy. It spawns countless interpretations because it is full of contingencies – which is the way life is; philosophies, on the other hand, smooth out contingencies to make them align to what we or someone can rationally think about them.

However, in the 1960s, I think this changes because there we can definitely recognize (a) that the rise of mass education will impact upon those who go into professions and (b) that the ideas which were part of the social revolution of the 1960s have gained increasing social traction – in part again because teachers, journalists, etc. go to universities where these are the narratives and ideas they get trained in. This also happens to occur at times when the other sites of social induction (the church and clubs and associations) decline in terms of influence.

So, the attack upon authority coming out of the universities, which then enters schools, newspapers, tv shows, movies, etc. changes the entire culture and aesthetics of appeal and value, and indeed the moral economy, so that now being hostile to tradition is affirmed by one’s grades, employment opportunities, moral status.

To put it bluntly, the destruction of national identity, which is common to the entire Western world, is a direct corollary of the creation of an elite group of educators that is essential for the social reproduction of professionals who are needed to run the private and public sector. It was this class that created the Russian revolution, and it is this class that is creating the global revolution. And in both cases what was being thrown away was the features of identity and solidarity that are not the results of elite manufacturing.

Unfortunately, our elites can only think in terms of elite manufacturing. This is our tragedy – that our social and economic dependencies are dependencies of destruction – conscious attempts to rip up ways of life in which many people still have a stake, and replace them with new ones in which the stakeholders are mainly paid for words, ideas, and enforcement of those words and ideas, and practices that fit them.

ZJ: Several years ago, the Polish philosopher, Ryszard Legutko, published The Demon in Demon in Democracy, the book you read and liked. It sold 16,000 copies within a year. It may not be Bloom’s million, but it is totally unprecedented. It was translated into German, French and Spanish. It provoked good reactions for the most part. How do you explain its success? What is it about Legutko’s book that explains why so many people read it?

WC: When Closing of the American Mind came out a lot of people could see there was a kind of madness coming out of higher education, especially, but by no means only, in the USA. That book gave an explanation for it, and it also offered hope that there was a better cultural way. Sadly, I think that way has no institutional support.

Having said that and perhaps to offset my pessimism, it is also the case that institutions are bearers of spirit, and spirits die; and then it is up to us to give birth to new institutions that better enable us to carry on across the times, as we gather and transfer our powers to future generations. So, what I am seeing in its destructive throes is also the occasion of new unpredicted responses and creative acts that may well help us outrun these diabolical stupidities of the modern mind and heart.

Legutko’s book, which I learnt about through Nick Capaldi, is about the diabolical nature of over-politicization and the tendency of that within democracies. One should bear in mind about democracies that they have never endured for very long; and that while they solve problems, they also create a problem for any class or group that wants its way. This is the problem being faced now – democracy is taught as a good thing and is defended by journalists, etc. until the moment when the electorate do not want what their elites – especially those who live off narrative formation, instruction, etc. – want.

The EU is the model of the Western post-democratic future, though it may just fall apart. Again, I think there are many people who agree with the diagnosis provided by Legutko of how liberal-democracy is proactive in forming a totalitarian mind-set – confirmed, of course, in practice, by the hostile student attempt to stop him speaking at Middlebury. Again, it only showed how desperate our ideas-brokers are to preserve really bad and fragile ideas.

ZJ: What I find surprising, and I do not say it to diminish the originality of Legutko’s book, is that we do not find anything shocking in the book, and yet it became a philosophical bestseller. When I read it, I thought, it is very good, persuasive, very well-written – but he says things that should be obvious to everyone. Yet he infuriated the professors and students in America, at Middlebury College, for example, to the point that his lecture had to be cancelled because the college could not guarantee his security.

Under Communism, we would have loved to hear a speaker who said things which were controversial. In today’s America, we shut down people who even dare to think differently. Is the situation in Australia the same?

WC: Identical! Again, it has to do with class rather than culture; or, more precisely, class can also affect culture. The Left thinks it is making such great strides in human emancipation when it is just ensuring that we are replaceable, that we are resources to be managed and directed by those who have the ambition to rule, manage, and control the future on the basis of their certitudes about the nature and purpose of life. This is why global corporations can, and indeed do, ally themselves with socialist or “woke” “radicals” and causes – BLM, Antifa, etc. Forgive me being bleak again – but this is why the faith I have in humanity comes from spontaneous, unpredictable acts of loving kindness, friendship, etc.

Those people who booed and shut down Legutko showed that they are the real enemies of creative freedom and are the enemies of a more convivial future. But they cannot see themselves. If, as they get older, and they wake up a little from their “wokeness” and look back upon what they have done, and if they have any spark of soul left, they will be ashamed of what they have done. The millennials are just re-enacting what my generation did some fifty years back; and so a number of us also look back in shame at our younger selves.

ZJ: Let me go back a bit. You do not have, and have never had a Great Books program; nor did the Canadians. Only Americans did. All three of you were former British colonies, yet only in America’s case was the national identity guaranteed by “pumping” European heritage into the students’ minds; not in Australia, not in Canada. How do you explain it? Is the presence of British heritage stronger there than in America? Or is it connected with the idea that the U.S. had become much earlier a country of immigrants from all over the world, rather than from Europe or Britain?

WC: As I mentioned, I did teach Great Books, and for a long time. Although people did not teach subjects called Great Books, parts at least of the curriculum of the BA was steeped in Great Books. English literature students studied Paradise Lost, some Shakespeare, Blake, etc. Philosophy students some Plato, or Hume and Locke, and so on. So, I think the kind of “pumping” process was occurring. But as I said earlier, I think, the Bible excepted (and even that spreads through rite and ritual), the cultural formation should not be understood solely through books.

The British heritage was strong in Australia – but not so much now, though the other cultural forces are more diffuse. But the American influence (music, television, film, books, ideas) is huge. I don’t want to segue too far into American identity, but I will just say that I think Americans tend to see the world as themselves writ large, and Australians also tend to do this. There is, in my opinion, too much blah-blah about identity. Where real identity exists, one often doesn’t talk about it; one just carries on a certain way. Where people insist upon identity for political gain, it is usually because they want to dictate how people with certain features or interests must behave. It is very self-serving, and has little to do with any reality. It is true that if one’s world is under threat, then identity may be important. Context matters – there is a big difference between identity being appealed to from the ground up to bind people together because they are genuinely under threat and are treated as identical by enemies wishing to harm them than an elite defining what constitutes an identity so that they can make clients and dependents of a group with certain common features.

ZJ: Americans are obsessed with their founding. Each year we have another book about the American Revolution, and how great it was that we separated. One of the myths is “persecution” and “freedom” – which from European and particularly British perspective, sounds strange. It was the dissenters – the troublemakers – who fled, colonized the continent and, as a distinguished English historian, Jonathan Clark, sees it, 1776 was the last war of religion, and the unfolding of European history in the New World.

This is not so in Australia (or Canada where the Royalists fled [and known as the United Empire Loyalists). You do not have the same national myths, and your relationship with your “mothership” does not seem so stormy. Where might such a difference come from? What is Australia’s relationship to Britain now?

WC: We were settled by convicts, though not South Australia. The Australian myth is one of rebellion, mistrust of, and refusal to kowtow to, authority. Our founding myth is the Anzac defeat at Gallipoli. We are a nation of losers, so to speak. But there is also a sense of betrayal by the mother-country, of us being sacrificed in a larger game which we did not control. The other part of the myth was the Outback. But Australians largely live on the coast and most are urban dwellers.

Now the tertiary educated, who dominate our ideational narratives, see Britain as a colonial power wreaking destruction on the world, so we should distance ourselves from it. (They are so historically ignorant that they do not see the relationship between resource competition, the scale of territorial power, military conquests and alliances, the need to find resources to maintain military power, and hence the logic of empire as expansionary but also cross-cultural).

Thus, we went from having a bit of a chip on our shoulder about the British, to seeing ourselves as their moral betters – though we still have bits of shame and guilt to pour on ourselves with respect to the treatment of indigenous people. Given that the British, like the Americans, are also caught up in their own guilt and past shame, this too is a more global phenomenon within the West – Chinese and Muslims certainly are not using their own sense of shame as a means of moral, economic and institutional opportunity or gain. What matters for them is pride in their past – and their shame comes from the power they have lost, not the power they inherited!

Our old myths really have little leverage in Australia today. And all myths to the contrary, we are, in fact, a terribly bureaucratic country. The urban/regional split also means that those Australians who are more like the mythical Australian (laconic, irreverent, more given to practical action than talking) tend to be seen as stupid by urban Australians.

One only has to tune into our national public broadcaster to see that our tertiary educated urban population are a nation of groupthink. Try questioning climate change in any public forum, or within a university – good luck! So, we are a torn country. Presently, many argue we should not celebrate Australia Day because it is celebrating conquest, if not outright genocide. Our professional classes are as given to moral absolutes and hyperbole as the Americans and other Western European professional classes – on very similar issues. Once again, it is symptomatic of the globalisation of industry and ideas, and the divide between the old national members and the new globalized elites.

ZJ: Let me recall a historical fact that few people remember or know of. In 1975, the Australian Parliament got dissolved by the British Queen because it suffered from gridlock. In other words, it became dysfunctional. We cannot do this in the US. In fact, we cannot do it anywhere with full democracy. In your case, it worked and it proved that a mechanism like that is needed because a parliament or congress cannot dismiss itself. Monarchy – however limited – seems to work. Look at Brexit… Parliament is helpless.

WC: Well, in that instance, it was the Queen’s representative that broke the gridlock. Many still call this a constitutional crisis, even though the election quickly followed the sacking of the elected Prime Minister. In a sense you have answered your own question. Britain is a monarchy; but parliament is helpless in times of a crisis. A political system is ultimately only as good as the political culture which sustains it. Thus, our crises are cultural crises played out within systems – and tearing them apart. A system does have a fair amount of cultural capital stored within its practices, but that cannot last forever where the wills of its opponents are powerful and unified.

It is probably obvious from the answers I have already given that I think Western democracies are in serious trouble. There are structural and cultural aspects of that crisis. Structurally, the crisis has come about through the elevation of a class who see themselves – and indeed have become – global and national leaders. They are like Nietzsche’s higher men – except they actually achieve their elevation by deploying narratives of equality and identity, narratives Nietzsche associated with the herd.

This is actually cleverer than Nietzsche (and it is not even the kind of clever that was consciously decided; rather, it is clever in terms of the interests it unifies through self-serving decisions), because Nietzsche failed to realize that the new elite would need to be seen to be serving the mass, even if they were creating a scaffold for their own in-breeding (the elites don’t generally marry down) and taste.

ZJ: 1492 – for centuries now, the date was associated with Columbus’ discovery of America. Today, in the US, it means genocide! Genocide of the Indians. Several cities in the U.S., including Washington DC this year, renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples Day. You, as Australian, probably have views on the question. But before I let you answer, let me make a few remarks.

First, even if one would grant some validity to the objection, the problem is of judging the past by the standards of today. Second, it is a childish way of looking at history, thinking that it would have been good, but bad people made it evil, which is a demonstration of lack of knowledge as to what happened everywhere; that people would conquer other lands; and, as the philosopher you know well, Hegel, said, history is a slaughter bench on which millions have been sacrificed. This is not to say that we should continue slaughtering each other, but since it was a mechanism of history, people who claim it was genocide, do not seem to know how anything operates.

WC: This is exactly the problem. A knowledge of history that also takes into account social formation and transformation, and where conflict and resource competition fits into the picture, should cure people of utopian idealism – though there are plenty of historians who still read history as if they were God presiding over the Day of Judgment, and hence relate history as if history were a morality tale, and that its actors could and should have done differently.

History is neither a metaphysical nor a moral problem, but the accumulated experiences of decisions, actions and circumstances that have created the world we have to dwell in. What we also know is that our political moralists of today have what they have because of their history – which is our history.

To want to create a better world may be admirable, but one cannot forget that one is part of a world in which sacrifice, strife, competition for resources and group survival were primarily existential choices, not purely moral ones. This is as much the story of the ancients, of tribes, cities and empires, as it is of the moderns with our civil and world wars.

But genuine social betterment requires genuine alignments of solidarity, common loves and commitments, not the enforcement of principles and ideas. Having an idea that humans are basically good, or that we actually have rights that were not derived out of political and social experience, or that we can just apply a set of axioms about human behaviour, is the opposite of helpful. We have to work on the little bit of reality before us; and if we do not see forces that threaten to extinguish a group as we are focussed only upon our ideals, then we will go under.

ZJ: A few years ago, in Vienna, where there was a monument dedicated to the Polish king, John III Sobieski, who stopped the Turkish forces from invading Europe, in 1688. It was desecrated and a sign attached: “Genocide.” The king who was celebrated as defending Europe from Muslim invasion stands condemned for the very same reason – as the defender of the West, just like Columbus, stands condemned for bringing the West to the New World. Do you see a similarity, and what exactly, in your opinion, stands behind the two so different occurrences?

WC: When Columbus first arrived in the Bahamas, he thought he had found a new world free from violence. He quickly learnt otherwise. The idea that the Europeans created violence in the new world is a fantasy. Think, for example, of how the enemies of the Aztecs assisted Cortes. That Europeans brought a new kind of havoc that had really terrible consequences for the indigenous peoples of the “New World” is not something I dispute. I simply note that imperialism is a very ancient modality of social and political organization, and that scale and technology matter.

In part, though, I do see the hostility to certain founding myths as a fair enough response – up to a point. That is, the 1960s generation and their more left-leaning professors from a previous generation were not wrong to expose peaceful foundational myths as untrue. But this does not mean that the “New World” did not have its own survival strategies in which violence was a common enough occurrence.

I would also qualify this by saying where resources are spread widely and groups are small enough and can stay out of each other’s way, then it may be avoidable – at least up to a point. But anthropological finds of grave sites do indicate how common violent death generally was amongst tribes. The city and the empire are also, in part, a means for walling out violence. But, of course, as groups grow and empires subsist alongside each other, violence again enters into the picture on an even larger scale.

The problem is not that we should not be honest about conquest and violence – and once the United States was formed and the land expansion drove out the native Americans in the 19th-century, it was really shocking, though not altogether unlike how other tribes within antiquity had acquired land. A case can be made that, had the U.S. remained under the British crown, its history may have been far less bloody.

Of course, counterfactual history is only partially helpful. But that so many Western educated people believe that the West was somehow unique in its deployment of violence for securing territory and resources is silly – and, I repeat, making moral judgments about the past is meaningless, especially when the people making them are the beneficiaries of the bloody deeds that are their own history: What was unique was the technology and accompanying systems of commerce and administration which created greater opportunities for power enhancement and expansion.

But the idea, to take your second example, that Islam was not an imperializing enterprise from the very beginning, or that Muslims were pacifists and innocents, and Christian nations uniquely imperial, is historically mad (those poor Turks attacking Vienna!). But once you simply treat Muslims as a minority, you will project all sorts of virtues onto a group because they suit the narrative that you live off of and define your place in the world by.

Likewise, those Muslims who have aspirations to really fulfill the injunction to bring the world to peace through all submitting to Allah, will gladly support this narrative, and will gladly represent themselves as victims of genocide in Vienna, as if they were in solidarity with native Americans, whose people were subject to genocidal levels of violence. But, unlike the Westerners who fall for this, they at least know what they are doing.

ZJ: Given the logic of the genocide argument, we should conclude that neither conquest nor colonization should have ever happened – which means, no Persian Empire, no Greek colonization, no Roman Empire, no Mongol, Ottoman, British, Portuguese, French, Spanish Empires. What I have enumerated is only a tiny portion of what history looked like, which does not give much support for politically correct claims and visions of history, let alone human nature. But given all the PC activists’ ignorance of history, the question emerges: Does PC behaviour stem from ignorance or something else?

WC: I think I have already made clear what I think about PC anthropology. It is, as others have rightly labelled it, “Disneyfication.” As you know I am a great admirer of J.G. Herder, who unfortunately is usually just viewed as a “romantic,” when he is a complicated and a very profound thinker.

Herder made the point (one which you can also find in Augustine) that a group’s survival depends upon it having something lovable about its world. So, just as I cannot accept the romantic view of indigenous life, a life that like all social forms, has strict and often brutal means of enforcing group survival,

I do not deny that it was a dwelling place on earth with its own rewards and sacrifices. Hence, too, I also do not want to underestimate the cost of civilization. Our conversation is largely about the sacrificial component of civilization and how precarious our circumstances are right now.

And, as much as I disagree with the liberal-progressive view of life, I also acknowledge that it exists because of all manner of problems (including the last World War) which provided the backdrop for people wanting to “Give Peace a Chance” and “Imagine” a better world. So, I think, one may well have important discussions about different life-ways; and what is won and lost as one world is destroyed.

Now the indigenous worlds were destroyed because they had found ways to survive that ultimately (and I do not mean this in any disparaging way) curtailed the need for the kind of human inventiveness that developed with empires, and at their most sophisticated levels with the crucible of the West and its wars and revolutions.

I have said it many times now: Inventiveness is forged in the furnaces of war and horror, which is as true for the scientific revolution as for the formation of the modern nation state. The experience of the West was such that one crisis after another led to a certain kind of “advancement” – specifically, technological, administrative, socioeconomic and even political.

Fortunate were those (at least relatively) who could stave this off, until, that is, they found themselves in competition with outsiders over their resources. History cannot be unmade, and so any strategy of solving our problems which requires cultural romanticism is doomed to fail. Worst of all, it condemns the living to a lost past, so that they themselves become like ghosts and more like pieces in the imaginations of those who wish to dictate their own narratives and future for the living.

Culture, like everything else, is not an essence but an adaptive process. So, pretending that the powers of the modern world can be simply blocked out by a romantic retreat is to condemn people to powerlessness in their world. Although policy and public narrative commonly romanticize the past, imagine a government that said: “Sorry we did wrong, so what we will do is give you back a vast amount of territory, then build a fence, and leave you alone. No phones, cars, roads, hospitals, medical supplies, TVs or anything else that modernity has made will be available to you. You are free to return to a past world. We will not mine there or allow any of our people to enter. But once you go back you are not allowed to return.”

Can you imagine the outcry of indignation? Being in a world comes with a price. Our freedoms come at the cost of widespread depression, anomie, ennui, isolation, medication, infantilism, and so many other afflictions, including romanticism and utopianism and their institutional ensconcement.

The reason I am an Augustinian when it comes to human nature is that we all live off the violence and crimes – the sins – of our forefathers. Real dialogue is impossible, if we start with a mythic idealisation.

ZJ: Are the contemporary problems of the USA, Canada, Australia those that the Britishness of those countries created, by which I mean Protestant religion, common language. Again, to be clear, many of the problems that feminists see, such as the use of pronouns (he and she) are laughable from the point of view of someone who knows languages and knows that gender (masculine, feminine and neuter) is grammatical; it is not social categories. But in the English-speaking world, precisely because English no longer uses gender in its grammar, these problems have been created, which could not have sprung-up elsewhere. Yet, these English-language problems, because of American dominance, have become global problems.

WC: I think it is Europeanness rather than Britishness (and I would refer you to one of my favourite books, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s Die europäischen Revolutionen und der Charakter der Nationen – a different version of that book for an American audience was, Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man.

If I think of the suicidal tendencies within the West today, it seems to me that they do come out of the appeals to freedom and social equality that are the outgrowth of the European experience and responses to their circumstances, including, perhaps most significantly, wars and revolutions.

That the European experience is predicated upon Christian culture, as well other sociological and geopolitical contingencies, seems to me very obvious. Calvinism, in particular, though not of British influence plays a decisive role in helping shape what will become modern republicanism. It will also play an important role in generating a moral and aesthetic orientation to personal and social life that will then become secularised.

I really like John Cuddihy’s book on the Calvinist influences upon the USA, No Offense: Civil Religion and Protestant Taste. A certain sensibility, which combines a sense of (divine/ moral) election, the overcoming of all evil, the doctrinal (moral) transparency of all souls within the community (see, Joseph Bottum, An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America) has prevailed within our elites (and this is as much the case in Canada, the UK, Australia, as the USA) – which is manifestly Calvinist in original form. but with the kind of content that comes out of the atheistic socialistic, progressive mind of the nineteenth-century.

This sensibility simultaneously combines guilt and a desire for the “kingdom.” So, without Christianity, it is pretty impossible to imagine this modern elite and our narratives of emancipation. But they are also anti-Christian and heretical, diabolical even – total faith in human knowledge, the human will, and the self/identity. The Islamists, the Chinese, the Russians, etc. think the West is killing itself. That is what I fear as well – and I hope I am completely wrong.

ZJ. Thank you so much for this conversation, Professor Cristaudo!

The image shows, “1807, Friedland,” by Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonie, painted 1861-1875.

What Made 18th-Century Britain So Innovative?

We are so very thankful to The Critic to allow us to bring to our readers a new series – History Talks – which are podcasts by Professor Jeremy Black, in conversation with Graham Stewart, The Critic’s political editor.

The purpose of these podcasts is to inform and also delight. Each month, Professor Black answers an important question, explores an interesting web of ideas, or simply tells us about things we may not know about. This means that each of his talks is nothing short of a “Grand Tour” of the past, providing exquisite nuggets of historical details that you can carry with you as delightful souvenirs.

We begin this month with an intriguing question – Why was 18th-century Britain so innovative? The ideas and inventions that emerged on this little island in the 1700s changed not only Britian but the entire world.

Things that we take for granted would have been impossible if they had not been invented and created in Britain, such as, free speech, a free press, consumerism, industrialization, urbanization. All this is finely summarized in Rupert Brooke’s famous words:

For England’s the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go…

But why did all this not happen in any other country? Why did it happen only in Britain? Let’s listen to Professor Black for the answer.

What Made 18th-Century Britain So Innovative?

The image shows, A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun or The Orrery, by Joseph Wright of Derby, painted ca., 1766.

Why Did Italy Declare War In 1940?

Scholars and lay readers often assume that Italy joined Germany in 1940 because “the end of the war appeared to be on the horizon, Mussolini concluded the best choice was to join the Germans in their war against France and Britain, in order to seize territory in the Mediterranean. Malta, Corsica, Savoy and Nice – the Italian territories possessed by foreign powers – and Tunis; and along with other African lands, these were meant to compensate Italy for the the ‘disloyal behavior’ that London and Paris had exhibited in 1919.”

I had this opinion too, until by chance, in late 2009, I had to prepare a detailed paper on the Italian point of view about the French 1940 Armistice. I should mention that the subsequent paper I wrote on this topic achieved remarkable success when presented – in Paris at the Ecole militaire, on January 15, 2010. Later, I developed the idea into a book, which was published in 2014, in Italian.

Back in late fall 2009, in order to understand the French Armistice clearly, I began with the war itself, and with the plans – if any – made before the war. So, I began from secondary sources, mainly official publications, such as, the accounts of the Italian Alpine campaign of 1940, and the Italian military occupation of France, along with the addition of Galeazzo Ciano’s diary and some other sources. While collecting all the data, I found some things which clashed with the commonly held view, and which, when brought together, yielded a new perspective that should at least be revealed and discussed.

The problem of why Italy entered World War II was at that time, in 2009, still unclear. Traditional historiography tends to give Mussolini the simple desire to gain some territory at the lowest possible price; while other authors suppose that war was declared only because the Duce wanted to demonstrate that the Italian people were warriors. Both these major explanations are not so convincing, unless one is firmly believes that Mussolini was completely devoid of cold judgement and reason and was playing a sort of poker with the worst cards. Now, apart from any kind of consideration about Mussolini’s mental faculties, when gathering all the strands of the economic and political situation in Italy in 1939-40, the mosaic that results is very different than the one proposed till now by Italian and non-Italian historiography.

While it is certainly true that the person who decided the Italian involvement in war was Mussolini, the question we need to answer is: How did things appear to him? What was his – and the Italians’ – perception of the situation, which could be quite different from how matters actually stood. This question is never answered; or, at least, this question has never had a really satisfying answer, one which might allow us to understand why Mussolini took that fatal decision. The problem has certainly been discussed in Italy and outside Italy, in various ways – but nobody has to-date offered an explanation which might lead us beyond mere suggestion, or a bias, or a notion.

There is an astounding lack of documents from Mussolini about this question. There are many memoirs and journals by other people, but one must be very careful with these, because they were all published after the war, when their authors wanted above all to try to justify themselves to the people and to history. Ciano’s Diary, The diary written by Giuseppe Bottai, one of the smartest men of Fascism, appeared only after his five-year service with the French Foreign Legion in 1944-49.

There are also books and memoirs written by civil and military officers, sometimes top officers, but none offer anything substantial, other than an occasional detail. And, thus, the problem remains always unsolved: Why did Mussolini, who had no intention of going to war, suddenly decide to declare war in June 1940?

It is also clear that given the above caveats, one cannot pretend to demonstrate the truth. It is only possible to suggest an hypothesis, a tentative answer to the afore-mentioned questions; and it will up to the reader to decide whether the hypothesis can be accepted or not, fully or in part, or totally rejected.

When seeking to understand the reason why a certain decision was made, the only doable thing is to gather all the information about the man who took that decision. Then, one can see if, by chance, after having considered the facts, there is anything which may be helpful in finding an answer.
Therefore, what was Italy’s situation during this period, militarily speaking? Was Italy put under any kind of pressure? And if so, what kind of pressure, from where and by whom? Could Italy sustain a war, and, above all, a war as an ally of Germany? What outcome could Italy expect?

Now, in view of contemporary military, diplomatic anad economic documents, the answer appears to be quite complex, and most definitely surprising and very different from what is commonly supposed.

The first facts to consider are economic data, because money defines and determines what the military can do. Italy’s financial situation, in the Spring of 1940, was terrible. This is very well known by Italian economic historians, but is normally not taken into consideration by Italian military historians, and appears to be completely ignored by non-Italian military historians and by lay readers, whether Italian or not.

In fact, actual sources are really very few. Apart from the well-known (in Italy) book by General Carlo Favagrossa, Perché perdemmo la guerra (Why We Lost the War), published in 1946, and by the former Mussolini Finance minister, Felice Guarneri’s Battaglie economiche (Economic Battles), published in 1953), a scholar can only look at basic sources, such as, the figures given by the Central Institute of Statistics in Rome, the reports and official publications by the Ragioneria Generale dello Stato (State General Auditing Board) about the Italian budget, that is to say, Il bilancio dello Stato negli esercizi dal 1930-31 al 1941-42, and Il bilancio dello Stato negli esercizi finanziari dal 1942-43 al 1947-48, and the annual reports of the Governor of the Bank of Italy to the shareholders from 1939 to 1946.

Books too are quite few concerning this topic of Italy’s economic situation during the years under consideration. These books include, Giuseppe Mayer, Teoria economica delle spese militari (Economic Theory of Military Expenditure), published in 1961; Epicarmo Corbino, L’economia italiana dal 1861 al 1961 (The Italian Economy from 1861 to 1961), published in 1962; and Giuseppe Toniolo, La Banca d’Italia e l’economia di guerra (The Bank of Italy and the War Economy), published in 1989. The most recent, and perhaps the best work about this issue, is Luciano Luciani, L’economia e la finanza italiana nel secondo conflitto mondiale (Italian Economy and Finance in World War II), published in 2009.

The economy was not going well at all in the 1930s, and unemployment was common. Studies about this aspect are still rare and seldom published; and one is tempted to ask how much Fascist propaganda had the lingering effect to convince people that all worked well. Anyway, one can find something in Enrico Cernigol and Massimo Giovanetti, Ricordati degli uomini in mare (Reminiscences the Men in the Sea), published in 2005), which consists of interviews with survivors of submarine crews. When answering the question, why did they enlist, most of the answers are more or less “because of the lack of work in the Thirties.” Something similar is found in personal accounts or memoirs of people who did not have important positions at that time and who were interviewed; or this reason is indirectly admitted in some contemporary documents.

Wars in Ethiopia and Spain, and the short campaign in Albania, were a huge financial drain on the Kingdom of Italy. Since 1935, two thirds of the annual state expenditure had been on armed forces. Italy’s global expenditure rose from 33 billion liras in 1935–1936 to 60 billion in the fiscal year 1939 – 1940; and the deficit progressively and constantly grew from 13 billion liras in 1935–1936 to 28 billion in 1939 – 1940. And when considering the disagreggated data, we find that military expenditure, because of war, was solely responsible for the deficit.

There was also another problem. The Italian state’s income depended on only 28 percent taxation, and 72 percent on revenue. This meant that given the normal diminishing of commerce in the time of war, the state would never have been able to retain the 72 percent, and thus a consistent reduction of income had to be foreseen. At the same time, it was clear that if limited wars like those in Ethiopia and Spain had been so expensive, a World War against France and Britain would be harder, if not impossible, to sustain.

So, here we have the first fact that Mussolini was well aware of: The impossibility of managing a medium- or long-term war against great powers because of lack of money. And Mussolini knew this well, since minister Guarneri clearly warned him, and soon was forced to resign.

The second aspect to be considered is that of the Armed Forces; and this was strictly linked to the lack of money. If the State had no money, and Italy lacked raw materials to achieve a general rearmement, it was impossible to fill the need for ordnance and restock the depots emptied by the recent wars in Africa and in Europe. The standard interpretation concerning the state of the Italian Armed Forces in 1939 is that they possessed old equipment, useless in a modern war. This is a fallacy. Their equipment was as good as other European armed forces in 1939, except perhaps the Germans. The problem was that the Italian Armed Forces lacked sufficient equipment to carry out the operations with which they were tasked. They did not have enough vehicles, weapons and ammunitions. And they could not acquire the material it needed in sufficient quantities because Italy lacked an effective industrial system.

Comparative figures for war production of high-technological ordnance, such as, aircraft are quite revealing. For example, in 1939, Italy produced 1,750 aircraft; in 1940 3,250. The next year, 1941, marked the highest point of production with 3,503. Then, Italian production slowly decreased: 2,813 in 1942 and 1,930 in 1943, for a total of 13,523 planes throughout the entire conflict. In 1942, Japan made 9,300 planes, Soviet Union 8,000, Britain 23,671, United States 47,859 and Germany15,596. That is to say, in only one year, Germany produced more aircraft than Italy did in four years of war. German aircraft were faster, more effective, powerful and modern than Italian ones. During the period 1939-1945, Japan produced 64,800 aircraft, the Soviet Union 99,500, Germany 125,072, Britain 125,254 and United States more than 300,000. These figures have been officially published by the Italian Air Force in Rodolfo Gentile, Storia dell’Aeronautica dalle origini ai giorni nostri, (Florence, 1967), and in Vincenzo Lioy, Cinquantennio dell’Aviazione italiana, (Rome, 1959).

So, lack of money, weapons and automotive transports meant the impossibility of managing a modern war, such as the Germans carried out against Poland. In fact, according to the report presented by Graziani on May 25, 1940, the divisions of the Italian army were too lightly armed. They had 23,000 vehicles, 8,700 special vehicles, 4,400 cars and 12,500 motorcycles. Tanks numbered some 1,500 useless light tanks, and merely 70 medium battle tanks. This meant the that Regio Esercito possessed only half the number of vehicles it needed to manage something similar to the German “Blitzkrieg.” It was impossible – as Graziani said – to fill the gap, because the country simply did not have enough cars and trucks. Artillery was old and had little ammunition. Fuel was sufficient for only a few months. Italy produced 15,000 metric tons of crude oil annually. Albania provided 100,000 more metric tons. Normal Armed Forces consumption was 3,000,000 tons in peacetime; in war it increased to 8 million. Libyan oil had been discovered, but it was too deep to of use.

All this is fairly well-known. But what seems rather unknown, or little evaluated, comes from an official document, quite a relevant and reliable one, published quite long ago, namely, the minutes of the meeting held at the General Armed Forces Chief of Staff’s office in 1939. The first volume – from January 1939 to the end of December 1940 – begins with very interesting statements. During the first meeting – which included only the Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs of Staff and the General Chief of Staff, Marshall Badoglio – held on 26 January 1939, that is to say soon after Monaco, but eight months before the war, Badoglio opened the meeting stated: “Above all, His Excellence, the Chief of the Government, declared to me that, concerning rivendicatons against France, he has no intention to mention Corsica, Nice and Savoy. These are initiatives taken by single persons, who in no way enter into his plans of action.

He declared to me, moreover, that he has no intention demanding territorial cessions from France, because he is convinced that France is unable to accept – for, by doing so, he would put himself in the condition of drawing back a possible demand (and this would lack of dignity), or to enter into a war, (and this is not his intention).”

All this is fairly well-known. But what seems rather unknown, or little evaluated, comes from an official document, quite a relevant and reliable one, published quite long ago, namely, the minutes of the meeting held at the General Armed Forces Chief of Staff’s office in 1939. The first volume – from January 1939 to the end of December 1940 – begins with very interesting statements. During the first meeting – which included only the Army, Navy and Air Force Chiefs of Staff and the General Chief of Staff, Marshall Badoglio – held on 26 January 1939, that is to say soon after Monaco, but eight months before the war, Badoglio opened the meeting stated: “Above all, His Excellence, the Chief of the Government, declared to me that, concerning rivendicatons against France, he has no intention to mention Corsica, Nice and Savoy. These are initiatives taken by single persons, who in no way enter into his plans of action.

He declared to me, moreover, that he has no intention demanding territorial cessions from France, because he is convinced that France is unable to accept – for, by doing so, he would put himself in the condition of drawing back a possible demand (and this would lack of dignity), or to enter into a war, (and this is not his intention).”

When speaking of initiatives taken by single persons, Mussolini meant something rather well-known at that time and quite recently as well. We know about this through the memoirs of one of the most important personalities of Fascism, Baron Giacomo Acerbo, a World War I hero, who had joined Fascism before the March on Rome. He was the leader of the Abruzzo region and who was not only a remarkable world-renowned expert in economics, but an expert in agriculture too. Plus, he was a member of the Great Council of Fascism and one of the only four members of this Council who voted against the issue of the anti-Jewish racial laws. At that time, he was going to be appointed President of the General Budget Committee in the Chamber of Deputies, and in 1943 he was the last minister of finance Mussolini had before resigning in July.

Acerbo wrote:

“Mussolini’s obstinacy not to deprive himself of the cooperation of his son-in-law [Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, who had married Mussolini’s oldest daughter, Edda] appears more incomprehensible and deplorable when thinking of what happened on November 30th 1938. I mean that sitting of the Chamber when, during a speech by Ciano, and as soon as he [Mussolini] heard Ciano’s voice, stated the ancient territorial claims which Fascist Italy did not intend to renounce – all while some thirty deputies shouted, “viva Nizza,” and “viva la Savoia” and “viva la Corsica,” etc. And this happened while the new French ambassador, François-Poncet, was in the diplomatic seat and who had arrived after just a week in Rome, and after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries… At the end of the session, a hundred people in Montecitorio Square shouted the same things. It was a comedy prepared by Ciano himself, with the cooperation of the Party Secretary, Starace. And at that moment, we thought that it did not lack the preventive consent of Mussolini, who attended the session. On the other hand, just that evening, Mussolini, when opening the work of the Great Council censored what had happened with a curt tone: “I take exception to the scene which occurred today in the Chamber (these were almost exactly his words), and I take exception both because it was done without my knowledge and because those who organized it did not reflect that it was at least unsuitable, seeing that only a few days earlier we had resumed full relations with France.” The two responsible remained indifferent as it did not concern them… Everybody expected the resignation of the two responsible, but they conserved their places more firmly than ever.”

So, territorial claims against France was Ciano’s and Starace’s idea – and it was so far from Mussolini’s mind that he wanted to make sure Badoglio knew this, and, through him, the Chiefs of Staff. This is the first surprise: Italy – Mussolini – deprived of the supposed desire for getting into a war, and, above all, a war against France. If one might wonder whether this document is reliable, the answer is: 100%. Minutes were written and later submitted to each of the partiipants, who signed them. Only later they were submitted to Mussolini in person, and – especially in this case – there was no negative reaction, no correction, no change. In other words, Mussolini implicitly admitted that his opinion was just as Badoglio had reported.

It is certainly true that Italy was not overly friendly with France, but this was due to problems born in 1919 and never resolved. Italy perceived France and French policy toward, and in, the Balkans as a threat. That is why, for instance, the first operational plan made by the Italian Air Force in 1929 was the “Ipotesi Est, Ipotesi Ovest, Ipotesi doppia” – “Hypothesis East, Hypothesis West, Double Hypothesis” – where “East” meant war against Yugoslavia, “West” war against France and “Double” war against both nations. But all this was intended in a purely defensive way, as becomes evident when reading the plan itself.

In fact, the most important and general doctrine was the Directives for the coordinated employment of the Army Air Units. “Directives” were divided into three main parts. The first contained general issues and orders for actions above the ground; The second was about fighting at sea; the third concerned antiaircraft defense, reconnaissance, emergency airfields, emergency redoubts, and so on. The only known copies are those owned by Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff De Pinedo. These now lies in Rome, in the Army Archive, fondi acquisiti, non catalogato. The “Ipotesi Ovest, Ipotesi Est, Ipotesi doppia, considerazioni generali” exists as an incomplete copy in the same Army Archive, in fondi acquisiti, non catalogato. A complete copy, however, has been found by John Gooch in the same Archive. The only study existing about the Directives is my own, “The First Air War Doctrine of the Italian Royal Air Force, 1929,” a paper presented at the 67th annual conference of the Society for Military History – Quantico (VA), the U.S. Marines Corp University, on April 28, 2000.

French policy also gave Mussolini a lot to worry about. From the Italian point of view, France appeared to have a peculiar ability to act in such a manner as to draw the ire of other countries. In those years, not only did Italians view French attitudes as hostile toward Italy, but also premier Leon Blum made two policy errors, which further alienated Italy. The first was a Franco-Spanish pact, where Spain allowed French troops transit through Spanish territory to reach North Africa in case of war against Italy. The second was France’s announcement of sending weapons, ordnance and men to support the Spanish Republic. Mussolini did not care about Spanish affairs, but if French intervention rendered Spain a sort of French protectorate, or strategic ally, Italy could find both the exits from the Mediterranean closed to Italian shipping. The Suez was owned by a French-British company. The Straits of Gibraltar were passable because Spain owned the African side, despite British possession of Gibraltar. What if France indirectly controlled the African side as Britain controlled the European one? This could pose a threat to Mussolini’s and Italy’s strategic interests.

Errors made by politicians could occasionally be made worse by blunders made by a single official. So, it was with great astonishment that the Italian press, in spring 1939, reported that, while speaking to a meeting of French Army non-commissioned officers, French general Giraud thought it a great idea to state that a war against Italy would be “a simple walk in the Po valley” for General Gamelin’s Army. After such a declaration, made by a prominent French general, how could Italy not consider France to be a concrete threat?

But did Italy really believe a French offensive was possible? Did Italians really suppose this possibility was real? The answer is, Yes. Leaving aside unfriendly French attitude during 1935 to 1939 period, the possibility of French aggression had been carefully considered by the Italian General Staff – but always from a defensive point of view. We never find, during the whole 1939 and during the first months of 1940, anything other than putting up a defence against French attack. There is never an intention to carry out an attack against France, in Africa or across the Alps, nor any consideration of landing in Corsica or in Provence. On January 26, 1939, Badoglio told his colleagues that Mussolini, in case of war against France, had ordered: “Absolute defensive on the Libyan front, and that there was nothing to fear from Yugoslavia, and not to worry about Egypt, that is to say,the British. A bit later, during the same meeting, when speaking of possible action on the Alps, he added: “The Duce decided on only some defensive concentrations, on both the Alpine and Libyan borders.”

There was no further mention of war against France till April 1940, when, during the meeting held on April 9, Badoglio presented the “strategic rules given by the Duce,” and said, “So: defence, and no initiative on the Western Alps. Surveillance in the East. In case of collapse, exploit it. Occupation of Corsica is possible, but not probable. itis foreseen the neutralization of the air basis of the island is foreseen.” Then, action against England in Africa and in the Mediterranean was discussed. But, about the French, Badoglio remarked that “the real risk for Libya is the Army of Weygand.”

General Weygand was, at that time, considered by his Italian colleagues as the best French (even worldwide) general of his time. And this good opinion reached the man in the street through the press. This was a symptom of something different and quite more complex than the simple admiration for a good commander.

It is quite interesting, and revealing, to read comments published in the Italian press, in Spring 1940, especially given that Italy was under a dictatorship, so that what appeared in print was approved by official censorship. In effect, if something was published, it was substantially approved by the Fascist regime and reflected the regime’s mind. Thus, comments published in Spring 1940, about the military situation in Norway, and, later in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, by one of the most well-known and most fascist Italian reporters, Mario Appelius, spoke of Weygand with a deep respect, although Appelius was quite harsh about other Allied generals, such as, Ironside, Lord Gort, or Gamelin.

Appelius covered the war since early opearations in Poland. Then, he was in Finland, and, on May 9, 1940 he was in Amsterdam. The following day, he reached Brussels under German bombardment, and soon left the city by the last train out to Paris. He vividly described what happened in those days, after his own experiences.

And, on May 15, Appelius wrote about the French: “Nobody doubts the bravery of the French Army. Summoned by the mistakes of its own politicians to sacrifice itself once again to defend England, the French Army will surely fight with the same bravery of 1914.” This is revealing of a certain propensity towards France by the Italians. In 1940, of course, one could not help but bear World War I in mind: It was the same French Army that had stopped the Germans on the Marne, in Verdun and, in 1918, in Arras and Reims. The same French Army had demonstrated during the Great War that it could lose some battles, but win the war, emerging victorious from the most desperate situation. In other words, Italians were France-friendly.

But were the French Italy-friendly? Considering the Italian “coal affair” of 1940, one could very much doubt it, at least in Italy. Mussolini and the Italian top generals, in Spring 1939, were well aware of the joint military conferences held by the British and the French in Europe, Africa (in Djibouti), and Asia (in Singapore) to define a coordinated action against the Germans, the Japanese and the Italians in case of war. And Italian top-brass knew very well that the main problem was that of maritime warfare.

Italy could sustain for a short-term, a land war, with resistance in the Alps. Air war was sustainable too, but African colonies could not be kept without maritime communications. This led to another big problem that Mussolini was aware of – the Italian fleet was not yet ready – and Allies knew it. And this problem was dire, for it hinged in the fleet, and on which depended ultimately national survival. It was the problem of coal.

As it is well known, as soon as the war began in late summer 1939, Italy announced it was “not belligerent,” which meant something similar to neutral, but was not exactly the same. What is often forgotten is that as soon as the war began, Britain and France, but above all Britain, imposed an official blockade on German goods, which evolved into an undeclared blockade of Italian merchant ships – and which above all else was against Italian coal imports.

It was a real disaster for Italy, because 75 percent of the coal needed for daily life came from other countries – by sea from England, Belgium and above all Germany. Normally, Italy needed 17-18 million metric tons of coal per year. In 1940, Italian production was 5,355,000 tons for the 17,882,000 tons needed for the year. In 1941, 17,945,000 tons was needed, while only 6,363,000 was produced, forcing Italy to reduce its import to 11,582,000. In 1942, one third of the needed 16,504,000 tons came from national sources, whilst the remaining – 10,793,000 – was imported. The Royal Navy did its best to make the blockade against Italy as strong as possible, especially from December 1939 onwards. After having met the British ambassador Sir Percy Lorraine in Rome on 30 November, Foreign Minister Ciano wrote in his Diary on December 5, 1939 that Sir Percy was going to Malta to push the British Admiral to soften the blockade and control of Italian ships. Thus, from August 1939, 847 Italian ships were stopped and their goods confiscated, for a financial loss of more than a billion liras; and ships were forced to stay in French or British ports up to one month. There was no alternative, because railway traffic was impossible without locomotives.

The same situation affected other fuels. On June 10, 1940, Italy had a 2.4 million ton reserve of liquid fuels; and in the period of June to December 1940, Italian and Albanian production did not exceed 80,000 tons, with an annual consumption of 2 million, whch, during the war, and up to September 1943, came to 8,799,000 tons. Italian production was clearly insufficient, and thus Italy depended upon imports (from June 1940 to September 1943 amounted to 3,572,000 tons from Germany, 2,150,000 from Romenia and 53,000 from other countries).

And the Allied game appeared clear when, in the winter, England officially announced that it would provide Italy the coal, if Italy accepted to provide the Allies with aircrafts, cannons, weapons and heavy equipment. In other words, Italy would receive coal, if it accepted to deprive itself of weaponry entirely and become the Allies’ arsenal. This would have been paid with coal. No mention was made, or seems to have been made, of crude oil.

The Allies did the same kind of blockade in World War I, especially in 1916-18, to pressure Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark; but that time they asked for “loyal cooperation,” which consisted of organizing local trusts that gave their word to the Allies that what was bought by their own countries would be consumed in their own countries, and not sold to Germany. Thus, the Dutch Trust, the Swiss Economical Surveillance Society and the Danish Merchants’ Cooperative were established. All worked very well, especially in Switzerland, where the Swiss agreed to stop buying abroad and selling to Germany, and bought raw materials producing goods for Allied powers. Basically, in 1940 Britain seems to have looked for a similar arrangement with Italy.

Italian industrialists were quite interested, because Italian societies were selling a lot of trucks and weapons to the Allies in that period. But for the Italian government to officially accept such a proposal would mean exposing Italy to the risk of a German attack with no possibilities of defending the country, given the lack of heavy weapons, and no possibility of moving and manoeuvring troops, given the lack of oil. And this had to be done by accepting British conditions and receiving coal at a price fixed by England. Could Italy risk its integrity to receive coal to be paid in weapons at British fixed price? It was suicide. It was absurd.

So, in autumn 1939 Mussolini substantially had the alternative between the war against the Allies and the acceptance of the Allied ultimatum, that is to say an immediate war against Germany with no possibility of defence. And how could Mussolini hope to receive any help from the Allies, seeing what they gave to their friend and ally, Poland?

Some authors say that the Allies wanted to gain Italy’s help simply to turn German resources from the western front against Italy. If they failed, and Italy entered the war together with Germany, this would only weaken the German war effort, given that Germany would have been obliged to support Italy. As said, there are some Italian authors who suggest it. The most important is the late Franco Bandini, who introduced this idea in his book Tecnica della sconfitta (Technique of Defeat).

The situation appeared quite grim, especially because in that same period British and French fleets began deploying a number of their vessels in the Mediterranean. In the autumn of 1939, the Allies had seven battleships (five British, two French).

According to official information, at the end of December 1939, France had eight battleships (the Courbet, Océan, Paris, Bretagne, Provence, Lorraine, Dunkerque, Strasbourg) and England fifteen (the Queen Elizabeth, Warspite, Valiant, Malaya, Barham, Ramillies, Resolution, Revenge, Royal Oak, Royal Sovereign, Repulse, Renown, Hood, Nelson, Rodney), not considering the Richelieu, first (and only) of a class of four, which was going to join the fleet, as well as the British King George V, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Jellicoe and the Beatty. Germany had at that time the two old battleships the Schlesien and the Schleswig-Holstein (soon declassed to school-ships) and the more modern Deutschland, Admiral Scheer, Admiral Graf von Spee, Scharnorst and Gneisenau, with the Bismarck under construction. So the Pact of Steel had nine scattered battleships, against twenty-three concentrated battleships; and it could hope to have – that is after the end of construction and with no further losses in battle (after having lost the Graf von Spee in the Rio de la Plata on December 17th, and if the Tirpitz could be had on time) to a maximum of sixteen against thirty-two, (and not considering the just sunk Royal Oak, by a German U-boot in October 1939). Thus, the Allies had a one to two advantage.

The Italian fleet, at that time, numbered only two old refurbished battleships – the Giulio Cesare and the Conte di Cavour. By June 1940, two more old refurbished ships (the Caio Duilio and the Andrea Doria), along with the first two super-dreadnoughts of the «Littorio» class (the Littorio and the Vittorio Veneto).

It was clear that under such conditions, in case of war against the Allies before the end of Spring 1940, Italy would have had its fleet immediately destroyed and all its coasts devastated, with annihilation of its merchant traffic, and of many of its major cities, such as, Palermo, Naples, Genoa, Trieste, all along the Leghorn, and up to Venice.

As admiral Romeo Bernotti, the most important Italian naval strategist and theorist, stressed in December 1940, six months after Italy’s declaration of war: “In August 1939, during the period of diplomatic stress, and because of the possibility of the Italy entering the war, the Anglo-French concentrated in the Mediterranean most of their naval forces. At the same time, merchant traffic was displaced from that sea. The displacement ended during Italy’s not-belligerence period, but was presumed three weeks before our intervention. In Anglo-French plans, it was foreseen that the displacement from the Mediterranean would have had a provisional character, would have been a short-termed one, supposing Italy would have been forced to collapse, as a consequence of its naval inferiority and of the quick economical asphyxiation.”

Hitler came to the rescue, and Germany promised, giving its word to Italy, to supply all the needed coal, sending it by rail, and also providing wagons and locomotives. But how do the Germans really feel about Italy? Could Italy trust them or not? Here was another problem.

When Mussolini signed the Steel Pact with the Germans, he signed from a fully defensive position; and the same thing happened at the time of the Antikomintern Pact. Mussolini felt surrounded and isolated and he choose the only alliance he was offered. It was not the best possible alliance Italy and Mussolini could hope for – it was the only one possible. It was far from the best, especially because the German behaviour was not very encouraging. Hitler greatly admired Mussolini, but his staff did not. And, if there was any admiration, it was only for the Duce – it did not extend to Italy and the Italians.

In Berlin, Rome had two quite good officials, in the persons of Ambassador Bernardo Attolico and military attaché General Efisio Marras. Neither one was enthusiastic about the Germans; both were clear-eyed and objective. Attolico was hostile to an alliance with Germany; or, at least, of an alliance as strong as the Germans desired at that time. Attolico’s official correspondence to Rome was filled of warnings. On September 10, 1939 Ciano wrote in his Diary: “Attolico reports that… great popular masses… begin to demonstrate an increasing hostility and that words such as betrayal and perjury are frequently uttered.”

Germany expected – pretended to have – complete Italian support for its policy, right down to the last man and the last drop of blood – but with no independent decision-making power left to Italy. Here is one clear proof: Mussolini was not informed of the invasion of Poland before the attack began, despite what the Steel Pact clearly stipulated. According to the Germans, Italy could only follow the Reich and its policy, as evidenced by Attolico’s reports.

The Germans, Ribbentrop, did not like Attolico at all, and often asked that he be recalled, which happened in Spring 1940, because he was very ill and thus forced to leave the embassy and go back to Italy, where he died soon after.

But if Attolico’s reports were always dimly viewed in Rome, because of Attolico’s well-known attitude, it was not the same with Marras’ reports. General Marras was quite well liked by the Germans, who held him in good regard. He was also considered as being attuned with official policy than Attolico. That is why his evaluations were carefully considered by both Ciano and Mussolini. And we can easily see the results that his reports had.

On August 25 and 26, 1939, Marras he wrote to Rome about the atmosphere within German high command and political circles as, “Decisively close to breaking-point” with Italy, largely thanks to Ribbentrop who had done his best to convince everybody that Italy was ready to march along with Germany at the first shot.

Thus, the “non-belligerence” declared by Mussolini had a terrible and negative impact in Germany, and it was immediately reported to Rome from different sources that it had been described as “the second betrayal,” (the first betrayal being the change Italy did in 1915 when it entered the Great War on the side of Allies).

Apart from Marras’ reports, there were many other signals that could be cause for worry. All these are reported in Ciano’s Diary; and it would be onerous to repeat them all here. On September 9, 1939, Ciano reported that the Hungarian minister in Rome “…spoke clearly. He said which threat would hang over the world, Italy included, should Germany win the war… Anti-italian hatred is always alive in the German spirit, also if the Axis for a short time chloroformed it. The Duce was shaken and very upset.”

Then, there were rumors from Austria of annexing Trieste, or the whole of the Po valley. A Czech reporter described a harsh anti-Italian speech by a Nazi official in Southern Germany in 1939. There were similar reports and warnings from the Hungarian ambassador. All these added up to a hostile and wide-spread anti-Italian sentiment in the German population. It is possible that Mussolini did not care at all about these minor bits if information. But what certainly made him quite worried was the oral report Marras made directly to him in Rome, on March 4, 1940.

Ciano was there and later reported in his Diary that Marras was rather pessimistic about the German attitude toward Italy: “In spite of formal respect, he is convinced that the Germans have unmitigated hate, and worse, contempt, for us, for what they call the second betrayal. No war objective would be as popular in Germany, for the old and new generations, than an armed descent to the blue skies and warm seas. These and other things Marras honestly told the Duce, who was quite badly shaken by this.”

So, it was surely not by chance that Mussolini ordered the construction of the so-called “Alpine Wall of the Littorio,” that is to say, the mountain fortified system which was supposed to stop every entrance into Italy. The order was issued in the winter of 1940, and people worked 24 hours per day, under the artificial glare of photoelectrical light of the Army during the night, and using up all the iron and concrete available in Italy. At the same time, the Army staff concentrated Italian armoured units in the eastern part of the Padana Plain, to guard against an attack from Austria by the Reich.

Eyewitness geometrist Angiolino Savelli (in his talk with me in 1989), who had director in winter 1939-1940. In spite of all the efforts, the result was not very impressive. Engineer Corps Colonel – later Brigadier – Guido Lami, who directed a portion of the works on the eastern alpine border at that time, angrily commented: “The Germans have the Siegfried Line, the French have the Maginot and we have the Dull Line,” as Mrs. Elda Lami told me in 1990.

After the war, an author questioned the reason for such a double measure – standing and mobile defence, respectively represented by the Alpine Wall and the tanks unit – and some critics said that it was proof of tactical uncertainty and a waste of resources. But, apart from the fact that it had clearly been done after the 1917 experience, when, after Caporetto, the standing defence had been unable to stop the amassed and fast-moving enemy, and there had been nothing on the rear-line to stop them – now, in 1940, it was not a mistake, but the only way to stop a motorized German offensive able to pass through the fixed mountain defences.

And what was the German reaction, if any? Marras reported that the German general staff, in Spring 1940, long before the attack on the Netherlands and Belgium, had hinted that it had increased the forces in Southern Germany and, as Marras wrote, perhaps as a silent response to the rumors published by the press about the Alpine Wall.

When considering all these factors, it is most interesting to follow the evolution of Mussolini’s attitude toward the war during winter 1939-1940, according to what Ciano reported in his Diary. In early 1940, Rome warned Brussels and Amsterdam that Germany was planning an attack on them. By doing so, it meant to stymie the path that the Germans had chosen. And on January 3, 1940, Mussolini sent Hitler a friendly and decisive letter, which was received on 8 January 8th. In it, Mussolini suggested that Hitler reach a negotiated peace with the Allies, leaving Poland as a demonstration of good will, and he told Hitler that Italy reserved the right to enter the war only at the most favourable moment.

Ribbentrop summoned Attolico and asked for an explanation. Did Italy think, or was Italy insinuating, that the Reich was not able to win the war? And what was that “most favourable moment?” It was clear that Italy had no intention of remaining fully allied with the German plans and desires. Unfortunately, it was too late to change Italy’s position.Mussolini’s mistake was made back in 1938, when, after the so called “Easter Accords,” where England officially recognized Italian rule in Ethiopia, and until the signing of the Steel Pact, Italian foreign policy had the opportunity – a 10 months long opportunity – to leave the rigid trap in which Germany was putting Italy, and it was mainly because of Mussolini that this opportunity was lost.

And later? One can easily imagine how the “Italian betrayal” would be repaid by the Germans.

Here, I think there is room to open a broader discussion, as to whether or not this was the major and most probable reason for Italian engagement in World War II. According to what has been discussed here, one may conclude that it was not to gain territories (by the way, Mussolini had foregone all that in January 1939), although the new situation could permit to take something, and even permitting Mussolini to think of territorial acquisition. It seems also more than possible, if not probable, that Italy declared war because Germany was going to win the war, and England was going to lose, while the United States could not enter the war because American public opinion rejected this possibility and their President had first to think of his re-election in the fall of 1940.

The American Presidential election in 1940 was gearing up to be the harshest ever had in the USA, because the Democrats had nominated Roosevelt for the third time, and the Republicans opposed him saying that no Presient had ever ruled for more than two terms. In order to win, Roosevelt inserted two Republicans – Stimson and Knox – in his cabinet, giving them the War and the Navy Secretariates, and, above all, promising the people not to involve the USA in the European war. The result was quite good in terms of State ballots – Roosevelt gained 38 out of 48 – but inferior to the previous election in number of ballots, because in Autumn 1940 Roosevelt received 27,243,466 votes and his adversary 22,304,755, that is to say, Roosevelt got 54,98%, whilst in 1936 he had received 24,751,597 against 16,697,583, that is to say, 59,71%, and he got 46 out of 48 States. Under these conditions, it is obvious that nobody in Winter and Spring 1940 could be 100% sure about the prosecution of Roosevelt’s policy after December 1940, because there were some doubts about his victory in the Presidential election in November; and, above all, it was quite hard to even suppose an American intervention after what Roosevelt had promised.

And, above all, because June 1940 was the month when the Italian fleet got four battleships the Caio Duilio, the Andrea Doria, the Littorio and the Vittorio Veneto, with a fifth one forthcoming, the Roma. This ensured naval parity in the Mediterranean, the safety of the coasts, the protection of maritime traffic with the colonies the end of the British threat, which had begun in September 1939. In effect, Italy was looking at equalling the British in weaponry, siding with the indicative winner of the war (Germany), and in order to give Germany no possibility of attacking and destroying Italy after the victory over the Allies.

It may all seem absurd now, but only because all are accustomed to think that Mussolini declared war to gain something as a jackal and no more. But if we carefully consider the situation as found in the documents and as seen in the Italian economic, political and military situation of that time, I wonder whether any doubt can still remain. Mussolini feared German victory and was practically sure that Germany’s next move would be, soon or later, against Italy; and Italy was too weak to resist. Russia was allied to Germany, the United States – better, the American people, except for their President, who was ending his second term by the end of 1940 – were far removed from the idea of going to war to support England. And, as for England – hostile – was beaten on land and sea, France was invaded and destroyed. What remained for Italy? Who would and could support Italy? Franco? Salazar? Japan? Against Germany? Unbelievable.

Let’s go back to Acerbo’s rather rhetorically written memoirs, where we find a confirmation, which, errors excepted, is the only existing one: “In taking his decision, it is also possible that he [Mussolini] feared the Teutonic dragon, which he himself had fed and which would swallow the whole of Europe, and damage, in the process, the interests of Italy which had already lost its traditional position of influence. As an effect of the incredible German victories, which embodied the Nazi concept of the ‘Lebensraum,’ Mussolini, attracted by the sound of this concept, also quickly inserted it into the list of our claims, not caring if this concept suited our specific needs, or if it strengthened the Reich’s pretension. But ‘Lebensraum’ was inherited from the Second Reich, that is, the need of the German nation to have a way down to the Mediterranean through Trieste. And one must add that the exalting of that people’s super-nationalism, grown red-hot by of the military victories, now menaced to undo the agreements concerning the Upper Adige… So, according to Mussolini, it was better not to linger anymore in taking sides with the winner, if we wanted to avoid irreparable misfortunes on us, and, at the same time, to participate in the sharing of the booty. It is not to my knowledge, by the way, that Mussolini, during military meetings or occasional talks in the days before the intervention, pointed out this argument, to support his decisions. One began talking about it only later, when the fortunes of war were taking a turn for the worse for us, to justify the irreparable step taken.”

So, according to Acerbo, the fear of what the Germans could do after their victory existed, but how should we be surprised if Mussolini does not mention it in 1940? For a long time, he had glorified Italy’s power, exalted Germany’s friendship, and attacked France and Britain. Thus, how could he now say that he was joining Germany in war because he not only distrusted it, but because he feared it? Would he not cut a very poor figure? So, it is no surprise that these two reasons are never mentioned, not even in the slightest of conversations. Mussolini did not say these reasons, because he could not lose face.

As for everything else, all that Acerbo reports is true and can be verified through, for instance, Ciano’s Diary. Thus, it is true – and Ciano reports it – that in Austria and in Germany people, from the lowest level up to some Gauleiters, openly spoke of taking Trieste and the Friuli. It is true – and Goebbels wrote it more or less clearly in his journal after September 1943 – that the Reich liked the idea of pushing its border south of Venice. And it is true that, despite the formal agreements about transferring people (those who chose to do so) from Upper Adige to Germany, the Germans were involved in chicanery, in the autumn of 1939, so that it seemed that everything was delayed until the end of 1942, while in actuality, the transfer was to proceed a lot faster.

Therefore, Mussolini chose war. Again, Acerbo reports that he was made aware, by Marshall Rodolfo Graziani, after the war, while they were both in jail, on Procida Island, awaiting trial: “…of a briefing Mussolini held on April 10th [1940] with the commanders of the military (including the Crown Prince) and the Army Corps, and that he secretly announced that Italy was going to enter the war, specifying, ‘not together with Germany, nor for Germany, but on the side of Germany.’”

Immediately thereafter Acerbo comments that it was: “One of those alliterations he loved so much, and with such clumsiness, he was sure, in his last years, to unravel however an intricate a matter might be, and thus to overcome every obstacle and pass over the steepest position!” Acerbo knew Mussolini quite well and spoke about him carefully. But we must admit that this phrase may also be explained that Italy entered the war because of the fear of Germany – thus, not allied to the Reich, not to give the Reich advantage, but on the side of the Reich; and, we might add, in order not to give the Reich a reason to attack Italy afterwards.

Was Acerbo the only eyewitness? No, there is further evidence, starting in the spring of 1939. On March 15th, Ciano and Mussolini were concerned and worried about the German annexation of

Czechoslovakia. Quoting Dante Alighieri, Mussolini told Ciano that the thing to do was “To accept the German game in order to avoid being ‘unpleasant to God and to His enemies.’” In the days that followed, Mussolini and Ciano talked about this issue. Ciano wrote: “Egli thinks the Prussian hegemony in Europe is already established. He thinks that a coalition of all the other powers, including us, could slow the German expansion but could not stop it… I asked whether in such a condition it is convenient for us to make the alliance; or, instead, to keep our full liberty of choosing in the future, according to our interests. The Duce shows himself to be clearly in favour of the alliance.”

This is not exactly an admission, but there is more. News about the bad attitude of the Germans toward the Italians came through many channels, and on August 18, 1939, five days after having seen Hitler in Berchtesgaden, Ciano wrote that Mussolini “fears Hitler’s wrath. He thinks that a denunciation – or anything similar – of the [Steel] Pact convince Hitler to abandon the Polish issue get Italy to foot the bill.”

But this too must be considered carefully, for it could be a sort of self-defence by Ciano. However, it becomes additional evidence when you we place it in context with what Acerbo wrote. Regardless, we have more.

On September 9, 1939, the Hungarian ambassador told Mussolini that, should Germany win the war, a terrible threat would descend upon the whole world, including Italy.
On September 10, the Italian ambassador to Berlin visited the Duce and told him that the German people, when told of Italian non-intervention, started speaking of betrayal.
On September 30, according to the minister of National Education, Giuseppe Bottai, when speaking of fuel supply-chains needed by the Army and the Air Force, Mussolini said that he did not want to start the war until he had them: “With whom and against whom? A quick hint: ‘… until these reserves are met, we shall not engage – not with group A, nor with group B.’ The possibility of a choice between two rivals yet existed.”

On December 8, 1939, there was a long meeting of the Great Council of Fascism about the Italian position. After an order by Mussolini, Ciano detailed the whole situation. Ciano related all the tricks and lies of the Germans up to that moment. In his Diary he briefly mentions this, but Bottai reported that Mussolini said: “Italy? She declares her loyalty to the pacts (“don’t we have, by the way, also a pact with England?”) – and waits the outcomes. Here there are two empires in a fight, two lions. We have no interest in an overwhelming victory of any of the two. If England should win, she will not leave us other than the sea for taking a bath. If Germany [should win she will not leave us] even any air to breathe. One can only wish that the two lions tear each other to pieces, leaving just their tails on the ground. And that we go and pick up their tails.”

A few more rumors of unfriendly German attitude were reported in the next few weeks. Then, on March 4, 1940, the Duce met General Marras, the Italian military attaché in Berlin. Ciano reported: “I accompany the Duce to General Marras, who is rather pessimistic about the German mind toward us. “In spite of formal respect, he is convinced that the Germans have unmitigated hate, and worse, contempt, for us, for what they call the second betrayal. No war objective would be as popular in Germany, for the old and new generations, as an armed descent to the blue skies and warm seas. These and other things Marras honestly told the Duce, who was quite badly shaken.”

According to Ciano, on April 10, 1940, after the German occupation of Denmark and landing in Norway, Mussolini said: “The King would have us join in, just to pick up the broken pots. Hope they will not break them on hour heads!”

Who were “they?” Ciano does not say; nor does he say whether Mussolini later was clearer about it. But when considering the contemporary situation at that moment, it’s hard to think that “they” could be the Allies.

It is true that after August 18, 1939, Ciano never wrote that the Duce feared the Germans. But he told other people, at least Bottai, who, on March 29, 1940 noted in his diary that Ciano, when speaking of Mussolini, told him: “Germany winning by herself alone frightens him.” Said this way, this may mean that Mussolini was frightened, as he thought that Germany could act against Italy after having won in the West. But this may also mean that if Germany won without Italian help, Italian diplomatic situation would be weaker. Which of the two? We don’t know. But there is additional evidence of Mussolini’s fear, and we get it from Filippo Anfuso who, at that time, was the Chief of the Office of the Foreign Minister Ciano. Anfuso wrote in his memoirs that when, in Spring 1940, Mussolini noticed that Goering asked the new Italian ambassador in Berlin, Dino Alfieri, the date of the Italian intervention, he said: “… if Goering spoke that way, it seems clear that we cannot back down. After France, one day, it could be our turn, and it would beat everything to have signed a Pact called a Steel Pact and then to be invaded by Germany and be on top of the anvil.”

That should be enough, but we have more. General Roatta, who had been the military attaché in Berlin before Marras and later became one of the foremost army commanders, wrote that Mussolini, during the period of neutrality: “… considered the possibility if not to enter the war on the Allied side, the at least to have to face some excessive German demands and prevarication. He perfectly realized, at that time, the German mentality and the dangers she could pose for us. In November ’39, when I was back from Berlin – where I had been military attaché – to be appointed Army Deputy Chief of Staff, Mussolini asked me what I thought about the future intentions of the Reich, and about the countries occupied during the war, and I decidedly answered that, in case of victory, the Reich will annex, in one way or in another, not only the occupied countries, but also the states nearby, excluding none, and introducing in all of them what in Berlin was called “die deutsche Ordnung,” that is to say “the German order.” This assessment the Duce heard without any surprise.”

This is important, but not definitive, because it took place about November 1939. Although this is less important, or had lesser influence, than what Marras said in March 1940, nevertheless, together with the others, it too provides additional evidence for the larger view, and underlines a continuity between what Roatta said and what Marras confirmed six months later.

The second source is provided by general Emilio Faldella, in his L’Italia e la Seconda Guerra Mondiale, first published in 1959. Faldella was a veteran who had been in the military intelligence and then was the chief, in 1937 to 1939, of the Italian Military Mission in Spain to General Franco. Later, Faldella was appointed to many important posts, and had deep inside knowledge about a lot of things. In the first chapter of his book, he wrote three times that Mussolini (in 1939 to 1940) feared German revenge or retaliation. Faldella wrote that on May 11, 1940, after having received the message dated on May 9th, announcing to him the German attack on France, Mussolini “revealed to Sebastiani his intimate thoughts: ‘If we continue with neutrality, as many would like, we too will get a nice Pope’s indignation telegram to be flapped in front of the occupying Germans!’ The fear of German revenge increased as time passed.”

The second mention of Mussolini’s fear is made by Faldella quoting the already mentioned witness by Anfuso. The third is Faldella’s own opinion. He writes: “The more the possibility of a German victory appeared certain, the more Mussolini feared Hitler’s revenge.” We have two problems here. The first is that the latter assessment, if Faldella’s own (and whoever has dealt with Italian military history knows how reliable and cautious he was), he wrote, one can easily assume, by way of personal knowledge, derived from his position before and during the war. The second problem is about Sebastiani’s quotation. As is known, Osvaldo Sebastiani was Mussolini’s personal secretary from 1934 to 1941. Unfortunately, Faldella, as was normal at that time, did not mention the source of that Sebastiani’s quotation. Sebastiani mysteriously disappeared in 1944 when some unknown people picked him up at home. It would be very interesting to know where Faldella found that information. But that is now impossible find. But we can admit that given Faldella’s uncontested reliability, what he wrote must be true indeed.

The last eyewitness is the former Minister of Colonies Alessandro Lessona, who, in his memoirs, wrote twice that Mussolini entered the war because he feared the Germans.

Here, we have an additional reliability problem, Lessona left the ministry by the end of 1937, and in 1940 was simply a professor at the university of Rome. His memoirs appeared only in 1958 and must be taken cautiously, for he could have modified facts here and there. Of course, one of Lessona’s cousins was General Pirzio Biroli, an army commander, and Lessona was on very good terms with many prominent people of the Regime, including Badoglio, Balbo and Bottai. Thus, he could have known from one or some of them about what he wrote; that is to say that in 1940 Mussolini felt the victory to be on the German side and. “Thus, convinced of serving Italian interests, he intervened in the war to prevent the winner getting his revenge on Italy, when the winner was disposing the future of Europe.” Many pages later, he says, “The tragic decision of entering the war (I, who was absolutely against it, must say that) has a moving reason: That of having thought to give the Italian people at last the hoped-for prosperity, and to safeguard the people against revenge in case of a German victory.”

It is impossible to assess whether what Lessona wrote was due to what he knew from a first- or second-hand source; and, if the latter, we do not know which source it was; nor we can determine whether (in case it was only his personal opinion) it was grounded in political reality, or was simply an attempt to justify Mussolini. Regardless, when added to other evidence. Lessona’s witness is validated, whose reliability is indirectly confirmed by all the others I have already quoted. Thus, it is an additional brick in our construction,

In order to avoid the war with Germany, the only thing Mussolini could have done was to join Germany, thus calming the Germans and depriving them of the possibility of complaining and protesting for the lack of any Italian commitment. Thereafter, he would fight a parallel war – as it was called – by continually avoiding German involvement with Italy, and to gain whatever was possible. But most of all to wait, and keep Italian forces as much intact as possible, in order to resist German encroachment, and, if possible, meet the clash with Germany which one could predict was not so far off in the future. Italy did not want such a clash and had done what it could to avoid the war. But now neutrality was no longer possible. It was either war alongside the Germans, or war against the Germans. But absolutely, war. Thus, on June 10th. Mussolini made the announcement to the world.

We know that Mussolini imagined that peace talks would begin shortly; with only a few weeks of war and a few casualties. The few casualties, however, had their own political and military impact. Moreover, as said and as an appalled Marshal Enrico Caviglia remarked in his journal, Italy had practically no money, as the competent minister admitted in front of the Chamber of the Fasci and Corporations – the new name of the Chamber of Deputies.

The situation remained critical and Mussolini decided to safeguard Italian military power in case of a German-Italian clash in the post-war era. In the best-case scenario, the current war would weaken Germany so much that Hitler would prefer not to attack Italy. In the worst-case scenario, Italy would at least have the power to resist. Conversely, the Germans looked with suspicion and derision at Italy. Marshal Caviglia wrote that under these circumstances, Italy undertook a very strange strategy – to declare war on France and Britain but only move forces when the end of the war was near. This way, Mussolini could demonstrate that his troops were fighting and it would be sufficient to claim territory as compensation for participation.

Additional proof of this approach by Mussolini may be given by the armistice with France. As is well known, the Italian offensive on the Western Alps was a failure; and it is also well known that no attempt was made against Corsica, Provence, or the French colonies, such as, Tunisia and French Somaliland. It is true that a landing in Provence would have been difficult, given the French stronghold of Toulon. But one must also remember that if Italy did nothing against France, France had a lot against Italy, despite the brief shelling of Genoa and some other irrelevant shelling along the Ligurian coast.

What happened after ceasefire ceased well known too. Italy was on the winning side but asked for only 83.271 hectares, that is to say 832 square kilometers and three quarters. It was definitely not much, especially when discovering that during the Italo-German meeting held on June 18, 1940 in Munich, Hitler recognized the right of the Italians’ demand to occupy continental France up to the Rhône, as well as Corsica, Tunisia and Djibouti. But this was not enough for Hitler: He also advised Italy to widen the occupation to a belt along the Swiss border, to link the German occupation zone to the Italian one, thus isolating non-occupied France. Hitler hoped to extend the Italian occupied zone right up to the Saône, including any good railway line which the Italians were free to take. General Mario Roatta, the former commander of Italian volunteers in Spain, who spoke excellent German, on June 20th chose the line linking Chambéry, Dijon, and Bourg-en-Bresse and submitted his project to Hitler in person, who then also approved the project of giving Italy another similar railway into Spain, such as, the Avignon-Nîmes-Perpignan line, consequently widening the Italian occupation of Southern France.

But Mussolini refused. In fact, Roatta and the Italian mission had achieved a great result, far more than what one could expect after what was done on the Alps. So, why did Mussolini not accept it? And, above all, why did he not accept, when considering that on June 23 German military attaché Enno von Rintelen gave Roatta a personal telegram from Hitler, in which Hitler asked Italian troops be sent to a zone twenty kilometers from Geneva, in order to join the German forces, and when considering that the Wiesbaden Italo-German agreements of June 29, 1940 left to Italy a portion of French territory up to the Rhône?

This seems to be quite different from what is normally known after the surviving draft of the minutes written by P. Schmidt. But while German documents were mainly destroyed during the war, practically all the Italian documents survived. So, both the Italian official accounts published by the Italian Army Staff’s Historical Service were written after a careful and long consideration of the original documents, still conserved in the Army Archive in Rome. Further details could come from General Roatta’s private archive, which is still the property of the Roatta family, and remains inaccessible. The only point the Italian documents have in common with Schmidt’s draft is that Hitler asked Mussolini not to ask the French for their fleet, explaining that he feared this could push the French to give the British all their ships.

The reason is given by the official Italian account about the occupation of France, where is highlighted an aspect previously remarked upon in other official accounts about the Western Alps campaign. When Mussolini asked Roatta how many divisions were needed to garrison occupied France, Roatta answered that, before the foreseen disarmament of the French Army, Italy must keep there at least fifteen divisions, which later could be reduced to ten, but never less than ten. Mussolini replied that he could demand from France nothing more than what had been already been taken. that is to say, nothing or a just little more. This has always been seen as a bad conscience and the acknowledgment of the poor performance by Italian troops on the Alps. But, as both the official accounts underline, in June 1940, the Italian army had in Italy only fifty-three divisions; and sending fifteen divisions would seriously deplete the army. That is, or at least could be, a concrete reason to explain why Mussolini refused. And it a far more concrete reason than either conscience or shame.

Hitler would use a widened Italian occupation as a way to reduce the number of German troops garrisoning in France. But Mussolini probably looked at it as a problem. Having a huge number of troops far from their supply points, close to the Germans and separated from Italy by the Alps meant too many troops, too far away – thus, too much risk, too many problems. Thus, best to do nothing at all. Both official accounts suggest that Mussolini acted this way because he was thinking of further conquests and needed troops. My opinion is that this was added demonstration of what was probably Mussolini’s fear – he considered the Germans more a risk and potential enemy than as an ally, and thus he preferred to keep in hand as many troops as possible. The discussion – if any – is open.

Ciro Paoletti, a prominent Italian historian of military history, is the Secretary General of the Italian Commission of Military History. He is the author of 25 books, and more than 400 other smaller works\, published in Italy and abroad, and mostly dealing with modern and contemporary Italian military history and policy.

The image shows An Italian of Mussolini, an aerial portrait by Mario Carli, painted 1931.

The Wit Collection: Art History Jokes 2

Dr. Mark Stocker continues his merriment this month, with just a few more arty(?), artsy(?) jokes. Here he is, then, thrumming his wit for Thalia…

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What was Angelica Kauffmann’s advertising slogan?… Put the Madam into Adam!

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Which fin-de-siècle German artist is especially admired for his tenacity?… Max Klinger.

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What is the name of the lovely new bathroom in Wardour Castle designed by the son of Sir Terence Conran?… Jasper’s John.

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What did the unemployed 19th century French art historian say when she landed a job at the zoo?… “Je suis pleine de Bonheur!”

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Scene: The pearly gates of heaven…
The late David Watkin: You’re a very fetching guardian angel, but I have to tell you I observe a solecism in that portico.
Angel: Sorry Dave, our quota of architectural historians of the classical tradition is full. On yer bike!

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Exhibition installer: I’m looking for a painter who will enhance the red tints of this wall.
Curator: Use Henner!

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A well-known and obliging late Victorian architect would tell his clients:
“Shaw will do! But by George it won’t be bad. You could always go to the Webb site, and if you need an indoor pool, there’s obviously Waterhouse!”

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What was John Bratby’s response to the impact of Abstract
Expressionism?… A sinking feeling.

Dr Stocker describes this painting as “iconic” which makes us at The Postil slightly worried about his spiritual beliefs.

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What is the name of the latest book on Bratby and the Kitchen Sinkers?…
Life is a Lavatory, Old Chum.

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John Bratby was a hugely popular artist throughout the UK, whose fame and acclaim stretched from Bogside, Londonderry to Looe, Cornwall.

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In order to laugh even more uproariously at Dr Stocker’s jokes about John Bratby, find out more about this fascinating artist courtesy of the Daily Mail.

Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.

The image shows La Clairvoyance, by René Magritte, painted in 1936.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila: An Authentic Reactionary’s Critique of Modernity

I.

The philosophical, political, and theological thought of Don Nicolás Gómez Dávila (Bogotá, 1913 – 1994), perhaps one of the few authentic reactionaries of our time, rises as a reaction – and a most authentic one – to an intellectual, religious and aesthetic crisis whose invariably dire consequences form the heart of his overwhelming critical discourse: That crisis is that of the twentieth-century, with all that it implies.

All of Dávila’s work is a serious and passionate attempt to root out some cursed codes that have upset the immutable essence of the human, down through the centuries (and, by extension, the essence of the divine). But at the same time, his work establishes a solid, intellectual alternative to the inanity of our present era.

Unfinished philosopher, or consistent thinker who renounced the fatuous pretense of getting on the pulpit of philosophical pontification, Dávila never finished – that is, in writing – a philosophical system properly speaking, if he even sought to make such a claim, which would not have ceased to be ironic in a thinker of his stature and clairvoyance, for there is nothing dogmatic or conclusive in his work, if read intelligently. It is simply lucid.

Like Nietzsche, like the best of Cioran, he resorted to the ingenious and flammable spark of the aphorism, capable of setting fire to the largest surface only with its friction. But instead of calling such outbreaks of genius aphorisms, he called them scholia (escolios), thus approaching Spinoza.

Though a thinker in fragments, Dávila offers, on the contrary, a philosophical discourse of absolute coherence and integrity, whose intellectual depth and paradoxical acuity is unparalleled among philosophers and thinkers in the area of contemporary Hispanicism (both in Spain and in Spanish America). His references, on the other hand, leave no room for doubt about the depth of thought that pervades his discourse: Thucydides, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne, Juan Donoso Cortés, Jacob Burkhardt, are some of his distinguished professed teachers.

A miniaturist of language rather than a writer, a thinker rather than a scholar, and an artist of words; better than a mere philosopher, Dávila exemplified, with his illustrious reactionary position, one of the most notable, coherent and fortunate examples of ethical, aesthetic dignity and, if you will, spiritual dignity to be remembered.

Ignored for decades, his silent and monastic life, removed from the madding crowd, from the petty intellectual environments, from the miserable academic trivialities, went far beyond such conventions – his repeated refusal to publish and rub shoulders with power; his greatness of mind and keen sense of duty towards one’s own self, led him to make of his existence a true aesthetic exercise, and that of an “authentic reactionary.”

Secluded in his mansion, within the walls of a fabulous library of thirty thousand volumes, he took advantage of being well-off and devoted his life entirely to the complex exercise of thought. The most visible result of such efforts was his magnum opus, recovered for our benefit today, thanks to the effort, it must be said, of people like Ernst Jünger, Botho Strauss or Franco Volpi, among other enthusiasts – and which, under the title of Escolios a un texto implícito (Scholia to an Implicit Text ), heralds one of the most prodigious, valuable and imperishable examples of the effort of human thought during the 20th-century.

If the “heart” of Dávila’s work is his Escolios, then the “brain” in his Textos – a strange but effective comparison: What the Escolios forcefully feel (the incendiary jolt of the aphorism), the Textos reason through (the discursive continuity of the prose). A satellite accessory for some, Textos I carries in its pages the “key” stone of construction; that is, the enigmatic implicit text, the standard of future battles. But that is how one of his best readers, Francisco Pizano de Brigard, saw this work – and as far as we are concerned, we will stick with this option, which is very well justified – for where else can we turn? To the Notes, those conclusive sketches? To the fragmentary Escolios, despite their fullness? Is it worth the redundancy, the fragmentariness? Or perhaps the marginal texts, such as, the article entitled “The Authentic Reactionary,” or the one entitled, “De jure,” which remains inaccessible? In the absence of an “obvious” philosophical text, or even that which is simply obvious, we will take the aforementioned implicit text as the starting point for our precarious, well-intentioned exposition. So, let’s get into the matter.

The first idea may seem simple to a reader wearied by established ideologies: Capitalism and communism have a similar goal in common. They are different masks that cover, therefore, the same face: The nature of man (displaced to the political realm). A broken dialogue, therefore, between two democracies, whose mimicry becomes a forced conflict: The bourgeois and the popular, eternal rivals: “If communism points out the economic contradictions (the alienation of man, abstract freedom, legal equality) of bourgeois societies – capitalism underlines, in parallel, the inefficiency of the economy, the totalitarian absorption of the individual, political slavery, the reestablishment of real inequality in communist societies.”

In effect, Dávila does not seem to take a position on either one side or the other, even though the biased reader may consider him prone “to the right, and even to the extreme right.” Big mistake: The author’s reactionary discourse, extremely lucid, and part of the contradiction that directs communism and capitalism towards supposedly antagonistic goals – when, in fact, their goal is the same: Property, an obstacle for the former, a stimulus for the latter, without assuming otherwise: Ownership after all.

Bourgeois ideologies and ideologies of the proletariat consequently rush towards the same common hope: Man – “If communism denounces the bourgeois fraud, and capitalism the communist deception, both are historical mutants of the democratic principle, both yearn for a society where man is, in short, lord of his destiny.”

The theological, political, cultural reading of Dávila thus ratifies democracy as an anthropotheistic religion; a theology of the man-god is thus categorized: “The divinity that democracy attributes to man is not a figure of rhetoric, a poetic image, an innocent hyperbole, in short – but a strict theological definition” – a theological definition inherent in the perverted nature of the modern, whose essential corruption is nothing but an unspeakable product of the fixed idea of the discourse of modernity: Progress.

Progress, which is theodicy of futuristic anthropotheism, otherwise justifies all the atrocities of man in the name of the progress of humanity. The process of progressive improvement cancels the time of man and restores the no-time of man-god. It is mechanistic and industrial orgy, which disrupts the useless human effort in the tedious transformation of matter. It is filthy monologue, which sacrifices perishable existences to its own ends in the name of the fixed idea, thus banishing the supreme value from itself, because as Dávila poetically affirms:

“Life is a value.
To live is to choose life.”

Consequently, it thus becomes a theory of values which rests on two filial concepts: Atheism and progress, in need of an adequately emphatic rhetoric to penetrate deep among their potential victims.

The mere play of matter thus implies a universal determinism whose product is none other than a rigid universe, emptied of all possibility, where the cult of technology is the verb of the man-god, the principle of the sovereignty of the modern state.

Even so, the democratic era, and with it, economic development that is inherent to it, has money as the only universal value, its first and last reason: “Money is the only universal value that the pure democrat abides by, because it symbolizes a useful piece of nature, and because its acquisition is assignable to human effort alone. The cult of work, with which man flatters himself, is the engine of the capitalist economy; and the disdain for hereditary wealth, for the traditional authority of a name, for the gratuitous gifts of intelligence or beauty, expresses the puritanism that condemns, with pride, what the effort of man does not grant itself.”

This terrifying fact degenerates, therefore, into economic robbery and petty individualism, generators of ethical indifference and intellectual anarchism that dominate the modern world.

Faced with such detritus, the only path that Dávila clings to is that of reactionary rebellion. His great work, Escolios, is about such a quixotic undertaking, an implicit text, putting into practice reactionary rebellion through his most powerful weapon: The word.

II.

Entering the immense garden of the Escolios – a Versailles on paper – is an arduous undertaking, although stimulating over time: Tasting its fruits, savoring them for the right time and extracting the nutritious pulp from them – that is, something that is not empty didacticism. But it will become a fruitful task of enlightened pleasure for the intelligent reader. In this sense, Scholia to an Implicit Text is a healthy elitist work, against the current, and very politically incorrect, aimed at reactionary minorities; or, failing that, at awakened minds whose thinking does not gravitate around the state of predetermined ideas.

But what an effort to synthesize – if something like that can even be done, to further synthesize the essence of the rose – would go far beyond the narrow margins that we have imposed on ourselves. Even so, Dávila’s thematic ambition transcends the heterogeneous and shapeless mélange, while advancing a compact mass, more or less consistent, and capable of standing up to a hypothetical attempt at analysis.

But as we say, it is that thematic ambition, that looking from various points of view through a gaze that is neither Manichean nor tendentious, which allows its author to carry out, in a subtle and distanced way, the most brilliant critical x-ray of modernity: Democracy, the nature of the politician, the essence of communism, the Marxist problematic, the Left and the Right, technology, liberalism, the idea of progress, life and death in modern society, art and literature, God and religion, the modern Church, culture, atheism, the bourgeoisie, the work of the historian, intelligence, youth, mediocrity, sex, Sade, Plato or Nietzsche, as well as the privileged figure of the reactionary, among many other philosophical questions of the first order appear and reappear like recurring milestones, closely linked to each other by a fine chain of ideas. Such accumulation, on the contrary, does not degenerate into a string of tedious evidence of a graphomaniac charlatan, but rather into a disturbing problem not without acute paradoxes. This makes Scholia to an Implicit Text a river-like book, always in motion, capable of tackling a profound (in the real sense of the word) question anywhere, without betraying its ultimate meaning.

Of course, one of the most violent and effective criticisms, which is not really effective, despite its abrupt reiteration, is that carried out against democracy, a democracy understood not in the abstract, but empirically in the light of facts, and therefore as fraud, as effective apotheosis of the dominant mediocrity: “The bigger a democratic country, the more mediocre its rulers have to be: They are elected by more people.” And these mass rulers are none other than politicians, obviously: “Politicians, in democracy, are the condensers of imbecility.” Imbecility inherent in the crowds themselves and the basis of the politician’s explicit speech: “The democrat only respects the opinion that a large choir applauds.”

This unquestionable statement the author rethinks throughout his discourse, with historical considerations: “Democratic killings belong to the logic of the system. The ancient massacres of man’s illogism;” and from this, the following scholium: “Democracy celebrates the cult of humanity on a pyramid of skulls.” Recently updated pyramid: A concert-tribute to the victims of terrorism? A commemorative statue for a certain defender of democracy? In the name of democracy… But what exactly does democracy play out, play at?

Dávila does not hesitate to point with his pen to the main subject, a subject annihilated at the root: The stupid or the insane, depending on the times: “Democracy, in times of peace, has no more fervent supporter than the stupid, nor in times of revolution a collaborator more active than the madman.” And to give consistency to his thesis, Dávila only has to look to the past: “Athenian democracy does not inspire, except those who ignore the Greek historians.” The colossal figure of Thucydides, once again, strides forth to meet him.

In the midst of this abject masquerade that is modern democracy, the parodic figure of the politician is reduced to his most apt, creeping position: “The politician may not be able to think any stupidity, but he is always capable of saying it,” because ultimately , even “the ‘politician’ with the most delicate conscience barely manages to be a modest whore.”

An impassive critic of both the right and the left, as a genuine reactionary, Dávila throws some of his sharpest, sarcastic darts at the left: “The leftist miraculously avoids stepping on the calluses of the authentically powerful. The leftist only vilifies the simulacra of power.” Dávila concludes that in any case “leftism is the banner under which the bourgeois mentality of the nineteenth-century maintains its hegemony into the twentieth.” But, in the end, “the left and the right have signed, against the reactionary, a secret pact of perpetual aggression.”

The critique of democracy thus finds a point of equilibrium in the critique of Marxism, whose illustrious exposition, once again, clings to historical-economic reasons, drawn even from the most prosaic daily life: “Marxists economically define the bourgeoisie, to hide from us that they belong to the bourgeoisie.” But his criticism does not end in the petty contradictions of the mundane, since as a current of thought, “Marxism did not take a seat in the history of philosophy thanks to its philosophical teachings, but thanks to its political successes.” Only a certain exception is allowed with the very promoter of the pseudoscience of yore: “Marx has been the only Marxist that Marxism did not abominate.”

After these brilliant meanderings, the reactionary attack on modern society manifests everywhere, like a constant leitmotif, a kind of insect – of an invertebrate idea – that never ceases to whine behind Dávila’s ear, even within the walls of his aristocratic library, there where he feels farthest from that despicable and sordid society composed of a violently homogeneous mob: “The anonymity of the modern city is as intolerable as the familiarity of current customs. Life should resemble a room of well-educated people, where everyone knows each other but where no one embraces.” The very product of that crude and democratic society, “the modern man tries to elaborate with lust, violence and vileness, the innocence of a hellish paradise.”

It is not necessary to illustrate it – it is enough to open our eyes and look around us to confirm what has been said, since it is true that “modern society has been progressively reduced to whirlpools of animals in heat,” while the two poles of the modern life are clearly business and sex. And in the midst of such nonsense, “recent generations circulate among the rubble of Western culture like caravans of Japanese tourists through the ruins of Palmyra;” mere dots. Such a terrifying and accurate panorama duly crystallizes into one of the author’s greatest scholium: “Modern society does not educate to live but to serve.”

In midst of such a desert of skulls, a mass grave where everyone fits but no one actually belongs – and that, and nothing else, is democracy in the long run – there is nothing left for man but to die gracefully. Here are truly authentic reactionary words: “When everyone wants to be something, it is only decent to be nothing.”

José Antonio Bielsa Arbiol is a writer, art historian and graduate in philosophy. His work has appeared in many media outlets.

This article appears courtesy of El Correo de España. It originally in two parts, in Spanish. Translation by N. Dass.

The image shows Poem of the Soul, 18, Reality by Louis Janmot.

In Plain Sight: Who Are “We, The People?”

Introduction: Misunderstandings

Anyone with an ounce of spiritual awareness and emotional sensitivity knows low-level blues some of the time. Even our metric friends, they who hold but a diminutive gram’s worth of discernment, know well this vale of tears. In the catalogue of woes which stalk long downtrodden man, the disconnect between impression and reality is prominent.

At a political hearing I attended earlier this year, for example, I was taken aback to learn how divergent our general understanding of the immune system is as compared to where science presently stands. What we are taught in high school is about a century out of date.

Another example is seen with driverless trucking features on TV. Broadcast in North America and Europe, these specials have all the schadenfreude that reality TV can dish up. The producers narrate as high-tech lorries roll across the screen. As these programs unfold they inevitably cut back and forth to befuddled truckers. Always American Southerners, the interviewees coyishly confront their livelihood evaporating before their bloodshot eyes. Remarkably nonplussed (or fronting heavily), they assure the host that such machines will, “Never take off.” After all, “Who’d you trust on a highway, me or some robot.” The producers have made their point: the wagoneers are out of touch with reality.

We won’t even get started on the perception-reality dynamic surrounding face masks vis-a-vis virus protection.

Think of all the lost opportunities, the mistaken conclusions, the wasted health and wealth and peace of mind which is out there because people’s perceptions do not match reality. It adds up and it wears one down. I suppose there’s some proof of Original Sin in all this. And we see the same disconnect with politics.

A Most Popular Crew

One error heard throughout these States united concerns invocation of “the People.” Their mention, typically an ever-present warble, becomes a clashing gong each presidential election. And why wouldn’t it? The purported benefit to the people can justify any scheme. Is mechanical abortion good? Yes, because the people benefit. Should it be permitted? Of course not, babies are people too. Some foreign country must be invaded to avenge the people! No, it mustn’t. People might be killed. Taxes are necessary to provide services to the people. Taxes steal the people’s money. You get the point. Sprinkle the people on it, and any topic is justified.

The purpose of this article is to pin down the members of this timely clique. Who are the people? Or rather, who are the People? (n.b., We’ll get into the capitalization significance below). The People must really be special to have so many skins talking about them! The purpose of this article is not to lampoon the present condition of Western democracy, a ludicrous system custom-fit for every two-bit grifter from your town hall alderman to your Supreme Court heavy hitter. Nor do I write this with a moralizing spirit. I am not saying the conclusion herein is good or bad. Alas, political discourse is frustratingly given over to what people think of this or that occurrence; little attention is given to how things are. Let us put our emotions and impressions and solutions aside. Let us look at the naked reality.

The Rub

That we not beat around the bush, the People are a specific group of men distinct from the mass of Americans. Almost certainly you, kind reader, are not among the People. Their concerns are not your concerns, their loves are not your loves, their fears are not your fears. Only by a polite omission on the part of the People themselves, combined with a baseless and monstrous assumption on your part, do you believe you are among the People.

By blood, or marriage, the People were or are those related to the 18th-century constitutors of the state and Federal governments of America, as well as those men so involved with states later incorporated into these United States. Far from being a stealthy clique, they number in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps the millions. Far from being secretive, their identity is trumpeted in both the legal documents they publish and it is plainly seen in their behavior. With eyes to see, one stands in awe of just how explicit, frequent, and honest the People are in advertising their distinction from the regular Americans they rule over.

There are four reasons which support this unusual and uncomfortable, but inevitable, conclusion. They are (1) legal grammar, (2) the Founders’ historical awareness, (3) the U.S. Constitution, and (4) the present and historical behavior of the People.

Specificity & Hierarchy: Legal Grammar

The legal system is specific. Indeed, specificity is shy only of artificiality when comprehending the legal control matrix. Without general nouns there is no way whereby one group can be designated from another. Likewise, without proper nouns there is no way things of a kind can be isolated from their larger mass. What book-hoarding boon is a library card if it has no name to it and if anyone in the town may use it? What fear does a speeding ticket hold if there is no specific man to mail it to? Without specificity, statists cannot exert their will upon their subjects. Legality demands specificity.

General specificity only gets one so far. Hierarchy is needed for greater distinction. If we all have individualized library cards, to carry over the above example, who goes first if we both want to check out the same book? To see the People for who they are we need to unlock the hierarchy their system assumes. The maxims of law and the doctrine of capitis diminutio are our keys.

The maxims are the skeleton upon which the legal system hangs. They’re analogous to a Catholic’s examination of conscience for Confession. They are less a list of hard and fast regulations and more of a general collection of proverbs which explain the principles of legal land. Woe betide those who do not make this distinction! The penitent becomes a neurotic and the barrister a hack should they put such enumerations literally into practice. Many a soul and many a lawyer has been ruined by this oversight. When it comes to the maxims of law, the spirit rules and the letter kills.

The creator controls, is one such proverb. In fact, it’s a truism so fundamental to legalism that it often does not appear in published lists of maxims. Only the frequent reading of case law, or “reading between the lines” on the compiled legal proverbs cited in Black’s or Bouvier’s dictionaries, will discover this plain principle. Upon this doctrine, for example, I have the sole authority to decide what gets mentioned in this article. I am the creator of this article; I am it’s sovereign. However, should I desire this piece to be published on a platform created by another, I must submit this creation to that creation, myself being the petitioning party. I must subordinate this sovereign creation to that one (i.e., for editing, formatting, etc.). From the doctrine of “the creator controls” the whole legal structure flows.

Capitis deminutio is a principle which the Founding Fathers, mostly lifelong barristers and/or merchants, would have been familiar with, at the establishment of the country’s governing system. A concept from Roman law, a system which all English-speaking structures eventually default to, should there be no usable precedents, capitis deminutio designates the amount of control an entity is under. Long story short, so that we don’t get tangled in jargon, the capitalization of the first letter of a noun in legal land designates something as both a specific something, and under the ownership of another. If you are up for a load of jargon, here’s the definition of capitis diminutio from Black’s Law, 2nd edition: “In Roman law, [capitis diminutio was a] diminishing or abridgment of personality. This was a loss or curtailment of a man’s status or aggregate of legal attributes and qualifications, following upon certain changes in his civil condition. It was of three kinds, enumerated as follows:

Capitis diminutio maxima. The highest or most comprehensive loss of status. This occurred when a man’s condition was changed from one of freedom to one of bondage, when he became a slave. It swept away with it all rights of citizenship and all family rights.

Capitis diminutio media. A lesser or medium loss of status. This occurred where a man lost his rights of citizenship, but without losing his liberty. It carried away also the family rights.

Capitis diminutio minima. The lowest or least comprehensive degree of loss of status. This occurred where a man’s family relations alone were changed. It happened upon the arrogation of a person who had been his own master, (sui juris,) or upon the emancipation of one who had been under the patria potestas. It left the rights of liberty and citizenship unaltered. See Inst. 1, 1G, pr.; 1, 2, 3; Dig. 4, 5, 11; Mackeld. Rom. Law.”

Thus “the People” in a legal document, such as, the U.S. Constitution, or in the mouth of someone holding a legal office ultimately under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, refers to a specific group of people, rather than any old sinner walking on top of America.

Togas & Muskets: The Framers’ Historical Awareness

Second, the claim that the People refer to a specific caste of men is supported by the historical awareness of the Founding Fathers. They were a clutch deeply steeped in ancient history. Their use of antique references bolstered the point that their political arguments were timeless.
When news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord came to holy Connecticut, for example, jovial Israel Putnam immediately dropped his plowing in situ and raced Cincinnatus-style to join the Massachusetts rebels. About two months before Dr. Joseph Warren became Bunker Hill’s most famous casualty, he was seen speechifying on the streets of Boston in a Roman toga!

The American Revolution came at a time when various trends were at their zenith. The equality of armaments between rulers and ruled, is one example, the afterglow of a Protestant revival is another, and the obsession of that generation with the likes of Plutarch and Cicero is yet one more example. The Framers could not get enough of ancient history.

Those acquainted with Rome will be aware of the divide between the patrician and plebeian classes. The interaction between those who traced their families back to the original stock of Rome (patricians) and those who moved in later (plebeians) provides an enduring thread through all the turns and jolts of Roman history. But even the dullest pleb, a manifest client of Sulla or Caesar, one hopelessly addicted to bread and circuses, would never seriously think the “P” in SPQR (i.e., Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and the People of Rome) meant him. The “P” for People meant the patricians. Everyone else was along for the ride.

Communist countries like China and North Korea are more in line with this Roman bluntness than the democratic West on this point. Everyone knows when an office holder in those countries talks about “the People” they’re referring to the members of the Party, which is considered to be a type of incarnation of the will of the populace.

The American Framers meant to provide against a repeat of the ancient slide towards democracy and chaos. Far from being a sexist, hypocritical oversight, their limit of the voting franchise to men, and only men of property at that, was a direct homage to the early Roman Republic. Of course, they would say, men of maturity and wealth – the material success stories of a community – ought to be the ones to steer the ship of state. Jobbers and renters were not fit to run a county, having so unimpressively run their lives. Reprising the paterfamilias role, the males of the early American republic would stand in for all their family members’ concerns in the public sphere. They would save – not exclude – women, children, and the indigent from the morass of electoral politics.

In Rome the patrician class was not static. There was the process of adoption. Far removed from motives of modern charity or conjugal sterility, adoption was offered to promising youths entering their adult years. The Emperor Augustus is the most famous example of this. It was a means to ensure inheritance in a society with disabilities on women’s ability to inherit property.

Teasing these points out, the existence and stability of the patrician class and their use of adoption, we see how the American constitutors were primed by their interest in Rome to create a governing caste in their “People,” which was stable yet occasionally open to fresh, well-vetted blood via marriage and other forms of incorporation.

In Plain View: The People Define Themselves

The third point is proof from the U.S. Constitution. We take the legal and historical setups above into this consideration. Now that we know the principles under which the Framers operated, the identity of the People is hardly a question at all, as we examine a document they produced.

The U.S. Constitution is a contract using specific legal language. It plainly states for whom the new government exists. It famously begins, “We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” There you have it. The United States Federal government, and its incorporated state entities, exist for the sole benefit of the People.

The “We” and “ourselves” refer to the signatories themselves, the 39 souls who met in Independence Hall. Through the doctrine of delegation, however, the People also included those men who constituted the several state governments which dispatched those representatives to Philadelphia. Remember, the creator controls. Thus, by the agentic, representative relationship, the Peoples of the 13 states were invisibly present at that Pennsylvania meeting, too.

Then there is the mention of “our Posterity.” Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, a text whose definitions are closer to the Founding Fathers’ understanding than our dictionaries, defines posterity as, “Descendants; children, children’s children, etc. indefinitely; the race that proceeds from a progenitor. The whole human race are the posterity of Adam.” His second definition defines posterity as, “In a general sense, succeeding generations; opposed to ancestors.”

We know the first definition is what the constitutors intended because legal language is specific, not general. John Bouvier’s 1839 dictionary defines posterity as, “All the descendants of a person in a direct line.” Therefore, the Posterity mentioned in the Constitution refers to the descendants of the constitutors. Unless you are one of the fortunate few hundred thousand or millions of souls related to those state or national leaders, you are not the People. With the legal definitions, principles, maxims of the system itself, not what we assume they mean, we come to know who the People are. Only an undiscerning and gross assumption suggests that “We the People” applies to all Americans.

Distinctions, Distinctions, Distinctions: The Vote And The Election

Lost on Americans is the distinction between two events which the media conflate into one: The Presidential vote and the Presidential election. They are not the same event. The early November vote is largely a straw poll, while the December election makes the actual choice of President. The November event is a way to take the pulse of the country. It has no direct say-so on who becomes President. It is nearly, but as we shall see not totally, meaningless.

The November vote is analogous to Catholic parish administration. The priest has absolute, official, final say in ordinary decisions for his parish. In no way whatsoever is he obliged to listen to the directives of his council. Yet to go against the zeitgeist of the parish council in a major way would be foolish. It would create sullen, testy subjects. Such a rash override would form a block of uncertain loyalty should the priest run afoul of the bishop at some future date. In the Catholic parish council as soon as in the American vote, the mob has power of a sort. However, that power is consultative not formal. At base, the November vote serves as a psychological release valve. It lets off tension which otherwise would manifest itself in discord and revolution.

The election, a distinct event from the vote, is a quiet event which takes place in the 50 state capitals mid-December of each election cycle. This limited December event has in fact all of the import which people ascribe to the popular November event. The tally of the December electors decides who will be President, not the vote.

The electors are drawn from the suggestions of the state political parties. They’re largely the same sorts who participate as delegates at the state and national conventions charged with selecting the presidential candidates. To follow the cursus honorum of such party delegates/electors is to see the People in their natural habitat.

At this year’s Democratic National Convention, where state party delegates met to choose their national candidate, there was a remarkably helpful commercial released, entitled, “We The People at the Democratic Convention.” A superficial viewing showed a diverse collection of Americans of all races, classes, and creeds. However, a closer re-watch reveals that all participants were sitting office holders, Bar attorneys, or DNC representatives. Once you know who the People are, you’ll never hear politicians the same way again!

By Their Works: The People In Action

Lastly, the People are a specific clique based on the observable behavior of the American ruling class. From time to time, articles appear noting the relationship of this or that politician with this or that movie star or commercial mogul. If only in the interest of trivia, most Americans probably know a few examples of this.

The relationship between the second and sixth Presidents (Adamses), as well as the 41st and 43rd ones (Bushes), are commonly known. The simplified observation that California Governor Gavin Newson is the “nephew” of California Congresswoman and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (herself the daughter of a Maryland Congressman and the sister of a Baltimore mayor) has received some press, as Mr. Newson has run California off a financial cliff in 2020. Less well known is that Gavin Newson is the removed cousin of the far more useful soul, the harpist, Joanna Newson.

And relationality in the ruling class isn’t a modern phenomenon. Chilly Connecticut, where I compose this article, was started by a breakaway faction of Puritans led by Thomas Hooker. The good reverend left his mark in the new-found colony. Aaron Burr, George Catlin, J.P. Morgan, and William Howard Taft were all descendants, with Hooker’s blood running through the veins of the Pierpoint and Edwards families.

I could go on and on. If you spend an hour or two nosing around your socially-distanced library, if you connect the dots between the “related to’s” in the biography section, you’ll see the combination the People have going. You may even visit Google and use their “People also search for” feature to do the same. If you invest the time, these simple experiments about the People will solidify profound conclusions about American government than do isolated barroom anecdotes. If one understands the People to be the specific class they define themselves as, a great many baffling statements and state policies become sensible.

There is a Masonic aspect to this topic I only skirt now. It’s a theme which could swallow this discussion. Suffice it to say, the practitioners of occult schools were well represented at the state and national constituting conventions of late 18th-century America. Within those communities the use of adept symbolism and “open secrets” are no strangers. The occultation of the meaning of the word People is not beyond the pale in this context as well. But before we get all tangled up in “endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:4) we remember that, like the Roman system, the present order is simply codified nepotism. Don’t overthink the motives of the People.

Conclusion

Plato argued that societies need a noble lie to keep them living together harmoniously. Such is the spurious assumption that all Americans are the People. By quietly letting the mass of men believe they are this group, the American system rectified the failings of ancient experiments at self-government.

As noted, one of those failings was a tension between the patricians and the plebeians, the old blue bloods and later settlers. One way to provide against the selfsame tensions which destroyed the Roman Republic is not to mention this social division, however true it is. If the pleb believes he is a patrician a great source of resentment is avoided.

Power to the People!

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut. Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, Cincinnatus abandons the Plough to dictate Laws to Rome, by Juan Antonio de Ribera; painted in 1806.

The Valle de los Caídos: Place of Memory, Faith, And Polemic

The Basilica of Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos (Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen in Combat), inaugurated by Franco in 1959 and consecrated by Pope John XXIII in 1960, is regularly the subject of severe criticism by Spanish politicians and journalists. The controversies grew and reached peak intensity in 2019, following the decision by the Spanish government to proceed with the exhumation of Franco’s body.

The Vice President of the socialist government of José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (President from 2004 to 2011) had wanted, many years ago, to make it “a museum of the dictatorship.” The president of the Forum for Remembrance had wanted it to be converted into a museum “of the horrors of repression.” More radical still, the Irish-born socialist writer, Ian Gibson, no doubt unconsciously following the example of the Islamist demolishers of the Bamiyan Buddhas, suggested destroying the monument by dynamiting it.

It seemed the Law of Historical Memory, of December 26, 2007, had provisionally settled things: the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen in Combat was to continue to be a place of Catholic worship, but political gatherings were prohibited there. This solution seemed reasonable, after all, because this monument, which is the most visited in Spain after the royal palace and the Escorial, is part of Spanish heritage.

But under the guise of justice, the fight against hatred and the fight against “fascism,” the so-called “good-guys,” embodied by a large part of the political caste, is now calling for reform and extension of the Law of Historical Memory and implicitly the generalized, official teaching of only their vision of history. The spirit of the Democratic Transition (spirit of reciprocal forgiveness and consultation between government and opposition), which had so beneficially dominated the years 1976 to 1982, and which the international press then unanimously praised, has now seen better days.

Most of the Spanish media seem to see this no longer as a shameless manipulation of justice and history, as an unacceptable cowardice. The nation, the family, and religion (Catholicism of course, but also Christianity more generally) have once again become privileged targets of subversive political propaganda. The coalition government of President Pedro Sánchez (a socialist at odds, like Zapatero was, with the cultural moderatism of Felipe González) and Vice President Pablo Iglesias (the leader of Podemos, a party shared between supporters of Marxism-Leninism and followers of “Bolivarian” or “Venezuelan” populism) has not ceased to rekindle the ideological battle, or even to foment social unrest with the shameful aim of maintaining power, no matter what the cost.

Over the years, the Valle de los Caídos has become one of the pillars of “progressive-leftist” mythology, and one of the main symbols of the struggle for freedom of expression and worship in Spain. Located 58 kilometers from Madrid, the imposing mausoleum of the Sierra de Guadarrama, where the remains of 33,847 nationals and republicans (including more than 21,000 identified and more than 12,000 unknown) rest alongside each other, was originally designed by Franco and the Francoists as a monument to perpetuate the memory of the “glorious Crusade.” This was, moreover, the point of view of the Church and in particular that of the Catalan cardinal and Primate of Spain, Plá y Deniel, in 1945.

The religious component had been, let us remember, decisive during the uprising of July 1936. During the Spanish Civil War, in the Popular Front area of Spain, nearly 7,000 priests and nuns were killed (not counting the thousands of lay people, eliminated because of their faith), religious worship was prohibited, and the destruction of religious buildings was systematic.

But from the end of the 1950s, on the eve of the inauguration of the monument, once spirits had partly calmed down, the architectural complex had been presented “in the name of reconciliation,” as a tribute to the combatants of the two camps of the Civil War. To this end, the decree-law of August 23, 1957 clearly ordered: “Consequently, it will be the Monument to all those killed in combat, over whose sacrifice the peaceful arms of the Cross will triumph.”

The construction of this colossal temple, sheltered by the mountain and crowned on the outside with a monumental cross, took place between 1940 and 1958. It was entrusted first to the Basque architect, Pedro Muguruza, then to Diego Mendez. The basilica, of pharaonic dimensions, has a capacity of 24,000 people. The nave measures no less than 262 meters. The maximum height at the transept is 41 meters. On the outer plaza 200,000 people can gather. The cross, designed by Muguruza, rises 150 meters, to which must be added the 1400 meters of altitude of the Risco de la Nava. Two cars can pass each other along the arms of the cross, which are each 45 meters long.

Juan de Avalos is the creator of the Valle sculptures, in particular the gigantic heads of the evangelists at the foot of the cross. Before the Civil War, he was active in the ranks of the socialist youth and held the membership card number 7 of the Socialist Party of Mérida. Another interesting detail, the figure of Christ that dominates the main altar and that rests on a cross, whose juniper wood was cut by Franco, is the work of a Basque nationalist, the sculptor Julio Beobide, disciple of the famous painter Ignacio Zuloaga.

Above the altar, the impressive mosaic-covered cupola is the work of Catalan artist, Santiago Padrós y Elías. With a diameter of over 33 meters, it contains no less than 5 million tesserae. The central figure is Christ in Majesty, surrounded by angels, saints and martyrs.

This religious building includes not only a monumental church – elevated to the rank of basilica by Pope John XXIII – but also a Benedictine abbey. Until the Democratic Transition, there was also a Center for Social Studies (Centro de estudios sociales del Valle de los Caídos), the objective of which was to study, collect and disseminate the social doctrine of the Church, so that it inspired laws, and the actions of businessmen and the unions. The ideology of the Franco regime was marked – let us not forget – by the desire to rebuild a state which was to be above all Catholic. And it was for this reason that Pope Pius XII had conferred on the Generalissimo the Supreme Order of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the highest distinction of the Holy See.

The actual information on the construction of the structure was rarely published in the press. The media took the opportunity to report often extravagant figures. Thus, the number of political prisoners who worked there was not 14 or 20,000 (or even 200,000), as was repeated following the rants of the socialist Léo Brincat, responsible for the draft recommendation condemning the Franco regime to the Council of Europe (November 4, 2005). In fact, the number of worker-prisoners never exceeded 800 to 1000 men, or less than half of all workers (prisoners and free employees). At the end of 1943, the Spanish press even reported a total of 600 workers.

In a book published by the architect, and director of the work, Diego Mendez, it is stated that 2000 men worked in the Valle from 1940 to 1958. One of the very few researchers, if not the only one, who took the trouble to methodically analyze the documentary evidence (“Valle de los Caídos”), in the General Archives of the Royal Palace of Madrid (General Administrations Section) is professor of history at the CEU San Pablo University, in Madrid, Alberto Bárcena Pérez, author of La redención de penas en el Valle de los Caídos (The Reduction of Sentences at Valle de los Caídos), and a 2015 book, Los presos del Valle de los Caídos (The Prisoners of the Valle de los Caídos). The archival material is housed in 69 boxes, and the thousands of documents they contain completely demolish the caricatured and fraudulent image claimed by politicians, journalists and academics in the service of power.

The archives of the former Centro de estudios sociales del Valle de los Caídos (Center for Social Studies of the Valle de los Caídos) show 2,643 workers, including a minority of political prisoners who, in principle, “had to be volunteers who freely chose the system of reduction of sentence by work;” or, first, two days of reduction of the sentence for one day of work, then, six days of reduction for one day of work.

Alberto Barcena specifies that the prisoners carried out the same work as the free workers and under identical conditions (wages, hours and food). The detainees were also employed by the companies responsible for the work. They had to submit their request through the Patronato de Nuestra Señora de la Merced or National Center for the Redemption of Sentences, which had been created for this purpose and which had its seat at the Ministry of Justice.

The main part of the salaries of the detainees (fixed according to their family responsibilities) was sent directly to the families through the “local pro-prisoners committees,” which covered most of the national territory. Another part was placed in a booklet, the full amount of which was paid back when the detainee was released. Finally, a third part was given by hand. Political prisoners did not receive 0.5 or 1 peseta a day as it has often been written, but 7, then 10 pesetas, plus bonuses for hazardous work. Their families could reside in the barracks in the Valle, provided for this purpose. The working conditions were of course very harsh and the salary more than modest but, it must be remembered that at that time the standard of living in Spain was very low and that the average salary of a university assistant at the highest was barely 300 pesetas per month.

In 1950, nine years before the construction was completed, under the remission system, there was no longer a single political prisoner in the Valle. According to the testimonies of the doctor, chief physician, Angel Lausin, and the nurse, Luis Orejas, two proven supporters of the Popular Front, who arrived at the start of the worksite as political prisoners, and who remained there, after serving their sentence – in nineteen years of work, there were between fourteen and eighteen deaths (to which must be added more than fifty victims who died due to silicosis). Finally, the monument was not financed by the Spanish taxpayer, but by private donations and by the profits of annual lotteries.

The ultimate avatar of history: the last will of the old dictator, Francisco Franco, who died on November 20, 1975, was not respected. The Caudillo wanted to be buried in the cemetery of Pardo like other figures of the regime. But the head of the first government of the transition, Arias Navarro, and the new head of state, Juan Carlos (proclaimed King on November 22, 1975) decided otherwise. The King asked the Benedictine community, guardians of the Valle and of the Basilica, for authorization to bury the body of Francisco Franco at the foot of the altar, in front of the burial place of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which was done with great fanfare on November 23, 1975.

Forty-three years later, on February 15, 2019, the day after his arrival at the Moncloa Palace, President Pedro Sánchez pledged to have the remains of dictator Franco exhumed as quickly as possible from the Basilica of Valle de los Caídos. This resulted in an endless legal battle. For a whole series of reasons, the Basilica is a place of worship whose inviolability is guaranteed by an international treaty on religious freedom, signed between Spain and the Holy See in 1979. The Benedictines, responsible for the monument, do not depend on the Vatican, but are under the authority of their abbot and that of the superior of their order, the abbot of the Abbey of Solesmes.

The Franco family demanded that the remains of the Caudillo be transferred to the family vault of the Cathedral of Almudena (Madrid), a proposal unacceptable to the socialist government. Finally, the improvised drafting of the royal decree-law ordering the exhumation was also to be a source of complications. Its strict application could indeed result in the immediate exhumation of 19 Benedictine monks as well as that of 172 other people who died after the end of the Civil War, and who are all buried in the Valle.

Finally, after the Supreme Court gave its approval, the political will of the government was imposed and the exhumation was carried out by the police on September 24, 2019. Since then, more or less authorized voices have been calling for the exhumation of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, who is, however, also a victim of the Civil War. But at this stage, we cannot say whether, in the near or distant future, the authorities intend to give a new meaning to the monument, to desecrate the Basilica, or even to demolish the monumental Cross. These different options are in any case openly considered in the mainstream media.

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The photo shows the Pieta of the Valle de los Caídos, sculpted between 1952 and 1959 by Juan de Avalos.

Translated from the original French by N. Dass.

Why The ‘Left’ Is Intolerant

Introduction

There are many forms of intolerance and many different kinds of explanations, motives, and defenses for the various forms. There is no presumption here that intolerance is always and everywhere unacceptable. In this essay, I shall focus on that form of intolerance manifested as censorship of what is permitted in writing and speech, limitations on what kinds of questions, the manner of their formulation and the kinds and range of answers permitted. In addition, I shall focus on censorship that takes the form of editing, reinterpreting and reporting what other people say; finally, I shall focus on censorship of the presumed motives (not just the reasons) of what other people are thinking. The particular historical and institutional context I have in mind is contemporary so-called free societies such as the US and the UK and specifically within them government bureaucracies, universities and all forms of public communication, such as newspapers, magazines, blogs, internet, publishers, TV, radio, etc.

Precisely because of the foregoing focus and the kinds of individuals that would be relevant, my explanation will be interested primarily in the intellectual origins of the intolerance, or, if you like, the kinds reasons offered or that might be offer in defense of the intolerance.

Human beings sometimes, but not always, find it necessary to offer a formal reason(s) for their public policy positions. We do so when we believe that the people to whom the formal explanation is addressed are, or will be, members of the same moral community as ourselves. Otherwise, the offering of reasons is irrelevant, often counterproductive, or dishonest.

When I refer to the ‘Left’, I shall mean those who advocate radical social change instituted by the force of the state and justified by appeal to some moral abstraction or Utopian aim. Given my understanding, the ‘Left’ will refer in general to so-called progressives, modern liberals, socialists, Marxists, those who self-identify in terms of identity politics, and the like. Political affiliation is no longer particularly helpful here.

Intellectual Origins of Social ‘Expertise’

In the 18th-century, the French philosophes developed the idea that there could be social sciences, modeled after the physical sciences. These alleged social sciences would be able to explain, predict, and control social phenomena. Thus was born the idea of a social technology. The belief that a social technology would enable us to create a Utopian society was the shared intellectual inheritance of liberals, socialists, and Marxists (Becker 1962). Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity expressed such a view. Fromm described it in the following way: “[Skinner’s] system attracts those psychologists who are liberals and who find Skinner’s system an argument to defend their political optimism. He appeals to those who believe that desirable social goals like peace and equality are not just rootless ideals, but can be established in reality. The whole idea that one can ‘design’ a better society on a scientific basis appeals to many who earlier might have been socialists. Did not Marx, too, want to design a better society. Did he not call his brand of socialism ‘scientific’ in contrast to ‘Utopian’ socialism… Moreover, Skinner’s theory rings true, because it is (almost) true for the alienated man of the cybernetic society. In summary, Skinnerism is the psychology of opportunism dressed up as a new scientific humanism” [The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1973].

The Enlightenment Project is the Pelagian attempt to define and explain the human predicament through science as well as to achieve mastery over it through the use of a social technology. This project originated in France in the18th-century with the philosophes, Diderot, d’Alembert, La Mettrie, Condillac, Helvetius, d’Holbach, Turgot, Condorcet, Cabanis, and Voltaire:

[T]he conviction that the world, or nature, was a single whole, subject to a single set of laws, in principle discoverable by the intelligence of man; that the laws which governed inanimate nature were in principle the same as those which governed plants, animals and sentient beings; that man was capable of improvement; that there existed certain objectively recognizable human goals which all men, rightly so described, sought after, namely, happiness, knowledge, justice, liberty, … that these goals were common to all men as such, were not unattainable, nor incompatible, and that human misery, vice and folly were mainly due to ignorance either of what these goals consisted in or of the means of attaining them-ignorance due in turn to insufficient knowledge of the laws of nature… Consequently, the discovery of general laws that governed human behaviour, their clear and logical integration into scientific systems of psychology, sociology, economics, political science and the like… would, by replacing the chaotic amalgam of guesswork, tradition, superstition, prejudice, dogma, fantasy…that hitherto did service as human knowledge and human wisdom (and of which by far the chief protector and instigator was the Church), create a new, sane, rational, happy, just and self-perpetuating human society, which, having arrived at the peak of attainable perfection, would preserve itself against all hostile influences, save perhaps those of nature.[Berlin, 1993, pp.27-28].

The social science disciplines now housed in the universities claim to possess the relevant truths that would enable them to produce a social utopia if they can gain control of the only institution capable of controlling all the other institutions, namely the government.

Hence, the social sciences, which have colonized all other disciplines including the arts, sciences, schools of communication, law schools, and even schools of business, have produced a faculty that overwhelmingly supports government that is ever more powerful. This is what intellectuals tell themselves makes them the most important people in society. It is there raison d’être. Since education is now understood to be a form of technology, education is indistinguishable from indoctrination. Universities and colleges may advertise to parents that a college degree increases lifetime income but that is not the major mission of present higher education. Its mission is social reform.

Unfortunately, for them, The U.S. has a constitution, an electoral college, and a republic as opposed to a pure democracy. This makes it difficult to obtain the correct personnel for the government. Hence, it is necessary to indoctrinate the ignorant public. This requires:

First, purge the faculty of those who do not believe in either the intellectual legitimacy of the social ‘sciences’ or the practical effectiveness of social technology. Academic freedom is a relic of a bygone pre-scientific era. It may have been necessary at first to entrench leftist professors, but it is no longer needed. This exemplifies the old saying that “when in the minority demand tolerance on your host’s principles but when in the majority deny it on yours.”

In an analogue to the Vatican, only some have access to all writings; all others, including authors (instructors) must be silenced. A catechism displays the only admissible questions and the only admissible answers.

Second, sanitize and redefine the curriculum. Remove all offensive and counter-productive material.

Third, create a paid group of monitors to observe and report on faculty and staff who might deviate from or sabotage the curriculum.

Fourth, insist that everyone get a college degree and adjust the requirements (lower standards) to facilitate this.

Fifth, train journalists to spread the truth. Since these journalists will be taught the hidden truth about how people think, in the same way that physicists understand the behavior of unseen molecules, journalists do not report what people actually say because it is mere surface phenomena. They report what people really mean, the hidden structure, even if that is not what those people say. This is not in their eyes fake news or misrepresentation. It is social ‘science’. It is telling the ‘real’ hidden truth.

It is not only permissible but also morally required to do or say whatever is necessary because the end justifies the means. The end always justifies the means only as long as the end is incontrovertibly acceptable (i.e. beyond dispute). Presumably, only the ‘elect’ know that ‘end’ and therefore are in a position to impose it on others.

Working with allies in the bureaucracy, this may at times look like spying on a campaign, sabotaging an election and an administration, and rigging the outcome of future elections, but what it really means to advocates of social technology is the giving of total fulfillment. They know the truth and they will make us really free.

There are many prominent thinkers, such as Hayek, who have debunked the whole idea of a social ‘science’. Human beings are not mechanisms and not simply organic entities. Moreover, there cannot be a science of humanity or of the social world. Any description of the human world would be valid only if agreed to within a pre-existing social/cultural framework. Any attempt to explain that framework (as opposed to describing it) would be a further explanation that would be valid only if agreed to within some other framework, and so on ad infinitum!

My argument should not be confused with the older claim that you cannot deduce a norm (an ‘ought’) from a fact(s) (‘is’), an argument wrongly attributed to Hume. There cannot be facts or anything designated as a fact unless we already agree on a prior set of (epistemological) norms/practices. So, norms are more fundamental than facts, and hence it is obvious why we do not deduce norms from facts – a trivial point and not a profound insight. This goes to the heart of the argument: all (any) civilization is possible only if there is some kind of agreement on norms. What the new left does is to obscure this point by talking as if they are articulating an intellectual or symbolic position when in fact they reject a common set of norms (e.g., burning the flag or not kneeling at the national anthem). That is why they systematically obscure (or are confused about) the distinction between the existence of a norm and the extent to which we instantiate the norm in our practices.

Let me give an example of how this works.

I shall refer to this maneuver as CYA. Progressive advocates of social technology claimed for many years that dysfunction within the African-American community was solely the result of poverty or the lack of resources and that a variety of welfare programs would solve the problem.

As Charles Murray documented it in his book, Losing Ground, that progressive strategy not only failed to solve the problem but also made it worse! Two consequences followed. First, Murray was vilified as a racist for this book. Second, progressives invented a new or meta-theory to cover the failure of the first theory/policy.

The new theory was ‘institutionalized racism’. I shall ignore the fact that such an expression is a meaningless abstraction that confuses different categories (if you are a logician you will understand this) and hence cannot be, and is therefore not, confirmable. The explanans is identical to the explanandum. On the contrary, by every objective measureable the U.S. is not racist (Connerly, WSJ, 7/24/20), and popular opinion increasingly favors doing everything reasonable to improve opportunities for Blacks. ‘Reparations’ is not reasonable because it is more of the same failed program of transferring resources.

CYA also reflects another dishonest intellectual stratagem. Advocates of social technology assume that whatever is true of physical science is the model for everything else. There are two versions: elimination and exploration. In elimination, there is an explicit substitution of new ideas for old ideas. Elimination is a form of radical replacement through innovation. Examples are the elimination of Ptolemy’s geocentric view of the universe and its replacement by Copernicus’ heliocentric view of the universe; another is the elimination of traditional theories of disease by the discovery of microbes. Elimination makes sense if there is some prior agreed upon framework in terms of which we can judge that one new theory is better than an old theory.

In exploration, on the other hand, we begin with our ordinary understanding of how things work and then go on to speculate on what might be behind those workings. The new understanding replaces the older one by appeal to underlying structures. The underlying structures are discovered by following out the implications of some hypothetical model about those structures. The discovery is empirically confirmable and replicable by using telescopes, microscopes, and other sophisticated devices. Exploration is exemplified in the use of the atomic theory to explain chemical behavior or the behavior of gases.

Exploration is the mode of thought of academic social science. By analogy with physical science, the social sciences have persistently sought to discover the hidden structure behind the everyday understanding of social activities. From Durkheim to Marx, and beyond, social scientists have persistently sought to reveal a structural level of which we are not immediately aware. Exploration is the search for structure rather than for meaning, the search for the formal elements underlying the everyday world rather than believing that the everyday world can constitute its own level of understanding.

The problem with exploration is that there is no way to confirm or disconfirm an exploration in the social sciences. There are no sophisticated devices such as social microscopes to reveal what cannot be seen by the naked eye. There is no progress in the social sciences like the progress in the physical sciences. There is merely the substitution of one fashionable language for another. The riders and the tunes change, but the carousel only moves in a circle.

We are unable to choose among competing explorations. Denied formal criteria or extra-systematic criteria for evaluating their own hypotheses, social theorists can only fall back upon aesthetic and/or informal criteria. Immense prestige is accorded to those individuals skillful in formulating clever, ingenious, and sometimes bizarre hypotheses. Ingenuity becomes the benchmark of success, and as in present day movements in the arts leads to sudden shifts in fashion. Another dead-end is the appeal to intuition so that rival explorers claim that their hidden structure hypothesis ‘better’ captures some private intuition about our ordinary understanding. There is, of course, no independent way of establishing this.

How, then do we avoid nihilism? Progressives do so by offering a further or meta-exploratory account of why their opponents opposed the first level exploratory account. Therefore, if I disagree that the lack of resources is the cause of dysfunction, the progressive accuses me of racism, of harboring a secret dislike or revulsion of some group of people. This is no more rational or confirmable than the first level exploration, but it is a very clever and sometimes effective political/rhetorical maneuver, especially with the intellectually unsophisticated. One Tower of Babel replaces another.

There are alternative and competing accounts of what underlies our normative framework, but there is no way of resolving, in exploratory terms, which one is correct. Without a consensus on the framework, there is no way of distinguishing between when a thinker helps us to alter our norms by clarification of the alleged underlying structure and when he or she is just an advocate of a particular set of norms. Without a consensus on the framework, we might be led to the cynical conclusion that the very idea of a framework is a myth. That is, we are led to nihilism. Once we are willing to face nihilism, we can well ask “Why seek to resolve differences peacefully?”

By subscribing to scientism, theorists are also led to embrace determinism. Rawls is an example of an environmental determinist when he says that “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances” [Theory of Justice (1971), p. 74]. That is why these theorists deny things like the Augustinian or Kantian conception of the moral free will and deny, as well, the notion of an autonomous internal self. The traditional, pre-Enlightenment, conception of a moral agent subject to internal sanctions is denied. It is plausible to such theorists to take seriously the question “Why should I be moral?” If there are no internal sanctions, then there can only be external sanctions. Social equilibrium is to be maintained through external social control, i.e. intolerance and ultimately force!

There are enormous and insurmountable problems here. If we are nothing more than creatures of stimulus and response then why choose to institutionalize any one particular set of norms? Of course, we can maintain that these ‘machines’ have an internal telos or purpose, but how do we confirm this allegation or decide which alleged goal is the true one. You cannot establish the truth of teleology in an empirical way, and neither can you square individual free will with teleology.

I shall refer to the ‘old left’ as those who sincerely believed that they could win the argument on purely intellectual grounds. However, as epistemological sophistication grew in the physical sciences (1960s and 1970s), it became increasingly clear to philosophers of science (e.g. Kuhn, Feyerabend) that there was no independent way to establish the objective truth or the notion of objective progress even in the physical sciences. The Enlightenment Project dream of a social technology needed a new foundation.

Post-Modernity

As opposed to classical thinkers, modern or post-Renaissance thinkers have come to recognize that norms and standards (truth, beauty, goodness) are not grounded in, nor do they refer to, structures independent of human perspectives. One sees this in Copernican astronomy, Einsteinian relativity, the revival of ancient skepticism and what Kant, influenced by Hume, called the Copernican Revolution in philosophy. This notion of relativity to human perspective is already present in Renaissance works of art. For the benefit of the obtuse, to proclaim that something is true, beautiful, or good, etc. is to say that members of some relevant community will agree with that assessment. You might not agree with this modern epistemology, but there is nothing contradictory or irrational about it.

Postmodernists consider all norms as products of historically contingent circumstances that reflect cultural hierarchies. As such, any prior claim to social authority is delegitimized. This involves two separate beliefs: (a) the empirical claim that there are no universally significant facts about humanity and (b) the existent norms are historically accidental and therefore challengeable.

For our purposes, the second claim is the most significant. To begin with, whatever current norms there are for scholars and journalists (including the norms of academic freedom, veracity, interpretation, etc.) are challengeable or deconstructable. We live in a world of norm pluralism. If so, how do we go about managing disputes or replacing norms? There are traditional norms of challenge and replace, but those norms are themselves contingent. Here we have reached a dead end. You cannot even say that “anything goes” because that too is a contingent norm. We are left with the appeal to force.

Some postmodernists are undismayed by the foregoing. They will claim that they speak for a previously unrecognized set of norms variously described as the norms of the dispossessed, the marginalized, the exploited, etc. The Marxist provenance of this view is obvious and should be kept in mind. In fact, these particular postmodernists claim to be the articulators or spokespersons of those norms. Put into action, these spokespersons will try to persuade advocates of the traditional norms by various means to embrace the norms of the downtrodden. Those means include direct action and violence if necessary. There is no set of super-norms in their eyes for resolving these disputes.

Personally, I think these postmodernists are correct in pointing out the limits of rational discourse. It also seems historically accurate to claim that many disputes were resolved only by conflict (rebellion, revolution, civil war, etc.). Under such circumstances, intolerance is a perfectly consistent response.

Friends, colleagues, and others who do not get this point dismay me. The latter keep trying to find some logical flaw in postmodernism. For example, how can we agree that all norms are historically contingent? Does that not show that we agree on something? Of course it does; but ‘agreement’ is a social process. Philosophically, we do not all agree on what ‘agreement’ means.

My other friends seek some ‘rational’ way, some form of negotiation or concession, perhaps secession, to resolve the dispute. These otherwise ‘good’ people understandably want to avoid the use of force. In failing to understand those partisans of the left who are postmodern, the ‘good’ people (Neville Chamberlain comes to mind) are helpless, if not hopeless intellectually, and they will lose without a fight.

The well-intentioned but obtuse readers will jump-in at this point and claim that the appeal to historical events is a self-contradiction on the part of postmodernists. Again, this misses the point. Agreement on the occurrence of one event shows at best that we share at least one norm. Sharing one norm does not translate into sharing a set or framework of norms. Even agreement on the application of a norm to a set of circumstances is compatible with different interpretations of the same event in the light of a set of norms. No single norm operates in total independence of the set to which it belongs.

It is not simply the case that there are significant ethical disagreements about substantive issues. Many if not most of these controversies do not appear to be resolvable through sound rational argument. On the one hand, many of the controversies depend upon different foundational metaphysical commitments. As with most metaphysical controversies, resolution is possible only through the granting of particular initial premises and rules of evidence. On the other hand, even when foundational metaphysical issues do not appear to be at stake, the debates turn on different rankings of the good.

Again, resolution does not appear to be feasible without begging the question, arguing in a circle, or engaging in infinite regress. One cannot appeal to consequences without knowing how to rank the impact of different approaches with regard to different ethical interests (liberty, equality, prosperity, security, etc.). Nor can one uncontroversially appeal to preference satisfaction unless one already grants how one will correct preferences and compare rational versus impassioned preferences, as well as calculate the discount rate for preferences over time. Appeals to disinterested observers, hypothetical choosers, or hypothetical contractors will not avail either.

If such decision makers are truly disinterested, they will choose nothing. To choose in a particular way, they must be fitted out with a particular moral sense or thin theory of the good. Intuitions can be met with contrary intuitions. Any particular balancing of claims can be countered with a different approach to achieving a balance. In order to appeal for guidance to any account of moral rationality one must already have secured content for that moral rationality.

It even does not matter if I am wrong in my understanding and partial defense of postmodernism. It does not matter if there are non-trivial universal truths about humanity or universal/timeless norms. If a group of people do not believe in or accept those norms the consequences are the same. It does not matter if some postmodernists are advocating some benign change, for others can consistently demand something more radical. It does not matter if one is willing to allow co-existence or partition or secession if the other side wants dominance. The need for dominance will be discussed in the next section.

The transition from social technology to postmodernism marks the transition from liberalism to socialism and/or Marxism. The ‘new’ left has replaced/superseded the ‘old’ left.

In fact, we do live in a world, and even in our own U.S. society, of moral pluralism. There is one social tradition (norm, practice), namely the Anglo-American one, where moral pluralism has been largely and successfully managed. It is called the rule of law. We live in different substantive moral communities (Christian, Jewish, etc.) and, at the same time, we all subscribe (or we used to) to the procedural norm of toleration. Despite these different substantive communities, all of them contain within themselves the resources to adopt the procedural norm of toleration. Of course, this tradition (articulated by Milton, Locke, Mill, Hayek, Oakeshott) is historically contingent.

Many post-modernists reject this tradition (they claim it is an expression of a hidden structure of oppression). This tradition does nothing to glorify/redeem the status of intellectuals, activists, or those with a radical agenda.

Oakeshott has captured this mindset of these particular post-modernists in his description of the anti-individual. Throughout most of history and everywhere in the world, human beings have identified themselves as members of a community. There were neither autonomous individuals not anti-individuals.

The most important event in modern European history is the rise of the autonomous individual beginning in Renaissance Italy (13th – 15th centuries). There are no autonomous individuals anywhere before the Italian Renaissance. Autonomous individuality is a feature of Western European civilization and later spread elsewhere. All creative activity [creative/destruction] is the product of autonomous individuals: “It modified political manners and institutions, it settled upon art, upon religion, upon industry and trade and upon every kind of human relationship.” Not everyone makes the transition – some are left behind (by circumstance and by temperament): Individuals manqué and anti-individuals.

The mind-set of the new ‘individual’ (Hobbes, Kant) is auto-nomous (self-rule is the translation). They impose order on themselves; self-disciplining, not self-indulgence, rather than requiring outside control and direction; risk-takers; self-defining; self-respect (something you give to yourself); pursue self-chosen courses of action rather than playing traditional roles. Policies advocated by autonomous individuals include encouraging creativity, a free-market economy, limited government, limited to being an umpire – enforce the rules of the game and not pre-determine the outcome; liberty and equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome; the rule of law. Society is viewed as a civil association: there is no overall collective good/goal. Economic entrepreneurs and conservative lawyers are the ones with superior status in this world.

The new left, the new breed of post-modernists, do in fact hold a kind of substantive account of morality. They can no more step out of all historical contexts than anyone else.

What is that mind-set? It is the mind-set of the anti-individual. They like being part of a protective community that takes care of them and relieves them of the anxiety of making choices; they are risk-averse –dominated by the fear of failure; they seek self-esteem (something that other people give you). There were some people, by circumstance or by temperament, less ready than others to respond to this invitation to become autonomous. Once some people become autonomous individuals and others do not, those who do not make the transition become anti-individuals. Anti-individuals are a reaction against autonomous individuals.

They are resentful of autonomous individuals and feel envy, jealousy, and resentment. They have feelings rather than thoughts, impulses rather than opinions. They need a leader; they want equality and solidarity. They blame autonomous individuals for the anxiety; want to destroy the prestige of autonomous individuals and make everyone an anti-individual; they want equality of outcome. They are not necessarily poor, not necessarily ignorant, and often members of the intelligentsia. Because of their mind-set, they cannot and will not function in a market economy; hence, they are dysfunctional in a modern commercial society.

The public policies advocated by anti-individuals include encouraging uniformity, the Democratic-Socialist abolishment of private property, government ‘guarantees’ and the regulation of everything. Law is reduced to politics – laws are supposed to achieve a political agenda. Society is conceived of as an enterprise association: there is a collective goal (vouchsafed to the elect) in which each person sublimates his/her own goals and is fulfilled by their social roles.

As you can see their substantive account of morality is wholly negative – they know what they are against but are unclear on what they favor – or – they favor a laundry list of abstractions that temporarily allow them to pour whatever meaning they want into it. What holds them together is what they are against. One cold maintain, as Ortega did, that this is actually the absence of morality as opposed to an alternative morality.

Ideology as Religion

It has been observed for some time, e.g. Nietzsche’s assertion that ‘God is dead,’ that Western societies are increasingly secular. The older comprehensive religious cultural narratives such as Christianity and Judaism seem less and less relevant or meaningful to more and more people. One could argue that THIS IS A FURTHER CONSEQUENCE OF EMBRACING The Enlightenment Project.

Even new variants of these older narratives keep moving further and further ‘left’ in their orientation. By this, I mean that they increasingly support policies that promise immediate earthly postponement or resolution of the human predicament, to wit that we can suffer physical and mental dysfunction from the time we are conceived and that as we grow older we become more infirm and then die. Perhaps in a broader sense we all seek to make sense of our mortal lives.

Politics is now the new religion. Politics, understood as some institutional arrangement that defines the master moral community, has replaced the family and religion or what we used to call civil society. In some cases, the alleged new community can go beyond traditional nation states and now encompass a super-state (e.g. EU) or a global entity (e.g. U.N.) or even encompass non-human things such as animals, plants, the whole earthly environment. “Today, the New Left is rushing in to fill the spiritual vacuum at the center of our free and capitalist society.” [Irving Kristol, 1972, “Capitalism, Socialism, and Nihilism”]. There is no longer any pretense that centralized control of the economy is more productive or efficient; equality of outcome and communal solidarity are intrinsic ends that take absolute precedence over everything else. They no longer care about the reasons that past agents had for what they did; all history is to be judged and written from the progressive moral perspective.

Post-modern thinkers have a better understanding of our epistemological predicament than do hopeless advocates of older forms of liberalism (libertarian, classical liberal, etc.). Many traditional religious thinkers also understand the limits of discursive reason but they have either stopped believing the literal truth of their tradition or simply do not know how to defend their commitment. The latter have forgot that the advocacy of toleration is a largely cultural or civil achievement.

Religions have traditionally been enterprise associations, that is, promoting a collective goal to which individual goals, freedoms, etc. are subordinated. In practice, that has meant excluding others, i.e. intolerance. Christianity and Judaism, notably among others, subsequently (i.e. after centuries of religious wars) found the internal resources to accept procedural tolerance. This is not true of some others. Among the latter (supply your own list) there is a strict policy of intolerance if not hostility and outright suppression of dissenters. After all, it is not possible to win an argument rationally. The ‘left’ of late has adopted this attitude even in the U.S. and the U.K. Once you understand the logic of enterprise association, the felt need of salvation and total meaning (a comprehensive purpose to everything), you can understand the policy of intolerance.

Domination is not some intrinsic feature of the human predicament, rather, it is the response of those who fear any threat to their enterprise association. Since they ARE UNWILLING TO LIVE WITHOUT A TOTAL VISION, they can prevail only by eliminating opposition. Intolerance is a simple reflection of how the new left has become a religion that brooks no opposition.

I offer a crucial example. What a religion or political system understood as a religion offers is total meaning, total commitment, and salvation (fill in the content). The major policy proposal in the U.S. and elsewhere of the ‘left’ is single-payer health care – you will be kept alive as long as possible (in case there is no after-life or you might fail to qualify for it) at ‘public’ expense. Once this part of the economy is under central government control, there is no going back and total control of the economy and of all institutions is inevitable in order to guarantee that there is no going back. If you subscribe to this, intolerance of all kinds is permitted/required, or you are guilty of destroying the lives of millions upon millions of other human beings. Intolerance in the eyes of the new left would be a small cost to pay given the benefits.

What is Really Wrong Intellectually/Morally With The New Left

As I have argued above, you cannot defeat the new left with arguments about objective truth, and you cannot refute them by claiming that post-modernism is somehow incoherent. Simply restating your own commitment is not a refutation of those who do not share that commitment.

What can we do? On the positive side, we can appeal to the Anglo-American cultural inheritance which is grounded in custom/practice (not theory) and the practice of resolving disagreements about practice. This does not require an abstract theory, nor a theory of history, nor a narrative of any kind. People either share or they are willing to share these practices or they do not. Histories (narratives, theories) do not resolve these matters because, at best, history can only legitimately tell us what happened (e.g. a battle took place on such and such a date) or what the agents involved understood themselves to be doing (not some theory of what we attribute to them).

If we do not share the same understanding of the practices, then there is nothing more to be said. Yes, I know we yearn for more. Holding on to the illusion of some ‘objective’ truth either turns us into the same direction as those we oppose or it undercuts our ability to fight back. We do not have to hold onto the belief in an objective truth except as a private substantive view; what we need to hold onto is the belief in the validity of our practice of procedural tolerance. Some of us have no difficulty in squaring this procedural norm with our different substantive views. The ‘left’ is incapable of doing this, and that is why they not only want to change the rules but also want to change the rules for changing the rules.

What the new left does is to say that they share the practices (e.g. free speech, democracy, etc.) but reserve the right to interpret them in a way with which we do not and cannot agree. There is a word for this, and it is ‘dishonesty’. The new left understands this game, but their critics do not.

The left is constantly calling for “equity” and “diversity” and tolerance, but as soon as you say something they don’t like they’ll attack you personally, and in a really mean way. And, when you try to talk with them about it, they tell you that you’re hurting their feelings and they can’t talk about it. This among academics, who are supposed to be trained in rational argument! There is so much resentment in the anti-individual—the calls for group solidarity and the constant airing of endless grievances really do seem to point to a kind of pathology in the soul.

In failing to see that the left is a form of religion what is missed in all of this is that the left will argue that things like free speech, the right to self-defense, in fact the whole of the Bill of Rights is not a set of procedural norms but a substantive morality that is being imposed on them. To disagree with them is to impose the Judeo-Christian morality on them. Who knew that Locke’s invocation of our God-given natural rights was a form of aggression? So the new scholarship is meant to make us understand that it’s actually the non-left that is now being accused of intolerance.

We must face what is really going on. Intellectuals who oppose the new left have difficulty with accepting reality because as intellectuals they naturally want to believe that we can arrive at agreement through free and open discussion, that we can either refute the other side or that the other side can convert us rationally. After all, that is what intellectuals do (like the man with a hammer who sees everything as a nail) or is their only claim to superiority, and that is also why they have never been able to resolve our deepest conflicts. Activists (e.g. Alinsky) understand this weak point and exploit it without hesitation.

As I write this, I have become acutely aware that what I have written will be rejected by some because it is not wholly scholarship but a form of advocacy. Perhaps it is time to recognize the limits of scholarship and the point at which rhetoric needs to take hold.

What would the left do with their lives if everything were made perfect, in their estimation? That’s the real question. They thrive on injustice and dissatisfaction. The pertinent other question is, I think, what ought I myself to be doing to promote a flourishing life for myself and my family?

Many ordinary people have a better grasp of this than do our educated elites. That is because our educated elites have undergone a process that has blinded them with abstractions. This is no longer a parlor game; it is no longer an issue of saving American civilization. It is an issue of saving civilization itself. What we tend to forget is that civilization is a product of evolving practices and not a product of theory.

In the end, we have to take responsibility for how we choose to understand ourselves and our relationships with others. If we are honest with ourselves, we shall recognize that we are about to engage in a civil war or revolution; there is no theoretical justification for our choices. But we can hope to God that we are doing the right thing.

As Herbert Butterfield once put it, “When we have reconstructed the whole of mundane history it does not form a self-explanatory system, and our attitude to it, our whole relationship to the human drama, is a larger affair altogether – it is a matter not of scholarship but of religion… Ultimately our interpretation of the whole human drama depends on an intimately personal decision concerning the part we mean to play in it” [Christianity and History (1949), pp. 27 and 86].

Nicholas Capaldi, a Legendre-Soule Distinguished professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA, is the author of two books on David Hume, The Enlightenment Project in Analytic Conversation, biography of John Stuart Mill, Liberty and Equality in Political Economy: From Locke versus Rosseau to the Present, and, most recently, The Anglo-American Conception of the Rule of Law.

The image shows “Soft Construction with Boiled Beans,” by Salvador Dalí, painted in 1936.

Al-Andalus: A History Contaminated By Political Correctness

We are highly honored to present the English-version of a series of questions (Q) that were asked of Dr. Arnaud Imatz, about Moorish Spain, and his answers. As regular readers of The Postil know, Dr. Imatz is a corresponding member of the Spanish Royal Academy of History and author of several important studies.

Q: What historical evidence can we base our claim that the supposed happy cohabitation of al-Andalus was a myth?

Arnaud Imatz (AI): Let us first clarify what the myth of al-Andalus is – all the more so as this is, as you know, denied, contested or even concealed, not only by extremist activists and polemicists, but also by academics anxious to defend their patch. In a few words, it is the idea of “Paradise Lost,” of “the Golden Age,” or “Eden,” supported by an infinity of Arabic texts, but just as cherished by a good number of Europeans and/or Westerners.

In counterpoint, we find the notion, no less omnipresent, of the threat of the Christian world which is described as ignorant, brutal, barbarous, intolerant, militarist and… European. This idea was adopted by Arabists and a good number of 19th-century historians. According to them, the autochthonous character and the virtues of the Iberian Peninsula, necessarily acclimatized, softened and Europeanized the Islam of al-Andalus, giving it, inevitably, features distinct from the rest of the Islamic-medieval world. It is the idea of a tolerant, advanced or “progressive” Islam ahead of its time, which has been taken up by our contemporaries anxious to demonstrate the open, modernizing and tolerant character of Islam. This is the “irenist” vision of a harmonious coexistence of the three cultures, so prevalent among politicians, journalists and much of academia, that it has become almost impossible to correct. It is a kind of dogma imposed, despite all the historical research of rigorous and disinterested specialists who show just the opposite. For Al-Andalus was not an Eden, quite the contrary.

It is impossible to summarize in a few lines the mass of information, the multiple sources and historical documents (Arab-Muslim and Christian) on which Arabists, philologists and medieval historians rely to demythify and demystify the history of al-Andalus. I am tempted to say that if we want to talk about cohabitation, coexistence, even “tolerance” in the Iberian Peninsula of the Middle Ages (a tolerance whose history dates back to antiquity and not to the 18th-century as affirm the most chauvinistic ideologues, in particular the French), it is better to refer to the Christian kingdoms rather than to the Islamic part.

To be convinced of this, it suffices to recall the situation of women in al-Andalus, with the wearing of the veil, sexual slavery, female circumcision or circumcision (as a legal and social practice), stoning, or the total lack of freedom in the public space for the hurra (“free Muslim woman”), and then to compare this with the condition of much freer Christian women in medieval Spain.

We can also cite here the works of Bernard Lewis and, before him, those of one of the fathers of scientific Orientalism, the Hungarian, Ignaz Goldziher, who showed, from numerous Arabic texts of the time, that ethnic and even racial criteria were commonly used in al-Andalus: Arabs from the north against Arabs from the south, Berbers against Arabs, Arabs against Slavs (the “Europeans”), Arabs and Berbers against Muladis (converted Muslims of Hispanic origin), and finally, all against blacks… and vice versa.

The work of the Spanish linguist, historian and Arabist, Serafin Fanjul, is essential here, but we must also underline the importance of the studies of several medievalists and researchers in Ibero-Roman languages. For my part, I have contributed to making known, in French-speaking countries, the work of three of the best specialists in the area, two Spaniards and an American.

First, Serafín Fanjul, already cited, professor of Arabic literature, member of the Royal Academy of History, author of Al-Andalus contra España (2000) and La quimera de al-Andalus (2004), published in France in a single volume under the title, Al-Andalus, l’invention d’un mythe (2017).

Then, the American, Darío Fernández Morera, professor of Romanesque and Hispanic literature, and author of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2015) [French title: Chrétiens, juifs et musulmans dans al-Andalus, 2018].

And, finally, Rafael Sánchez Saus, professor of medieval history, ex-dean of faculty and rector of university, member of the Royal Spanish-American Academy, author of Al-Andalus y la Cruz (2016) which was published in French as, Les chrétiens dans al-Andalus. De la soumission à l’anéantissement (2019) [Christians in al-Andalus. From Submission to Annihilation].

I cannot recommend enough the reading of these books, which have been the subject of several reissues, including the last in pocket-format (March 2019, August and September 2020). I regret and I am surprised that to date these two Spanish works have not yet been translated into English.

For my part, I wrote the introductions to the books of Serafín Fanjul and Rafael Sánchez Saus, while Rémi Brague, recognized specialist in medieval philosophy (Professor Emeritus at the Sorbonne), kindly prefaced the work of Dario Fernández-Morera, as soon as I informed him that the publication in French was imminent.

I must add that other works by Spanish historians also deserve to be translated; among them, I should mention in particular, Acerca de la conquista árabe de Hispania. Imprecisiones, equívocos y patrañas (2011) [Concerning the Arab conquest. Inaccuracies, Ambiguities and Deceptions] by Felipe Maíllo Salgado, Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Salamanca.

The books by Fanjul, Fernández-Morera and Sánchez Saus are all definitive milestones in the demythification and demystification of the history of al-Andalus. They differ in their approaches and methods, but also because of the distinct expertise of their authors. However, they also complement each other perfectly.

Serafín Fanjul carefully analyzes the idea of the paradisiacal character or the “earthly Eden” of al-Andalus and then the “Arab” or Muslim survivals that allegedly passed from al-Andalus to Spain and shaped the Spanish character.

Darío Fernández-Morera examines the concrete cultural practices of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities under Islamic hegemony, comparing them with other Mediterranean cultures, more particularly those of the Greco-Roman or Byzantine Christian Empire.

Finally, Rafael Sánchez Saus studies the fate of Christians in North Africa and Spain: the irruption of Islam and the constitution of the Arab Empire, the conquest and the birth of al-Andalus, the first reactions of Christians, the oppressive regime of the dhimma, submission, collaboration, orientalization and Arabization, the martyrs-movement, resistance, revolt, persecution and the final eradication of the Christians of al -Andalus.

These three authors presented their respective works, along with two of the best French specialists, Marie-Thérèse and Dominique Urvoy, during the colloquium, “Al-Andalus, from Myth to History,” held in Paris, on October 6, 2019, and sponsored by l’Association pour l’histoire (Association for History).

Q: Is there not, all the same, an intellectual contribution, with figures like Averroes, along with considerable artistic, scientific and architectural developments, compared to an archaic period, which we owe specifically to Muslim Spain?

AI: It is not a question here of denying the most admirable and most famous cultural and artistic elements of al-Andalus, of sinking into a kind of reverse caricature, of indulging in the apology of the Christian world and of the Reconquista without the slightest restriction; in other words, to recreate exactly what one is justifiably reproaching the promoters of the myth for. It is only a question of dismantling the pillars of legend, the alleged marvelous interfaith harmony (between Jews, Christians and Muslims), the exaggerated valuation of cultural and scientific achievements, and the widespread idealization of the social and political successes of al-Andalus.

It cannot be stressed enough that the ideological interpretations and partisan culling that can be made of the work of Fanjul, Morera and Sánchez Saus lie beyond actual work of these scholars. These three researchers and historians only want to compare the usual view that we have of this part of the history of the Iberian Peninsula with proven and verified facts. And the facts speak for themselves. Now it is up to the reader to judge.

Having said that, I don’t really understand what you mean by “archaic period.” Should we understand that, despite ups and downs, even some violence, which would be, as we say, “inevitable in a medieval society,” Muslim Hispania is the only true example of tolerance, thanks to the Muslim conquerors who imposed themselves on a barbaric, ignorant and intolerant Romano-Visigothic culture?

Does this also mean that this remarkable Muslim civilization was then destroyed by barbarian Christians, who seized the Peninsula again and imposed an even more intolerant regime than what existed before the arrival of the Berbers and Arab Muslims, and this was a real setback for Western progress? We can always dream!

The reality is that the culture of Visigothic Hispania was based on the heritage of Roman civilization and on the development of Isidorian thought. Even though this would have concerned only the elites, it was radically different from that of the Berbers and Arab conquerors, who for the most part could neither read nor write. The culture of the Visigothic kingdom had assimilated the “Greco-Roman Christian Empire.” Spania (far south of present-day Spain) had been a province of the Byzantine Empire. I am aware of the contempt of some academics for the culture of the largely Romanized Visigoth “barbarians.” But following them, we quickly forget the place and the role played by such prestigious figures as Eugenius II of Toledo, Leander of Seville, Isidore of Seville, or Theodulf of Orleans, to name but a few examples.

You mention the famous philosopher, Averroes (Ibn Rushdi). Dario Fernández-Morera devotes many enlightening pages to him. He nuances his portrait and recalls the lesser known side of the character. Averroes was a Malikite jurist who belonged to one of the most rigorous schools of Qur’anic exegesis, which was in the majority in al-Andalus. He was adviser to a ruthless Almohad caliph, a judge responsible for monitoring the application of Sharia law, author of Bidayat al-Mujtahid, a treatise containing the most edifying guidelines for use by Muslim judges (comments on the holy war, jihad, jizya, stoning, etc.).

In reality, when it comes to mutual “great debts” between the various cultures, one must be extremely careful. These are always relative and partial. Two examples, among many others, may suffice to show this.

Let us first take the title of the journal of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, Qantara (“bridge” in Arabic). The Spanish also know, as a noun and toponym, the word Alcantára, Alcanadre, and some other derivatives from Arabic. But it should be added that the Arabic word qantara comes from the Syriac qenterun, which itself comes from the Greek kentro, or even from the Latin centrum (This point is explained and documented in the Diccionario de arabismos y voces Afines en iberorromance by philologist, Federico Corriente Córdoba).

Another, infinitely more striking example is that of the Koran. Philologists have shown that the sacred text of Islam, for Muslims, contains a lexicon of relatively abundant Latin and Greek origin (about 170 foreign terms). But would it not, for all that, be absurd, unreasonable, even impious, to claim that the Koran has a “great debt” to Rome and Greece?

A superficial analysis or vision of al-Andalus – like those of foreign travelers to Spain in the 19th-century, or those of the many current polemicists and ideologists – may lead to only a few particularly striking visual elements, such as, the Alhambra, the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, or the Giralda of Seville. But, as Serafín Fanjul says, these are just beautiful stones and nothing else. Rather, we should look for the living and active elements that have survived in society after 1492 or 1609 (the date of the expulsion of the last Moors). And here we have a veritable little breviary of received ideas which it is beneficial to deconstruct.

One of the most oft-used arguments to support Islamic influence in Spain is the lexicon of Arabic origin that the Spanish or Castilian language has retained. Professor Fanjul has shown that it is in fact a total of three thousand words (with about two thousand more being minor toponyms), which come from the 13th-century (the period during which the Arabic lexicon is most present in Castilian literature); that barely 0.5% of the total (and 0.6% in the work of Cervantes in the 16th-century). Proportionally, it is very little, and even less so, as it is a vocabulary relating to medieval techniques (agriculture, weapons, construction, medicine) which have since largely fallen into disuse. There is also no Arabic lexicon with spiritual or abstract significance, which is very revealing. Finally, Arab-Muslim influences in the fields of food, clothing, popular festivals or music are just as limited – whereas in these same areas, Latin-Germanic and Christian filiations are predominant, even overwhelming.

Q: So where does this myth of al-Andalus come from? Why and how did it develop and what keeps it going today?

AI: It’s very interesting to ask why the myth persists and why it is still developing today. The myth is spread by three categories of people. First, by politicians and journalists who, sometimes in good faith, are ignorant (like, for example, Obama, Blair or Macron) but often opportunists (they fear the censorship of “political correctness”). Second, by fanatics or extremist Islamophiles. And thirdly, by conformist academics, who defend tooth and nail their corporate interests. It is especially from the last two categories that the most virulent polemicists are recruited against the works of Fanjul, Fernandez- Morera, Sanchez Saus, and more generally against all the critics of the myth.

The most enthusiastic are usually supporters of the fanciful thesis that Arab Muslims never invaded Spain militarily. This thesis indirectly seeks to show that Catholicism is a religion foreign to Spain. It would have been, they say, repudiated by the inhabitants of “Hispania,” and would have triumphed only some time, before the Muslim presence, by force and violence. This thesis was developed at the end of the 1960s by the Basque paleontologist, Ignacio Olagüe (who had been a member of the JONS – Juntas de Ofensiva Nacional Sindicalista – in his youth, the national-trade union political movement of Ramiro Ledesma Ramos). Today, it is taken up by Andalusian nationalists and in particular by the neo-Marxist philologist, professor of the University of Seville, Emilio González Ferrín.

In the same exalted circle, we can cite the works of the orientalist and theorist of Unitarian Universalism, Sigrid Hunke, who worked in his youth for the SS (Ahnenerbe Research Institute). Partisan of National Socialist neo-paganism, apologist of Islam, “a virile religion against the Christian religion of effeminate slaves,” she considered that the Arab-Muslim heritage of the West was more direct or even more important than the Greco-Roman. All these theses, or rather all these rantings, have as much credibility as those which make aliens the builders of the pyramids.

In the second category, that of conformist academics, not to say rigid pen-pushers, we find a good number of Arabists, anthropologists and a few medievalists. This is the case with the anti-Zionist anthropologist, José Antonio González Alcantud, who does not fear ridicule when he asserts that “the deniers of the Andalusian link employ methods similar to those of the deniers of the Holocaust” (see his book, Al Ándalus y lo Andaluz, 2017). We can also cite, as an archetypal example, although he is a complete stranger outside Spain, the historian at the University of Huelva, Alejandro García Sanjuán, who has three obsessions and phobias: Christianity, the Church and the nation.

Among the militant “historians,” we can also cite the American of Cuban origin, María Rosa Menocal, or, in France, Alain de Libera, Jean Pruvost, Abderrahim Bouzelmate, and the geographer, lecturer, willing libellist in style, Emmanuelle Tixier du Mesnil (see, L’Histoire, no. 457, March 2019).

A more moderate Arabist in the diatribe is arguably Spain’s Maribel Fierro (see, Revista de Libros), but she nonetheless reproduces in soft-mode some of the most hackneyed clichés. According to her, Arabist specialists have long known everything for a long time – that there would have been violence, but which was perfectly normal in a medieval society; that “there was a legal framework,” and “the dhimma also had its advantages.” In short, the myth exists only in the minds of those who claim it exists, who keep stressing it – now, move along, there’s nothing to see here!

A last important factor explains the charges or indictments of these writers of history against Fanjul, Fernandez-Morera and Sánchez Saus – their resentment of the very positive reception, even admiring, by a good part of the big press, and their incontestably successful print-runs. Three months after the publication of Fanjul’s book, it had already sold more than 15,000 copies. A record for a history book which has subsequently been the subject of several reissues in paperback and in pocket size. The books by both Fernández- Morera and Sánchez Saus’ have also been notable successes.

But these mythologists of al-Andalus did not sit idly by. The bitterest and the most Manichean minds among them, those who knew they were condemned to having only a few hundred readers, used the entire panoply of conventional weapons and stratagems, and desperately tried to fight back – with slander, insults, innuendos, attacks against religious beliefs or supposed political options, accusations of Islamophobia, nationalism, fascism, or even wanting to foment the clash of civilizations, without forgetting, of course , the terrorist use of the supposedly “scientific” argument and the call for repression or exclusion from the academic community. The trouble is that the arguments of Fanjul, Fernández-Morera and Sánchez Saus are solid, rigorous, balanced, and their sources are indisputable.

Q: Did the jizya have a real impact on the conversion of certain non-Muslims to Islam? Were the conversions, in this context, sincere? And what were the treatments reserved respectively for new converts and those who remained outside of Islam?

AI: The Christian dhimmi had to pay a higher tax than the Muslim, and regardless of his fortune, because he was a Christian. He had to humiliate himself in front of the authorities when paying them. But the discrimination did not end there; and they weren’t just fiscal. Some example, the Muslim traveled on horseback and the Christian with a donkey; a Christian who killed a Muslim, even in self-defense, was inevitably condemned to death, although this rule did not apply in the reverse case; the testimony of a Christian against a Muslim was not admissible in court; a Christian had to get up when a Muslim entered, and he could only pass him on the left side, considered cursed; a Christian could not have Muslim servants or a house higher than that of a Muslim, without having to demolish it; a church, when it was not razed, had to be lower than a mosque; the fines imposed for the same offenses were less than half for Muslims; mixed marriages between members of submissive and Islamized populations and Arab women were almost impossible and absolutely prohibited between Muslims and pagans (musrikies). These were some of the so-called “benefits” of the dhimma.

We are told like a mantra that if tolerance in al-Andalus was not of course as it has been conceived since the 18th-century “that does not mean that there has not been coexistence more often than not, and a peaceful one at that.” But the truth is, intransigence towards other religions was untenable. Under the Umayyads, the slightest resistance or serious rebellion of Christians was drowned in blood. Only collaboration and submission were possible. We know the brutalities of Abd al-Rahman III with his sex slaves, as his biographer Ibn Hayyan tells it; we know his pedophilic passion for the young Christian Pelagius whom he finally killed because he resisted him.

The Umayyads were the most determined defenders of Islam and the greatest head-cutters or “beheaders” in the history of al-Andalus. The situation of Christians and Jews was such that over the centuries they did not stop migrating to the Christian kingdoms of the Spanish Peninsula. After the triumph of the Almohads, the Christian and Jewish communities had no other possible alternative but conversion to Islam, or deportation to Africa. By the 12th-century, the Christian community of al-Andalus had ceased to exist.

Q: Do the various initiatives in Spain, aimed at asking forgiveness from the Muslim community for the consequences of the Reconquista, seem to you to be historically founded, and why?

AI: It’s totally absurd, but you can always dream. I do not doubt for a moment that in the logic of Muslims or Islamists this request is justified. Dar al-Kufr (the “domain of the infidels” or “domain of unbelief,” or the “domain of blasphemy”) is the expression they use to designate the territories where Sharia law was once applied, but no longer applies.

And this is precisely the case with Spain; or rather, a good part of Spain since the Reconquista (the border line was located for a long time in the center of the Peninsula, where the Central System that separates the current autonomous communities of Castile and Leon and Castilla-La Mancha). But after all, in their logic, why would they not be also justified in asking the same forgiveness for the consequences of the reconquest in that part of France conquered as far as Poitiers? That being said, as far as I know, we are not forced to accept this propaganda, or we have to forget that not only Spain but also North Africa were both Christian long before they were Muslim.

The image shows the “Martyrdom of Pelagius,” by the Master of Becerril, painted ca. 1520.

Translated from the French by N. Dass.

Russia’s Great Patriotic War

Of all the countries Adolf Hitler invaded, none was able to muster a sustained and successful military counterattack, except one – Russia. When the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, it was a massive three-pronged invasion from the North (to capture Leningrad), from the South (to take the Ukraine), and through the center (to seize Moscow).

The Germans and their allies came in great force – with 3.75 million troops, along with 4,000 tanks, and 750,000 horses (we must bear in mind that the German military was only partially mechanized in 1941). It is also well known that the Russians were not ready, to say the least, largely because Hitler was the only man Stalin truly trusted and could not bring himself to believe that the Nazi leader had ordered the attack. Stalin kept insisting that the onslaught was the action of rogue German generals, and Hitler would put a stop to it all, when he found out what was being done to his friend, Stalin. In fact, the reality of Hitler’s betrayal hit Stalin very hard, and he disappeared to his dacha, in a rare fit of uncertainty, leaving the country leaderless during a crucial time.

The Germans likewise squandered any advantages they might have had because of their ideology, for the invasion was at first seen by some (especially in the Ukraine) as a liberation from Stalinism. But when the reality of the true purpose of the invasion began very quickly to be implemented – the clearing out of the land of all its inhabitants, for eventual settlement by Germans – resolve toughened and military resistance began in earnest.

Hitler had come not simply to take control and include Russia in his “empire” – rather, he had come to clear the land of its native inhabitants so that he might settle it with Germans. Faced with the prospect of annihilation in their own country, how could the Russians not know the war foisted upon them as anything other than “patriotic?” Hence, the Russian term for the Second World War (a rather banal designation) is the Great Patriotic War. It was a fight to the death for the Russian homeland – for the Rodina, that emotion-laden term, which means so much more than “motherland” or “fatherland,” for it means all that binds one to family and individual purpose.

Despite early successes, by December 1941, the Germans knew they had begun what they had never wanted – a war on two fronts. The next four years were grim and bloody on the Eastern Front, with unimaginable casualty rates on both sides.

The total war dead for Russia is estimated to be between 26 to 42 million, both civilians and military. For the Germans, losses on the Eastern Front are estimated to be about 2.7 million. The immense Russian sacrifice finally led to victory, when the Red Army took Berlin on May 2, 1945 (Hitler had committed suicide a few days earlier, on April 30th).

What was the nature of the Russian resolve? What inner strength did the Russians living and fighting through those fateful years draw upon? In the grand sweep of history, the sacrifice, the courage, the suffering of individuals is often little remembered. The millions slaughtered were ordinary human beings forced into the maw of a war, from which there was no escape.

These questions of the resolve and strength of the Russians to drive back the Nazi invaders is superbly explored and elaborated by Maria Bloshteyn in her latest book, Russia is Burning. Poems of the Great Patriotic War, which is an anthology of Russian poetry from 1939 to 1945. Bloshteyn is a talented and gifted scholar and translator, whose work has appeared in the pages of the Postil, and who has previously published a collection of early short stories of Chekhov, and the work of Alexander Galich. Her translations have also appeared in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. And her study of Dostoevsky is not only immensely erudite, but delightfully readable (qualities rarely found together in what often passes for scholarship).

This combination of readability and scholarship continues in Russia is Burning. The anthology is a dual-text, Russian and facing-page translations, with two essays, at the beginning and end, both of which contextualize the role and purpose of poetry within the broader extent of the Great Patriotic War. The selections are placed into four categories: “Seven Poets Killed,” that is, poems of those killed in the war; “Voice Heard,” which include poems and trench-songs that were widely known and loved by the ordinary fighting man or woman (the Red Army had 800,000 women); “Muted Voice,” which presents poems written by emigres, by prisoners in the Gulags, and verses that were never meant to be published, that is, written “for the desk-drawer;” and lastly, “The War Remembered,” which traces the years after 1945, during which poetry took on the task of healing the Russian soul, by leading it out of its trauma and into the promise of peace.

All the poems in the anthology have head-notes that give historical and thematic context to each poet and his/her poems, This is a very helpful and rather elegant way to handle the necessary job of informing the reader, while deftly avoiding the trap of information-density that is often found in such endeavors, and which break-up the reading-flow. These head-notes also serve to stress what should be stressed – the poem itself. All-too-often, translators do not know how to wear their learning lightly and opt for intrusive footnotes, or worse, endnotes. This anthology overcomes this wonkiness by including all the pertinent information needed right in the head-notes, so that the reading experience is unobtrusive of academic paraphernalia.

Though the poems in the three sections are a wide assortment of style, sensibility and perspective, all of them nevertheless are united by a common theme – that of Russia as the Motherland, the Rodina, upon whose breast is cast all the suffering, the tragedy, the bloodshed. This means that individualized instances of courage, of sacrifice, of struggle, of disappointment, of helplessness, of loneliness, but also of hope for an end to all cruel things – all these are given meaning within the embrace of the Motherland.

These poems speak not to so much of soil and of the people, concerns that marked so much of earlier Russian literary expression, but of invoking that final reserve of resolve which might lead to overcoming the enemy. In the swirl of the Great Patriotic War, there is only Russia itself – bereft of everything. It is now the task of her sons and daughters to return what was always rightfully hers – peace, happiness, and fulfillment. But it is a giving back that can only come about one hand at a time, for a hand is both limited in action but limitless in the results of that action:

Under a hillock, in a field,
a stern young boy from Moscow fell
and quietly, his cap slid off
his bullet-riddled head.

Departing for another world.
not very far from that in which he grew,
he clutched his warm, native earth
in his already stiffening hand.

The highest criterion
by which we can possibly be judged
will be that handful of earth
clutched in that young grey palm.
(Yaroslav Smelyakov, “The Judge”)

The “highest criterion” is not found in the death of young soldier, but in his clutched hand, which cannot be loosened – for he grips not agony, but the fruit of his sacrifice, and his burial therefore looks forward to resurrection which will be peace. Such is the holy wisdom that cruelty oft-times brings.

The Great Patriotic War became a grand shout of defiance by patriots, who knew just enough to never accept defeat, because a quality that inhabited each of them, their Russianness, could never be quiet because it had been betrayed:

We know what’s at stake and how great the foe’s power,
And what now is coming to pass.
Every clock shows the same time – it’s courage hour!
And our courage will hold to the last.
The bullets can kill us, but cannot deter;
Though our houses fall, yet we will stand –
Through it all we will keep you alive, Russian word,
Mighty language of our Russian land.
Your sounds will remain pure and free on our tongues,
To be passed on unfettered through ages to come.
Forever!
(Anna Akhmatova, “Courage,” 23 February 1942, Tashkent)

And it this wisdom which shall free Russia – a wisdom that can never come cheaply, as Olga Berggolts pointed out in 1941:

Just as you are now: emaciated, dauntless,
in a hastily tied kerchief,
holding a purse as you go out
under the bombardment.

Daria Vlasyevna, the whole land
will be renewed by your strength.
The name of this strength of yours is “Russia.”
Like Russia, stand and take heart!
(“Conversation with a Neighbour”)

This wisdom Elena Shirman, who died early in the conflict, in 1942, also knew: “…A boom – /and shards of broken streets come tumbling./… Someone will raise me from the pavement and kindly say,/ “You must have stumbled.” Such is the Rodina, the Motherland, which the community, and the family.

A helping hand, kindness, while a world shatters is the embodiment of what an earlier poet, in an earlier world conflict, called, “the pity of war,” because the 20th-century invented warfare that was scientific and industrialized, which therefore concerned itself with precision barrages, shock-and-awe, genocide, carpet-bombing, scorched earth, total war, and the headlong rush of the displaced, running away from death and often straight into death. The older message is now commonplace, and hardly ever brings comment – kill to build a better world:

All the world is going to wrack and ruin.
What, you’ve lost your nerve? Oh don’t be shy!
Come and crush it all in one fell stroke,
Pulverize, make stardust in the sky!

Poison it with mustard gas or, better,
Bomb the whole damn thing to smithereens.
Do away at once with all this art and
Anguish of our planet – by all means!
(Georgy Ivanov, “All the World is Going to Wrack and Ruin”)

It is also important to bear in mind that poetry no longer had a purpose or function among soldiers of other Allied nations by the time the Second World War came around. Certainly, there were soldier-poets (John Gillespie Magee, John Jarmain, Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis, John Ciardi, Henry Lee, Drummond Allison), but in the English-speaking world, whatever energy poetry once possessed now yielded to the urgent immediacy of film and photography. World War Two is known for its images; not its verse – and so unlike the First World War, where the entire experience of the trenches is still today seen through the poet’s eye; for who can imagine that earlier war without evoking the lines of John McCrae, Wilfrid Owen, Julian Grenfell, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg? Within a generation, sensibilities had changed so much.

For Russians, however, poetry and song retained what the English-speaking world had lost – words spun into meter and rhyme and often carried along with music bore meaning deeper into the soul than any image possibly could. The Nazi invasion was devasting, but not because it was murderous (for the Russian people had already endured Stalin’s purges) – for it denied the surety of community. Though Stalin killed very effectively, there yet remained for people the strength of community, a bond that can sustain no matter how bleak the reality beyond. But when a community is shattered, there is only flotsam of individual lives, seeking nothing more than survival.

It is this ruination that Arseny Tarkovsky understood only too well in 1942:

Say a German gunner will get me in the back,
or a piece of shrapnel will take out both my legs,

or a teenaged SS trooper will shoot me in the gut –
anyway, I’m done for, there is no way out.

I won’t go down to glory – I’ll be unshod, unknown,
Looking through my frozen eyes at the bloodied snow.

Thus, when the Nazis smashed their way nearly to Moscow, they came stirring a witches’ cauldron of cruelty and annihilation. Despite outward differences, both Hitler and Stalin were driven by ideology. At first their ideology coalesced (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), but in 1941 it fell apart with Operation Barbarossa. In the millstones of Nazism and Stalinism, what could the Russian people use to rally the will to survive, live, and then overcome? Poetry alone was the answer, for it provided purpose, and grim determination.

But in the meantime, there was only the business of endless brutality, so chillingly captured by Nikolai Panchenko in “The Girl Worked in our Unit as a Barber,” written years later in 1961, a memory seared into the minds of those who were there and saw a young woman raped to death by men of a unit that had sided with the Germans against the Communists. It is a brutal poem that says so much, with just a few words: “They gagged her with their fetid footcloths… Our unit used to call her ‘babyface.’ And then comes the revenge of finding the rapists and methodically killing them: “…we burst into that village in tight fistfuls…. Explosions, howls, shots…. My bayonet was bent,/ my bullets lost./ We got in the hollow of the banya,/ each of us fought to kill as many as we could./ With these white teeth/ I bit through Adam’s apples…. The girl dozed off under a greatcoat…. As if she could see anything at all…. The HQ sent us medals, one and all…. We dug them down into a hillock/ right beside her.”

Stalin understood the problem of morale well, and very quickly set up an entire “industry” of poetry, which could be fed to the people to give them the will and strength to fight and survive. Bloshteyn, in her excellent end essay, therefore observes: “War poems were published both in the civilian press…and the military press… by 1944 there were about 800 military newspapers with an output of three million issues in all… there were poems in the informational leaflets… poems on propaganda posters… Poems were read on the radio… in concert halls… poems were put to music, performed by… popular singers… sung in dugouts and trenches… All these platforms created a demand for wartime poetry that was unprecedented and unparalleled not only in the Soviet Union but in any other country.”

Even in the territory held by the Germans, there was poetry published in “270 [partisan newspapers] by 1944.” It must be borne in mind that Soviet rule was not a grassroots demand – but rather imposed upon the Russian people after a long drawn-out, bloody Civil War, in which slaughter-exhaustion alone led to any sort of peace. Thus, as mentioned already, the Germans were initially welcomed by many who hoped that they had come to throw off the Communist yoke. This is the larger reason behind what is known as the “collaborators” – those who helped the Germans against the Communists. But such collaboration was a stillborn dream, as Boris Filippov came to understand too late, in 1945:

Town after town after town,
just houses of cards bunched together.
There’s nothing I want out of life…
No one… Nowhere… Never…

I’m pushing my rickety cart,
on the road across German land,
clover stems nod as I pass,
mosquitoes keen a lament.

There is nothing I want out of life –
Never… Nowhere… No one…
Angry villages bunched up together.
Town after town after town…

And when the Germans were pushed back, all the way deep inside their own homeland; and when Berlin fell, Hitler killed himself and the war ended, what then? Shakespeare was right to speak of the dogs of war let loose, for the ravening of humanity that must come with industrialized slaughter can bear little healing. Torn flesh can at best become a scar, which is nothing other than a constant reminder of the snapping jaws of savagery – perhaps because the many and various masters of war will always hold the leashes of their dogs lightly.

Once courage is shown, the sacrifice made, there can only remain the silence of incomprehensibility, for who can clearly say what wars achieve? There is certainly a just war, and the Secord World War certainly qualifies as one. And yet, there remains the question of the price paid to achieve such justice – and whether those who survive, and the dwarfish generations that come after, no longer give thanks to the giants on whose shoulders they and their world stands:

I was there, where mines exploded,
sending howling shrapnel past.
I was fighting on the frontlines
honestly and to the last.

I’d be glad not to remember
but I live with what I saw:
crusty skin crawling with lice,
blood and corpses in the snow,

the med units where I rotted
with their disinfected grace,
the open, snarling jaws
of the hastily dug graves,

and the minutes before battle…
so that you can take my word –
I know well how much it cost us,
the salute we all just heard.

And it still feels much too early
to draw up the final bill,
when the world spreads out before us
like a wound that will not heal.
(Vladimir Bobrov, “Victory,” 1945)

But the price that all war demands of peace is also revenge and settling of scores, just a little bit more bloodshed, before the dogs can be once again firmly leashed awhile, inside the foul warehouse of politics; revenge that casts humans into roles from which they cannot emerge unscathed, or even alive. Here is David Samoilov, about a captive “bandit” women (a “bandit” was one who sided with the Germans in the hope of throwing off the Communist yoke):

I led a bandit out, to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead –
Just glared at me with pride and anger,
And bit her shawl in agony.
And then she said, “Now listen, fella,
You’re gonna shoot me anyway.
Before you lay me down forever,’
Just let me look at my Ukraine.

Let the potato-eaters [Russians] flee,
Their bridles jangling loud, like coins!
Let Commies realize their ideals
The way they want to back at home…

It’s them that came up with the kolkhoz
Where all the bums can eat for free.
For us Ukrainians, what’s the difference –
Gestapo or NKVD?

I led a bandit out to shoot her.
She didn’t beg, she didn’t plead.
(“The Bandit Woman,” 1946)

There was a greater tragedy awaiting the Russians who heard these poems, sang these songs, and believed in what they said. The strength these words in meter had provided were not able to sustain them beyond the war. Victory is bittersweet; and Soviet society after 1945 had little use for those who had paid a grim toll with their maimed and disfigured bodies, as they “stirred the ash in [their] hearts,” as Olga Berggolts observes in “I Spent all Day at the Meeting.”

And Anna Barkova provides a monument of another sort, of whatever glory that may be garnered by a generation that once saved Russia from the Nazis:

The roads and the fields were aflood
with Russian blood, our bright blood,
with our own blood and that of our foes.
The tale must be told, but how, no one knows!

We were filthy, grimy, the worst off –
but we took Prague, Berlin and Warsaw.

We came back home with no eyes,
we came back home with no arms

and a strange foreign pain in our hearts.

– Spare some change for us, amputees,
we’re all war cripples, as you can see,
for the sake of your departed parents,
take pity on us, conquering heroes!
(“Victory Song,” 1945, 1953, Kaluga)

This anthology is filled with much emotion, much insight, much anguish, but also much hope and charity. Maria Bloshteyn has carefully and meticulously built a fitting monument to the Great Patriotic War. It should be widely read. Her translations are smooth, highly crafted and therefore well-fitted to the grand topic that is Russia in the Second World War. Buy it and read right through. You will not be disappointed.

The image shows, “For the Motherland,” a World War Two Poster from 1941.